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This is part 1 of what will be a multi-part series on traveling with technology. As a blogger, technology entrepreneur and an extreme world traveler, I probably have as good an idea as anyone on what you need to know if you are going to travel with electronic gadgets. I’ll be posting a new update to the series each Saturday until it is over. I expect this series to run about 3 months given all the subjects I have outlined.
Electrical systems are easily the most confusing and least standardized thing travelers have to deal with. Back in the early 20th Century, there was a hodge-podge of electrical systems as different regions developed their grids independently of each other.
Today we are stuck with a bunch of standards that will confuse most travelers.
There are two primary ways in which electrical systems differ in different countries: voltage and electrical outlets (aka plugs, sockets or power points).
Roughly speaking there are two major voltage systems around the world: 120V/60hz and 220V/50hz. This is an oversimplification because there are actually multiple variations. You can see systems with 200-240V/50hz, 100-127V/60hz, 220-240V/60hz, and 100-127V/50hz. It is a mess.
This used to be a much bigger problem than it is today. It used to be if you had an electrical device it was only designed to work with certain voltage and frequency. This meant if you wanted to travel with anything electrical, you had to carry a heavy transformer with you that would convert the voltage of whatever electrical system you were plugging into. If you tried use the wrong voltage, it would fry the electronics of the device.
With a few exceptions, most electronics travelers use today are designed to deal with a range of voltages which will work around the world. This was primarily done to reduce manufacturing costs. Rather than making a new device for every country’s voltage, just making one device that will work anywhere is much easier.
Today, most laptops, mobile phones, and tablet computers are designed to work over a variety of voltages. In five years of traveling, I have never required the use of a transformer to protect my devices. This includes devices which run on USB adaptors which can plug into a wall, like the iPhone.
Just to be safe, I always check the voltage rating when I buy a new device, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem with personal electronics anymore.
The exceptions to this rule are things with heating coils or motors. Hair dryers, curling irons, clothes irons and electrical razors will all probably need a transformer. In fact, I would recommend never traveling overseas with any of these items because they are heavy and require the use of a transformer which is also heavy. Most hotels will have hair dryers and irons available and blade razor is much lighter.
I have also been told some battery chargers do not deal with other voltages well. In particular, those with the big power bricks. If you have a battery charger you plan to take on a trip, just do a quick check to see what voltages it will accept.
Summary: Other than checking voltages when you first buy a device, it isn’t something you need to worry about every time you travel. So long as you don’t travel with hair dryers or electric razors, you will probably be fine.
Plugs, Outlets and Power Points
This is where things can get confusing. If you include grounding pins and plug shapes, there are over a dozen different types of plugs in the world.
However, many of the varieties of plugs are compatible with one another if you eliminate the third grounding prong. As far as you should be concerned for traveling, there are 5 types of plugs which are in use around the world:
- Type A – United States and Japan: These are the flat prong plugs where are prongs are parallel to each other. A type A plug will also work with a type B outlet which has the third grounding prong.
- Type C – Europe: These are two round prongs which are spaced approximately the same as the type A prongs. There are a host of subtypes which are compatible to the European plugs including Type E, F, J, K and L.
- Type G – United Kingdom: These plugs are by far the largest in the world and can be found in other former British colonies. They always use the grounding prong.
- Type I – Australia: These look just like US/Japanese plugs except for the fact that the prongs are titled inward at the top. These are also found in New Zealand and several small countries in the Pacific. They type is often used in China as well.
- Type M – South Africa: Don’t be fooled by these outlets. They look like they will work with European plugs because the prongs are round, but they are actually spaced like British prongs. In addition to South Africa, a few other African countries use this standard.
When looking for an adaptor you can either get cheap, small adaptor that only works with one type, or you can buy a more expensive universal adaptor that will work with multiple types. I tend to just have small, cheap adaptors that I can use in one country.
The one thing I would recommend is getting an adaptor without a third grounding prong. If your adaptor does have a grounding prong, you wont be able to use it if the outlet doesn’t have one, but the opposite isn’t true.
Also, most universal adaptors do not work with South African outlets. If you are planning a trip to this region, you will probably have to buy a separate adaptor.
The best place I’ve found to get adaptors is actually at the airport. They are not items which you can find for sale in most stores. I had to search for over and hour to find one in London. You can be guaranteed that any international airport will have them, however.
Summary: Check what type of outlets are used in the country you are visiting before hand. No matter where you live, you will probably only need a maximum of 4 types of adaptors to cover the entire world.
Plugging in Multiple Devices
There is a good chance you will be traveling with more than one device. If this is the case, you will probably not want to carry multiple adaptors with you. One thing I always travel with is a small 6-port travel power strip.
I have been using the same Monster Cable power strip for over 2-years now and my thoughts haven’t changed since my initial review of the product. Even if you can’t get a travel power strip, any power strip is probably better than nothing if you have multiple devices. In addition to only needing a single adaptor (for the power strip itself), you can often create spaces for people using outlets at airports, which will make you a hero.
One type of device probably deserves special mention: USB devices. While there are USB power adaptors, I usually use my laptop as a hub for powering my USB gadgets. If I let them charge overnight, it will usually charge anything I have including my iPad. If I need something charged quickly, I will use a USB power adaptor because I’ve found it tends to charge devices
- Check the voltage ratings for all your electrical devices you intend to travel with. Try to only travel with devices which can accept voltages between 120-220V and 50-60hz. Most electrical gadgets today will meet these criteria.
- Make sure you have the appropriate adaptor for the region you are visiting. If possible, get an adaptor without a grounding prong so it will work with grounded and ungrounded outlets.
- Carry a travel power strip with you if possible. It will eliminate the need for multiple adaptors and will let you access outlets which are full in places like airports.