Tech takes a holiday

Whether you're headed to Bali or Belgium, a good holiday can become a great one with the addition of a few tech items to your suitcase. Here's how to tech yourself to paradise in a few easy steps.

Whether you're headed to Bali or Belgium, a good holiday can become a great one with the addition of a few tech items to your suitcase. Here's how to tech yourself to paradise in a few easy steps.

The countdown

So you've shelled out for the ticket and saved like mad, and you're counting down the days until you can flee your grey-tinged existence to embark upon the adventure of a lifetime. Before bidding farewell to your nearest and dearest over several pints of ale, you'll need to get your packing list sorted.

Should it stay or should it go?
Being gadget enthusiasts, we salivate over the notion of carting a full-blown arsenal of tech toys on our travels. However, if you'll be trekking in the Himalayas accompanied by only a backpack and a desire for self-discovery, you won't want to be doing so with a hefty laptop in tow.

What to pack depends on a number of factors: where you're headed, how long you'll be away for and how addicted you are to Facebook, Twitter or obsessively checking email. Then there's the cost considerations — for example, communication with the folks back home can cost a pretty penny when you're roaming via your home mobile network.

Here's our breakdown of what is essential and what should be left behind. This list is geared more towards your intrepid traveller than a businessperson who'll be getting cushy in five-star hotels, but even those seated at the pointy end of the plane could benefit from a little simplification.

The essentials
Digital camera
A definite travel staple; how else will you bore people to death with slideshows upon your return? Just make sure you load up on memory cards, or upload your pics frequently — you don't want to run out of room at a crucial moment, or, worse, lose the memories if your cam is lost or stolen.

To capture landscape snaps that you'll want to frame, swot up on our travel photography tips before you depart.

Mobile phone
It doesn't matter whether you roam from home or buy a dirt-cheap prepaid handset at your destination — just make sure you have a phone. It's a communication device, it's a contact database for all of the new and interesting people you'll meet and its alarm function will ensure you don't miss your flight back home.

If you're going continent hopping, you'll want it to be quad band. If you plan to stay put for a while, prepaid is the go.

For more on phone options, read on to the Phones: should you roam? page.

MP3 player with video playback
These babies are indispensable for those times when you're stranded in transit and bored out of your skull. If you nab a model that supports MTP data transfer, you can back-up your photos and store digital versions of important documents.

The iPod Touch is an excellent choice for travellers. It's very thin, it has a luscious screen for video and the inclusion of Google maps, a calendar, a web browser and Wi-Fi make it an all-round winner.

Multitasking devices
If you're not a fan of packing multiple devices that will also need separate chargers and/or batteries, then consider a smartphone that can do all of what we listed above and more.

Smartphones have GPS capability, so you can avoid getting lost in the maze that is Venice, a digital camera to snap those memorable moments, go surfing in the virtual world that is the web, play games when your flight has been delayed and, depending on what apps you have installed on your phone, it can be a torch to light your path in a dark dorm room, be your guide book and so much more.

There are, however, a number of downfalls. One is that they will consume battery life if you use all of the phone's features, so it won't be suitable if you're trekking in the Himalayas. On average, a phone will need to be charged every night if you use it as an MP3 player, making calls and surfing the web. Secondly, you're limited to your phone's storage, without much hope of simply swapping the memory card when you run out of room.

(Credit: CNET Australia)

Travel treats
Itty-bitty speakers
Your MP3 player allows you to stay entertained, but what if you meet a bunch of raucous Swedish backpackers and need to have an instant party in room 304 of Backpacker Palace? A set of battery-powered speakers will allow you to pump up the jam and dance until dawn. Or at least until you're forcibly removed from the premises following noise complaints, and told to never return.

While some MP3 players, such as the iPod Touch, have built-in speakers, sound quality is pretty shonky. Owners of a music player will be well served by X-mini's Max v1.1 Capsule Speaker, a compact, egg-shaped speaker with an in-built battery that is charged via USB.

A combo USB key/card reader
These nifty little USB devices have a slot on the side that accepts multiple memory card types. Pack one and you'll be able to drop into an internet cafe, plug it into a PC and upload a slew of photos to sites like Facebook, Flickr and Picasa, just to name a few.

A combo solar charger
A solar charger will give all of your electronic devices some much-needed juice, and will come in handy no matter where you are, such as Wireless Power Starter Kit. Unless, of course, you're travelling to a country that only gets the midnight sun, such as Svalbard, Norway, for a number of months.

Solar chargers will be especially handy to those who plan to travel where there will be no power source at hand. The Backpack Solar Panel may come in handy to hikers and campers: it can be attached to your backpack, and it generates 6 volts of electricity, so it can charge most electronic devices as you traverse the wilderness.

Universal charger
These days, we have a device for just about everything, and having to remember to pack each charger does weigh down your luggage. There are numerous chargers out there that will charge via USB or AC outlet for your phone, tablet, laptop, camera — you name it.

Think twice
Before you add your laptop and bulky charger to the packing list, take a moment to assess whether you'll really need it. Granted, a notebook can be handy for storing holiday snaps, composing those poetic travel blog posts and taking advantage of free hotel Wi-Fi in those early hours of jetlag-induced insomnia. But consider the practicalities.

If you pack your lappy in your carry-on bag, you'll need to remove it at every airport security checkpoint for x-ray scanning. It will add a few kilos to your luggage, which may be the difference between a full suitcase and a few hundred dollars in excess baggage-weight fees when you finally head home. Then there's the security issue — holidays are for relaxing, which is hard to do when you're worrying whether your hardware will get nicked.

If you simply cannot live without a computer, consider investing in a netbook or tablet for your travels. These are compact, feather-light and in some cases much cheaper than a full-sized notebook. If you get a solid-state version rather than a hard-drive one, you'll also reduce the risk of losing your data should any blunt trauma occur.

If you still find it hard to decide, then read our feature on Tablet or netbook?

Some may see this as a controversial choice — in the age of YouTube, surely you'd want to shoot a bunch of footage and edit it into a scintillating visual diary upon your return? Well, maybe, but one downside of being a cam-toting traveller is that you tend to spend your holiday seeing the sights via an LCD screen, instead of with your own sparkling eyes.

If you feel you can resist the temptation to film everything — thereby missing out on a proper travel experience — then by all means pack the camcorder. If you're looking to save space, Sony's Bloggie Duo is a minuscule camcorder that allows you to easily record scenery and yourself in 720p resolution. The downer is that it it's fine to view in small sizes, like a computer screen, but not good on a large HDTV. For more camcorder options, have a look at our selection of the best pocket camcorders.

Of course, the vast majority of still cameras are capable of capturing video, so you can always record a short clip on your digicam if you suddenly find yourself in a scene that must be recorded to be believed. The Olympus XZ-1 and Canon PowerShot S95 are some examples of compact cameras that can capture video in high definition. For more serious photographers who prefer dSLRS, there are the Canon EOS 600D and the Nikon D7000, which can record in full HD video (1080p).

Next page: leaving on a jet plane >

Leaving on a jet plane

It's a truly noxious feeling: you are roused from a perilous upright slumber by a wayward drinks cart bashing into your elbow on its way to row 24 of economy. Shivering in your scratchy blanket, you wipe the drool from your chin and glance at the flickering screen on the seat back in front of you. Flight time remaining: six hours, 23 minutes. Welcome to long-haul hell.

Surviving this airborne Hades requires careful preparation. You will need to provide your own entertainment. In-flight multimedia offerings may have come a long way, but the plane trip when you forget your MP3 player will be the trip when your personal TV malfunctions, leaving you to spend 13 hours amusing yourself with puppets fashioned from the tinfoil lid of your inedible dinner.

Here are the entertainment essentials to get you through the arduous journey.

1. Noise-cancelling headphones

Bose headphones
(Credit: Bose)

Nabbing a pair of these babies and plonking them on your noggin is the best way of separating yourself from quotidian reality without enforcing cranked-up music upon others.

They don't have to cost you a mint — while Monster Beats by Dr Dre Studio are a hefty AU$499, the Bose AE2 headphones are almost as good for half the price.

Those precious-but-irritating-as-all-get-out squealing infants who seem to be present on every flight to London/LA/Singapore? Seal yourself in your headphone cocoon, and the little blighters disappear off your annoyance radar. You can even drift off to sleep to the soft strains of Vivaldi, sans the background engine noise. And for skittish flyers who interpret every mechanical noise as a sign of impending death by airborne inferno, you can sit back quietly quaffing Shiraz, because you won't be hearing those clunks and whirs anymore.

For a list of good options, take a look at our guide to noise-cancelling headphones.

2. A smartphone

(Credit: Apple, Samsung, HTC)

A smartphone is a great all-in-one device; it's an MP3 player, a video player, a gaming machine and a miniature computer. One important factor is to make sure its battery life can withstand multi-leg air journeys and unforeseen delays.

No matter where you're travelling, be sure that your smartphone has quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) support in GSM phones and dual-mode functionality in CDMA models for true world roaming. It wouldn't be a lot of fun to find out that your smartphone has just turned into a tiny slate, as you won't be able to make any phone calls. If that's what you'd really want, then we'd recommend Apple's iPod Touch (2011), which is like the iPhone, but without a carrier contract or a monthly bill.

The Apple iPhone 4S is a winner in the battery department, as is the BlackBerry Bold 9900.

3. A swag of podcasts

(Credit: Lonely Planet)

A great way to get revved up for your adventures and kill time mid flight is to read guidebooks on your destination. The teched-up version of this time-honoured practice? Watching and listening to travel podcasts, and scrolling through city guides on your iPod. Or even reading up on your destination with your tablet, smartphone or e-reader.

To find a podcast about your destination, try browsing through the Places & Travel category (found within Society & Culture) in the podcast section of the iTunes Store, or searching for the name of the city. Beware, though; if you're heading to Paris, you'll get a heap of Ms Hilton's musical mediocrity in your search results.

If you own an iPod Touch, check out the Travel section of the iTunes App Store. You'll find goodies like language phrasebooks, currency converters and European train timetables.

To find more audio books, check out our favourite sources in "Where to get audio books".

4. A library of ebooks

(Credit: Sony, Apple)

E-readers have been on the market for a number of years now, which means that there's quite a selection of ebooks to choose from.

Depending on your e-reader and the file format it uses, you can download as many or as little books as you like (depending on your budget, of course). You no longer have to heft that sappy romance, whodunnit murder mystery or even travel guide books from destination to destination. Check out our list of websites that you can download from.

Don't own an e-reader, but would like to purchase one before you leave home? There are e-readers from Amazon, Sony, iRiver and Kogan, just to name a few, but to make things easy for you, here is our round up of the best e-readers that we've come across.

Don't own an e-reader and have no desire to lug around yet another gadget? Well, if you have a smartphone, then there are quite a number of apps for e-reading. Just don't forget to put your phone in Airplane mode before take-off.

Next page: phones: should you roam? >

Phones: should you roam?

Phoning home
As far as mobile-phone communication is concerned, there are three options: take your own phone, and roam on your Australian network; take your handset, but buy a new SIM card; or pick up a prepaid phone pack at your destination. Here are a few things to consider when deciding which one suits you:

How popular are you?
If you receive a high volume of important calls on your mobile — perhaps you run your own business, or maybe you're just achingly popular — it might be worth choosing international roaming. With this option, you keep your number, and you won't need to spam every name in your email contacts list with a last-minute "my Australian number won't be reachable, but I will send you an email when I arrive advising you of my new number. Please add that one to your phonebook. Oh, did I mention I'll be out of the country for the next month?"

Who will you be contacting?
If you'll mostly be using your phone to keep in touch with the friends whose couch you're crashing on or that saucy bartender you met on Friday night, prepaid's the go. Choose a phone from the same provider as your pals, and you'll probably get cut-price call rates to boot.

Will you be country-hopping?
If you'll be crossing borders on a weekly basis, consider a multi-country prepaid SIM card, such as TravelSIM. Cards can be purchased online for $49.95, and come with $5 credit. Top-ups in $25, $50, $100 and $200 denominations are also available. Research the calling rates for each country using the online tool.

If you're going to be staying in the same country for a while, it makes sense to pick up a prepaid SIM — or a SIM-and-phone pack — in that country. These can be nabbed for cheap as chips from a range of providers.

Travel tech

To roam from home, you'll need to ensure that your phone is compatible with the networks at your destination. Of the four GSM bands — 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 — only 850 and 1900 are used in the United States. Europe, on the other hand, only uses 900 and 1800. So, in order to have a true world phone that will work in the most countries possible, make sure your phone is tri band (GSM 900/1800/1900) or quad band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900). Your handset's bands are readily available from your carrier or the handset's manufacturer.

Be advised that just because GSM is used in your destination, and you have the correct phone, that doesn't mean that your mobile phone will operate without a hitch. To begin with, you'll need to have your phone activated for international roaming, so check with your carrier. Also, your carrier must have a roaming agreement with a carrier in each country on your itinerary. Although that won't be a problem for most travellers, roaming agreements vary by carrier, so it's absolutely essential that you check beforehand.

For information on your particular carrier, visit the roaming pages for Optus, Telstra, 3, Virgin or Vodafone.

Finally, when using your phone abroad, remember these additional points:

  • The method for making local calls in each country will vary, so make sure you know how to do so. Also, remember that emergency-dial numbers will be different from 000; 112 is the international emergency number for GSM networks in Europe
  • When in a foreign country, you will have to use the appropriate country and area codes for calls back to Australia or a third country
  • Your phone should automatically search for and select a network in each country, but you may have to do this yourself through your phone's menus. You also can try turning your phone off and on again
  • When calling a mobile phone number back home, don't forget to drop the zero and add the country code; eg, if the number is 0400 123 456 and they're based in Australia, then you should enter +61 400 123 456
  • Free mobile-to-mobile minutes on the same carrier are usually not offered outside of Australia
  • When roaming, the name of the local carrier will appear on your phone's display
  • Roaming charges will show up on your normal bill, although they may take several weeks to do so
  • Not all data features will work the same way when you're abroad
  • Don't forget an electrical-plug converter for your charger.

Kent German from CNET contributed to this report.

Next page: net gains >

Net gains

Ahh, the travel email. That multi-page beast in which you inform every single person in your address book of every minute detail of your trip.

If you've decided to travel with a laptop, and prefer a bit more control over your internet access — typing in banking passwords at a public net cafe computer can feel a little dicey — there are a few options for accessing your Australian internet account from abroad. Just be prepared to pay for the privilege (read our How to avoid a pricey data roaming bill article, which has some simple and easy-to-do tips to avoid getting bill shock).

First option: use your mobile or a 3G/HSDPA data card for your laptop from a provider like Vodafone, 3, Optus or BigPond. The downer is that the download speeds, cost and availability of international roaming partners vary wildly. If you thought it was expensive to phone home, wait until you see the cost of checking your email on your handset. Charges depend on the carrier, but you're looking at around $10 to $30 per megabyte in order to data roam via your Australian telco. If that's not enough to turn you puce, consider this: there are few countries in which you can roam at 3G speeds. For the most part, you're stuck with GPRS.

If you're a frequent visitor to Asia, Optus has a cheaper option for you. The telco offers two subscription-based DataRoam plans, costing AU$40 per month for 15MB, or AU$80 for 40MB. Keep an eye on your excess usage, though — AU$15.36 will be siphoned from your pocket for every additional megabyte that you download.

For more on international data charges, have a look at the Optus, Telstra, 3 and Vodafone websites.

Look, a cybercafe! Facebook time!(Credit: CNET Australia)

Some useful links for more info on international roaming using mobile broadband:

Second option: remote access to your Australian internet account. BigPond offers global roaming at dial-up speeds using a roaming service called iPassConnect. Basically, you sign up to BigPond, install some software and can then access the internet via your Australian account when overseas. Cost is $8 per hour. Of course, you'll need to plug in your laptop to a phone line, so it's not exactly mobile. There's more information on BigPond's global-roaming page.

A third option is to rent a wireless card for your laptop and/or tablet that operates on one of the networks at your destination. This can be cheaper than global roaming if you're a net addict.

Tep offers a portable 3G/Wi-Fi device called pocket Wi-Fi for laptops, tablets and smartphones for use in the UK and Europe at local roaming charges. While Tep doesn't deliver the device to Australia, it will deliver it to where you'll be staying (hotels, office or residence) before you arrive, or have it ready for pick up at UK airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted arrival terminals). The device can be shared between five devices, with the starting price of £34.95 (AU$54) for 50MB or £49.50 (AU$76) for 100MB. Pricing varies depending on which country you plan on using Tep's pocket Wi-Fi in, with the option to choose multi countries. Once you're done with the device, simply mail it back to Tep in the supplied prepaid envelope.

Droam is another option, which can be used in a wider selection of countries (Australia, Cambodia, China, Dubai, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Kuwait, Namibia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and the US). You can see Droam's price list and coverage here (PDF).