Computing on the Road

Here are some hopefully helpful hints for using a modem and computer when on the road.


Modem use from a hotel, school or office

Some newer hotels, schools, and offices have internal digital phone systems. If you unplug a phone and plug in your computer's modem, you risk burning out your modem, since the digital systems use different voltages than the standard "analog" phones found in homes and older hotels and businesses. Some of the newest hotels have room phones with a "dataport", which it is safe to use with a modem. If you're uncertain, check with the hotel's main desk or with the appropriate person in a school or office. There are testers in the $20 - $30 range that you can use to tell whether a phone socket is digital or analog (Teleadapt sells the "IBM Modem Saver" for $30, for instance). There are adapters that allow you to use your modem with a digital phone system, which cost in the $100-$200 range.

The star rule of thumb. One rule of thumb is that you can probably use your modem from 5 star hotels (which usually have dataports) and 3 star and below (which usually have older analog systems), but not from 4 star hotels. But you need to check.

Just the fax. What if you're in a hotel or office that has a digital phone system and you don't have an adapter? Fax machines are, like modems, designed for analog phone systems. So if the hotel or office or school has a fax machine, you can try to convince the powers-that-be to allow you to unplug it temporarily while you send and receive your email.


Modem & Computer Use from outside the US

There are several problems with using computers & modems outside the US:
  1. Power differences
  2. Telephone differences
  3. Access difficulties
  4. Cost
  5. Paper size
1. Power differences. Different countries have different voltages, cycles, and also different kinds of plugs for their electrical power. Many newer computers have "universal power supplies", which adjust automatically to differences in voltages and cycles - check your computer and your modem, if it is externally powered. If not, you'll need to get a power converter. But you cannot use even the universal power supplies unless you have a converter plug that goes between the standard US 2 or 3 pronged plug and the socket used in the country you're in. You can buy these adapters in many stores - to find out which are needed for the country you're visiting, you can look at TeleAdapt's web pages for the country you're planning to visit (sometimes a given country will have several different kinds of power sockets, so you need several kinds of adapters).

Note: even if your computer has a "universal power supply", any external peripherals (modems, zip drives, printer) may not. Be sure you get an power adapter for these that is specified to work with electronic equipment and works with the particular power system of the place you're at. Some hotels put the electric outlet a long way from the telephone -- so you may want to bring an extension cord or a long phone cord. Or you can take the chance and buy an extension cord locally if you need one. Note that surge protector powerstrips bought in this country will burn out if plugged directly into the higher voltage power of many other countries. Here's a "cautionary tale" about powerstrips on the road. :-)

2. Phone plug differences. Different countries also have different kinds of sockets for plugging in telephones. TeleAdapt's web site includes information on what kind of phone plug adapter you need for each of 260 countries. In some cases, the phone wire goes into the wall with no plug at all - in that case, you may need a kit that provides the tools for hooking into the phone instrument (which you can get from TeleAdapt and other companies).

If you're going to be in a place for more than a couple of days, you can usually wait to buy the physical adaptors (power and telephone) once you see what's there. All big cities have electronics stores and the set of possible pin configurations is much greater than the average travel pack of adaptors. You may find it easier to find an adapter that goes from the plug of the country you're visiting to the standard "RJ-11" plug in the US in that country - if you can't find an electronics store (Radio Shack, Tandy, etc.), look in the section of a large department store where they sell fax machines, for instance. You may want to take such accessories as an extra long phone cord and an in-line phone cord connector, since they're easy to buy here and light enough to carry with you.

Again, if you're going to be in an international location for a while, rather than buy expensive special adapters to interface between a US plug and another type of socket, it is often cheaper to just buy a computer power cord once you arrive at the international location. At one end you will find the internationally standard computer plug, at the other end you find a plug that fits the local power supply. All this costs a fraction of the cost of the special adapters.

3. Access difficulties. In many countries, it is difficult to make an international call to your usual network access phone number, or even if it is not difficult, it is very expensive. Some people have accounts with commercial networks like Compuserve, just so they can use the local access numbers for that network when traveling to other countries. Since these commercial networks are now on the Internet, email can be accessed in the same way as when at home.

4. Cost. Using these local numbers in other countries for US commercial networks can be expensive over the long run. If you're going to be spending an extended amount of time in another country, you'll want to investigate the Internet service providers in that country, to see if you can access the Internet less expensively through these networks.

5. Paper size. You say you want to print out a paper "on-the-road"? Many places (China, Australia, UK?, most of the world?) use A4 paper, not 8.5 x 11. So, when you buy it in a store, you need to ask for A4 ("A4" is a word in every language). Then, you need to redo page setups. And when you exchange files with the US, both ends have to reformat.

If printing on-the-road is critical, you may want to carry paper with you. In some countries (like India) it is hard to find quality A4 paper (they are sometimes slightly off in terms of dimensions). While this is extra baggage, it may be worth it in terms of avoiding printer problems.

Let's say you need a hard copy of a file on your computer, and you didn't lug along your printer. One neat trick is to use your fax/modem to fax a copy of the document to the fax machine of the hotel/office/school you're visiting.


Laptop & palmtop travel hints

Laptops are at a high risk of being stolen when traveling, so take extra care. You may have heard of the airport "scam", in which you put your laptop on the security belt, and then someone in front of you takes extra time going through the metal detectors while a confederate picks up your laptop on the other side and then exits with it before you get through to discover it missing. So, before you put your laptop (or anything else :-) on the security belt, make sure you're the next to go through. Another hint is to carry your laptop in a bag that doesn't look like a computer bag - a sports equipment bag, for instance.

You may want to carry your computer with you much of the time, if you can. When you cannot take it, you will want to take some extra care to arrange for it to be protected. For example, you may want to take a locking security cable for your computer, so you can lock it in some out-of-sight place in your hotel room when you're not carrying it.

One traveler has switched to palmtop computers because of this security risk - he can still use it to connect to send and receive his email. Also, since it runs for weeks on standard batteries, he doesn't have to worry about the local power differences. When you go through airport security, you can put the palmtop in the little tray for coins that is next to the metal detector or you can put it inside a tiny bag that doesn't look like a computer bag.

When you travel through customs when entering a country, you may want to have them note in your passport the details about your laptop, so you don't have problems getting it back out when you leave.


If you have suggestions for additions or modifications to these hints, please send them to Jim Levin <j-levin@uiuc.edu>


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Thanks to Barbara Barnes, Ellen Brewer, Chip Bruce, Varkki George, Peter Maggs, Marsha Woodbury, and others for the helpful hints here.
Last updated: 4 Mar 1997