Aviation journalists like me travel with a fair bit of tech: always my phone, usually my tablet, and sometimes even a separate e-reader to relax by the pool. Add in an external battery to keep it all going, a laptop in case I need to check in with work… and you’ll imagine that I’ve had some tough (and often expensive!) lessons on managing it all. Let me share my hard-earned tips with you!
Localise your smartphone
Let’s start with our phones. Of course, a modern mobile is much more than a phone: it’s everything from a book to a camera to maps to a boarding pass and plenty else in between. Before I leave on a trip, I make sure I have the maximum amount of storage available by downloading all the photos and videos to my home computer and removing any apps I won’t be using on the road. I find it’s helpful to make a list of what I remove so I can easily reinstall them when I’m back on wifi at home.
A quick note: you may also want to remove any dating apps from your phone if you are heading to — or transiting through — countries where local laws might cause you problems, and remove any risqué pics from your messaging apps. That’s especially important to think about if you’re a member of the LGBTQIA community. Meanwhile, read up on what the local messaging app of choice is, and set yourself up with it before departure, especially if you’re using an accommodation rental service rather than a hotel and need to get in touch with your host.
In Germany, for example, everyone is on WhatsApp, although I’m trying to use it less and less because I’m skeptical of its Facebook-owned data privacy. More secure alternatives include Signal or Telegram, but there are regional favourites like LINE or WeChat that may also make sense to install when you’re on your home wifi rather than in an airport or bus station.
It’s a smart idea to save key information, including a photo of your passport, tickets, and so on, to a password-protected app like 1Password. That can be very useful in the event it’s lost or stolen. I also do a full backup to my home computer in case my phone is lost, stolen or broken.
Consider preloading your tablet and phone with downloaded content from services like Netflix or Spotify, and do your homework about whether they’ll be available where you’re going. For example, you have access to the Apple music/TV/movies library of the country where your card is billed, no matter where you’re located in the world, but Netflix gives you access to the library of the country where you’re connecting from. (This can be a great opportunity to watch something new but be aware that specific dubbing and subtitle languages may only be available in certain countries.)
Keep connected: figure out your strategy
It’s also important to think about whether you’re going to use your home data plan on roaming, buy a local SIM, rent a pocket wifi device or just live without cellular connectivity.
If you’re roaming, make sure you know how much data you can use before you leave home — and what happens when you hit the limit. Does your mobile provider start charging you very high rates? Or does your connection get cut off or slowed down? Beware of turning on data roaming before arriving, though: in addition to the growing number of planes offering wifi, some of them also have mobile networks as a connection option. If your data roaming is on, your phone will automatically connect as if it was a ground network…and you’ll have a nasty surprise on your next bill.
If you’re getting a local SIM, make sure you let friends and family know that SMS text messages won’t get through and point them towards a messaging app or email instead. And change your voicemail message to indicate you won’t have access to it until you’re home, because apparently some people still think it’s okay to leave voicemails in 2019.
Think about leaving your Skype name or the phone number you use on messaging apps on your voicemail message, or even the details of a willing friend who can pass on messages if you’ll be disconnected.
Stay charged up with your kit
I always travel with an external battery with two USB sockets: I find a 10,000 mAh size is good for my phone and tablet even for high use, but I really value having two USB sockets, especially since I always bring a USB fan for un-airconditioned trains and stuffy hotel rooms.
I swear by Anker as a brand both for batteries and for my secret weapon: the five-port high-powered USB charging brick. Full disclosure: Anker sometimes sends me new kit to try out, but I still buy their stuff outright because it’s high-quality, reliable and has a no-quibble warranty. Make sure you get one with the 'figure of eight' socket so that you can pick up a mains AC cable with your destination’s plug type and avoid the perilously dangling plug adapter situation.
To corral all the cables, I pop the USB charging brick, its AC cable and all the charging cables into a small pouch (I use an airline amenity kit, but you could use a washbag or one of the special gadget bags widely available). Make sure you take this out of your carry-on at airport security, though: the spaghetti of cables is hard for security staff to check and your bag may be sent to be checked manually.
Lastly, as a general rule, it’s smart to try to limit the number of different connectors you use: if you’re an Apple person then double down on Lightning cables and get a set of wireless headphones that use that connector to charge. If your phone has micro-USB or USB-C, lean towards that standard. And always throw a spare of each type in the bottom of your bag!
John Walton is an international aviation journalist. Tell him how you wrangle travelling with tech on Twitter (@thatjohn) or via email to email@example.com.