Traveling overseas with electronics - easier than you might think

Not too long ago, traveling with electronic devices required a fair bit of pre-trip homework, advance preparation and maybe additional purchases. Today, it’s almost as simple as throwing your gear in a bag and heading for the airport.

Transform and adapt
In the not-too-distant past, taking things like travel irons, hair dryers, electric razors -- and more recently, cell phones – when traveling to a country outside North America required, at a minimum, carrying adapters so you could plug in your appliances at your destination. If the electricity voltage at your destination was outside the narrow range of the 110/120 volt, 60-cycle current that is the standard in the U.S. and Canada, you’d also need to purchase and carry voltage transformers.

Voltage converter and adapters
Photo courtesy Bombay Electronics
Yes, the plural is intentional; often, it meant carrying more than one. Transformers came in two sizes: one for small items like razors, cell phone chargers and electric toothbrushes that used less than about 50 watts, and larger, heavier versions that could accommodate about 1,600 watts for higher wattage electrical devices like hair dryers. As such, one’s travel kit could conceivably include three or four adapter plugs and two transformers. And that’s without the electronics themselves.

Today, even more modestly priced hotels provide hair dryers and irons for their guests, so there’s no longer a need to pack those items. Other small electronics, like the ShaveTech electric razor that TheTravelPro reviewed, are easily packed and can be charged using the USB port of one’s laptop computer.

Current technology has, in most cases, rendered voltage transformers unnecessary. The “power blocks” or chargers for the computers, tablets, cell phones and other electronic devices can handle much broader voltage ranges than older electrical equipment. For example, the power block for my laptop, the AC/USB plugs for my tablet and cell phone, and the chargers for my cameras’ batteries can accommodate “input” voltage ranging from 100 to 240 volts, and from 50-60 Hz (hertz, or cycles per second), meaning they can be used virtually anywhere in the world that has electricity.

Universal plug
at lower left
International travelers might still need adapter plugs, but even that is no longer a given. Depending on where you’re traveling and how upmarket your transportation and accommodations, you may find the power outlet at your seat or at the in-room desk is a “universal” model, designed to accept plugs from around the world, as in the photo of the power panel aboard an American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) 777-300ER.

If you plan to carry adapter plugs just to keep your options open, even they have become more convenient. Computer accessory company Kensington offers international travel plug adapters with and without USB ports. These all-in-one devices can replace the multiple adapters travelers had to carry previously. Finally, adapter plugs are now available in the luggage section of any decent department store; many discount outlets like Ross, Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx; travel agencies and many AAA offices. No longer are they specialty items.

Lightening our load
Mobile hot spot
Counter to what you might think, however, our load hasn’t been lightened all that much, if at all. While we may no longer be toting around travel irons, hair dryers and transformers, virtually everyone has a cell phone and charger. Many of us carry a laptop, tablet, or both. Many people also carry cameras, and I will be bringing a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot on my upcoming trip to Poland. This device was loaned to me by Cellhire USA, a company that rents smart phones and other electronics for travelers, so that I could use and evaluate its performance.

So, while our luggage may not be the least bit lighter, at least we no longer have to worry about plugging a 110/120-volt appliance into a 220/240-volt outlet and frying the device – and maybe ourselves in the process. Progress can indeed be a wonderful thing.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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