Confessions of an Electronic Traveler

Sometimes I think that the days of leaving your life behind are a thing of the past, and maybe that’s a bad thing. But, like it or not, today we are more connected than ever. We’ve got e-mail from cruise ships, satellite calls from the Serengeti, cell phones in flight. BlackBerrys, Palms, PDAs, and PIMs — they’re becoming as common as calculators. But what are the really essential electronics for the traveler? And how best to use them?

Cell phones. Perhaps the greatest invention of the last 20 years is the cellular phone. Curiously, as the technology evolves, actual phone-calling is falling to the bottom of its features list. Cell phones now take pictures, send e-mail, fire off instant messages, surf the Web, add and subtract, broadcast radio programs, alert you to the time, and who knows what more.

So, does the average traveler need one?

Absolutely. A cell phone is probably the most essential tool for the road, especially if you learn how to use all the features. If you do a lot of international traveling, look for a “world phone” (quad band), which will operate with most service providers if properly configured. Except for some pretty obscure places, you can be connected worldwide for both incoming and outgoing calls.

If you do not have a world phone, you can probably still use your phone in most industrialized nations. When you arrive at your destination, you can purchase a SIM card to insert into your phone. This will allow all your contacts to come with you. You buy the card from a cell shop, kiosk, or machine in an airport for service on a local carrier, and the calls are then billed to your credit card.

And do spend some time getting to know your phone’s features. I have a tough time with hotel alarm clocks (it’s just a thing), but my cell phone fits the bill all the time. With my Nokia phone, I can also use a headset and listen to radio — not quite as good as the iPod, but it does OK in a pinch.

Music. Nothing will get your trip off to a worse start than a wailing infant in the seat behind you. I understand that kids need to travel, too, and I have traveled many places with my own three kids — all good travelers, but by no means perfect. I understand the challenge, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen to the wailing. My advice is: Pack some tunes.

For $299 you can buy the industry standard — the iPod — and have all your favorite tunes literally at your fingertips. Drown out that darling child’s tantrum, quiet the noise of the city streets, or simply crash on a bed and gather your thoughts. Let your iPod or other digital music player take you away whenever the cacophony of life becomes just too much.

PDA. No, not the type of PDA you dreamed about as a teen, but the Personal Digital Assistant. These devices come in various forms from many manufacturers, but the basic functions are the same. Your PDA should be able to hold all your contacts (serving as a good backup if you lose your phone), as well as your appointment calendar, to-do lists, and more.

Most of the newer PDAs can run special versions of the Microsoft Office family of products, so you can make last-minute changes to that presentation, or work on that novel that is inside each of us. Toss in a few games and you are set for entertainment as well.

Current converters and adapters. If you are traveling outside the United States, you will need one of these — not for your money (that’s a currency converter) but for your gadgets. Many countries are different and there is nothing worse than trying to fit a round peg in a square hole in some foreign hotel. Ask your travel professional about the current (in the electrical sense)situation in your destination country, and then go prepared. Typical converters can be found for under $25 and adapters for under $15. One time in London, when I had forgotten my converter, the nice lady at Boots—a popular British pharmacy and catch all store, was so kind as to sell one to me for 40 pounds. You do the math!

Laptop. Honestly, with a cell phone, iPod, and a PDA, you can leave your laptop at home. If you need some files from home, buy a flash memory card, copy the needed files, and plug it in at an Internet café or hotel business center.

But before you head out the door with a pocketful of gadgets, remember the chargers. Batteries don’t last forever, and if Murphy is right, yours will give out just before you finish something wonderful or important—or worse when that Nicole Kidman look-a-like decides to give her your phone number and you try to put it into your PDA. Also remember that all these gadgets will definitely trigger the dreaded secondary search from security agents should you forget to put them through the X-ray machine at the airport — along with your shoes, belt, watch, coins, knitting needles and other implements of destruction.

But on second thought, the idea of a week away without all these electronic distractions seems awfully alluring. I know a great place in Runaway Bay, Jamaica, with horrible cell-phone service. It’s got a great hammock in the shade overlooking the surf, reggae music playing off in the distance, and some wickedly wild Jamaican-rum-laden Dirty Bananas*. With all that going for it, who cares if you can’t hear me now?

* Or you can email me for the recipe.

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