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Testing: Traveling Abroad without a Laptop

By Nathan Edwards

I just got back from a two-week trip to France, and tried only bringing my essential tech gear. That meant traveling, as a freelance writer, without a laptop.

I just got back from a two-week trip to France to see my wife's extended family. This is only my fourth time leaving the country and I've been working on paring down my travel gear to the essentials. The only thing worse than not having what you need is having a bunch of stuff you don't. This year I tried to travel as light as possible. I knew I should spend most of my time visiting family, not staring at a screen, but I also knew that two weeks without doing any sort of writing would drive me nuts.

Even trying to bring the bare minimum, I brought a bunch of stuff I didn't end up using. One Bag Travel people would laugh at me. But I did manage to travel without a laptop for the first time. If you can manage, I highly recommend it. You'll save a lot of weight and volume and most of the things you use a laptop for can now be done with a smartphone or tablet.

Before getting into the specific gear I brought (and what I'd leave behind next year), let's talk about what I consider to be the travel essentials: power and data.

Power

The most important things you need are plug adapters, so your chargers can plug into the local wall sockets. Most gadget and laptop chargers these days can handle voltages from 100-240V, so for most places you'll only need a plug adapter, not a voltage converter. Make sure you have plug adapters for every country you'll be visiting. Since I was only going to France, I bought a three-pack of the Wirecutter's recommended plug adapters for that country.

Other electronics, like electric razors, hair dryers, and curling irons will require a voltage adapter as well as a plug converter. We took one but didn't end up using it, so it'll stay home next year.

I love the microUSB standard. Since all the electronics I brought with me charge via microUSB, I skated by with three microUSB cables, one Moto X charger (with two USB ports) and the 2A charger from the OnePlus One I've been testing. The dual-port charger was useful when my wife and I had to charge both of our phones during the night, and the 2A charger is better everywhere else. Devices that can handle higher amperages will charge faster, and those that can't won't fry.

We probably could have gotten away with just one 6,000mAh USB battery pack, with enough juice to recharge two phones at once.

Last on the power list is USB battery packs. Here we probably went overboard. In addition to my wife's 3000mAh Anker, I brought a 6000mAh Anker and a massive 14,000mAh RAVPower charger for the long plane rides. This was overkill, given our frequent proximity to power outlets. We probably could have gotten away with just the 6,000mAh one--it has enough juice to recharge both of our phones once.

Data

Wi-Fi is universal, and on previous years I skated by on public Wi-Fi, offline maps, and downloaded TripAdvisor guides. I didn't want to suffer the outrageous data roaming charges I'd have incurred from using my Verizon phone abroad. Your phone is still incredibly useful while traveling even if you don't have a data connection: as a camera, atlas, GPS, travel guide, and music player.

But it's better to have data. If you have an unlocked phone, all you need is a local prepaid SIM. If you bought your phone through a US carrier, you'll have to ask them to unlock it before you leave. As my colleague Geoff discovered, it's far cheaper to buy a SIM at your destination than to use a travel SIM or to use your carrier's international roaming.

If you're on T-Mobile's SimpleChoice plan, you don't even need to do that. That plan includes unlimited 2G data and SMS in 120 countries. I love this. It's worked like a charm in Canada, the UK, and France, and it really feels like magic. Albeit slow magic. 2G is better than nothing, but you'll never mistake it for 4G LTE. My phone just worked wherever I was, with no nasty phone bill surprises when I got home. Calls overseas are $.20/minute, but I was able to use Google Hangouts or Viber over Wi-Fi for my rare longish calls back to the US.

T-Mobile, by the way, works great with unlocked GSM phones like the Moto G, Moto X, Nexus 5, and OnePlus One. I can get a great phone for $300 and never sign another 2-year contract. I'm never going back to contract phones.

The Gear

Here's what I brought with me on my 18-day trip, and what I actually ended up using (not counting the battery packs and adapters discussed above):

Logitech K810 Bluetooth Keyboard

Photo credit: Flickr user mastermaq via Creative Commons.

I love this thing. Virtual keyboards are fine for short work, but I'm old enough that I prefer a real keyboard for anything longer than a couple of paragraphs. This one pairs with up to three devices via Bluetooth, charges via microUSB, and has comfortable, backlit keys. I used the keyboard to write most of this article. It's amazing how small a screen you can deal with as long as you have a real keyboard.

OnePlus One Smartphone and Charger

The OnePlus One was my most frequently used piece of tech of the whole trip, and the most essential.

I did not expect to love this phone as much as I do. I barely expected to like it. Like Norm, I managed to snag an invite to buy the OnePlus One, and I figured this trip would be a great opportunity to test it as my primary phone. I'm used to the Moto X, and the OnePlus One is so much larger that at first I couldn't imagine using it for more than a day. I took the SIM out of my Moto X two days before my trip and I didn't turn it on again until two days after I came back. The OnePlus One is huge, but I got used to it within a couple of days. The One is unlocked, so if I didn't already have a SIM that worked in France I'd be able to buy a local one. The hardware is blazing fast, I love the grippy sandstone feeling of the back, the CM11 software is snappy and smart, and the camera is pretty good for a phone.The screen on the One is large and high-res enough that I used the One instead of my tablet for writing this article. I paired my keyboard with the One, leaned it against my coffee cup, and went to work.

The OnePlus One was my most frequently used piece of tech of the whole trip, and the most essential.

Sony NEX-6 Camera

I got this on sale at Amazon and I used it about three times in four weeks. Once to take pictures of Camargue cowboys herding a bull through the streets, once to snap shots of a double rainbow (all the way across the sky!), and once for the end-of-trip family photo. I'm not in the habit of carrying a camera anymore, so next year I'll either leave it behind or get back in the habit. It certainly took better photos than the OnePlus One, when I remembered to use it. Because I traveled without a laptop (and Lightroom Mobile isn't yet available on Android), I couldn't edit my photos until I came back, which is probably for the best.

Depending on where you travel, it's probably better to use the camera on your phone, or a point-and-shoot, than to carry a fancy-looking camera with out.

Headphones

I used these on the plane. Essential. Everyone has their own favorite pair of headphones or earbuds, and it never hurts to pack a spare set of disposable earbuds in your jacket pocket (All the Apple earbuds I've accumulated over the years go into jackets -Norm). Also consider an airplane headphone adapter. They're cheap, tiny, and useful on the rare occasion you end up on a plane without a standard headphone jack.

Misc

I packed a USB SD card reader and a flash drive and didn't use either of them. They would have been handy for offloading photos from my camera using someone else's computer, but I didn't take nearly enough photos for that. Still, they don't take up much room, so I wouldn't leave them behind. I also packed a couple of pens and some notebooks, which I did use.

I also brought a SIM adapter, since my T-Mobile SIM is a nanoSIM and the OnePlus One takes micro.

What I Ended Up Not Using

Moto X and charger

This is my primary phone, and the one I expected to be using. It stayed off for the whole trip. At least I've gotten plenty of use out of the charger. Next time I'll only bring one phone.

2012 Nexus 7

I figured the Nexus 7, a Bluetooth keyboard, and Google Docs could replace a laptop for this trip. I was half right. I never actually used the tablet!

Conclusion

I'm a freelance writer, and even though I still wrote on my trip, traveling without a laptop felt like freedom. Conceptually I was able to accomplish most of the same tasks, but without a laptop I felt physically and mentally lighter. I certainly spent a lot less time staring at a screen.

I didn't bring a lot of tech on this trip, and I still overpacked. I'm still amazed at how good the OnePlus One is, and how quickly I got used to the size. A month ago I'd have told you that phablets are a stupid idea, but I'm a believer now. Next time I'm not just leaving the laptop behind; I'm leaving the tablet too. And the backup cell phone. And probably the camera. I'm keeping the keyboard, though. A person's gotta write.