Top 10 travel technology essentials

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Top 10 travel technology essentials

Planning that extended weekend away, or perhaps you have an overseas business trip looming? Then this list is a must-read.

As both Shaun and I are going to be away for a few days next week and when coming up with something topical to do for the list the topic of travel came up.

In days gone by travel was a necessity. You couldn't do business with someone unless you'd looked them in the eye, or had someone you trusted do it for you. And despite the best efforts of the videoconferencing industry and the environmental lobby this remains essentially true today.

For consumers too the range of technology that you take take on a trip has grown steadily and more and more people are taking along at least something to keep up with the email.

So nearly two decades of travelling experience have gone into creating this list. May your travels be light and your delays few.

Honourable Mention: Reviews sites

Iain Thomson: Few people are so gobby about life's misfortunes as disgruntled travellers, and they love to spread the word.

In ten years of travelling for meetings and conferences I've had some lousy hotel rooms, including a favourite in Cannes where you could touch three walls simultaneously while lying on the bed and the shower head was fixed over the toilet.

Nowadays this is less common thanks to the plethora of review sites out there. The internet has given the travel moaners an outlet and my, have they used it. Some hotels and areas have thousands of reviews and skimming these can give you a good idea of what to avoid, and what to accept. Many also leave helpful tips that can be a godsend.

The volume of responses to such sites is huge, and while phoney posts are not uncommon, where traffic is high enough it's difficult to astroturf away your problems.

Shaun Nichols: Two words should be enough to sell anyone on review sites - food poisoning. When in an unfamiliar city, one can often have a very hard time telling which restaurants might be hidden gems and which can lead to a night of agony.

A year or so ago Iain moved out to San Francisco to take over the US office. One of the first things he did was pull up Yelp and put together a list of local cafés that were worth eating at. I was very impressed at his resourcefulness, and a little jealous at all the wasted money and gastric discomfort I'd encountered by having to sort through the really bad places.

Since then, I have made it a point to check out review sites of whatever city I will be visiting. Not only is it a good way to avoid the really bad joints, it's also a great way to find the hidden gems.

Honourable mention: E-books

Shaun Nichols: Personally I was never a huge fan of e-book devices. One book is usually enough. Some of my family members, however, can go through an entire novel in a single night and when travelling their suitcases are significantly weighted by a good load of books.

Travelling is one of the really good uses for e-book devices. Rather than have to manage bulky novels, people can simply load up their tablets with books and save both packing space and wear and tear on the back and shoulders.

Additionally, there are more and more magazine and newspaper publishers who are looking to e-book services. Being able to pack up a novel and the daily newspaper and a magazine on a single reader device can be a great convenience (and a good way to keep people from knowing that you secretly love to read celebrity gossip mags.)

Iain Thomson: I too am still not entirely convinced by the e-book argument -there's a lot to be said about the feel of a well thumbed favourite book.

But the key to successful travel is to go as light as possible with everything and having a broad selection of reading material in one device is a powerful argument in the e-book reader's favour. However, I remain unconvinced in the need for a separate reader.

You can read e-books on a wide variety of devices and the standard readers are about the bulkiness in width as a hardback book. The same book can perfectly easily on a media player or large screen mobile phone, which has the portability of a paperback. So yes, if you read a lot it may be worth it.

10. Locking cable

Iain Thomson: For a very small weight and space penalty a locking cable can be a smart thing to take on trips.

Most business travellers leave their laptops unattended when they are out and about, either in other offices or hotels. It's amazing how quickly these can be lifted, and as recent news has show even the best hotels can have lousy security.

I doubt there's many laptops today that doesn't have a lock point built into the chassis, and it's the work of seconds to lock one down with a loop of high-strength steel. This instantly renders the laptop more trouble than its worth to the light-fingered.

One important safety tip however, as was demonstrated at the recent Intel Developer Forum. The laptops provided by the organisers were all locked down with a popular four dial combination laptop lock. People often use they birthday for these and a simple check from 1950 to 1967 could have netted someone a very expensive catch.

Shaun Nichols: As a kid I had always wondered what those weird little cables running into the side of computers were for. Then I got to High School, and the concept of petty theft became clear. The man who invented the locking cable deserves an award from schools around the world for the billions of dollars he has saved them from theft at the hands of cleptomaniac teenagers.

Why do I bring this up? Because if you think about it, a business trip is a lot like high school (secondary school for the Brits.) Think about it: you're in an unknown place, you feel completely isolated, you're worried about everyone stealing from you, and at the end of the day all you want to do is go to your room and lay on the bed. The computer lock is a lot like your old bike lock in this situation; a four digit lock that protects your most valuable piece of hardware.

Locks are of particular importance for travellers because you really don't know the people you're working around. Seemingly nice enough co-workers and staff members may secretly be the sort of person to swipe your laptop and maybe take a look around for sensitive data.

9. Electronic reservations/ boarding passes

Shaun Nichols: As the air travel world has become increasingly obsessed with security, the process of getting to through the airport and on to the plane has become an an extended ordeal.

With travel taking up an increasing amount of time, things that can save a few minutes or more are very welcome, and the advent of electronic boarding and check-in most certainly do that.

Computerized reservations have been around for nearly two decades now, and their value is well-known. Initially they saved travellers from the hassle of having to remember paper tickets and passes. More recently, however, the airlines have taken the concept to another level and really speeded up the check-in process.

Most airlines now have kiosks where customers can automatically check-in, and as the screens are often available six or more at a time lines can often move much faster. Some airlines have even gone a step further and allowed customers to both check in online and print out boarding passes. This is a huge time saver as it allows you to completely skip the long, unbearable check-in line and go straight to the long, unbearable security check line.

Iain Thomson: The whole online check-in process is genius. Travellers like it because it's more convenient and the airlines are quite happy to let us do the job for them.

Nevertheless, when first introduced, people were fairly slow to catch on. This made the online check-in a massive time-saver, since people were used to waiting for hours to check-in. It was the purgatory before the pleasure.

These days the benefits aren't so great, but it's unquestionably worth doing. There have been reports of baggage drop lines being longer than traditional check-in lines and over time this will become more common and airlines are already trying to charge for a traditional check-in.

8. Mapping

Iain Thomson: I have to say I'm less than impressed with the usefulness of PC mapping systems for practical travel.

Directions are all well and good but struggling through a pile of print-outs when you're wrestling with unfamiliar traffic is not only annoying but positively dangerous. Walking with maps is fine, as long as you're in still air and aren't on busy streets.

Where mapping does excel is in the mobile computing space. It's only been in the last few years that we've seen large-screen handsets that can really display a useful area of a map, and have the internet capabilities to cope with the data rates.

That said, use them wisely. Wondering down unfamiliar streets with an expensive phone in front of you without keeping an eye on your surroundings is not a smart move.

Shaun Nichols: Navigation systems are great, but they are not always completely practical. Sometimes it's better to just have a small area map that you can print out and carry around.

Many of us get a kick out of wondering around a new city, but we also like to have some idea of where we are and the ability to get our bearings, and map software and services provide that point of reference without the tedious directions or needless specifics.

As Iain mentioned, smartphones have been a boon for the mapping world. Not only can you carry around a map of the entire planet in your pocket, but now even phones without GPS can use triangulation techniques to find your location and allow the user to get a clear picture of where in the heck they are and where they need to go.

7. Bluetooth

Shaun Nichols: Road trips mean long hours in the car, and with the integration of mobile phones into the world many car travellers have to be available when behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, dialling and holding a mobile phone while driving is only slightly safer than playing Yahtzee with the person in the front seat while travelling down the highway. A Bluetooth headset and voice dialling is really a must for safety.

Bluetooth devices have become an essential tool for road warriors because they allow the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

That's not to say that they're completely safe. Studies have shown that even a hands-free device can distract a driver and increase the risk for an accident. But when you absolutely need to take a quick call while on the road, they can be a very handy tool.

Iain Thomson: The jury is still out on how calls affect driving safety. There's a growing body of evidence that we're not very good at concentrating on the road while doing something completely different on the phone.

That said it is a necessity and there's no getting round that. So get a good quality headset, paying particular attention to the ear-piece, because they can really rub into you on a long trip.

Also be aware that when you've not using a headset it's a good idea to shut down your mobile's Bluetooth. It can cut into battery life and provide a possible security vulnerability.

6. Universal Plug

Iain Thomson: If you're going to be pedantic about it there are over 20 different power outlet sockets in use today, although most are variations on a theme.

Nevertheless it's important to know what type you'll need and pack an adapter, with a spare if you're paranoid. Even the best laptop is still only a very expensive doorstop if you can't get power to it.

For 90 per cent of the portable computer's history you got around two hours of time on batteries from a laptop. No matter what the manufacturer said normal use of applications and a few sessions of Wi-Fi and that was your lot. Nowadays the situation can be much better, but any extended trip without power you've be in trouble.

Shaun Nichols: For anyone who has ever travelled internationally, a good set of adaptor plugs are an essential item who importance is only slightly below your passport and the name of the hotel you're staying at.

Now more than ever electricity is of the utmost importance and, without the ability to plug in to a power source, tourists are in big trouble and business travellers are in a crisis. So, next time before you take off on that trip to another part of the globe, make sure you stop by the local hardware or electronics store and get a set of plug adaptors.

If you're just going from the UK to the States or continental Europe and just want to plug in your notebook and mobile phone you can get a nice set of wall adaptors on the cheap. For other devices there are also adaptors that adjust and condition the voltage to prevent damage to your device. A bit of homework on your devices and destinations is always advisable and is a good way to make sure you're not spending enough or not enough.

5. Encryption tools

Shaun Nichols: As any thief will tell you, tourists make great targets for theft. They're often distracted, disoriented, and they carry valuable items such as notebooks and cameras on them.

There is no way to completely prevent theft, simply standing up for a moment or turning to talk to someone can open the door to a thief. These days, it's not just the hardware they steal. Crooks can also launch the stolen machine and steal personal data and bank details.

If you're travelling with a computer, encryption is always a good idea. You may lose the hardware on your machine, but at least you know that the data contained within it cannot be accessed. That could be the difference between losing a notebook worth a few hundred quid and losing financial credentials worth thousands of pounds.

Iain Thomson: I'm of the opinion that if laptops should never leave the office without being encrypted.

It's a logical no-brainer. Over the years we're seen laptops with all kinds of material on them going missing; battle plans from Gulf One, tax office files and confidential corporate documents. Every time it happens I get a flood of press releases from encryption companies making the same point – there's an easy fix out there.

But there's another reason for encryption. Governments are increasingly claiming the right to mirror your hard drive as part of a security check, especially when entering or leaving the US. Encryption can make these less of a risk, since customs rarely insist on demanding encryption keys by most accounts.

4. Datacards

Iain Thomson: Powerful as Wi-Fi is and WiMax will be it's difficult to beat the convenience of the mobile phone network for getting a connection.

Data speeds have been climbing steadily and many telecommunications companies are putting time and money into developing faster services. Unfortunately some are not, so keep an eye on endpoint data rates.

Many portable devices are now building ports for your SIM card as standard but most people are still using add on hardware for mobile internet, either via Type II PC card or more recently USB. In the latter case you need to keep out as these are very insecure to a grab from a stranger.

Also beware of your accounts department. Mobile data rates are staggeringly high, with one operator started charging UK customers £7.50 per megabyte for data roaming in the US and at those prices they'll be screaming loud enough to burst eardrums. For extended trips buy a local SIM card.

Shaun Nichols: Data rates didn't really become an issue until the latest generation of smartphones hit the market. The use of "push" data services requires the device to constantly utilize data networks to send and receive small bits of information. This isn't really a big deal at home, where the local networks don't care much, but when you go abroad and data roaming charges start to pile up you can get some eye-popping bills.

The iPhone was a great source of data roaming horror stories. The device was first released in the US and not really intended for use outside of the states. Of course it wasn't before long that people began to take vacations with their iPhones and leave the devices running.

In some cases, the data transfers also continued and carrier AT&T soon made headlines when it started handing out bills for thousands of dollars to users who had racked up huge charges for doing nothing more than going on a trip.

My favorite story is that of the UK customer who made the mistake of trying to download a feature-length film to his iPhone while traveling abroad. Hopefully the movie was good, because upon returning home the poor guy was slapped with a £22000 bill from Vodafone.

3. GPS

Shaun Nichols: I remember my first trip to London, spending a cold November afternoon lugging around a suitcase, hopelessly lost as I attempted to navigate the city's winding streets and find my hotel while jet-lagged into a near-comatose state. On that day I would have gladly given my left arm to have a GPS device.

GPS can be nearly indispensable when travelling to a foreign country, particularly older cities where the streets wind about and buildings can be tucked away into side streets or alleyways.

Many rental cars are now equipped with GPS devices, and when combined with the review sites we mentioned earlier, it can be the difference between a great night out and a rubbery cut of fish at the shop next to your hotel.

Iain Thomson: GPS is always useful when travelling, for everything to directions to your destination to finding your car in an huge airport parking lot.

However it is now being integrated into more and more devices and I fear that the hand-held GPS device of old is destined for the scrap-heap of history. Some people will still use them, because some people always seem to use vintage technology for the simple geekiness of it all and more power to them.

But everything that needs GPS will soon have it in the next few years. We're already seeing improvements to the accuracy of the current US GPS system, Europe's goes up in the next decade and Chinese or possibly Russian systems are in the pipeline. In the future, compatability could be our biggest problem.

2. Smartphone

Iain Thomson: Smartphones have come a huge distance in a very short time and a good mobile device can literally be a lifesaver, as the many who've been rescued after emergency texts can testify.

Smartphones have huge advantages in terms of portability and battery life over laptops and come with ever increasing data connectivity. Add in the advantages of GPS, Wi-Fi and the applications to make it worthwhile and you have a powerful mobile tool.

The basic phone functionality is still at the core of the mobile phone's usefulness but as a contacts database, mobile internet platform and portable alarm clock it can be unmatched. Some go for screen size, others for a hand keyboard and smaller viewing area and many variations in between. Pick the model that is best for your most common uses.

Shaun Nichols: Smartphones are great because they provide the functions of so many of the other devices on our list.

They can play media and access the web to stave off boredom during long trips and airport layovers. They can also provide directions via GPS and help you find your way about town through built-in mapping features, when you're out seeing sights you can take pictures with the increasingly high-resolution cameras now being built in to handsets.

And of course as Iain noted, they also provide the essential function of serving as a mobile phone.

If I was going to take a trip anywhere and could only bring one piece of technology, it would no doubt be my smartphone. Provided, of course, that I can get a decent connection wherever it is I'm going. Nothing says "yokel" like standing around with a useless handset and asking everyone around you if there's a place in town where your carrier can actually handle a call.

1. Notebook computers

Shaun Nichols: Perhaps we're a little biased here, seeing as how being able to access the internet while out of the office is a huge part of our jobs, but the reality is that notebook computing has changed the way millions of people work.

Imagine what a business trip would be like without a notebook computer. You get to the hotel, but can't check your email. You leave for the office, but can't remember the directions you got. Then you get to the office, but the drive you put the presentation on was damaged, and even when you get it, the files are incompatible with the desktops on site.

Notebooks have become so essential for business use that they now handily outsell desktops, and the primary reason for that is their ability to be used while travelling.

Iain Thomson: If there's one must-have for the business traveller then it's the notebook.

Without its invention business travel would be much more rare. Airlines would go bust, hotel chains shut down and a lot of people could have spent more time at home with their families. As it is we can now put most of the office in a shoulder bag.

This week's list needed very little debate for the first four items on the list, but notebook as first or second gave rise to a momentary pause. It was an obvious first choice, but for how much longer?

Some may say that the notebook is on its way out eventually, that smartphones will dominate. I have my doubts – the primary input method for data is still text, and that means a full sized keyboard. And there's no-one in the world who wants a phone that size, although some might if Steve Jobs told them it was cool.

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