Choosing Travel Tech

Deciding what electronics to take on the road is one of the most complicated pieces of the packing process. Since I plan on working while traveling, I’m in the position of having to balance quality and functionality with cost, size, and weight.

The phone

Pretty much every long-term traveler is going to keep a smartphone with them on the road.

I’m not exactly a luddite, but I can definitely be a bit of an iconoclast. I was convinced for a long time that I would be the last American with a flip phone. I don’t need my phone to play games and take pictures and tell me every time someone spreads misinformation on Facebook. My little Samsung flip phone lasted me through all four years of college and three more after that. So you better believe that when I finally came around to the whole smartphone thing, I got another Samsung.

My Galaxy S3 isn’t the newest or fanciest, but it meets my needs, and if I can transfer it from my Ntelos family plan to an individual T-Mobile plan, all the better. T-Mobile may not be the best network in the States, but it’s apparently a great choice for travelers as they offer a comprehensive international plan at a low monthly cost. More on that later.

The bottom line: an unlocked smartphone is a must-have and I will trust Samsung until the day I die.

The camera

Here’s another piece of equipment every traveler will have with them. Some folks who are only updating social media once in a while might rely on their phone’s camera, but I think most will at least invest in a durable point and shoot.

In my early travel days, I actually had great success with a $50 point and shoot from Target of all things. Eventually, though, it kicked the bucket, and when I graduated from college, I got an upgrade.

My current camera is a Fujifilm Finepix bridge or mirrorless camera, so it’s midway between a point and shoot and a DSLR. I have more manual functionality, but less bulk and weight to worry about.

I keep it in a very small, very basic camera case from off the rack at Best Buy. It has just enough padding to protect my lens and plenty of pockets for storing extra batteries and memory cards, without screaming “I have an expensive camera inside!”

Oxford St. John's College 4

This is one of my all-time favorite photos I’ve taken, and it was with an inexpensive point and shoot.

The iPod

I don’t often see an iPod on people’s packing lists, as more and more travelers simply rely on their smartphones. At home, I stick to Pandora radio when I’m on the go too, but I’m standing by my iPod for long-term travel for 3 reasons.

  1. It’s tiny – I have a 4th generation Shuffle, so it’s less conspicuous than a smartphone and it takes up next to no room in my pack
  2. It’s waterproof – One less thing to worry about getting wet, plus I can listen to music in the shower without bothering hostel mates.
  3. It’s offline – I can listen to music regardless of wifi or data availability. Crucial on long bus rides.

The computer

All the above is pretty easy. Where I really found myself in a sticky situation was a computer. A lot of travelers recommend leaving laptops and tablets at home, as they’re too great a theft risk and take up a lot of room.

Since I plan on working on the road, both for freelance clients and for myself, having a computer with me is non-negotiable. Taking time every other day to track down an internet cafe just isn’t an option.

In my original packing list, I planned to take my regular laptop from home: a 15″ Samsung I got for an incredible bargain on ebay a little over a year ago. It’s served me quite well at home, but in that packing trial run, I realized I could save a lot of space and weight by investing in something new.

Macbooks are hugely popular with travelers, but I really don’t want to shell out $800+ on a new laptop that I don’t truly need. Especially when I’m going to be toting it around two dozen countries for the next year. And while I like using my current Surface (crispy original, not a Pro) on trips where I just need a lightweight machine for entertainment and checking email occasionally, it’s definitely not powerful enough to work on regularly. I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a Chromebook, as they’re so low cost. Then I learned they don’t support non-Google apps. Travel without Skype is unacceptable.

Then I read this great review on Forbes of the Asus T100 Chi. The author’s criteria for a good travel computer completely matches my own: lightweight, Windows, inexpensive, and easy to charge. The cons are also inconsequential to me. I have small hands, so a small keyboard isn’t a problem. I don’t work with video, so a slightly slower processing speed won’t be the end of the world. And I’ll have some extra memory cards, a USB thumb drive, and the cloud on my side, so I don’t need tons of storage space on the computer itself. In fact, I don’t want all my files and photos to be in one place and one place only. What if my laptop is lost or stolen?

What really sold me though was this: “I have yet to find anything that my T100 can’t do that a Macbook Air can, for a fraction of the latter’s price.”

I’ve long been a bit suspect of the Apple marketing machine. I’ve been known to call medical school the iPhone of higher education: a lot of people get one because they buy into the mythology, and then do nothing but complain about it. So if I can get the same functionality at a quarter the cost, I will. And if I wind up not being 100% satisfied, or if I get robbed, I’m only out a couple hundred dollars.

So we’ll be giving this a try.

Backpack Tech

I haven’t changed much from my original electronics packing list, but I am downgrading from my bulky Samsung laptop to a sleeker Asus 2-in-1.

The Odds and Ends

There are naturally a few other pieces filling in the gaps of the tech picture. There are all the chargers, naturally, plus an Anker external battery for charging on the go. A plug adapter kit is a must-have on any packing list, but I also have a mini surge suppressor, so I can charge multiple devices at once. And if I find an outlet’s too far from my bed, I have an extra long USB cable.

Other odds and ends include a USB thumb drive, an SD card adapter, so I can upload photos to anything with a USB port, and a set of earbuds with a mic, so I can Skype from noisy hostels.

What You Won’t Find

Because the Asus T100 is a 2-in-1, hybrid, transformer book, whatever you want to call it, I can easily flip back and forth between using it as a laptop and using it as a tablet. No extra devices needed. I also don’t own a Kindle – I do all my reading in either old school book form, or using a Kindle app on my tablet or smartphone. I have just the one camera, no extra point and shoot or GoPro, which I see some travelers do. And I’m definitely not getting one of those mini bluetooth speakers. I see those things crop up constantly on packing lists and gift ideas for travelers, and I just think…seriously? That’s what you want to devote your limited backpack real estate to?

All in All…

Because I’m working on the road, I have a pretty tech-heavy packing list, but I’ve made just as many concessions to strike the right balance between functionality and saving space.

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