Macs abroad

Taking your technology on the road is hard enough. So you might think that taking it overseas is even harder. But it doesn’t have to be. With a little bit of preparation, going online in Kuala Lumpur can be just about as easy as doing so in Des Moines.

Pick Your Pack

Unless you consider Hawaiian shirts and fluorescent fanny packs travel necessities, think twice before taking your fanciest laptop bag overseas. That svelte leather satchel with perfect PowerBook-size proportions screams “Tourist!” in some parts of the world, making you a target for pickpockets and petty thieves.

Discreet neoprene sleeves, such as WaterField Designs’ Sleevecases (prices start at $38), are great alternatives. They let you slip your PowerBook or iBook into a less conspicuous container, such as a backpack or a messenger bag, while still giving your laptop the protection it requires.

And don’t forget to pack your iPod. You can copy and paste your itinerary and sightseeing notes into its Notes folder, and it can serve as your backup drive.

Foreign Powers

You know that many countries don’t use the same electric current as the United States. That’s why it’s so handy that Apple’s entire portable line is dual-voltage-ready: the square AC adapter that ships with every iBook, PowerBook, and iPod can handle the 220-volt electricity used in Europe and Asia, as well as the 110-volt current found in North America. So all you need to pack is an inexpensive adapter to plug into oddly shaped electrical sockets.

Adapter plugs cost a few dollars each, and you can purchase them at your local luggage shop. For a particularly stylish set, check out Apple’s World Travel Adapter Kit ($39). It includes six different AC adapters, with blades and plugs for every continent. The glossy white adapters click right into the power brick. Unfortunately, this prevents you from using the AC adapter’s longer power cord—a pity, because convenient power outlets can be hard to come by in less-developed locales.

Not every vendor is as worldly as Apple. If you’re packing a digital camera, a PDA, or a camcorder, look for a sticker reading “Input: AC 110-240 volts” before you plug it in.

Foreign Phones

If you plan to use a dial-up connection to check your e-mail messages from a hotel, pack a long phone cord. RJ-11 phone connectors are increasingly the norm in modern buildings and urban hotels worldwide.

Travelers who veer off the beaten path or beyond business-class accommodations might come across funky-looking phone jacks. For these, you’ll need another small plug adapter. The thrifty solution is to borrow parts from other telecom equipment wherever you are. Look closely at phones and other telecommunications devices. Many have plug adapters with North American-style plugs on one end; you can simply borrow the adapter for the duration of your online session.

If that approach is too haphazard for you, visit a travel outfitter’s Web site before your trip. At BuyTravelConverter.com, for example, you’ll find a panoply of phone plugs and power adapters, and its product listings are organized by country.

Note that the digital phone systems in some hotels and offices rely on high-voltage PBX lines, which will sizzle your notebook’s modem. Digital line testers such as Magellan’s TeleTester Pro ($25) will quickly assess the condition of the line.

Under Warranty Overseas

Fortunately, the warranty on Apple’s portables is valid worldwide and includes global repair coverage. Carrying a copy of your AppleCare papers will minimize any fuss if you demand walk-in service from one of Apple’s international dealers, and carrying some proof of purchase couldn’t hurt.

If you’re going abroad for a while, bring CD copies of your system software and mission-critical apps (and their registration numbers). Having these on hand will save you days of headache if you need to reinstall software in the field. (If you buy software overseas, you risk all sorts of support, language, and upgrade-licensing issues after you’ve returned home.)

Keep in Touch

Once you’ve reached your destination, you’ve got a number of options for getting connected: Internet cafés, Wi-Fi hotspots, hotel broadband connections, and dial-up connections.

Café Society Internet cafés have followed tourists to every corner of the earth. Whether you’re weaving through the streets of Saigon or strolling down the Champs-élysées, odds are you’ll find Internet access right around the corner. (If in doubt, ask a local teenager for directions.)

While some Internet cafés let you plug in your own Mac, you’ll usually have to use their computers. To send e-mail messages from a public computer, you’ll need to remember the URL for your provider’s Web-mail service (if you’re a .Mac customer, for example, it’s webmail.mac.com). Be prepared to hunt and peck, since keyboards can be very different in some countries.

Wi-Fi hotspots have the advantage of letting you use your own Mac (see “How to Use Hotspots” ). U.S.-based commercial hotspot services including T-Mobile HotSpot and Boingo are expanding into Europe and Asia, usually in familiar places such as Starbucks outlets. Before you leave, you can set up a time-limited account with one of these services—but check its Web site first to make sure it has locations where you’re headed.

In-Room Internet Chain hotels have jumped on the high-speed bandwagon, usually charging a flat rate for a full day of in-room Ethernet access. Prices vary, but if the continental breakfast costs $40, the DSL probably won’t be a bargain either. Hotel DSL also brings its own minor annoyances, particularly when it comes to connecting to SMTP mail servers. (See “Hit the Road, Mac,” for tips on using hotel broadband.)

By combining hotel DSL with a voice-over-IP phone service such as Skype, you can surf the Net and gab away for hours on end for one flat rate. If you’re a budget traveler, you’ll find some great offerings—including complimentary Wi-Fi—in Europe’s very competitive hostels.

There’s Always Dial-Up While it may sound passé, you can always fall back on a dial-up connection. If you have an Internet account back home, you might be surprised to discover that your big-name ISP has local access numbers almost anywhere you may wander.

EarthLink, for example, offers international roaming, to both its dial-up and its broadband users, in more than 70 countries. Customers must enable the service by signing in (at myaccount.earthlink.net) and going to Service Details: Optional Service. For instance, in Italy, EarthLink provides more than 650 local dial-up numbers. When you use one of these international numbers, you’ll be billed an access fee of 15 cents per minute.

But don’t forget that you’ll also have to pay phone charges for your dial-up sessions. Hotels usually charge inflated prices for any phone service, even local calls. Hitting the minibar is probably cheap by comparison.

One final tip: The pitch of the dial tone varies from country to country. (In Italy, it wavers like a busy signal; in Japan, the volume is quite soft.) For that reason, you should disable the Wait For Dial Tone Before Dialing option (in the Network preference pane’s Modem tab).

It’s a Mac World, After All

Even though it requires a bit more preparation than traveling inside the United States, taking your high-tech gear overseas is much easier than it used to be. Thanks to the worldwide spread of Internet cafés and hotel broadband, and Apple’s travel-friendly design, you can feel right at home wherever you go.

Preflight Downloads

Before you walk out the door, download and test-drive these shareware utilities built for globe-trotters.

Traveler’s Clock ($5): Illume Software’s clock screen saver is designed for hotel sleepers. It displays a large, low-light clock that’s visible from across a room, it includes a white-noise generator that masks the sounds of nearby ice machines and traffic, and it lets you choose your favorite tune as a rockin’ wake-up call.

Time Palette ($30): Xeric Design’s global time tool will save you from ever having to yell “What time is it there?” on a long-distance call. Along with shaded day-and-night maps and a sunrise-sunset almanac, Time Palette’s database stores the legislative oddities of many countries’ differing rules for daylight saving time.

[ Jason Cook is currently studying for an MBA at the University of Cambridge. ]

Your modem thinks all dial tones sound like the one in the United States, but that’s not the case. To prevent confusion, tell it not to wait for a dial tone before trying to establish a dial-up connection overseas.If you don‘t want to pay for hotel broadband services, consider dial-up. Major ISPs such as EarthLink offer dial-up access—Italy alone has hundreds of local-access numbers—for a nominal fee. Just watch out for hotel phone charges.
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