Gadgets on the Road

Eszter Hargittai shares tips on what to take on overseas work trips -- and how to make your tools effective.

April 24, 2015

Smartphones and tablets can be valuable during travel just to help pass the time, but with the myriad of apps out there, they can also improve the experience of getting from one place to the next and can ease the exploration of distant and foreign lands, especially for those attending international conferences or doing research abroad. Here, I elaborate on some issues worth considering ahead of time when planning a trip, especially to international destinations.

A source of confusion can be what to do about data plans while abroad. These can get expensive, so it is worth researching options up front. T-Mobile offers free international roaming, but take note that it is rather slow. It is definitely a great backup to have in case you are stuck somewhere without any alternatives, but I have not found it to be sufficient for regular daily use. Do call them up before your trip to make sure it is set up to work. (T-Mobile has also recently added free international text messages, which is a nice plus.)

It is worth consulting with your phone and data provider to find out about their international options. I do not tend to add voice services when abroad, as you can do so much in other ways nowadays, either by using text or relying on voice or video apps through Wi-Fi in case you want to talk to someone. Nonetheless, if voice services are of interest, again, be sure to sign up for an international package before you leave.

To keep track of my data usage, I reset the data counter on my phone the moment I land internationally. I then monitor my usage regularly. I figure out my approximate daily allocation based on the plan for which I signed up and look to see if I am staying within those limits. That is, if I signed up for 120MB for a six-day trip, then I know I should limit my usage to about 20MB per day. Unfortunately, I recently discovered that this is not a foolproof method. I received notice from AT&T of having reached my 800MB limit even though my phone showed that I was at 765MB. That is a considerable discrepancy, so keep that in mind.

But checking the number is nonetheless helpful to give you some general sense of how much data you are using. It is too easy to eat up data quickly, and the charges can add up. I recommend turning off cellular data usage for most of your apps, especially data-heavy apps like ones that concern photos, since you do not want image uploads eating away at your data allocation. This then means that your photos will only be uploaded when you are on Wi-Fi, but that should be fine in most cases.

Free Wi-Fi will often be your friend while traveling. I noticed on a recent trip to Europe that free Wi-Fi is popping up in an increasing number of public locations. For example, Cologne, Germany, has free Wi-Fi covering most of its old town, which is a place most tourists are likely to visit when in the area. Free Wi-Fi was not as common in Budapest, but I spotted notices in several parks there as well, and it is very common in restaurants, cafés and hotels. In the latter case, you sometimes have to ask for a password. The point is to remember such hot spots as options so that you are not using your limited data plan.

When booking a hotel, be sure to check whether it offers free Wi-Fi as opposed to noting the availability of Internet access more generally. The latter often comes with hefty costs. A travel site like TripAdvisor lets you use “free Wi-Fi” as one of the criteria for searching among hotels.

Another way to approach having phone and data access is to get a local SIM card to put in your phone or buy a cheap phone that works locally (not all U.S. carriers have phones that will allow you to switch out SIM cards -- check with your provider for details). Depending on how much you plan to use voice and data services, this may make sense. I myself have never done this as I found it to be too much hassle given the alternatives, but if you visit the same place often, it may be a helpful option.

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding your computer settings as well. I usually change the time zone to local time to help me acclimate, but leaving it on your home time zone can also be a helpful reminder of the time of day for your colleagues and family back home. If you use a Web-based calendar like Google Calendar, be sure to familiarize yourself with how it handles being away and accessing its content from a different time zone.

Some websites will try to outsmart you and will redirect you to local versions when you try to visit them from distant lands. For example, Google will often redirect to a local version, which may well be in another language and will likely prioritize local content. This could be beneficial depending on your uses, but it may not be your intention. When abroad, type in (which stands for no-country-redirect) to get to the U.S. version. As for content in other languages, services like can be super helpful. It has a powerful app version that will allow for real-time translation of material, even in audio form (i.e., you can say something rather than having to type it in and it will translate it for you). For Android phones, you can even download dictionaries for offline use, a great way to save on your data plan.

Another helpful offline-use option comes from Google Maps. Even if you do not end up purchasing international data, you can use offline maps while abroad.

An additional offline option concerns ebooks from your university or local public library (you can also buy ebooks, of course, but I prefer the library route). They may have dictionaries or travel guidebooks available for loan that are worth having along. And don’t forget some reading for the long flight as well. Although I myself still prefer to read hard-copy books, I also prefer to travel light so for long trips, I go the ebook route these days.

Apps can be very helpful while using local transportation in various venues. Many local transportation organizations have apps that help with getting around town, showing you routes as well as travel time options. I have found this helpful for long-distance travel as well (e.g., with rail travel on Deutsche Bahn in Germany). It is best to research and download these before one embarks on the trip, but it can be done at the last minute as well (although it may be at the cost of your data plan allocation).

Airline apps can also be useful. On a recent flight back from Vienna with Austrian Airlines, I wanted to check at the gate whether anybody was seated next to me. I do not tend to fly this airline so I did not have its app, but I downloaded it right there. With my last name and booking number, I was able to see the seating chart. Indeed, there was someone sitting next to me. I was also able to see, however, that there were a few rows with empty seats. An hour before takeoff, I switched my seat to one with an empty seat next to it. It made for a much more pleasant nine-hour flight.

If you are splitting costs with someone (e.g., sharing a hotel room, meals) then consider using a service like Splitwise that will help you not only keep track of your expenses, but will also calculate for you who owes whom how much at the end.

I tend to take many pictures with my point-and-shoot camera. Every evening, I transfer these to my laptop so in case I get separated from my camera, I do not lose all the photo memories with it. Since my laptop contents are regularly backed up as well, this means that I have an additional copy off-site. 

With the proliferation of gadgets and reliance on apps, I have found it helpful to carry an external battery/portable charger (I have been happy with an Anker battery, but lots of alternatives exist). These can be tremendously helpful either on a long flight or while spending a full day out and about at a conference or exploring sights. Depending on your gadgets, keep in mind that this may require having several cables on hand.

The products and services I mentioned in this piece are ones with which I have experience. Alternatives probably exist for most and I encourage readers who have used others to share them in the comments. I am also curious to know if there are other ways people integrate gadgets and apps into their travel plans. While it is crucial to know when to put down a device and enjoy one’s surroundings while exploring distant lands, mindful use of technology can make for much more pleasant and glitch-free discovery.


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