Tips and observations for international travel

When you travel abroad, you inevitably encounter roadblocks to smooth mobile communication—from power inconsistencies to a lack of connectivity in certain regions. Certainly, you have more to think about and plan for than you do back home.

In the past year, I've traveled to Ghana, Mexico, the Philippines, and China. During all of my trips, I enjoyed constant use of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)—an NEC MobilePro 770—despite varying power standards. I also had regular email and Web access. I carried mobile devices everywhere, achieving the same level of instant access to personal information—particularly phone numbers and addresses—that I have in the United States. Along the way, I accumulated many tips and observations about overseas mobile computing.

Electrical Power
In much of the world, the power you get from a wall socket is 220 volts at 50Hz—exactly twice as much voltage as the 110-volt, 60Hz US standard. To take care of this conflict, you can obtain a 110-volt-to-220-volt converter. Look for a low-wattage (e.g., 50-watt) model designed for electronic equipment. You can find units that offer much higher wattages (e.g., 1600 watts), but these units are intended for simple electrical devices such as hair dryers, not for computers. A warning: Don't leave your device plugged into a converter overnight. While touring Africa a few months ago, I experienced a converter failure. Since then, I've made a habit of carrying two converters.

You might also need a plug adapter, which resolves differences between particular styles of electrical outlets around the world. In much of Europe, the standard is two round prongs (typically built into a 110-volt-to-220-volt converter), but many types exist. While visiting a Catholic mission hospital in Ghana, I was astonished to find that sockets varied from room to room. In one room, I found two different styles on the same wall! I now carry around a RadioShack 50-watt converter that contains plug adapters for four of the most common overseas styles.

Another warning: Some countries, such as the Philippines, use a socket that accepts two flat prongs—exactly like an older two-wire US socket—but carries 220 volts. When in doubt, check the voltage before you plug in. To get an idea about the types of outlets and power to expect when you travel, browse the World Electric Power Guide at Franklin Electric's Web site (http://www.fele.com).

I want to offer kudos to Hewlett-Packard (HP) for providing a unique solution to the international power problem. The power supply for the HP Jornada 545 and HP Jornada 548 series of Pocket PCs accepts any voltage from 100 volts to 250 volts, thereby eliminating the need for a converter. All users need is a way to plug into different types of electrical sockets. To address that problem, the HP Jornada's power supply uses a standard two-wire electric-shaver cord that comes with both US two-flat and European two-round plugs. If you find yourself in a country that uses something different, you need only find a place that sells electric razors and ask for a replacement cord. I urge other PDA vendors to follow HP's lead.

Batteries
If you have a Palm III or Palm VII or Handspring's Visor, you don't need to worry about power coming out of a wall. All you need are AAA batteries. However, AAA batteries can be difficult to find in remote parts of the world. An alternative is to use rechargeable alkaline cells, such as Rayovac's Renewal Rechargeable Alkaline batteries. You can find these cells, which typically come in a set that includes a charger, at most hardware stores and some US drugstores. Plug the charger into a 110-volt-to-220-volt converter—using an appropriate plug adapter, if necessary—to charge the batteries overnight. One pair of batteries should last the duration of your trip, but I recommend that you carry at least one pair of fresh conventional AAA cells as a backup. Although the Renewal batteries last longer than most NiCD and NiMH rechargeable batteries, they don't last forever.

If your device uses AA cells, you have an even better option: Eveready's Energizer Lithium L91 batteries. These cells are available in most US photographic supply stores (and pharmacies that have a photo section). At about $5 per pair, they're expensive, but they offer more than twice the lifetime of alkaline AA cells. Now, if only Eveready would offer these wonderful batteries in the AAA size.

Communications
Windows CE­based devices, such as NEC's MobilePro, offer built-in Web browsers and email clients, which I use often in the United States but not overseas. While traveling internationally, you might find a US-style modular phone jack in business hotels, but if you do find such a jack, be prepared for expensive long-distance charges. If you absolutely must dial in to the office, check out Konnex and TeleAdapt, companies that sell a variety of international connectivity solutions.

A much simpler—and usually less expensive—solution for basic email and Web browsing is to visit a local cybercafe. You'll find cybercafes in most large cities and occasionally in smaller towns. I found many locations in the Philippines and China. A cybercafe is essentially a room full of Internet-connected PCs. PC quality varies, as does connection speed: At some locations I had T1 speeds, and at others I had molasses-slow links. My Internet provider, American InfoMetrics, offers a Web-based email interface (which Figure 1 shows) that I can access from any PC's Web browser. Some travelers choose to maintain an account with a service such as Hotmail, which you also access from a Web browser; you can use my June 15 column's mail-forwarding techniques to forward email to such an account.

The primary advantage of a cybercafe is that you bypass the complexities of the local telephone system: Simply pay a reasonable fee, sit down at a PC, start the Web browser, and get to work. If you're staying in a high-end tourist hotel in a large city, you might find similar functionality at the hotel's business center, although the hotel probably charges more. (My hotel in Xian, China, charged $6 per hour.) A terrific resource for locating cybercafes is St. Martin's Press's Let's Go travel series. These books rate cybercafes according to connection speed and cost. I found the 2001 edition of Let's Go: China indispensable.

A final note about cybercafes: You typically can't plug your mobile device directly into the network at one of these locations. However, you might want to bring the device along anyway: You can use it to look up email addresses rather than rely on memory.

Wireless Overseas
What kind of wireless connectivity are you going to find overseas? The answer to that question depends on where you're going. Many countries use the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) standard for digital cell phones, and you can connect most GSM phones to a PDA (or notebook PC) with an appropriate cable. In effect, the phone functions as a modem. (Palm's Palm Mobile Internet Kit addresses this functionality.) Socket Communications sells digital phone cards that connect digital cell phones to Pocket PCs, other Windows CE—based devices, and notebook PCs.

GSM isn't widely used in the United States, so your US cell phone is unlikely to work overseas. However, many US cellular providers will let you rent a GSM phone for overseas use. Simply select a phone that's compatible with a connectivity kit such as Palm's, and you'll have wireless data access wherever you have cell phone coverage. Two caveats: First, GSM gives you a data rate of only about 9600 baud; second, GSM service is typically expensive (e.g., over $2 per minute—although, depending on where you are, that rate might be competitive with local wireline long-distance charges).

If you find yourself in a place that doesn't offer cellular service, plan to shell out even more money for wireless communication. If you're absolutely determined, you can find wireless data links in locations as remote as the Sahara Desert and the South Pole. Doing so requires the use of a satellite phone, which you can rent at a premium. For more information about renting such a phone, visit Outfitter Satellite at http://www.phonetraders.com/rentals.htm.

As you can see, many options are available for the international mobile traveler. If you have stories about your own international-travel experiences, please share them with me—I'd find them fascinating.