Alan Zisman - business cardBetter Travelling With Technology

by Alan Zisman (c) 2017
Presented at Brock House - 2017 June 1
email: alan@zisman.ca
http://zisman.ca/traveltech







Contents:
Introduction:

Some of us go on vacation to get away from technology - and that's great. But many of us want to use technology to help stay connected to family and friends, to help us find our way around new places, to help us with foreign languages, or just to take (and share) photos or to have something to read without filling our bags with heavy books. Some airlines are removing their seatback movie players, encouraging passengers to watch movies in the air on their laptops, tablets, or phones.

There's no answer on what to bring - if anything - that's right for everyone. Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of some of the sorts of devices most commonly taken travelling.

Laptop (Notebook) Computers:
  • Advantages: These can let you do, on a trip, everything you do with technology at home - go online and access email, Facebook, the Web - store and edit photos (and share them on Facebook or via email), take work with (an advantage and disadvantage, perhaps) and more.
  • Disadvantages: They're relatively large and heavy, making them a pain to carry through airports, etc. Larger models may not fit in hotel safes, posing a problem with theft. They can be relatively expensive - and loss, theft, or damage may be a real problem especially if the data on them hasn't been not backed-up. They have shorter battery life than most other portable devices.
  • Consider: travel with a smaller or older laptop. Look at getting a small, light, low-cost Chromebook as a travel computer. See: Should You Buy a Chromebook?

    If you're buying a new laptop for travel, get one with a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a traditional hard disk drive (HDD). SSDs are much reliable and having your laptop's hard drive fail in the middle of a vacation is a real pain! See: SSD vs. HDD: What's the Difference?

Tablets - iPads, Android, or Windows tablets:

  • Advantages: These are more portable than laptops and offer better battery life. Many models are less-expensive than laptops - and can be better than laptops for movie-viewing and e-book reading. Some models can connect to mobile data networks as well as Wi-Fi. Can be a good choice for casual email/Facebook/Web use. Fit in hotel safes without problem.
  • Disadvantages: Larger and more awkward than smartphones, and more awkward than laptops if you need to do a lot of typing. While tablets were wildly popular a few years ago, lately, fewer are being sold.
  • See: Tablets vs. Laptops - Should You Buy A Tablet Instead Of A Laptop?
Smartphones - iPhones or Android phones:
  • Advantages: Very portable. Relatively long battery life. Combine Internet connection with music player, GPS maps, camera, even a flashlight in a pinch - and can be used as a phone! Photos can be immediately shared online. Lots of travel apps available.
  • Disadvantages: Can rack up expensive roaming charges if not careful (see below). Small screen limits usefulness as e-book reader or for much typing. Can be popular targets for theft.
Digital Cameras:
  • Advantages: Pretty much every digital camera takes better photos (especially using optical zoom) than any smartphone. Large numbers of photos can be stored on inexpensive memory cards. Photos and videos can be edited, shared, and stored online (requires use of a computer later).
  • Disadvantages: Photos can't be shared immediately (as they can with a smartphone). Digital SLR models are heavy and expensive and for best use require carrying a bag of lenses. A camera hanging around your neck just screams 'tourist'
  • Consider: If you're a fan of D-SLR cameras, take a look at the new generation of compact mirrorless models - smaller than D-SLRs but using interchangeable lenses with more features than traditional compact digital cameras. See: The 10 best mirrorless cameras in 2017. (They won't let you reuse your D-SLR lenses, however!) Personally, I like compact ultrazoom cameras - models that fit in a shirt pocket but have a (non-interchangeable) zoom lens with an optical zoom of 10x or larger. See: The best travel compact cameras in 2017
E-book readers:
  • Advantages: Dedicated e-book readers (Kindle, etc) have much better battery life than tablets and can be used outdoors in bright sunlight. An e-book reader can store a shelf-full of books in a light-weight, easily portable device.
  • Disadvantages: Kindles can only be used for content purchased from Amazon. They are single-purpose devices - one more thing to carry, keep charged, try not to lose, etc. If you already have a tablet, you may prefer to use it as an e-book reader as well - there's a Kindle app, OverDrive app for public libraries, PDF readers, etc. for tablets and smartphones.
  • See: The Best eReaders of 2017
Power/charging issues:

When you're travelling with devices, keeping them charged is always a bit of a challenge. There are two sets of issues to deal with - do you need a multiplicity of chargers, one for each device? (Maybe not!) And when you are outside Canada/US, you may be faced with electrical systems that run at different voltage levels and require different shaped and sized plugs from what you're used to.

Chargers - what you need to bring along depends on what devices you're taking. If you're taking a laptop, you'll need to bring its charger - note that laptop chargers are not interchangeable... different laptops need different chargers; the charger from a different make or model may not even plug into your laptop.

The situation is better for other devices - although every manufacturer suggests you should use their specific charger, in most cases today, this may not be necessary. Nearly all tablets, smartphones, cameras, etc for instance, can be charged by plugging them into a laptop's USB ports (make sure the laptop is plugged in or you'll drain its battery!). Similarly, most can be charged using the chargers from another device. (A large tablet may only charge slowly when plugged into a small smartphone charger, however. And note that you'll need cords with plugs that will fit into your various devices - your Android phone and digital camera may need different cables though both have standard USB connectors on the end that plugs into either your laptop or their charger).

If you're travelling with multiple devices, you may want to invest in a charger that can charge multiple devices at one time. (This can be handy at home as well!). Anker, for instance, makes a range of well-reviewed USB chargers that can charge (depending on model) as many as 10 devices at once. I own a 5-port Anker charger and when I take it travelling, I can use it to charge my smartphone, my wife's iPad, and each of our digital cameras at once. (I still need to bring a dedicated charger for my laptop, though). This is especially handy in hotel rooms or apartments where there may not be many available outlets.

Apple World Travel Adapter KitNon-North American electrical outlets - While Canada/US standardized on 110 volt electrical systems, much of the rest of the world uses 220 volts. As well, there are a variety of standard plug shape and sizes: the UK uses different plugs from the rest of Europe even though both use 220 volts. The good news is that the chargers for nearly all laptops and other digital devices, are dual-voltage - you don't need to buy converters to change 220 volts to 110 volts. (You will need a voltage converter to use a high-powered North American device such as a hair dryer or iron - but you really don't want to travel with those, do you?)

You do however, need to get an adapter to let you plug your charger into a different-shaped wall outlet. Apple, for instance, sells a World Travel Adapter Kit that can be used with Mac laptops and iPad and iPhone chargers (CDN$35). It includes a set of adapters that between them let you use your Apple device's charger in North America, Japan, China, United Kingdom, Continental Europe, Korea, Australia, Hong Kong and Brazil. They don't sell the adapters separately - you have to buy the whole set even if you really want only one.

You can, however, buy cheap adapters that fit on the North American-style plugs of the chargers for your various laptops and devices (even your Apple products) - getting just the ones that you need for the countries you're going to visit. Many dollar stores carry these. Alternatively, in Vancouver, you may want to check in with the folks at Foreign Electronics - 432 E Broadway - a shop specializing in travel electronics, including adapters and converters, mobile phone unlocking, foreign video conversion and more.

Connectivity:

To get full use of most of our digital devices, you're going to want to be able to get on the Internet. There are a number of ways you can go about this.

Web cafes/Hotel business centres/Public libraries

A decade ago, it was relatively uncommon for travellers to take their own devices with them. Instead, travellers often used public computers in 'web cafes', hotel business centres, public libraries, and other locations. You can still do this - some may be available for free, others for a relatively inexpensive hourly charge. Note that there is a security risk in doing this - there's a risk that 'key-logging' software may have been installed on the public computer which makes a record of everything you type or click on, leaving you at risk for identity theft.

If you are using a public computer there are a couple of important things - always log out of any online accounts: webmail services like Gmail and social networks like Facebook when you are done. Make sure you know how to log out - simple closing the browser window, quiting the web browser program, or restarting the computer are not enough!

And don't use a public computer to access any financial website - your bank, Paypal, etc. or to make online purchases. You are risking giving strangers access to your bank accounts or credit cards.

Using your device on public Wi-Fi networks

It's become increasingly common to use our own laptops, tablets, or smartphones, connecting them to Wi-Fi networks in airports, hotels, cafes or restaurants, or public buildings like libraries and community centres. This lets us use devices we're familiar with and that have our passwords stored. Be aware that it can also have issues:
  • Wi-Fi may simply not be available everywhere you expect to find it. Or if available, it may not be free - many airports, train stations, etc may only offer Wi-Fi for sale. Many Mexican all-inclusive resorts, for instance, offer Wi-Fi in your room - for US$70/week. (You may be able to get free Wi-Fi in the lobby).
  • In some cases, Wi-Fi networks with names like 'Free Wi-Fi' may be set up to (like the key-logging software on some public computers) to record everything you type to try to steal bank account and password information. The Vancouver Airport (YVR) has good free Wi-Fi. See: The New Wi-Fi Scam That Steals Your Credit Card Number
  • Shared Wi-Fi networks in hotels and public places - where available - often have very poor performance. I've gone on 3 week vacations where I never got a usable Wi-Fi connection in any of the multiple places we stayed.
On the other hand, you may find yourself with free (or affordable), reliable, trustworthy Wi-Fi in your hotel or other locations. That's great! (I've also gone on holidays where I had great Wi-Fi everywhere).

If you're not sure how to connect your device to a new Wi-Fi network see:
Some of us have digital cameras that promise Wi-Fi connectivity - in my experience this is more trouble than it's worth, especially when you're travelling and may need to connect to a new Wi-Fi network every time you change hotels.

Mobile phone/data networks

If you have a smartphone or a tablet with a mobile data option (most are Wi-Fi only), you can connect via local cell phone networks to mobile data networks (i.e. the Internet) and voice phone/text services (smartphone-only). There are a variety of ways to do this; you have the most options if your smartphone is 'unlocked' meaning it can be used with mobile services besides the one that is currently providing you with service at home.

Be aware that if you take your phone with you and do nothing, you may be ringing up expensive roaming charges - even if you think you're not using your phone, it may be connecting to your at-home mobile provider and checking for email (etc) every few moments. Learn how to avoid this!

Among the things you can do:
  • Take out the phone's SIM card to make sure you won't incur roaming charges, and then simply use your phone with no mobile phone connection. You can go online whenever there's Wi-Fi - in your hotel, in many public places, in many bars, restaurants, and cafes. (Watch out for public Wi-Fi networks that want you to pay for service, however!) You can use apps like Skype or Whatsapp to make 'calls' to friends and family (and even to other phones) when you're connected on Wi-Fi. If you have an Apple product - iPhone, iPad, or Mac - you can easily video call other Apple users with the Facetime app (see: FaceTime App: The Ultimate Guide)

    If there is no SIM card in your phone, you cannot connect to any mobile network.
    Make sure you don't lose your SIM card! You'll need it when you get back home.


  • Check with your mobile network about US or International roaming (see the 2016 article - The best roaming options for Canadians). You may decide that this is a simple and affordable way to keep using your phone - with your current phone number - while travelling. Pay attention to the amount of data including, however - and check your data usage (Android phone users can tap Settings/Wireless & Networks/Data Usage to see how much mobile data you're using at home and see whether this is in line with what your mobile provider is offering - often their roaming plans charge a lot if you use more than the allotted amount of data).

  • If you're travelling to a single country, it may make the most sense to go a mobile phone company store in that country and purchase service for the time you're travelling - you'll get a new SIM card and a new phone number which can be inconvenient if anyone at home wants to phone you (but how often do you want that to happen when you're travelling?). On the other hand it can be more convenient if you're wanting to phone or text in the other country - hotels, restaurants, etc. I've dealt with three or four different mobile companies in Italy - all were happy to provide a SIM card with a month's phone, text, and data service (typically with 2 or 3 GB of data - far more than Canadian companies offer with their roaming plans) for 20-30 Euro. I've gotten service in the US from T-Mobile for $2 per day. Note that you should bring your passport when you're signing up for this sort of service. More: A Digital Nomad’s Guide to Buying Local SIM Cards Around the World

    Note that to be able to make use of a SIM card from a different mobile provider, your phone needs to be unlocked. If you bought your phone from your provider, it is probably locked to only work with that company's service. (Some phones are sold already unlocked - a very good feature). Your mobile provider may offer to unlock it for you - typically charging $50 or so for the privilege. There are also lots of small local businesses that will unlock your phone - in Vancouver, I've had good experiences with Foreign Electronics - I just checked with them and they still charge $25 for the service).
If you don't have usable Wi-Fi but have a working mobile connection on your phone, you can share it with other devices - for instance, on one trip, when the promised apartment and hotel Wi-Fi failed to be usable, I set my phone up as a Wi-Fi Hotspot, letting my laptop and my wife's iPad get online. (This uses up your phone's data much faster, however). For instructions, see: How to setup mobile Hotspot on Android or How to Use Your iPhone as a Hotspot

Apps and more for travellers...

There are lots of web services, computer programs, and smartphone and tablet apps to help travellers - you can use your laptop, tablet, and smartphone to make plane and hotel reservations, book appointments at busy museums and galleries (and bypass the lineups!), read restaurant reviews, and much much more. Fans of PBS's Rick Steves
may enjoy his smartphone/tablet app with free audio guides to lots of European museums and more: versions for iPhone/iPad or Android

Here's a recent review promising The 50 Best New Travel Apps for 2017

There are lots of apps for specific destinations, whether transit guides, restaurant reviews, places to see, and more - try a search for your destination at the App Store or Google Play Store.

Here are several general-purpose apps with some useful features that you may not have known about.

Google Maps

Google Maps can show you a map - by default a map of where you are right now, but you can also get a map of another location by typing in an address. If you're not sure of the exact address, try typing just a city or neighbourhood name - or the name of a location - perhaps the hotel or restaurant name and the city name. You can get directions from one location to another - and get different directions (and estimated travel time) if you're going by car, by train or bus, or walking or cycling. (It can even tell you the bus numbers to take!)

Try it on the train and watch how your current location slowly moves along your route.

You'll need to get an app from the Apple App Store or Google (Android) Play Store to use Google Maps on your phone or tablet. On your laptop, you can access it by going to http://maps.google.com in any web browser.

Your phone or tablet has GPS built-in - it can access your current location even if you're not connected by Wi-Fi or a mobile network provider. But Google Maps may not be able to get a map to display your current location if you're not connected. You can get past this limitation by downloading the maps of where you expect to be in advance - when you DO have Wi-Fi access, making them available when you're offline.

To do this (on your phone or tablet) - when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network:
  • Open Google Maps on your phone or tablet
  • In the Search field, type the location where you'll need maps. (I'm typing 'Venice').
  • Tap on the menu icon - on my Android phone, it's 3 short horizontal lines on the left-side of the Search field. A list of options opens up.
  • Tap on Offline Areas. You'll see a list of any already-download offline maps.
  • Tap on Custom Area to download a new map. This will display the map you were just viewing - in my case, Venice and the surrounding region. You can zoom in or out to include a larger or smaller area. It will show how much space the maps will require and how much room is available on your device.(The Venice region took 50 MB - 5% of a GB of space).
  • Tap Download to save the map (or Close to cancel). it will take a couple of minutes to download.
  • Note that offline maps expire after 30 days - at the end of that time, they'll be listed as Expired.... if you tap on an expired map in the list, you'll be asked whether to 'Update' it (i.e. download it again) or 'Delete' it to free up the space. (There's an option to automatically update offline maps).
Now you'll have maps for that area available when you need them - even if you have no connection to Wi-Fi or mobile networks. You won't get real-time traffic information, however.

More: 15 useful Google Maps tips and tricks you need to know about

Google Translate

Another useful service - translation from other languages to English or English to another language. You'll need to get an app from the Apple App Store or Google (Android) Play Store to use it on your phone or tablet. On your laptop, you can access it by going to http://translate.google.com in any web browser.

At its simplest, type in text and see the other-language equivalent. But there's more - in the mobile versions, there's a microphone icon, which lets it record and translate audio. The camera icon uses your device's camera and lets it translate text on signs, menus, etc. (. An icon looking like a snake lets it try to read handwriting (writing on the device's screen) and translate it. Try it with this Italian sign or this French one.

Once again, as originally set up, it requires a Wi-Fi or mobile network connection - going online to get the translation. But again, there's an Offline option, set up similar to the one in Google Maps:
  • Open Google Translate on your phone or tablet
  • Tap the menu icon - again, on my phone 3 short horizontal lines in the top-left beside the words GOOGLE TRANSLATE
  • Tap Offline Translation - you'll see a list of languages, with a trashcan icon beside the ones already downloaded (so you can delete them if desired) and a down-arrow icon beside languages which you can download. Italian, for instance, takes 29 MB of space.
This should work for basic translation - however,  features like translating text in a camera image or spoken speech will work not offline.

Also see: Travelling With Google Translate? 4 Tips To Improve Your Experience

Google Trips

Newer and less well-known - also from Google - is Google Trips. It's most powerful if you have a Google account, though it can be used without one. It combines features that may be available separately in other travel apps, letting you:
  • Store flight and accommodation reservations <-- you can do similar things with TripIt
  • Learn about local transport options.
  • Discover and save top attractions in each location. <-- descriptions can be too basic
  • Discover and save top rated restaurants, cafes, and bars. <-- as an alternative, check TripAdvisor
  • Plan day trips.
  • Save notes about each location.
  • Download everything for offline use.
  • Use all these features to plan your trip before you leave
Also see: How Google Trips Can Help You Have an Amazing Vacation

For more travel apps:  The Best Travel Apps of 2016 and David Pogue's search for the world's best air-travel app

Sharing Photos

Many travellers take a lot of photos and many of us like to share photos with friends and family. (Warning: friends and family may have less patience for viewing all your photos than you might like!) You can share photos using a social network or online photo saving/sharing service, and you may want to select some of your favourites and make a project like a book or a calendar.
  • Facebook - many of us have Facebook accounts and it's natural to want to use Facebook to share our photos. That's fine - but be aware of a few limitations:
    • Facebook dramatically reduces the size and quality of your photos; the results are okay for viewing online, but not if you want to make prints. Save your originals!
    • While many of our friends and family members have Facebook accounts, probably some (or many) don't - and won't be able to see the photos you shared on Facebook.
  • Online Photo Sharing Services
    • Apple iCloud - this may be the easiest to use if you are a Mac, iPhone, or iPad user. Apple only offers users a small amount of free storage, but it only costs a few dollars a month to upgrade to a more useful amount of storage.
    • Flickr offers users a terabyte of storage for free, allowing for free storage and sharing of a huge amount of photos.
    • Google Photos offers users two options - free storage of unlimited number of photos, but with a size limit of 16 megapixels and a small reduction of photo quality. Alternatively, users may opt to purchase storage for full-sized/full-quality images. (I use Google Photos' free option).

All of these online services let users organize photos into albums, add descriptions and comments, and share individual photos or whole albums - by email, or in Facebook or other social media services. In this way, you could create an album of your favourite photos, share the album on Facebook, but also email a link to the album to friends and family who are not Facebook-users.

It is less common than it used to be to print out a bunch of snapshots and paste them into photo-albums anymore - though you certainly can do this. If so, I'd recommend getting them professionally printed instead of printing them on your home printer - even if you buy photo paper, printing them yourself will be slow and tedious and use up lots of expensive printer ink. Most photo-processing services now let you bring in photos on a memory card or USB flash drive or even upload them from your home computer.  London Drugs, for instance, is popular with many Vancouver users.

Instead of printing out individual snapshots, consider using some of your photos in a photo book, calendar, or other project. Apple users can do this right in the iPhoto or Photos application on their Mac or iPad; everyone (including Apple users) can use their choice of multiple photo-project services such as Blurb, Snapfish, MyPictureBookShutterfly, and more. Again, London Drugs is popular with Vancouver users. You choose photos from your computer or tablet, upload them to the service, and arrange them in the book (or calendar or card, etc) design of your choice. A professionally printed project is delivered to you (or held for pickup at your local photolab branch).

Security

Travelling is hard on your tech gear - your laptop gets bounced around more than usual, potentially crashing hard drives - remember, solid state drives are much more robust. All your gear is subject to theft (I have two friends who lost gear on holidays in the past 4 months - one had his iPhone stolen on a Mexico City subway, the other was one of 6 people staying in a Turin hotel who had their laptops stolen the same morning).

Before you travel, think about what would be the consequences to you if any tech gear - laptop, phone, tablet, camera - was lost, broken, or stolen on your trip. Don't take anything with you unless you're prepared to cope with its loss.

Before you go - backup your laptop, phone, and tablet. (If you don't know how to do that - find out!) Perhaps use an online service to backup key documents, photos, etc. Google Drive/Google Photos or Apple iCloud are two of many services that offer a mix of free and relatively low-cost ways to store files and photos online. Best practice: have a local backup to an external drive at home AND backup to an online cloud service.

If you are backing up photos to Google Photos or Apple iCloud, photos on your laptop, phone, and tablet will be automatically backed up on your trip whenever you're connected to Wi-Fi.

Hopefully your phone and tablet are already backing themselves up to Google or Apple's servers - after my friend's iPhone was stolen on a trip, he bought a new iPhone and everything was automatically restored except for a couple of day's photos taken when he had poor Wi-Fi connectivity at his hotel.

Lock up your tech gear if you're leaving it in your hotel room during the day - in the hotel room's safe is best (does your laptop fit in the hotel safe?), if not, maybe put it in your suitcase and lock the suitcase.

If you've enabled various services like Find My iPhone, Android Device Manager, Find My Mac, etc. you may be able to track a lost or stolen device - which is not always very helpful - and remotely wipe its data, which may be more important. Windows 10 added a Find My Device option - for earlier Windows versions you'll need to purchase an app such as LoJack.

Two things you can do now to help protect your data and your various online accounts:
Both of these steps can feel like a bit of a pain to use - but it's like remembering to lock your door when you leave home - the added safety and security outweigh the minor inconvenience.

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