Each year, I spend more time than I'd care to think about on the road, typically spending a total of at least six weeks in hotel rooms, conference centers, and friends' homes. And airports. Lots of airports.
Even if you're not a frequent business traveler, chances are you spend a fair amount of time away from the comforts of your home and office. That's especially true during the holidays when going home to visit friends and families sometimes involves weather-related delays that can keep you on the road for longer than you expect.
Under those conditions, technology isn't just a convenience, it's a lifeline. Your smartphone is a scheduler, a vault for e-tickets and boarding passes, a GPS with up-to-date maps and turn-by-turn navigation, a portal for email and text messages, and (oh, right!) a voice communication device. It's also a camera, a music player, a source of instant news, and an on-demand miniature gaming console.
Add a laptop or tablet to keep work-related demands under control, and throw in a USB-powered streaming device to remain entertained during periods of downtime, and you've almost got everything covered.
But none of those activities are possible if you left a device at home, or if you forgot an essential cable or charger for one of the devices you remembered to bring.
Which is why I've put together a checklist to make sure I don't leave home without all of the tech-related tools I need. In the rest of this post, I offer a more detailed explanation of what's in my carry-on bag. The collection of devices includes at least one smartphone, a laptop or tablet (or both).
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This category is, without a doubt, the one that induces the most anxiety. If you've ever left home without a charger for one or more of your devices, you know exactly what I am talking about.
The widespread adoption of USB Type-C has been enormously helpful in consolidating accessories. That's especially obvious when it comes to chargers of all shapes and sizes. I have an assortment of Windows laptops and a MacBook Pro here in my office, and they all support the USB Type-C Power Delivery standard, which means I can replace an unwieldy power brick with a more elegant multi-purpose charger.
Here's what I carry:
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Small charger (USB Type-C, 18W)
I keep a small, light charger in my everyday bag, so it's always handy. The one I'm using came with a Google Pixel 3 originally; I could also use the charger included with an iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max, which has the same specs. Just avoid using the tiny 5W adapters that Apple included with phones like my iPhone XS, unless you like taking a few extra hours every time you charge your phone; the 12W adapters that came with older iPad Pros are acceptable but also worth upgrading.
Laptop charger (USB Type-C, 45W or more)
Depending on the logistics of a trip, I have a choice of laptop chargers.
The Mu One international charger (£60 from the UK-based manufacturer or $70 at Amazon) delivers 45W to a single USB Type-C port, which is enough for any smartphone or tablet and will charge all but the most powerful laptops. It is ridiculously thin and light and fits neatly in the side pocket of my laptop sleeve. It's also packed with smart technology and comes with clever snap-on folding adapters for US, UK, and European outlets. A version due next year will include two Type-C ports.
When I know I'll be at the same desk or workspace for several days, I bring a USB Type-C travel charger with one 60W Type-C PD port and three Type-A ports capable of delivering a total of 12W of power. It's about the size of a deck of playing cards. I paid $25 at Amazon for the RND device I'm using, but you can find similar devices from a wide range of manufacturers.
Cables, cables, cables!
It isn't enough just to have the right number of charging/syncing cables. You also need to ensure that you have the right combination of connectors. If you've got a charger that requires a Type-C input and an iPhone that includes a Lightning connector, your old Type-A-to-Lightning cable will be useless.
Spend some time choosing the right length for each cable, too; around my home and office, I use three-foot cables that allow freedom of movement, but on the road, I prefer shorter cables that take up less bulk. Oh, and don't forget any necessary adapters.
I have these cables in my travel bag at all times, so I can just grab the bag and go:
- USB Type-C to USB Type-C, for connecting to a laptop, iPad Pro, or an Android phone like the Google Pixel or Samsung Galaxy models; be sure to get a PD-certified cable for use with a laptop
- USB Type-C to Lightning, because Apple still hasn't given up on this connector for the iPhone
- USB Type-A to Lightning, for charging an iPhone in a rental car
- USB Type-A to Micro-USB, for devices like my Bose QC35 noise-canceling headphones
- USB-A to USB-C adapters, in both directions, for those times when you need plug to a Type-A connector into a Type-C outlet
Portable battery pack
I have tried a bunch of portable battery solutions over the year and my favorite is the 9,000 mAh Nomad PowerPack (shown here). At $120, it's pricey, but it's compact and does everything I need, with one fast-charging USB Type-C port capable of delivering up to 24W, and one 5V/2.4A USB Type-A port. I'm able to recharge an iPhone XS up to three times without ever touching a wall outlet. It also includes built-in Tile support, which allows you to find the battery pack if it goes missing.
Small power strip
Even a very compact power strip adds too much weight to make sense in a backpack or shoulder bag, but I sometimes throw one into my big bag, especially if I'm staying in an older private home where power outlets in the guest room are hard to find.
World travel no longer requires a graduate degree in electrical engineering. Virtually every modern device has a power supply that can deal with inputs of 110V (U.S.) and 240V (most of the rest of the world). Just get the right plug adapter and you're good to go.
- International plug adapters: If you're traveling to foreign lands and your charger supports international power standards, you'll need a small adapter to allow your plug to work with a foreign outlet. From painful experience, I can tell you these cost about 10 times as much in an airport shop as they do if you remember to order them locally before you leave.
- Grounded plug adapter: I always keep one of these gizmos handy for those increasingly rare occasions when I have a grounded plug but the only available outlet is ungrounded.
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Laptops are pretty much self-contained, but it's sometimes helpful to have a few small extras.
A USB flash drive (or a compact external drive) comes in handy for those occasions when you need to quickly transfer files between two computers. I usually keep a couple of flash drives in my traveling bag just in case.
If you're traveling to a place where someone might ask for support for their Windows PC, consider bringing along a Windows recovery drive with the latest Windows 10 installation files. You'll find detailed instructions in my "Windows 10 tip: Create a recovery drive."
Trackpads are all well and good, but if you're going to be sitting at a strange desk for any length of time you might appreciate having a real mouse instead. I have an Arc Touch Mouse ($60) that connects over Bluetooth; its defining feature is that it's almost completely flat when it snaps shut, so it fits unobtrusively in the pocket of my laptop sleeve.
This is the one that trips me up every time and finally inspired me to create this checklist. I go to a few technical conferences every year and as often as not the Wi-Fi degrades to the point where communication is impossible. Fortunately, the conference organizers frequently supply wired Ethernet connections. All I need is a USB Ethernet adapter. You know, the one I forgot to bring.
You can find any number of cheap (under $20) USB adapters (Type-A or Type-C) at Amazon and other online merchants. You'll pay slightly more for a multifunction device that also includes an HDMI adapter and an extra USB Type-A port. I have a Dell DA200 adapter that's compact and works well, but I'd suggest shopping around rather than paying the $65 list price.
That same wired adapter also comes in handy if you're visiting friends or family and need to help troubleshoot or configure a wireless router or access point. That's also an occasion where it's worth packing an Ethernet cable; for most business trips, the cable is optional and a waste of space.
Travel isn't all about productivity. Sometimes you need a distraction or just a way to drown out a noisy environment.
I typically travel with two pairs of headphones: the old but reliable Bose QC35 noise-canceling over-the-ears model, which are essential for long flights; and a small set of Klipsch earbuds that I keep in the pocket of my laptop case for times when I need to watch a video or make call without annoying the neighbors. Oh, and don't forget the little dongle that converts the 3.5mm plug on most headphones to the Lightning or USB Type-C jack on your phone or tablet.
HDMI adapter and cable
Modern laptops typically don't include a dedicated HDMI connection. If you suspect you might want to connect your PC to a nearby TV, you'll need the appropriate adapter. You'll also need to bring your own HDMI cable, which can add considerable bulk and weight to your carry-on bag.
Streaming media adapter
The much-preferred alternative to a direct laptop connection is a simple adapter that plugs into an unused HDMI port and allows you to stream content directly. For a recent trip to Europe, I packed an old Amazon Fire Stick, which gave me access to Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and a variety of other services. It worked flawlessly in every hotel we stayed at. Don't forget to pack the companion remote and the small USB charger that powers the adapter.
That's my list. Is there a must-have accessory in your travel bag that I didn't include? Leave a note in the comments or use the contact form to send me a private note via e-mail with your suggestions.