I just got back from an amazing, month-long European adventure. My travels in Iceland aimed to circle the perimeter of Iceland, followed by a race through Oslo, Norway. And finally terminated in Germany. But the break-neck pace caused tremendous damage to my productivity. Dead laptops, weak batteries and the hazards of the road can make your life miserable. Even worse, the perils of travel can crush your professional life.
But how did I manage to not get fired from my job?
Productivity on-the-go requires the right gear and applications. For writers and other kinds of mobile professionals traveling abroad, you will want software and gear offering reliability, portability and redundancy. Here’s my list of tips, including the software and hardware that got me through a European adventure.
Applications and Software
On the road, you’ll encounter various security hazards, particularly theft. The worst threat remains unsecured and potentially compromised WiFi access points. Because of the various hazards of using public WiFi, I suggest using some kind of cloud storage, encryption, VPN and mobile productivity apps.
I personally use Dropbox (our manual on Dropbox), although given the recent issues with the NSA and some of their unfortunate choices for board members, I am looking for a replacement. Cloud storage services can provide a variety of essential functions for mobile professionals. For example, I use Dropbox for syncing documents across mulitiple devices. It also offers synergy with TrueCrypt, which can create an encrypted file storage container.
Dann Albright wrote about four Dropbox alternatives, including:
- PrimaDesk: Includes encryption among other security goodies.
- JoliCloud: Also includes improved security.
- ZeroPC: Browser, Android and iOS based cloud syncing service, with encryption.
- CloudKafe: Browser based cloud syncing, using SSL encryption.
I keep my backups of my travel documentation inside of the encrypted container file, including passport, driver’s license, credit card numbers and more. While some security issues could exist with such a setup, I find it more likely that my travel documents may get stolen rather than my encryption passwords.
Anyone traveling abroad may benefit from using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPN allows for secure log-ins from remote locations. A proxy allows users to change their log in location. For those who may wish to anonymize their Web search traffic while in a foreign country, proxies and VPN remain indispensable tools, particularly for journalists, political dissidents and others seeking to anonymize their Web traffic.
Personally, I use Private Internet Access (I received a deal costing around $4 per month). It routinely ranks among the top VPNs out there and – for me at least – offers ease of set up and configuration. For most users, you will simply install and run the application, which runs on almost all operating systems. You get the added benefit of receiving streaming video and music in countries where such services aren’t permitted.
Mobile Office Suite
Lately, I’ve preferred using QuickOffice (recently acquired by Google), but I’ve also relied upon Kingsoft, Documents-to-Go and OfficeSuite 7. Another worthy processor is the Android port of Open Office, which continues to receive development support. Conversely, Microsoft’s mobile variant of Office just dropped its price to nothing.
Although I’m not an Apple user, we recognize iA Writer as an excellent alternative to the baked-in client in iOS.
- CloudMagic: The search capabilities in CloudMagic are excellent. Lately I’ve actually been using this more than K-9.
- Blue Mail: Features reminders, which can function in parallel with a zero-inbox email management strategy.
- SolMail: Part of the Sol family of productivity tools, SolMail offers efficient email processing.
As an RSS fanatic (I’ve written about dozens of uses and hacks for RSS), I use a variety of RSS reader apps on both the desktop and on mobile platforms. Nothing really beats a browser for consuming RSS, but on mobile, one of the most data efficient apps is FeedMe, which offers offline access as well as automatic image blocking on mobile data. Although Google Reader may have passed on into the great unknown, a number of mobile apps have filled its place:
- Tiny Tiny RSS: Allows users to provide their own RSS hosting service.
- Flipboard: Allows importation of OPML files and offers iOS and Android apps.
- Feedly: It’s a great app, although with some serious managerial issues.
Mobile productivity requires light weight and redundancy – you will see more hardware failures in the field than you ever did at home. I prefer carrying a minimal amount of hardware around. Unfortunately, you will likely require a laptop.
Protective Cell Phone Case
ZeroLemon offers combination power bank/ruggedized cases. We’ve reviewed ZeroLemon’s cases for the Galaxy S4 and Note 3. They’re very good.
I first read about Grid-It on Lifehacker. Although you will likely want something larger to carry most of your gear, the smallest Grid-It offers an excellent combination of carrying capacity and limited bulk. It is also small enough to fit inside of a quart-sized plastic bag. In many wet or humid weather conditions, this permits the Grid-It to receive some degree of weather protection, if reduced to makeshift means.
If interested, you can buy the Grid-It Cocoon for $14.99 via Amazon.
Multiple MicroUSB Cables
I cannot stress this enough – carry more than one micro-USB cable. micro-USB cables rapidly developed into the standard for cellular charging. The wide adoption of the standard also spread into other devices, including backup batteries, tablets and more. I also carry around adapter tips, which permit micro-USB cables to function as either mini-USB or USB.
Portable Backup Battery and Flashlight
Over the years, I’ve experimented with a variety of backup batteries and flashlights. Some of my favorite two-in-one devices include those from RAVPower. Their devices are quite diverse: Some even offer wireless file storage (such as the RAVPower WD01).
For those working out of the field, most flashlight-backup battery combo devices offer excellent value. Keep in mind that the battery performance of many backup batteries depends heavily upon the length of the micro-USB cable. Unfortunately, batteries can suffer from over-discharge if used with too short a cable. Be sure to test your devices, and their respective cables, before taking them out into the field.
Pictured above: The RAVPower RP-PB03E
The Appropriate Travel Adapter
Different parts of the world use different wall sockets. For example, Europeans use two pin ports and North Americans use a two-pin, ground optional, power port. You can buy adapters for either kind cheaply. However, if you’re forced to buy at the airport, expect to pay a massive premium. On Amazon, I paid mere dollars for each adapter.
For example, you can purchase a universal adapter for less than $4. For those intending on traveling from the US to Europe, you will only need a single standard, as Europe has homogenized its power plugs.
Once out of your home country, you will find that your phone won’t work or will incur roaming charges. In this case, if you have an unlocked phone, you can swap in a third party SIM card, from the country you’re visiting. Remember to always bring the appropriate SIM card ejector, if you do not have a removable back to your phone.
Alternatively, you can contact your cellular provider and request an international plan. Unfortunately, you will be charged criminal prices (unless you have T-Mobile and are traveling to Europe).
Laptop and Laptop Bag
Productivity from a smartphone isn’t easy. Smartphones and tablets generally can function for word processing (with SwiftKey), browsing and email — for more complex computing tasks, you will need a laptop. I picked mine on the basis of its CPU, monitor size and battery size. Unless you can afford a ruggedized laptop, make sure to also purchase a protective case. In my case, after experiencing some minor drops inside of a padded attache case, the monitor went out. For mobile productivity, having a broken monitor can kill your workflow.
A major strength of using a laptop lies in its ability to charge multiple USB devices, simultaneously, without needing multiple travel adapters. While my laptop is currently dead (further testament to HP’s manufacturing standards), it still functions as an excellent device charger.
The Nexus 7 offers a great combination of GPS, WiFi and a large screen, which is great for reading maps. I used it in combination with Google Maps and the amazing OSMAnd as a backup navigation tool. It’s worth noting that any tablet with GPS functionality can offer the same redundancy as the Nexus 7.
A Nexus 7, with an OTG-attached keyboard (how to connect OTG?) can also serve as a laptop backup, in the event of a hardware failure.
My most cherished device, a rooted Nook Simple Touch (how to root the Nook Simple Touch) can sideload apps, including offline Wikipedia apps, maps, a ridiculous number of e-books and more. Because it offers a month or more of battery life, the Nook can operate as a backup to a smartphone for many simple WiFi or offline tasks.
If flying anywhere, always remember to bring a 3.5-inch headphone jack. Most in-flight films nowadays require that you have your own earphones – the airlines will supply these, at a grotesque markup. So it’s best to bring your own – here are 5 great headphones you can buy for under $50.
Warm Jacket With Lots of Big Pockets
Another trick that many traveling professionals use – they wear large jackets with lots of pockets. You may end up looking like some kind of pervert or criminal, but you will be able to carry all your gear without paying for additional luggage.
Not all credit cards will work in other countries. Also, before traveling abroad, considering acquiring a card specifically for international travel. For example, some credit cards come without international transaction fees, which cost somewhere in the ballpark of 2.5% of all purchases. If you plan on traveling overseas, try using a credit card that doesn’t include international transaction costs and offers good returns on frequent flyer miles. The best online tool to locate such cards is NerdWallet.
Traveling abroad proved both a practical and meditative exercise in productivity for me. I broke and drained several devices while struggling to keep up with a neck-breaking pace. Airports, buses and trains always seemed just moments away from stranding me in a land where I lacked language skills.
Staying safe and productive required the right blend of applications and gear. I highly suggest redundancy, light weight gear and battery life. All three will keep you functioning while neck deep in some hellish environment without Internet access or charging stations.
Anyone use any killer apps or software for traveling? Please share in the comments.
Image Credits: Seth Werkheiser Via Flickr