Travel Light and Carry On (Literally)
I picked up my briefcase (or is it an attache? I’ve never sure where that line is drawn) the other day and I was so surprised at how light it felt that I was convinced I had left my computer or power supply somewhere at the supplier I was visiting. After a few panicked seconds of looking over all of the contents and realized everything was where it should be, I was struck by the thought that over the past twenty years of business traveling, I’ve really refined the items that I take with me on trips. I figured I would post a bit about the things I bring (and leave behind).
While every country on my itinerary tweaks the contents a little bit (for example, if my trip is to the China mainland or Japan only, I can leave my power adapter at home, as the outlets in those countries fit US plugs). My goal is always the same: Avoid checking a bag at all costs. Between missed flights and connection changes, not to mention the propensity for carriers to lose bags, my goal is to pare things down to the absolute minimum.
While traveling, I tend to use my mobile phone as my primary computing device, for a variety of reasons; I’m generally moving around, I usually need to take photos and videos and email them to clients or colleagues, and frankly, roaming 3G/4G/LTE connections tend to be more stable than wifi in most locations (international hotels generally being the exception to this rule).
An investment in the latest model iPhone or Android phone will pay off in spades. These days the larger screen phones are closing in with feature-parity compared to laptops; there are days I actually prefer the experience of the outlook iOS app to the desktop version; same goes for the solid works eDrawings viewer for mobile.
I considered adding a bluetooth keyboard but anyone that has met me can generally attest that being overly verbose is one of my biggest weaknesses, and one that i keep at bay by limiting myself to the on-screen keyboard.
Lastly, most phones these days come with fantastic cameras; the latest iPhone, for example, can shoot and edit 4K video. This eliminates the need, in almost all cases, to travel with a separate camera. I’ve shot more than my fair share of time-lapse production videos, edited, added music, and sent to clients while still standing on the production floor.
Worldwide Phone Connection
Continuing on the theme of our phones being our primary communication tool, when it comes to data, nothing beats having a global roaming internet plan from your domestic carrier (at least in the USA). There are a lot of reasons for this, but what really matters is that you end up with a faster connection less susceptible to the slowdowns due to local coverage limitations and censorship. Almost all carriers are warming to the idea of global plans; this year Verizon introduced a plan whereby for $10 per day they will extend your entire calling plan to be global; for those of you on high-consumption plans already this seems like a no-brainer. T-Mobile has offered free global roaming in most of their high-end post-paid mobile phone plans.
The minimum amount of chargers, cords, and adapters required
I remember having a client come visit our office in China that brought with him enough cables and transformers to re-wire our office; his plug adapter alone must have weighed five pounds, and he had a cable organizer bag larger than my entire attache case. Bottom line is this: these days almost all electronics are supplied with power supplies that can take any input voltage. Generally there are only 2 you’ll ever need to deal with: 110 Volts, which is used throughout the continent of North America as well as Japan, and 220 Volts, which is used almost everywhere else. Voltage is different to the actual shape of the electrical socket; for that you will, in most countries, need an adapter to
enable the US-style plug to be inserted into a UK-style socket. Check your transformers, all will be marked with an “Input Voltage” Spec, which usually looks something like “Input Voltage: 100-240VAC”; assuming it does say that 100-240 or 110-220 is acceptable, then all you may need is a plug adapter; if it says 100VAC only, then you’ll need a voltage converter instead of a plug adapter. If you’re bringing hair styling tools, those are more likely to NOT be dual-voltage, be sure to check BEFORE plugging into the socket.
The road warrior life is not just rough on us and our families, it’s brutal to our equipment. When I first started my career I was on the road almost 90% of the time and it was rare that I could keep a laptop alive longer than 1 year. It is worth the investment in quality cases to carry and protect your goods. A decent briefcase or attache, phone case, passport cover, etc are all things that will pay you back many times over. Of note, items that I use:
Otterbox phone case – I pull out my phone and shoot videos and photos in some very unclean locations. The inside of a paint booth, a welding shop, wood shop, etc are just not places that the product development folks at most mobile phone firms are building for. Plus, and I am going to be completely honest here, I am pretty klutzy, so this case protects my rather substantial investment in a decent mobile phone.
Passport cover – Be aware that a ripped or torn passport is grounds for rejecting entry. Considering how much I travel (and how I was nearly refused entry to my own county due to a ripped passport), this cover has saved countless wear and tear on my passport, especially now that I’ve had additional pages added a few times (Embassies no longer offer this service, but you can get a larger 52-page passport when you renew).
Wallet that can carry multiple currencies – Bills are larger in a lot of foreign countries, so a wallet that is a bit taller to hold the bills without the tops sticking out is nice. I upgraded to one that has a divider in the bill section so I can keep two sets of currencies without mixing them up.
So, by way of example, here’s what I’ve got in my bags right now. I really only travel with a briefcase and roll-aboard bag.
Briefcase: Tumi Alpha Brief. I cannot say enough good things about Tumi’s ballistic nylon bags. Yes, I know they are expensive, but they are indestructible. My first Tumi briefcase did seven years on the road with me, and the only reason I replaced it was it was huge, and when I moved from a Panasonic Toughbook to Macbook air, I just didn’t need something that big. With the exception of the shoulder pad on the strap, you would not know it was used at all. We adopted a dog last year and lately she’s taken to trying to eat my briefcase if it’s left out; so far you’d never know.
iPhone 6S Plus – This is a giant phone, made all the more gigantic by the Otterbox Defender case that i keep it in. As my primary computing device when on the move, I needed something with a large screen that I can use to work for long periods of time. The Otterbox case makes me slightly less fearful of pulling the phone out to shoot a video from, say, inside of a powder coat booth or in a metal shop when sparks are flying everywhere.
Macbook Air, 11 inch – Again light triumphs over horsepower, for me at least. 90% of what i do is powerpoint documents and composing a day’s worth of photos and videos into sharable content for customers and colleagues, and for those tasks the air has more than enough power, plus with 5-8 hours of battery I can leave the charger in the bag most days. If push really came to shove I could leave the computer behind and do everything on the iPhone but I’m just not ready to give it up yet. For 1 Kilogram of packed weight, the air can’t be beat.
Macbook Air power supply, direct plug in version – the power cord version is just too big and bulky to travel with, which brings us to the next item
300mm pigtail extension cord with flat input plug – So many flights have power sockets these days (and wifi!) but many of them put the power outlets either in hard to reach locations or in coach, they put in 2 sockets for 3 seats, meaning plugging in my power brick would require me to get fresh with my fellow passenger. I plug this cord in as soon as I sit down, which then gives me the luxury of an outlet that I can access throughout the flight. I used to carry one that at three sockets on the end (you know, so you can share an outlet when all of the airport outlets are taken) but to be honest these days most airports have figured out that really we could care less about anything other than power outlets and a place grab a cocktail pre-flight.
Two Apple lightning charge cords, 1 meter – I really only need one, but in traveling to some seriously out-of-the way towns, you never know if you may break a cord and not be able to get another; same goes (kinda) for microUSB though not quite as much of an issue compared to the lightning cable.
Apple iPhone charger, 500ma – This is the little one, basically a cube with prongs. Normally I assume that I can charge my phone from the macbook, but sometimes, for example on a factory floor, you may need to do a lot of work on your phone and need to give the power a quick top-up. Similar size chargers are available for those of you that use Android phones. Resist the urge to buy the fake ones from the markets and street vendors in Asia; people have literally died from using them.
Cigarette lighter USB phone charger – two reasons for this, first sometimes you’ll spend hours in a car between suppliers and again, you’ll need a top up. Also, when driving in China (or helping another driver navigate), I use my phone as my GPS and that kills the battery really fast.
Air vent phone clip – When using the phone as a GPS, this clip helps keep it front and center. A good thing to have for domestic travel, absolutely indispensable for the cuckoo-bananas driving that we engage in when we drive on the Mainland of China (see this youtube video for more reasons to reconsider ever driving in China). There are lots of phone mounts for cars, the air vent clip ones are just a few bucks and weigh nearly nothing.
USB thumb drive – mostly for trading drawings with suppliers and other similar file transfers. Back to the conversation of network connections not being very reliable, that goes doubly so for your average Chinese supplier that has a room full of old PCs that are still running windows XP. Do yourself a favor and format the whole drive every time you get it back; lets just say anti-virus software and virus awareness in China are still lagging behind western standards (plus, the proliferation of un-patched winXP computers is just asking for trouble). See here for a great tutorial on how to auto-scan for viruses when you plug in a thumb drive.
300mm HDMI cable – This seems to come in handy a lot. From plugging my laptop into a supplier’s projector to plugging into the TV at the hotel to watch a movie, it’s a lightweight way to get things on the big screen.
Tissues – just one of those small packs of kleenex. Two reasons for this. First, a day in the wood shop means you’ll need to blow your nose at some point. Second, a lot of bathrooms, especially in factories, do not have toilet paper, so BYO or else.
Hand Sanitizer – If bathrooms don’t have TP, do you think they have soap?
Advil – A small bottle, for those days where a headache threatens to derail your price negotiations or you just ache a bit from six hours of driving in a supplier’s badly maintained Volkswagen Santana.
Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) tablets – Dusty roads, dirty factories, etc can all drive your sinuses mad by lunchtime. These allergy pills are pretty much the only thing that helps me, YMMV. Pseudoephedrine is hard to get in a lot of counties now, definitely worth picking some up before you leave the USA.
Sharpie – Seems so basic, but there are many times I need to make a mark on something or sign-off a prototype and nobody can find a marker. I tried buying them locally in China, with hilarious results like Sharpei and Skerple, but it turns out Sharpie markers are actually made in the USA and need to be imported to China, which not a lot of stationary stores bother with.
Small notebook – when you’re reviewing a prototype or in a meeting, nothing beats a pen and paper for jotting down some quick notes. Keeping with the lightweight mantra, I use the smallest Moleskine notebook available, it’s about 100mm x 75mm.
Blue pen / Red pen – Blue for taking notes, red for marking up drawings. Also, airlines never have pens anymore for filling out customs docs and arrival forms. I like the Pilot G2 0.38mm rollerball, but just pick your favorite.
My passport – It’s rare but in most countries you can be stopped and asked for your papers. I’ve noticed this happens sometimes in China now when you cross out of visa-free zones in a car or taxi.
Suitcase: Tumi Vapor. This suitcase is great, mostly because it weighs nearly nothing. With airlines getting ever more strict with carry-on weight, it’s nice that the case doesn’t add much. I do wish it had a way to get my toiletries out without laying it on the floor and open the whole case, but that’s the price you pay to save weight. I swear I’m not a shill for Tumi, I just think they make a quality product that is well worth the money.
Handpresso portable espresso maker – Those of you that have met me before and didn’t know I travel with my own espresso machine in my bag are likely all nodding in agreement, sitting back and saying “Ah, it all makes sense now. I get it”. This is, I will admit, the one thing that I travel with that is not really necessary. But jet lag can hit hard at the worst of times, and frankly I love a good cup of coffee. Peter Shankman has his Diet Coke, I have espresso.
First aid kit – You just never know what you will need or if you will be able to get it. I keep it pretty simple, the usual meds for allergies, pain, upset stomach, etc plus adhesive bandages of all shapes and sizes. It all fits in a quart size ziplock bag.
Clothes – don’t overdo it. You need 3-5 pairs of socks and underwear, max. I’ve yet to be in a hotel that does not offer laundry service and in Asia it’s generally a lot more reasonably priced compared with the prices paid in the USA. Same with other clothes; if you’re meeting clients then obviously you need dress clothes, but otherwise I count on 1-2 pairs of Jeans and 3-4 weather-appropriate shirts to get me through almost any trip where I will spend most time in a factory. I sneak in a running outfit to help blow off steam with an early morning run.
Snack Bars – Don’t let being hungry force you to accept quality that otherwise should be rejected. Pack a few power bars or cliff bars to take with you each day. Napoleon said “An army runs on it’s stomach” so when we are fighting the battle for quality we would be well advised to heed this advice. If find 1-2 per week is all I end up going through unless you really dislike Chinese food.
Extra space – Inevitably i need more room when going home compared to arriving, whether it’s samples of material, prototypes, or just gifts for your family, leave a little extra space in your suitcase to fit it all in.
That’s about it for the staples. It sounds like a lot but it all packs into a small 3-4 kg briefcase and international-size roll aboard suitcase.