Wherever you travel, you're likely to see someone – or several someones – speaking into a cell phone, hunching over a laptop computer or keying text messages into a personal digital assistant. These electronic devices can be extremely useful, particularly for recording your travels and communicating with family and friends back home, but they come with a few drawbacks. You have to recharge them, for one thing, and you need to be able to carry them and keep them safe.
Let's take a closer look at traveling with electronic devices.
Internet and Cell Phone Access
Your electronic devices won't do you much good if you can't connect to the Internet or a cell phone network. The best way to prepare for using your cell phone, PDA or laptop on your trip is to begin researching connectivity well before your departure date.
If you're bringing a laptop on your trip, check to see if free wireless internet access is offered at your hotel or at a library or restaurant nearby. Your hotel may offer Internet access for a daily fee; find out what you'll pay before you commit to using this service.
Air cards are an alternative to relying on wireless Internet "hot spots" or hotel networks. Typically, air cards only make financial sense for frequent travelers because you must purchase the air card, subscribe to a data plan – typically through a cell phone company – and keep your usage at a reasonable level. You won't find too many plans with unlimited downloading and uploading. Expect to pay more for international coverage.
Cell phone technology varies from country to country. You'll want to check your cell phone to see if it will work at your destination. If you own a "locked" U.S. cell phone and plan to travel to Europe or Asia, you may wish to rent or buy a GSM cell phone to use on your trip. Whichever option you choose, do not make the mistake of sending dozens of photos home via cell phone; your bill will probably be extremely high if you use your cell phone to email photos.
Consider using Skype instead of your cell phone or a pay phone to make international telephone calls.
If you decide to use free wireless Internet access to keep in touch with family and friends, remember that any information you key in, such as passwords and account numbers, is not secure. Do not do your banking or shop online if you are using a free Wi-Fi service. Your account information can be picked up by anyone nearby who has the proper equipment.
Consider setting up a trip-only email address to use while you're away. You can send photos to friends and family without worrying that your main email account might be compromised.
If you take a laptop computer through airport security in the U.S. or Canada, you will need to take it out of its case and place it by itself in a plastic bin for X-ray screening. You can purchase a "TSA-friendly" laptop case that unzips and allows security screeners to examine your computer, but you cannot put anything else (such as a mouse) into that case. Either way, you'll need to slide your laptop along the X-ray scanner's conveyor belt and then put it away, while also putting on your shoes, reassembling your carry-on bag and so on.
According to the TSA blog, small devices such as e-readers (Nook, Kindle, etc.) and iPads can remain in your carry-on bag throughout the screening process. You should not have to take them out as you would a full-size laptop.
As you pass through the security screening area, take your time and be aware of the people around you. Keep an eye on your laptop and your purse or wallet, even while you are putting on your belt, jacket and shoes. It's easy to become distracted, and thieves love to prey on distracted travelers.
In-Flight Internet Access
Some airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, AirTran Airways, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada, are offering Internet access on some or all of their flights. In some cases, Internet access is free, but many airlines are charging for this service. Rates vary by flight length. Remember that, even at 39,000 feet, your personal information is not secure; avoid entering passwords, credit card numbers and bank account numbers during your flight.
Charging Electronic Devices
You will eventually need to recharge your cell phone, PDA or laptop. Bring your charger on your trip, and remember to bring a plug adapter and / or a transformer if you are traveling overseas. Most chargers only require plug adapters because they can handle up to 60 Hz and 220 volts.
If you have an airport layover, consider recharging your electronic device there. You will need to find out what recharging options are available before you travel. Some airports just have a few wall outlets; on busy travel days, you might not be able to plug in your device because all the outlets will be in use. Other airports offer pay-per-use or free recharging stations. (Tip: Some airports have recharging vending machines, which cost money, but also have free charging stations. Walk around your terminal and investigate your options before you pay to recharge your phone or laptop.)
Some airplanes have electrical outlets you can use, but don't assume you will be allowed to recharge your electronic devices during your flight, especially if you're flying coach.
If you're traveling by bus, you may be able to recharge your laptop, PDA or cell phone during your trip. Greyhound, for example, offers electrical outlets on its buses.
In the U.S., Amtrak trains typically provide electrical outlets only in First Class and Business Class. Canada's VIA Rail offers electrical outlets in Economy and Business Class on its Windsor-Québec City corridor trains.
If you're not sure whether you'll be able to easily recharge your cell phone or PDA, you can buy an emergency charger and bring it with you. Emergency chargers are battery-powered and can give you several hours of cell phone or PDA use, even if you're far from an electrical outlet.