Business travel is not fun at the best of times. With airlines cramming too many bodies into too small seats, carry-on restrictions designed to force checking of bags (and paying of outrageous fees), the endless search for power outlets, and the "joys" of trying to make connections, getting there in itself is no longer half the fun. Then we have to cope with the challenges of destinations, such as iffy WiFi. And through all that, we have to remain productive.
What fun. Not.
One thing that can ease the pain is the right selection of travel tools. A good bag stuffed with the right tech can at least keep us working in less-than perfect circumstances. Everyone has his or her own needs and preferences; but here are a few suggestions from a high-mileage business trekker's point of view.
First, the bag. I favour a backpack; it holds a good amount, can be slung on a shoulder or worn, and stuffs easily under an airplane seat. These days, I'm toting the Dell Premier Backpack ($119.99 CAD), a checkpoint-friendly bag that handles laptops with screens up to 15.6 inches.
If you often travel in the US, TSA-approved checkpoint-friendly bags will save a ton of time. They allow you to go through security without removing your laptop from the bag. The trick is simple – approved bags open like a butterfly’s wings, and have a separate compartment for the laptop that lies flat on the x-ray belt and gives the scanner an unimpeded view of the hardware. My backpack unzips top to bottom on both sides, so the laptop compartment is in the approved position, and everything else is on the other side, all lying flat to accommodate the x-ray. Once you're through security, just quickly zip up the sides of the bag and you're ready to go. If that takes too long, a couple of straps snap quickly into place, holding things together until you have time to zip it up properly. You can also get briefcase-style bags that unzip around the bottom and open flat; you grab the handle, pick it up, and the sides fall back together, ready to be zipped up.
While CATSA (the Canadian security agency) doesn't allow laptops in bags – even checkpoint-friendly ones – other countries do. I have successfully gone through security in the US, UK, European countries, and even Russia and China, without removing my laptop from its checkpoint-friendly bag. Occasionally a Canadian security screener will also permit it, but officially, they're not allowed.
In addition to the laptop compartment, my bag has a cozily padded pocket for a tablet, as well as plenty of pockets and pouches that keep everything organized, and even a place specifically for a backup battery pack (Dell sells one with enough juice to top up a tablet or Ultrabook).
Of course, a bag is just a bag without the right contents.
Picking a laptop is the first step. We all covet screen real estate, but a big display often carries disadvantages for the traveler. It adds weight and takes away from battery life, not to mention being awkward to use in close quarters. Between reclining neighbours and tiny tray tables, airplanes can be hazardous to laptops with big screens. My usual display choice is 12.5 – 13 inches, which provides a nice balance of usability and size, although recently I’ve been carrying a Windows convertible with an 11 inch display (the Dell Venue 11 Pro) that is even safe to use while scrunched into one of the crammed-together economy seats or on a regional jet. The smaller screen is not ideal for some applications, but it’s an OK compromise unless you need to show presentations on the machine. Its biggest benefit is its battery life – the optional detachable Mobility keyboard is all battery, and between it and the battery in the tablet itself, I get 15 – 20 hours of use between charges. And, the machine only weighs about 3 lb – heavy for its size, but that’s the price of the extra battery life.
For both on the-road recreational reading and handy document access, I rely on an e-reader, the Kobo Glo HD. Although it’s monochrome only, the e-ink technology is easier on the eyes than is a laptop or tablet display, the device holds hundreds of books and documents, and its battery life is measured in days or weeks. You can even borrow e-books from most public libraries, online, and load them onto a Kobo (though, sadly, not a Kindle). When they expire, you just delete them. And, best of all, an e-reader is a whole lot lighter, and much less bulky, than are hard copies. Every ounce counts when you're on the road.
Power adapters – a universal BlackBerry travel charger for phones and my e-reader, and the a/c adapter for the laptop – live in a pouch, along with a USB cable, to keep them from turning into a tangled rat’s nest of wires at the bottom of my bag. Since, like most Ultrabooks and tablets, my computer has no Ethernet port, I also carry a dongle that gives me an RJ-45 port as well as a trio of USB 3.0 ports. A cordless mouse rounds out the computer accessories.
Because airport (and hotel) plugs can be in short supply, I tote a small surge-suppressing power bar with USB charging ports. Plug it in, and that lonely single plug becomes three outlets, plus a phone charging station, which will win you friends during layovers and save your bacon in plug-deficient hotel rooms.
To keep me sane in noisy environments, I carry noise-cancelling headphones that block out screaming babies and snoring seatmates and let me work (or sleep) during a flight. Like anyone who travels a lot, I’ve also learned to have a small stash of snacks like protein bars to keep me going when flights are delayed and there’s no time to grab a meal.
Finally, I'm a writer, so my digital recorder, spare batteries, and pens and paper round out my bag's contents. My purse holds a few other sundries like phone, boarding passes, passport, Nexus card, antacids, and business cards that may need to go into a non purse-carrier's bag. And airlines rightly recommend including necessary prescription medication in carry-on bags.
Some of the travel productivity tools aren’t hardware, though. I’ve loaded the airline apps onto my phone, and subscribe to flight notifications that alert me to gate changes and delays, often before the announcement is made at the airport. Most major hotel chains also have apps that offer various services, sometimes including remote check-in. They can be well worth the time to install them. And most phones have mapping apps of some description.
That's my travel arsenal. It has been pared down over the years, and it works very well for me.
What are your travel essentials?