World Powers Demystified: A Primer on Using Electronics and Gadgets Overseas

6/8/17 by Matt Wastradowski

In seemingly infinite ways, new technology helps make our lives easier—especially when we’re traveling. We use apps like Skype and WhatsApp to message with friends around the world, take magazine-quality photos with our phones, and access a library’s worth of books on a long flight overseas.

Yet, for all their benefits, these devices and gadgets can create a new set of problems when traveling overseas. Will you overload the circuit while charging—and blow out your entire hotel floor in the process? What if your phone’s battery dies while you’re on a backcountry hike and things go awry? And what to do if, weeks after you’re home, you receive an astronomical bill for roaming charge you had no idea you were racking up as you ate and drank your way through Italy?

The next time you travel abroad, keep these tips in mind for packing the right gear, extending battery life, and navigating your cell phone provider’s byzantine roaming policies.

Pack the Right Gear

Make sure to pack the right chargers and adapters, which may not be available in your destination.
Make sure to pack the right chargers and adapters, which may not be available in your destination. Mahela Munasinghe

If you’re heading out of North America, you’ll want to start with a universal adapter. These plugs convert the power outlet to charge your basic gadgets. They don’t generally convert the output current and voltage, so while your phones and tablets are safe, hair dryers and shavers might wreak havoc on your hotel’s electrical system. You can generally find basic adapters for $10 and under on Amazon, but more advanced adapters can run $25 and up.

If you visit a country where an adapter *isn’t *required (most likely in North America), consider a wall plug with multiple USB ports. Many portable wall plugs accommodate two or more USB ports for simultaneous charging, and most cost $20 or less.

If you’re trying to use high-powered gear outside of North America, get a voltage converter or transformer. These devices change the electricity voltage to match your device (most commonly hair dryers, shavers, and medical devices). When in doubt, consult with the item’s label to determine whether a voltage converter or transformer is necessary.

No matter where you go, don’t forget spare cords for charging in your room or plugging into the rental car. All the adapters in the world won’t bring your phone back to life if you left your cords at home—and depending on where you are, you may not be able to purchase a replacement.

Never Drain Your Battery

Keep that battery charged when traveling. 
Keep that battery charged when traveling. rawpixel.com

But what happens if you *do *forget your cords at home? You’re in luck: Over the past few years, an entire cottage industry has sprouted up around keeping phones and tablets humming on the road. Here, a few handy items for preserving battery life while traveling:

  • Portable solar chargers rely on sunlight to store energy, which can then charge your devices. Most are no larger or heavier than a paperback book, and popular features include hooks (which attach to your backpack to charge throughout the day), support for simultaneous charging on multiple devices, and water-resistant designs.

  • Plan ahead, and a portable battery pack can provide a quick boost of power when your phone or tablet needs it the most. Power it up through a wall charger ahead of time, and pack it along when you’re ready to hit the road; if your device’s battery runs low, simply plug it into the pack for a quick charge. Most portable battery packs will charge your device once or twice over and cost less than $20, but larger packs will keep your device running your whole trip. Even better: Many chargers are the size of a highlighter pen or wallet, so you’ll barely notice the extra weight.

  • You can also find backpacks, suitcases, and laptop bags that charge your device while you travel. They might seem like something from "Shark Tank" at first glance, but you’ll love having them when hustling between locales.

  • When all else fails, activate your phone’s battery saver mode. iPhone and Android users alike can activate the setting that might pause automatic downloads, reduce the number of visual effects, shorten the Auto-Lock time, and stop or slow background app refreshes, all of which preserves precious battery life.

Keep Your Cell Phone Bills Under Control

With a little planning ahead, you can avoid coming home with a massive cell phone bill.
With a little planning ahead, you can avoid coming home with a massive cell phone bill. Jonathan Denney

No one wants to return home to exorbitant cell phone bills. Here’s how to keep costs under control on the road.

  • Use messaging apps in lieu of standard voice and SMS communication. Skype is a popular messaging app for travelers, thanks to its cheap rates (international calls cost a few cents per minute) and capability for text, video, and voice messaging. WhatsApp is another popular app, with its heightened security and support for text, voice, and video. Whatever you do, make sure you’re using these apps only when connected to WiFi.

  • Check with your cell service provider about international service plans to save a chunk of change. You don’t want to get hit with outrageous overages, and your cell phone company doesn’t want you to hate their service. Find common ground with your cell provider’s international plan. Some offer limited coverage in Mexico and Canada, while other plans feature extensive coverage worldwide. You might pay a bit more, but it’ll be far less than out-of-control roaming charges.

  • Don’t forget to deactivate the "roaming" settings on your smartphone. Don’t end your spectacular trip by coming home to a sky-high phone bill.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.