Wi-Fi

10 ways for road warriors to avoid snags and snafus

From small aggravations to huge headaches, a lot can go wrong when you hit the road. Veteran globetrotter Brien Posey offers some advice that will help you stay productive when you travel.

Between consulting gigs, technology conferences, and vacationing in exotic places, I travel more than just about anybody I know. So I have a lot of practical experience with working while on the road. Over the years, I have adopted numerous techniques that help me stay productive while I am traveling, and I want to share some of those tips with you.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Bring your own power strip

If someone were to ask me my number one tip for road warriors, I would tell them to always bring their own power strip. Over the years, I have found that some hotels are severely lacking when it comes to electrical outlets. Having my own power strip allows me to power my laptop and charge my cell phone (and other devices) even when there is a shortage of outlets.

There are other reasons for bringing a power strip as well. I recently stayed in one hotel in which the shape of the available outlets prevented plugging in any device that had a transformer built into the plug. Had I not brought my own power strip, I would not have been able to charge my cell phone.

I also like having a power strip because it can double as an extension cord. I once stayed in a hotel in which there were plenty of outlets around the desk area. The problem was that I wanted to watch a movie on my laptop while I was in bed. Had I not had a power strip, there is no way my laptop's power cord would have reached the outlet.

2: Use a Wi-Fi locator

Even if a hotel claims to have Wi-Fi throughout, there are always some areas with weak signals. I like to bring a Wi-Fi locator with me when I travel. That way, if I have trouble getting a signal, I can check to see whether there is another area close by where there is a signal before I go through the trouble of moving my laptop.

3: Use a personal firewall

Public Wi-Fi networks, such as those found in hotels, are almost always insecure. There is a very real danger of someone using the Wi-Fi connection to infiltrate your computer. Make sure that your computer is equipped with some sort of firewall to prevent this from happening. Windows has a built-in firewall, but there are a number of techniques that a hacker (or a Trojan) can use to disable it. So I tend to feel safer using a third-party firewall.

4: Have a Plan B for getting your work done

Since most hotels offer Wi-Fi connectivity, you might assume that you can use their Internet connection to take care of any necessary work. While this assumption may have been true at one time, it is becoming much more common for hotels to filter Internet traffic.

Much of the traffic filtering does not affect business users. For example, many hotels block access to services such as Netflix and Hulu in an effort to force patrons to purchase pay-per-view movies. However, I have stayed in a couple of hotels that blocked VPN access. I can only assume that this is the hotel's way of trying to conserve Internet bandwidth.

The lesson here is that you can't necessarily depend on the hotel's Internet service to provide access to the resources you need, so you should have a backup plan in place. That plan may involve going to a coffee shop and using its Internet connection, or it might involve using your cellular provider's mobile data service.

5: Bring Ethernet cable

As strange as it might sound, I always bring an Ethernet cable with me when I travel. I have stayed in several hotels that provided both Wi-Fi and wired Internet access. Wired access tends to be faster and is less susceptible to packet sniffing.

6: Physically secure your laptop

When I travel, I typically use my laptop only at night. The rest of the time, it is in my hotel room unattended. Since laptops are stolen so frequently, I try to physically secure my laptop however I can.

If I have a rental car with me, I will usually lock my laptop in the trunk. Some might consider this risky, but the car keys are under my direct control and nobody should have access to the trunk of my car except me. (I never use valets.) The same can't be said for a hotel room. You never know when the housekeeper or the maintenance crew will come into your room.

Sometimes, I have no choice but to leave my laptop in a hotel room. If I'm traveling with my netbook, I will lock it in the safe in my room, but my full size laptop is too big to fit in a safe. So if I'm traveling with my larger laptop, I will usually lock it in my suitcase and put the suitcase in a closet. It doesn't ensure complete security, but at least would-be thieves will have to use some effort. They can't just pick my computer up off the desk and walk off with it.

7: Don't forget the AC adapter

At the risk of making myself look like an idiot, I have to tell you to be careful not to leave your laptop's AC adapter at home. Several years ago, I covered a Las Vegas trade show for TechRepublic. Upon my arrival in Las Vegas, I realized that I had left my laptop's power cord behind. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a place to buy a new power cord and there was nobody at home who could overnight my power cord to me. Since I had a job to do, I had no choice but to purchase another laptop. As you can see, leaving my power cord at home proved to be an expensive mistake.

8: Choose voltage regulators carefully

If you're going to be traveling out of the country, you will need a voltage regulator for your electronics. But beware: Not all voltage regulators are the same. Some of the European voltage regulators are nothing more than adapters. They do not actually decrease the voltage. If you plug your laptop into such an adapter, you will cook your laptop unless it has a 110 / 220 power supply.

Other voltage regulators will convert the voltage to standard 110, but may be unsuitable for use with electronics. When I traveled to Europe for the first time, I bought such a voltage regulator only to discover that it was suitable only for use with hair dryers, electric shavers, and that sort of thing. The instructions specifically said that it was not suitable for use with personal electronics.

9: Make your own backups

Many road warriors store data locally on their laptops. The problem is that the data is vulnerable to loss until it has been copied to the corporate network. Therefore, I would advise anyone who keeps data on their laptop to make their own backups.

When I travel, I bring along either some USB flash drives or an external hard drive (depending on what I am working on) and back up data to it. After making a backup, I store the backup media in a separate bag from my laptop. That way, if my laptop is stolen or damaged, I still have a backup of my data.

10: Invest in a travel kit

One last bit of advice I would give to anyone who travels frequently is to invest in a laptop travel kit. A variety of such kits are on the market, but the one I use has all of the essentials you might need when you travel. For example, it contains a three-prong adapter (in case I stay someplace with two-prong outlets), a spare flash drive, a wireless mouse, a USB-powered keyboard light, a retractable Ethernet cable, a retractable modem cable, and the list goes on.

More tips?

Have you ever run into problems trying to stay productive while on the road? What other suggestions would you add to this list?


About

Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

15 comments
mcbinder
mcbinder

Instead of a power strip, I use a 12 foot 3 wire extension cord with 3 outlets on the end. I also have a 3 wire to 2 wire adapter in case the wall outlet is 2 wire and a 1 plug to 3 outlet adapter cube. I have some 6 inch extensions in case the wall is recessed or I need to plug in some wall transformer cubes to my extension cord. The 1 plug to 3 outlet cube is good for airports when all of the outlets are in use. Simply ask someone if you can temporarily unplug their power, add you cube (with more outlets) and reconnect theirs and yours. I always grab power when I can, unless I am very sure I have enough to last. For my cell phone, I have an 1800mAh battery that will supposedly charge my phone three times. It has a USB port for power out, so it's useful for other devices as well. I have on occasion taken a router, but always have a USB hub. I have one that is 4 ports and is very tiny. For international travel, make sure you have Skype. Free PC to PC phone calls and 2 cents a minute to any US and similar low cost to many other counties phones. mcb

timtucker
timtucker

The reason they block the VPN is to prevent unwanted traffic through the firewall. The room/wireless network is in a DMZ, not the internal network,but is behind a firewall. If they allow VPNs, then you can tunnel to hulu and netflix, but worse is if someone wants to cause harm.

pagewrite
pagewrite

.. and don't forget that European readers also read this - so don't forget, fellow European travellers, to bear in mind that the USA *only* has a miserable 110V mains, rather than the full standard 240V .. ! :-)

Roger_Harmon
Roger_Harmon

Great check list. Regarding power strips, I keep a Power Squid in my suitcase. It has individual outlets at the end of a 6-8 inch cable which allows for power bricks to be plugged into any outlet without blocking any other outlet. When you buy the second power supply for your laptop, consider an iGo or other brand that comes with tips that can match most brands of laptops. These power supplies could outlast your computer and when you get a new computer all you have to buy is a new tip to fit it, if you don't already have the right one in the selection that came with the power supply.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I think that's all good advice for people going to do a job at an distant and unfamiliar location as a first timer. But isn't that "aspiring road warrior" at best? ;) For practicing road warriors I'd have expected a more heavy on more low-level tools, meters for all sorts of hardware issue diagnostics etc. BTW: Snafus ... isn't Snafu a state of being (of affairs, hopefully)? In that case the plural looks like it's advice on avoiding snafu employers :p

debra.mcknight
debra.mcknight

If you've left your power cord at home, just go down to the front desk and ask to "borrow" one from their lost and found box. It's very likely they have a large cardboard box full of adaptors left behind by others. There's a good chance they have one for your brand of computer if it is a major brand.

jhinkle
jhinkle

Over the years I've seen a lot of problems with hotels blocking FTP traffic and bit torrent traffic. Whenever I see VPN issues I change the MTU on the clients. In my experience in setting up wireless equipment/internet access for hotels they go with what's cheapest, and that's usually SDSL, which is where you'll see you're packet to cell conversion problems.

JohnBoyNC
JohnBoyNC

And most Asian countries, too are 220/240 VAC. Plus you'd better have a pee pot full of adapters with you....I've seen half a dozen different styles used in India, alone.

cdpitcock
cdpitcock

Whoever thought of that deserves the Nobel prize.

Ken.Mackenzie
Ken.Mackenzie

Ansu, as a road engineer myself, I know what you mean about meters and tools. But a Road Warrior is someone who aspires to be at his desk whilst (and at the same time) being off on a jolly - oops - expensive fact-finding/deal-broking trek. However, you are correct about 'Snafus', the correct term is 'glitches'.

brian
brian

I always buy an additional power adapter when purchasing a new laptop. My carry-on is the second cable's home.

cdpitcock
cdpitcock

I carry a bright light bulb. The Florescent ones are less breakable than the incandescent ones. The rooms are so dark! I also have an iPhone and iPod. The iPhone won't charge from the iPod cord. Guess how I found that out. Fortunately there was a kind fellow iPhoner who lent me his. I have a clear zip bag that I keep all the little cords and plugs. When I leave, It goes directly into the carry-on bag.

bissa
bissa

any time I have traveled with my laptop, I was generally with at least one other person with a laptop, so I would bring a preconfigured lynksys router. means you can have a much more secure wireless network for the rooms around you. you can also use it for file transfers and the such. when on your own makes it easier to move around the room too.

Fireface
Fireface

I would agre with Bissa. With many of my "peripherals" connecting over a shared wireless network, and most/all hotel/public blocking sharing data between two computing devices, I set up a linksys router that then connects to the wireless network.

superseostar
superseostar

One last bit of advice I would give to anyone who travels frequently is to invest in a laptop travel kit. A variety of such kits are on the market, but the one I use has all of the essentials you might need when you travel. Hotels in Seattle