Travel essentials: Useful small tech to pack

Stay connected, powered, and charged wherever you may roam.

by Daniel P. Dern - Today's tech products are remarkably self-sufficient when it comes to accessories. Most of us are (thankfully) no longer packing a floppy drive and an acoustic coupler in our tech travel kits, or even an RJ-11 phone cable, a Line 2 to Line 1 adapter, and a phone line tester/protector.

Even so, packing a few things -- or carrying them in your pocket or bag -- can mean the difference between problem and productivity... if not for you, then for some less-well-prepared member of your party.

[ See also: How to sleep cheap ]

I'm not talking about things that let you do your work more productively, like a mouse, a USB LCD light, or sound-cancelling headphones. Nor am I talking about software, or about tools like screwdrivers and flashlights. I'm talking about the tech that ensures you can connect your mobile and portable gear, have power, read data, etc.

The trick is to strike that balance between being prepared and being over-packed. Here are some suggestions on the hardware side - beyond what you'd be carrying simply to use the device, like a Bluetooth headset. (Note, this is for within-the U.S.; provisioning for international travel adds a few more items to your kit.)

Two general suggestions regarding cables: 1) most are available as retractables, which saves some space and definitely minimizes tangles; 2) If your power or data cables use "tips," make sure these tips are bagged, taped or otherwise prevented from falling off and getting lost.

A fair amount of this you can provision from trade show tchotchkes (vendor giveaways), if you don't already have shoebox's worth. Failing that, trot over to Radio Shack, Staples, Micro Center, or some other shop with an accessories aisle.

(Thanks to Chris De Herrera and Ernest Lilley for sharing their advice, passim.)

1. A USB cable or two, and adapters. Just about every mobile device and accessory today uses USB ports for charging and communication. "I charge everything via USB - the fewer AC adapters you have to carry the better," says mobile expert Chris De Herrera.

A two to three-foot cable is useful for connecting to the back of computers; De Herrera also suggests packing a few-inch one for when the USB port you're trying to connect to is too crowded for your dongle or device.

Remember that not all the ports on a desktop or notebook are "powered," so check that your device is getting charged. Some notebooks will provide power to the USB port even when the machine is off.

You also want USB connectors of all shapes and sizes: mini, micro, FireWire, etc. I'm partial to an six-tip adapter "wheel"; you may want separate cables, or one of the "hydra" cables that sprouts a cable with each tip.

2. A/C USB charger, one or two port. This lets you charge your USB devices from a wall outlet.

3. Phone/PDA accessories.

Phone/Smartphone batteries may not last all day, especially if you're doing a lot of online activity, or using them as a WiFi hotspot.

a) A/C charger, if you don't have a USB cable/charger combination -- or if the regular A/C charger works significantly faster. Look for a "travel" charger that's more compact, but make sure it charges the phone quickly enough.

b) Portable power pack, for when you can't get to a wall outlet -- along with whatever cables you need to connect to the device, and to recharge the pack.

Duracell, Energizer and others sell sealed rechargeable power packs as well as ones that use two or four AA cells. Some have built-in cables. The sealed ones are smaller; the AA-based ones let you use drug store batteries for the recharge.

4. Camera/video accessories.

I recommend packing a spare, charged battery. In normal use, today's camera batteries last all day, but if you didn't recharge, or you're shooting video, you may need that spare.

Also, a spare, empty media card -- again, video chews through megabytes quickly.

Charging/data cables, if the USB ones you're already packing aren't sufficient.

5. Other mobile accessories

a) USB media card reader (for SD, micro-SD, CF, etc.). Even if you can download your pictures using the data cable, a small one can't hurt to have.

b) An extra media card or two for each device.

c) An empty USB flash drive or two - a 4-6GB for you, some 2GB's or under in case you need to give one to somebody.

d) Battery charger(s): Unless your device (e.g., a camera) can recharge them via its USB cable.

For the batteries in your mobile devices, Vivitar and others offer "universal" chargers... just test ahead of time to confirm they fit and charge the batteries for your phone, camera, and whatever else.

If you use AA or AAA cells (like in a Cisco Flip, or a handheld audio recorder): Duracell, Energizer and others make chargers that will fill up their brand of batteries in 15 minutes... but these chargers may be more bulky and heavy than you want to deal with, in which case, look at Duracell's and Energizer's more compact chargers that can still do the trick in a few hours.

6. Notebook accessories. Here's where your kit can start bulking up.

a) Bring an A/C charger. Targus, Antec and others make small, lightweight ones, many of which also have a USB charging port and/or secondary charging cable for mobile device. Don't forget to bring the necessary tip(s).

b) Ethernet cable, and, advises mobile veteran Chris De Herrera, an Ethernet coupler, so you can use your cables to extend one that's there into one longer one.

c) Optionally: External USB optical drive, if your notebook/netbook doesn't include one. LiteOn, Samsung and others offer small, lightweight optical drives in the $50-$70 range.

7. Other data cables and stuff

a) A small four-port USB hub.

b) Optionally: phone (RJ11) cable

8. A few more power accessories

a) A three or four-port power strip, so you can share rather than hog at an airport gate or conference room. For example, Monster's Outlets-to-Go Power Strip, which has a short power cord, or their Outlets To Go 300 for Laptops. Many power strips today also include powered USB charging ports.

b) A three-to-two-prong A/C plug adapter, for when you encounter older, ungrounded outlets. (Cheap!)

c) A fresh four-pack of hi-capacity AA batteries.

d) Optional: Battery tester for AAs, AAAs and others. Five bucks at Radio Shack.

e) A six to twelve-foot extension cord

f) External hard drive.

Once you've got your travel gear together, label whatever you can, put things in pouches or baggies, don't leave them loose, and be thankful for what you don't have to schlepp.

And when you're back, reassess which things you took you don't need next time... and what you should have included.

Think I missed anything? Let me know!

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

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