Apparently there’s a bit of a trend as the year begins to talk about the technology that we travel with (see also here, here and here). I figure that I may as well weigh in on the topic, especially as I’m so pretty happy with my kit as it stands right now. So here’s what I’ve got:
That’s it. Four simple pieces that make my travel incredibly easy. Even better, the total weight of the kit is actually incredibly low, and the space it takes up is also rather low. I can fit all of it into a rather small messenger bag/man purse/European carry-all. Or, as I call it, my murse.
So, I know that the above list isn’t actually all that great in terms of actually planning for your travels so I’ll flesh it out a bit.
I’m currently working on my third laptop/netbook of the past four years. Yeah, I replace it often. But I do so with a reasonable view on the situation. The computer I buy in any given year is cheap, light and functional enough. The 2011 model (which seems inclined to last well into 2012) is an ASUS eee purchased in January 2011 and which has had the RAM upgraded to 2GB. It came with a 250GB hard drive that I routinely fill up during any given trip but which I’m quick to unload when I get back home and which is more than sufficient for day to day (or even multi-week long) travels.
The computer I use is not amazing. It is purposefully so. I buy cheap so that I don’t have to worry too much about the hardware lasting forever (and the way I treat my laptops – the last one was wrapped in duct tape by the end – they don’t last very long at all). And it turns out that my performance needs from a laptop are far less significant than my size and weight needs. I don’t watch HD movies on my laptop when I’m traveling; I either watch the IFE or just don’t bother. And the screen is ridiculously small, but it is big enough that I can browse nearly all the websites I want or need to see. I can get my work done when duty calls and I can write these blog posts. I can edit my photos (Picasa is the tool of choice) and I can even occasionally do a bit of development work on the Travel Tools site though the iterative compiling of the site for testing can be brutally slow. Still, at the end of the day, it is the perfect solution for my needs. The only thing it doesn’t do well that I care about is video editing, but I’m getting over that.
As for why I don’t carry a tablet (I own an iPad and I literally never use it), there’s a very simple answer: I type too much. I type somewhere around 1,000 words daily, more when the trip report posts start to pile up. And typing that much on screen just isn’t going to work. Sure, there are the external keyboard options, but at that point I may as well just carry the smaller, lighter and more flexible netbook. So I do.
I have a Kindle. I’ve had several over the years. I have only had to really replace them when I’ve left them on an airplane, so I have no qualms about the reliability, especially as I have abused mine and they’ve taken it so well. I can get books out of the library in NYC. I can buy books on the road. And I can share them with my wife. Most importantly, however, I can carry a veritable trove of books with me and not be weighed down in the process.
I have a habit of grabbing a few books about the area I’m visiting next or an area I’m thinking of visiting and taking them or a read while leading up to the actual trip. With the Kindle I’ve got all them in my murse, and still room for all the other bits.
I have no experience with the Nook or the Sony options because I’ve never seen the need to stray. And, again relative to the tablet, battery life and passive screen are HUGE to me. I spend enough hours of the day looking at an active screen. That’s the last thing I need as I lay down in bed at the end of the day to read a few pages before drifting off into travel dream land.
My camera of choice these days is a Pentax k-x DSLR. It is great. It was the cheapest model available when I broke my last one by dropping it in a parking garage in Seattle a couple years back and it takes great photos. I strongly recommend against getting one yourself. I’m mostly stuck with the Pentax system because of the lenses I own. But, as I’ve discovered changes to my habits lately this will almost certainly be my last Pentax. I’ll end up with either a Nikon or a Canon or even maybe a Sony Alpha, but not a Pentax. I’ll sell my good lenses or give them to others with a Pentax kit and I’ll walk away.
I’m quitting Pentax because they are too small a bit player in the market. And my new camera will be a generation old and hopefully "worse" than whatever is current on the market at that time. First, more pixels is actually worse at the same sensor size, so I won’t get sucked in to that numbers game. Second, I care more about noise in low light and a vaguely decent lens than you do about frames per second or 720 v. 1080 HD video. Seriously, unless you’re actually producing video for real – in which case you already know what camera to buy and none of these apply – the difference is just more data for roughly the same horribly shaky and awkward holiday video.
On the lenses front I’ve got some great ones. I have a 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom and a 70mm f/2.4 prime. I love them dearly. And they nearly always sit at home.The 17-50 is just too heavy and there are too few situations where I was using it on most trips to justify the extra weight and bulk. The 70mm is light but that range is covered by my main zoom and the opportunities I would have to use it and benefit from it are simply too few.
Instead I travel with an 18-200mm zoom and a 10-17mm fisheye zoom. The fisheye mostly stays in the bag but it is fun on the rare occasions it comes out. More than 95% of the photos I take come from the 18-200mm lens. I know about all the shortcomings of such a lens. I know of the problems it presents at the far ends of the range and, quite frankly, I don’t care. I also happen to know that I’m not a professional photographer and that I can take damn fine photos with the mediocre lens. So I err on the side of convenience a bit more than I probably should, but it seems to be working out OK. And such a lens – I have the Tamron version but the Sigma or the native one from the camera manufacturer are also fine – is generally available at a quite reasonable price point.
From time to time I’ve also had a "pocket camera" in my kit, usually of the Canon variety. I got a Nikon S3100 for this last trip and I absolutely hate it. I’ll likely be picking up a <$150 Canon to replace it. Not that I think the cheaper model is better than the S95/S100 that I want, but I beat up the hardware too much to pay the higher price, especially when the cheaper version is pretty effective for my needs.
This is going to be the hardest one to believe and also probably the hardest to explain. I have a Blackberry Tour. The old Tour. The crappy one that is like 3 years old now. And it is becoming more ornery with each passing day. I don’t actually like it all that much, save one particular special feature: the data plan.
I happen to still have an unlimited global roaming plan from Verizon Wireless. This is the same plan they killed about a year ago and which they started revoking from customers shortly thereafter. For some reason it still works on my device. And that means I’m not doing anything to change my plan anytime soon. I’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in data services and remained completely connected pretty much everywhere in the world I’ve been lately. That’s huge for me. Makes up for all sorts of limitations and failings in the hardware and software platform.
Stuff I don’t travel with
I’ve got a pretty nice set of Shure in-ear headphones buds that I no longer travel with. I use regular earplugs instead. I also no longer travel with external drives and other media readers. If my laptop cannot do it natively internally then I’m not bothering. Possibly a sacrifice, but it is what I do to stay light and compact.
I’m sure folks will think some of my decisions a bit "off" but all the above (including the computer power supply) fits into a Tamrac Velocity 7 murse and that keeps me light and mobile. Most importantly, they work for me. Whatever small complaints I have about the kit are happily drowned out by that benefit.