This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
My wife and I are headed to London and Paris on what is, for me, mostly a business trip, so I’m in the process of packing my bags.
Of course, I’ll bring along drip-dry socks and underwear and no-iron shirts that can dry relatively wrinkle-free overnight, but clothing is the easy part. I also have a lot of technology to pack, since I’ll be working from hotel rooms, airport waiting areas and sometimes even taxi cabs.
A cellphone is a must, but when using one from outside the United States, you can wind up paying more for voice and data than for flights and hotels. That’s because you usually have to pay roaming fees that — in some countries — can be as much as $5 a minute or $20 per megabyte of data. T-Mobile is now offering some relief for international travelers with its new Simple Choice plan that gives you unlimited data and texting and 20-cent per minute phone calls from 120 countries. There are some limitations, but it’s a very good deal if you use it overseas. I’d consider switching to T-Mobile if they offered service in my Palo Alto neighborhood.
Another option is to buy a local SIM card in the country you’re going to. When I was in Turkey last week, I spent about $50 for a local SIM card that gave me more than 80 minutes of calls back to the United States, plenty of text messages and 2 gigabytes of data. It was more than enough for my weeklong stay. Make sure you have an unlocked smartphone that can accept a GSM chip. All AT&T and T-Mobile phones have GSM, but not necessarily unlocked. Some Verizon and Sprint phones (including all recent iPhones) have a slot for a GSM chip. Check with your carrier about unlocking the phone. Most will for no charge for customers in good standing.
When possible, call home using Skype, which costs 2 cents a minute to call the United States, or Google Voice, which is free to call the United States and pretty cheap for making calls to other countries.
I’ll buy a local SIM card when I get to London. But before I shell out any schillings, I’ll ask about the cost for local and international calls, texting and data to make sure it’s affordable. And I’ll also find out how much it will cost to use a United Kingdom card in Paris. It might be cheaper to get a French card when I get to Paris.
Of course, I’m going to carry power plug adapters. The United Kingdom is different from the rest of Europe. So before you travel, find out what type of plug you’ll need or get an international all-in-one adapter that works just about anywhere. Most countries have 220-volt current instead of the 110 volt used in the United States, but I no longer carry a power converter because the power supplies (not the actual plugs) for almost all modern electronics are universal. I also carry a U.S. extension cord that lets me plug three U.S. devices into a single outlet, but I avoid power strips because they usually have circuit breakers that are tripped by 220 current.
I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and hate stumbling around a dark hotel room searching for a light switch, so I carry an LED wireless motion sensor light that I bought on Amazon for $5.99. It uses three AA batteries and turns on automatically when I get out of bed and turns off a minute later. You can also use it as a regular flashlight.
And speaking of batteries, I also carry a few AA rechargeable batteries with a universal charger for the light, my Oral-B battery-operated toothbrush and other gadgets. I also carry several USB chargers and extra cables for my phone and tablet and my Sony digital camera, which, unlike most digital cameras, doesn’t require its own charger. It uses the same micro-USB cable as most phones and tablets, except Apple’s.
I depend on hotel Wi-Fi and test the quality of the connection before I unpack. On my recent trip to Istanbul, I had very slow service from my room. But when they moved me closer to a wireless router, all was well. If you plan to use Wi-Fi, check ahead to see what, if anything, the hotel charges. I’ve paid as much as $40 a day in some cities, though many hotels now offer it for free. When I was in Nairobi, it was cheaper to buy a wireless Wi-Fi adapter from one of Kenya’s cellular carriers, than to use the hotel’s overpriced Wi-Fi service. If the hotel does charge, ask whether there is a way to get it for free. Some hotel chains comp Wi-Fi if you have a loyalty card.
On the low-tech side, I carry Ziploc bags, which just seem to come in handy. And after having my wallet stolen in Buenos Aires, I pack an extra credit card and ATM card that I keep in my luggage or the hotel safe so I won’t be penniless if that ever happens again.