Travel used to be about getting away from it all, but these days even leisure travelers don't want to leave the Web and their smartphones, tablets, or laptops behind. And staying powered up and connected on business trips is too important to leave to chance.
A little bit of advance planning and research can help you stay up and running no matter where you go. Here are our tips for minimizing tech hassles when you're on the road.
Find the Best of Everything
There's a reason seasoned travelers want to stay connected, and it isn't just to manage e-mail. The Web is an incredible resource for researching hotels, restaurants, shopping, and anything else you need to know when visiting a place you've never been to before.
Try checking the regional boards on Chow.com or Yelp.com to find a good restaurant, for example. Once you've chosen a place, use a mapping app to help you get there. Buy tickets online for trains, theatrical productions, or popular museum exhibitions. Location-based apps like Foursquare can even send a timely coupon your way. Staying connected can really help you get away from it all in style.
Fly the Tech-Friendly Skies
Airlines in recent years have taken to technology to help cut costs and long lines. Most will let you check in online up to 24 hours before departure and print your own boarding passes. This gives you the opportunity to select seats and, in some cases, get upgrades at a cut rate: Virgin America, for example, offers any unsold business class seats for drastically reduced rates within a day of departure.
With some airlines and on some flights, you can even skip the printing part by using a smartphone to access the bar code that is scanned in at the departure gate. If this option is available, the airline will typically let you opt to have the boarding pass sent to your smartphone when you check in online (instead of printing it out). What you'll get on the phone is a link to a Web page with your unique bar code.
This eliminates the risk of losing a printed pass, but be careful: You might run into other problems. What if poor connectivity at the airport prevents you from accessing the page? You could opt to save an image of the page as a screen shot, but now you still have to worry about keeping the phone charged. And we've also seen reports of problems trying to scan in an image on a cell phone screen. Still, the technology is coming into wider use and will doubtless improve over time.
Several airlines now offer Aircell's GoGo Wi-Fi-based inflight Internet service (you can find a list of participating airlines on Gogo's website). And there's good news for holiday travelers this year: Thanks to a promotion with Google Chrome, GoGo service on the three airlines that have it on all their flights -- AirTran, Delta, and Virgin America -- will be free between November 20 and January 2.
However, no Internet service is available on flights across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans -- at least not yet. GoGo connects through Aircell's network of cell towers on terra firma. A company called Row 44 has launched a satellite-based service -- Southwest offers it on a handful of flights -- but the verdict is out on how well it works. With a satellite-based service, it wouldn't matter if the plane were over land or sea (the late lamented Connexion by Boeing was satellite-based).
Whether or not you can get online, it's nice to have electrical power for your notebook or portable DVD player, especially on long-haul flights where work or gaming can really make the time speed by. Sadly, power outlets aren't very common outside of business class, and on some airlines you need special adapters to plug in.
But you can investigate the options in detail on Seat Guru, a great resource for all sorts of information about the amenities on different airlines and airplanes. Start by reading Seat Guru's guide to in-seat laptop power, which has links to comparison charts showing which airlines and planes have outlets. In many cases some, but not all, seats have easy access to power outlets. So it pays to click through to the seating charts for the airlines and planes you're considering: Seat Guru shows exactly which seats have outlets and which don't.
Finding a power outlet at an airport can be a challenge. Fortunately, more are adding charging stations in waiting areas. But what if you find one and it's already fully occupied? If you carry a multioutlet travel power strip and surge protector with you (for example, the Targus Travel 4-Outlets Surge Suppressor), you can usually talk someone who is connected into letting you hook up the travel strip so that you, that person, and maybe a couple of others can all charge from the single outlet.
Because more and more devices come with built-in transformers, you shouldn't have to worry about whether you're in a country with AC or DC. But outlets still do vary from country to country, so make sure you have appropriate plug adapters. This is especially tricky if your device uses a three-prong plug, since some adapters accommodate only two prongs and not the third, ground prong. This is something you should check for before you buy plug adapters.
A couple of vendors offer configurable plug adapters that you can use in several countries. While they're rather bulky, buying one can be preferable to having to load up several different adapters if you're going to be visiting countries that use different types of plugs.
That travel power strip mentioned earlier can also save you from having to buy lots of plug adapters: Use one to plug the strip into the wall, and then you can plug in four of your devices without other special gear. The strips can also come in handy in hotel rooms that have skimped on free outlets.
Alternatively, you can bring a power extender with you, such as ones made by iGo Charge Anywhere and those from Targus. These are basically like batteries into which you can plug a notebook and maybe one or two other devices. You charge the block by plugging it into a standard wall outlet; extenders typically come with adapters for use in automobile and airline charging ports as well.
Extenders can power a wide variety of products: You simply swap out the tip of the charging cable for one that supports your device. Of course, you have to make sure to buy the right tips for the devices you own.
Automotive adapters for your smartphone and/or laptop are invaluable aids if you plan to be driving around a lot. Fortunately, these seem to be standardized around the globe, so you don't need different ones for different countries. If you use a lot of devices that charge via USB cables, you could also buy a car charger with multiple USB ports. Or, if you have several devices that each have their own automobile car charger, you can get a charger that has multiple car charger ports. Magnadyne even sells a car charger that has two USB ports and two automotive ports.
Get Online Anywhere
High-speed Internet access has become fairly ubiquitous in hotels, and not just major chains. You can usually check online to see if an establishment offers Internet access, but your research shouldn't stop there. Find out if the service is via Wi-Fi or ethernet, and whether it's included with the room charge or costs extra (some places charge $10 to $20 a day).
If you're traveling with a companion, you might also find out whether there's any problem with two people from the same room using Wi-Fi. And if you're stuck with a wired connection, you can probably share it with others by using a travel router to create a hot spot. Several vendors offer small, compact routers that support 802.11g; Trendnet's TEW-654TR (about $50) is one of the first to back the faster 802.11n standard.
Wi-Fi isn't always available where you need it, however. Today's 3G and, depending on your location, 4G cell phone data networks offer much better coverage, and a mobile broadband Wi-Fi router lets you (and several friends or colleagues) tap into them with any Wi-Fi device. Novatel Wireless's MiFi routers are barely larger than a credit card; currently you can get one for $100 with a Verizon Wireless data plan, or $150 for use with Virgin Mobile's pay-as-you go service.
You can also get unlocked MiFi models for use with GSM networks. The latter cost $230, and you have to make your own arrangements for data plans and SIM cards. Unfortunately, you can't use the same MiFi router in both North America and Europe -- each continent's 3G (HSPA) networks operate on different frequencies, so Novatel Wireless has different models for Europe and for North America.
Sprint, meanwhile, has a Sierra Wireless broadband modem that supports both its 3G and 4G services, and several of its new 4G smartphones can also double as hotspots, although using them for that purpose may cut battery life more than you'd like.
A company called Cradlepoint makes a Wi-Fi router that's meant for use with any activated USB Wi-Fi modem. However, not all modems work with the device, so check to see if yours is on the supported list.
If you're a fairly infrequent solo traveler, you might want to investigate pay-as-you-go mobile broadband options such as the aforementioned Virgin Mobile offering. In Europe, Vodafone offers inexpensive USB modems that you can use on Vodafone networks in most countries on a pay-as-you-go basis. The pay-as-you-go service, however, typically runs about $15 to $20 a day and often has bandwidth usage caps.
That isn't cheap, but international roaming with a smartphone can be incredibly expensive. If you do want to use a GSM-based smartphone overseas, look into prepaid international roaming plans. AT&T sells them in various sizes, from $25 for 20MB to $200 for 200MB. Without a plan, you pay $0.0195 per kilobyte, which comes to $19.50 for a single megabyte.
Check the Hotel's Business Center
Hotels love to attract business travelers, and more and more of them offer well-equipped business centers as bait. Many let you use computers and printers for free, or for a nominal charge. For Internet junkies, using a business center computer lacks the appeal of being able to fire up a laptop in the comfort of your room. However, if you just want to write a few e-mail messages without having to use a tiny smartphone keyboard, then a computer in the business center or the lobby can be a godsend. Some hotels also have lobby stations that you can use to check in to a flight and print out a boarding pass.
But be cautious in using a public PC. Try to find a machine that reboots and cleans up between guests; you don't want your accounts hacked because you left login information or cookies behind. Ask a manager about security if you're in doubt.