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|| News Item: Posted 2007-02-27

Batteries Not Included: Staying connected across the pond
By Zach Honig, University of Missouri

Photo by

Kensington Travel Plug Adapter with USB Charger 33346
I like to travel a lot. In fact, at this very moment I'm sitting in a smoking lounge at the Manchester Airport in the middle of a 4-hour layover on my way to Lyon, France. The room is so full of second-hand smoke that my first instinct was to look for a fire. As I look around the room, I count at least 20 cigarettes. I've never smoked myself, so what could have inspired me to spend these few hours surrounded by Dunhills?

Considering the increasing popularity of portable computers, wall outlets are surprisingly difficult to come by at most of the airports I've visited. To add insult to injury, my US household plug could never fit into the inverted-T UK style outlet that my temporary home has to offer, although the power adaptor on my MacBook Pro continues to glow amber.

If you've never left your country of residence, you might be surprised to learn that you probably need an adaptor to use your devices abroad. Don't fret though; international power adaptors are usually available for purchase in airports all over the world, so even if you've left home without one you should be able to keep your gear running overseas.

Devices designed for use in the United States operate on 110-120V while most countries use 220-240V. With most electronic devices today, however, this isn't an issue. If you're using a device with a power adaptor (notebook computer, cell phone, camera, etc.), chances are it's compatible with 100-240V power systems. If in doubt as to whether the device can handle multiple input voltages, its capabilities should be listed somewhere on the device or power adaptor. All you'll likely need is a standard international power adaptor.

This is where things get a bit confusing. There's a significant difference between power adaptors and power converters. The latter alters the voltage before reaching your device while adaptors change only the plug style. Most likely you'll only need to purchase an adaptor although some electrical devices (appliances and some electronics) support only one voltage. That's where the converter comes into play.

There are several types of adaptors available depending on your country of origin and destination ( Depending on where you buy an adaptor, you can expect to pay between $5 and $40 for nearly identical devices. Though on the pricey side, my personal favorite is the Kensington universal plug adaptor ( You'd be best off searching around for the best price before leaving home, especially if you need to power several devices at one time.

Some airlines provide in-seat notebook power for entertainment on inter-continental journeys. Cigarette lighter power ports are available on most modern long-range aircraft, though not typically at every seat in the coach cabin. Airlines often offer seating charts under the "our planes" or "aircraft we fly" sections of a carrier's website. If a seat offers power port access there may be some indication on the seating chart. Be sure to check for power port access before choosing a seat, as you may not be able to relocate once on board. In order to take advantage of in-flight notebook power, you need a DC to AC converter, available at most electronics retailers for $20 to $130 or more depending on wattage supported. Be sure to check your device's wattage requirements before making a purchase.

If you've managed to set your notebook up to connect to the Internet through your GSM carrier back home, you should be able to connect abroad as well. That capability depends on the networks in use in your destination country, and you'll pay a premium to do so. I connect to the web using Cingular's EDGE network; $20-per-month buys unlimited access in the States, but depending on the country you're visiting, connecting to a GSM network abroad costs 2 cents per kilobyte. This can quickly add up if you're transmitting images. A 5MB file will cost a minimum of $100 to transfer. Alternatively, Cingular offers an international data plan with 100MB of usage per month for $140. Under this plan, service is offered in 26 countries, but you might be able to connect elsewhere for 2 cents per KB.

Depending on your destination, wireless hotspots may be available, but these can be quite pricey as well. For example at the Manchester airport, 24 hours of Internet access costs £10. That's approximately $20. I've paid as much as $40 at some European hotels. If you need to connect to the Internet while abroad, I recommend checking about pricing with your hotel before booking. Some hotels offer free access while some charge per day or even per hour.

If your hotel offers conference facilities, they'll likely have a business center with Internet access. I've been able to avoid usage fees by plugging my notebook into Ethernet jacks at various hotel business centers. Ethernet jacks may be available throughout the hotel as well. In the past, I've sat on the floor of a dark, empty hotel conference room to check my email for free. Internet cafes are also available in many cities, but these are less likely to allow you to use your own computer to connect, even if you're willing to pay the standard fee.

It's very important to do your homework before traveling to a foreign country. Although you'll likely be able to purchase any required equipment abroad, it's often cheaper and easier to shop around before your trip. I'll make a considerable effort to log onto my email account while traveling, but the last thing I'd want to do after an 8-hour flight is spend hours walking around a foreign city in search of a power adaptor before completing that task.

(Zach Honig is a self-proclaimed techno geek and is attending the University of Missouri. You can check out his work at: and at his personal website:

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