Travel electronics are a very difficult thing to decide whether to carry or not. On one hand, they allow for you to communicate with your friends and family back home, work or keep up with the news, and provide entertainment when the weather is poor, you’re tired, or stuck on a long bus, train or flight. On the other hand, electronics can be a hassle – weighing down your pack, giving you an excuse to stay within the comforts of home and not fully embrace the culture you’re in, and potentially stressing you out over the potential for damage or theft.
Personally, for the long-term travel that I do, I tend to carry more electronics than most people might as the benefits far outweigh the negatives for me. Yet, given my other packing sacrifices, I am still able to carry a smaller backpack than most people.
There is a reason that the Kindle is my first listed item. I believe an e-reader is a MUST HAVE for anyone on the road. I resisted purchasing one for quite some time, but have realized that this is potentially the greatest travel item ever invented. Once upon a time, I would carry 2-3 books with me in my backpack, often weighing 5-10 pounds and susceptible to damage from wet towels or a leaky bottle. When on the road, I often like to have a travel guide, a non-fiction ‘educational’ book, and a fictional fun read. Now, these can all be condensed into a small, lightweight device. I am now able to carry hundreds of travel guides, language books, and free-reading fiction / non-fiction books and switch between each title without having to dig through my bag. Before purchasing a Kindle, I had been concerned about the battery life, and potential theft ordamage that comes with an e-reader. These days, e-readers are available for under $100, the batteries last for over a month, and they are easy to hide or secure. The one accessory many people choose to buy is a protective case with a light. I have not bought one, as I would just as soon pay $100 for a replacement Kindle as a $60 case, but the light is handy for night time reading (I use a headlamp). To help organize your books, I’d highly recommend the free software package Calibre.
A laptop is likely the most debatable item on this list. Most hostels have computers available for use, either for free or a minimal charge, and there are many alternatives such as netbooks, tablets, or smart phones. To me, it all comes down to your requirements. I personally use my laptop for photo processing, work, blogging, e-mail, stock trading, surfing the web and the occasional movie. When I compare the size of my 14″ Laptop, to a netbook or tablet, the added versatility is well worth the few extra ounces of weight. Of course, tablets and netbooks are often quicker and easier to use, and may be preferable for some. This is really a judgement call, and will vary for each person. I prefer devices with USB ports for charging accessory devices, such as e-readers, mp3 players, and speakers, but it is also possible to buy travel adapters that have a USB port for this purpose.
Laptops, Netbooks, and Tablets will probably be the most expensive device you carry so you’ll have to consider how you’re going to secure it. Many hostels have lockers which allow for safe keeping. In other places, I have just kept my laptop at the bottom of my bag and never had a problem. I have met people who have intentionally ‘distressed’ their electronics to make them look cheaper so that they won’t be targeted by thieves. For example, an American Engineer I met in Manila had wrapped her brand new, top-of-the-line, netbook in duct tape. It looked like a piece of crap, which was the whole point. At home people may accessorize their goods to be as flashy and expensive looking as possible, but on the road, it may be worth taking the opposite approach. After all, you’re bringing these things for functionality, not to impress the Flashpackers.
I believe an mp3 player is another must-have travel accessory. I carry an old 60GB iPod video, and an iPod shuffle for the occasional workout. I briefly had an iPod touch, but managed to lose it in Koh Chang, Thailand, while going for a late night skinny dip with a hot blonde German gal. Why is it always the blondes…!? Note to self: do not leave valuables on a beach in Thailand late at night! In any event, an iPod touch can provide your music needs, allow basic e-mail and web functionality, as well as function as cell phones provided you have a Skype account set up.
After the entertainment system did not work on one of my Singapore Airlines flights, I received a $200 voucher for the inflight duty free catalog. I stumbled across a set of USB chargeable speakers in the catalog, and they have proven to be an excellent addition to my travel arsenal. From chill out tunes on the beach to classic rock in the dorm room, these little woofers provide a decent punch and can turn any hostel room into party central with the flick of a switch.
I hate wearing watches, but do tend to carry a waterproof Timex with 3 time-zone capability on the road. I’ll usually set it with the time zone of my hometown, the time zone of where I work, and the time zone of where I am. This helps me quickly confirm when it’s appropriate to be contacting people. On the alarm side, I usually get by with my watch but sometimes I’ll bring a collapsible travel alarm as well. Many phones and .mp3 players can also function as alarm clocks, so this is once again a personal choice.
I do not usually travel with a cell phone, but they can be very handy. I find it’s often too much of a hassle, or too expensive, to get set-up with a SIM in many countries, but this does not mean it’s not possible. Depending on your home plan, you may be able to extend the coverage for a low fee, or just use texts, but you’ll want to ensure there are no fees for roaming. On some occasions, I have carried a cheap, generic, unlocked phone and been able to pick up a cheap SIM on arrival. This is quite easy to do in Thailand, Vietnam, and many parts of Africa. It all depends on what your communication requirements are, whether you have friends in the country to contact, and how you plan to arrange accommodation. There are also “global SIMs” available, but I am yet to find one that fits my needs at a suitable cost.
UPDATE: I now travel with a Google Nexus 4. Although I still do not often buy SIM cards, I find having a smartphone very helpful for navigation. I try to either download the TripAdvisor Apps for a city or download an Offline Google Map as it is a great way to get around a city, even without wifi or data.
I highly recommend buying a multi-use travel adapter. The one I carry works for charging all of my electronics, including laptop and camera batteries, as well as USB devices such as my Kindle and iPod. The only plug that these adapters usually do not work with are the large South African three round style plugs. It’s worth ensuring that there is a hole for the negative pin of North American plugs as otherwise your camera charger or laptop may not plug-in correctly. I met a girl in Japan who had ripped the negative pin off the cord of her brand new $1500 MacBook Pro just to make it fit in a $20 travel adapter! Not a cost worth incurring.