Tech Tips for Extreme Trips
Global travel can put your data and hardware at risk. Here’s how to stay safe.
You have your vaccines in order, have obtained the appropriate visa and are prepared for the crush of beggars and con artists when you step off the plane. You are headed into the wilds of the emerging markets. When it comes to technology, many of these nations are still bringing their infrastructure into the ’00s (or at least the ’70s)—some are still figuring out how to keep the lights on, not to mention the Internet, while others have leapfrogged technologies ahead of traditional infrastructure.
The high-tech concerns of traveling to a developing country are largely the same as with any trip to an unfamiliar locale—only amplified. The prepared traveler wants to travel light, travel safely (and inconspicuously) and spend as little money as possible along the way. For the most part, a little advance planning and mindfulness during your journey will take care of all of those needs. That said, when it comes to technology, there are a few special considerations to keep in mind.
Developing nations are notorious for thieves and scam artists working the crowds, and they don’t stop there: Many of the world’s largest online crime rings operate out of these areas (Nigeria is one of the biggest), mainly because here they are largely immune from the long arm of the law.
With that in mind, take extra care when using public technology services—Internet cafés, computer kiosks and public Wi-Fi hotspots. It’s relatively easy for a scammer to install software to capture everything typed on a public computer, and rogue wireless access points designed to look like commercial hotspots are common. If at all possible, never type sensitive information, including credit card numbers or passwords, into any public Internet service or device. That’s tough if you’re checking your email, so consider using a disposable account while you’re traveling—and just delete it after you get home. Alternatively, to minimize your exposure, consider simply changing your email password before your trip, then change it back again when you return. Finally, if you have a VPN system available, be sure to use it.
If you’re using your phone to access email or the Internet via the phone network—not Wi-Fi—your risk of being hacked is considerably less, as it’s far more difficult for a hacker to set up his own cell tower. Still, since many users don’t actually keep track of whether they are using cellular data or Wi-Fi, it makes sense to follow the same best practices as outlined above either way.
You can take many U.S. cell phones overseas, even to Third World countries, and everything will work, but in general, the less developed the country, the more expensive the service is going to be. It’s probably not surprising to any reader that prepaid SIM cards or cheap phones can be purchased once you’re in-country, often at the airport, and if you don’t need advanced smartphone-style features, this remains your best bet. Another great option is to use a VoIP service like Skype to route phone calls over the Internet instead: Skype calls are vastly cheaper or even free, and you can use a laptop or smartphone to place them, too, thus avoiding those exorbitant per-minute rates.
Depending on how far your travels take you, you’re likely to have more trouble keeping your gear powered up than you are getting a cell phone signal. Many developing nations have quite robust cell systems, as in many areas there are no landlines at all. Charge your phone and laptop whenever you can: If power is available, take advantage of it, since it might not work at all at the next stop, and buy yourself a bit of insurance by staying at hotels with backup generators whenever you can.
These tips should get you most of the way to a safe and reliable trip. Now check out the gadget guide below for the rest of the equation.
JayBird Freedom Headset; $99
Using Skype to make phone calls is a great way to save money, but you can’t exactly sit in the hotel lobby screaming into your laptop. JayBird’s Freedom doubles as both a set of snug earbuds and a Bluetooth headset, with high-grade construction, a sealed design that keeps out dirt, sweat and other schmutz, and six hours of active-use battery life per charge. Three sizes of uniquely designed ear cushions ensure you get a great fit.
Voltaic Generator Solar Laptop Charger; $459
If your travels are really taking you to the back of beyond, power can become a monstrously troubling problem. One solution that will generally work anywhere: solar. Voltaic’s briefcase packs a wall of photovoltaic cells that can produce up to 15 watts of power in full sun. That’s not nearly enough to fully power your laptop, but it’s good enough to give you a couple of hours of running time after a day in the light, and it’s more than plenty to keep your cell phone or tablet up and running all day. The price and, frankly, the laboratory-grade looks make it a bit of a last resort, however.
Targus Retractable Ethernet, Phone and USB Cable; $32
Wi-Fi isn’t everywhere, so prepare yourself for any eventuality by bringing along a wired backup. Targus’s retractable cable system puts an Ethernet and telephone cable, plus a handy USB connector, into one damage-resistant shell. You remember your modem, right? Assuming your laptop still has one (many manufacturers ditched modems years ago) and you can find a landline, services like MyTravelAccess give you cheap dial-up access from dozens of countries. Remember: Get set up before your trip.
iSafe Laptop Messenger Bag; $40
Keep your eyes on your luggage all you want: That won’t stop a hood from snatching your satchel and making a break for a twisty alley, quickly leaving you behind. iSafe’s ripstop nylon Laptop Messenger Bag packs a secret alarm inside: Just pull the hidden rip cord when danger lurks, and the bag’s battery-powered alarm erupts. The alarm can run for up to two hours on a pair of 9-volts, giving any thief a massive scare. Even better: It’s cheap enough not to make a dent on your expense report.
Kensington International Travel Plug Adapter with USB Charger; $30
Incompatible power grids aren’t going away any time soon, and you’re sure to require an international converter no matter where you’re headed. Kensington’s adapter puts 150 countries’ worth of connectors into a single, ultra-portable device, and integrates a bonus USB plug so you can connect your phone directly and leave its uselessly American USB-to-AC converter behind.
Christopher Null has been a technology journalist for 20 years. He was the founding editor of Mobile PC magazine and has written about technology for outlets such as Yahoo!, Wired and PC World. No slouch under the hood of a PC, he assembled a computer in seven minutes when competing in the TigerDirect Charity PC Race at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.