When I’m at home, I have an Apple device for almost everything. My iPhone is my travel buddy, my iPad mini is my reading and writing companion, and my computer takes on all the other heavy lifting. But for a visit to Italy earlier this year, I knew I had to pare down my collection: An iPhone, Mac, and iPad all seemed a bit unwieldy for a trip that involved a lot of walking and travel; also, you don’t necessarily want to bring every piece of electronics you own to a foreign country.
So instead, my companion and I made an electronics game plan. We made a list of what, between us, we should take, and packed accordingly. For the most part, we did really well. If you’re planning on venturing out overseas anytime this summer, here are some of our tips.
Don’t: Bring a laptop
The first thing we decided while packing was to ditch the laptops. Our MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are mostly heavy-duty work machines—useful for running ten programs at once (or...Adobe Photoshop), but unwieldy to lug around. Leaving the laptop is a good way to make sure you're leaving your work at home, too. Instead, we brought two iPads: an iPad mini for reading, and my full-size iPad for off-loading pictures and watching the occasional bedtime video.
Not only does this lighten the load, but also it makes airport trips more manageable. Though certain airports had us take our iPads out of our backpacks during the international security process, others let us cruise through without unpacking a single electronic device.
An iPad is more comfortable to use on an airplane, too: Its longer battery life means you won’t have to search for a power plug in midflight, and it’s easy to position the iPad on a tray table and watch videos without making too much of a ruckus.
And despite the iPad’s popularity, I was much less nervous about using it in public than I was a laptop—laptops offer a bigger target for a crook’s hands, and the required laptop bag usually screams: “I have expensive electronics in here!” In contrast, iPads fit nicely into nondescript satchels. To a thief’s eye, my bag could have just as easily carried books or fruit as electronics.
During vacation, our iPads mostly served their preplanned purposes: They were video machines on the plane; route planners for the next day’s activities; reading devices; and photo-backup machines for our vacation footage. We may even have watched an episode or two of Doctor Who with a glass of wine at the end of the day, as well.
Do: Bring an unlocked iPhone and a battery case
If you have, or can easily get your hands on, an older AT&T iPhone 4 or 4S, do two things: unlock it for free via AT&T’s online unlock form, and plan for it to be your primary communication device during your trip. (If you have a Verizon iPhone 4S, the cellular company may also offer a free international SIM unlock for it, but you’ll have to call.) Unfortunately, unless you had the common sense to purchase your iPhone 5 unlocked, AT&T won’t unlock any smartphones (like the iPhone 5) that are under contract.
AT&T’s form takes 5 to 7 days to process; if you need it unlocked right away, you can attempt to rush the process by calling AT&T’s support hotline. I decided to do this at the last minute, and some very nice AT&T reps helped me out, but I’d generally recommend taking the time to fill out the form.
If multiple people are traveling, should they each bring their own unlocked phone? If you have the devices, I say yes. Our original plan was to bring just one unlocked iPhone 4, but we decided at the last minute to bring an unlocked 4S, as well. Though it was one more device to keep track of, overall it allowed us to have more flexibility throughout the trip.
When we got to Italy, we went to a TIM store and—in extremely poor Italian—managed to get two prepaid SIM cards with a gigabyte of data each. Minutes are pretty much useless unless you’re communicating with someone in the country, but data is essential: It allowed us the freedom to wander cities at will without looking like tourists (by carrying around huge fold-out maps). 1GB of data each was good enough for 12 days in Italy, but your mileage may vary depending on where you’re visiting, and for how long.
You may be able to find multiple carriers offering prepaid SIM cards; I was lucky enough to get a primer on Italian prepaid plans from our friend Federico Viticci, but if you don’t have a native friend, the Internet can be incredibly helpful. (Lonely Planet often has good recommendations.)
Bring a battery case, too. You’ll likely be far away from a power plug throughout the day, and the last thing you want is for your iPhone to die on you in an unfamiliar area with no way to return to civilization. (We used Mophie’s Juice Pack line with great success.)
Don’t: Post to social media throughout the day
We were very grateful to have a comfortable amount of data during our 12-day trip, but we quickly discovered that 1GB doesn’t go so far if you plan on updating Twitter and Instagram with your latest photo and video snapshots. After a day or two, we limited ourselves to uploading and posting at the end of the day, once we were safely back on Wi-Fi. (If you want to make sure you’re not wasting data, turn on Airplane mode, then switch Wi-Fi on from there.) Not only was this a good data-saving tactic, but it also kept us from busying ourselves with our phones rather than looking at Michelangelo sculptures. After all, vacations are a lot more fun if you experience them in the moment, rather than blogging the day away.
One way to prevent yourself from subconsciously checking your phone is to keep Airplane mode on (or cellular data off) unless you’re using it for navigation. You can still use your phone to take snapshots or video, but you won’t get notifications, emails, tweets, posts, or other annoyances while you’re trying to enjoy scenic countryside. This has the added benefit of preventing background apps from leeching data from your plan throughout the day.
Bonus tip: You can preload both Apple and Google’s map tiles when on Wi-Fi. If you turn cellular data off (but leave Airplane mode disabled), you won’t draw any more data, but you can still use your phone’s built-in GPS to find yourself on those preloaded map tiles.
Do: Use Dropbox
If you need to access trip itineraries, receipts, train tickets, and other PDF documents, a shared Dropbox folder can be your best friend on an international trip. Before the trip, save all your paperwork—hotel or homestay confirmations, train and plane tickets, museum passes—to your folder, then favorite the folder in the Dropbox app so that all the files are saved locally to your device when you’re offline. Additionally, Dropbox’s Open In support on iOS lets you send any PDFs you get in your email or through Safari to the application.
Dropbox saved our bacon at least once during our Italian trip, when we realized that our PDF train tickets to Siena weren’t printable at the station. Instead, we used Dropbox and its zoom features to let a bemused train attendant scan our smartphones. Dropbox: Sometimes, it just might save you a trip to a foreign police station.
Don’t: Leave your DSLR at home
Apple’s latest iPhone models have great cameras for capturing a snapshot on the go, so it’s natural to think that you might want to let your phone do the majority of your photo-snapping. But really: Don’t.
While the iPhone may be useful to pull out for a quick snap, both its light sensor and quality are still vastly subpar compared with a consumer DSLR or mirrorless camera. You can certainly take great vacation photos with the iPhone if you put some work into it—and we did so from time to time—but I was incredibly glad I took my DSLR along for the ride. It captured both vistas and portraits much more cleanly than my iPhone could, and I didn’t have to stress so much about lighting or camera shake.
If you want to avoid the tourist look, I’d suggest outfitting your DSLR with a pancake lens for most day-to-day shots, as its small profile will make most consumer-level DSLRs practically pocket friendly. I purchased Canon’s 40mm f/2.8 lens for our trip, and never regretted it for a second. No, it didn’t have the zoom capability of my Canon’s kit lens, but we still got some amazing shots—without the extra weight or bulkiness of a DSLR zoom lens. And if you have a CILC (compact interchageable lens) or minature DSLR camera, you can make that weight even smaller.
Along with a DSLR, we brought along Apple’s Camera Connection Kit to offload our images each day to the iPad. This kept us from having to bring too many SD cards, gave us instant backups to both our iPad and Dropbox, and allowed us to reflect on each day at its close.
Bonus tip: If you plan to upload to Dropbox, make sure you have a good, solid Wi-Fi connection, and expect the upload to take a few hours, given the size of your DSLR’s images.
Do: Label and secure everything
Whenever you travel to a foreign city or country, keeping you and your gadgets safe should be priority number one. Pickpockets and thieves are everywhere, for sure, but they’re more likely to prey on easy targets in touristy areas. We were lucky and smart enough to avoid losing any gadgets on our trip, largely by following these common-sense rules:
Keep your iPad in a nondescript bag: Satchels, dingy purses, anything that doesn’t shout “laptop bag” will help thieves pass you over for more appealing targets.
Carry your iPhone in your front pocket: Back pockets are easy to filch from. Front pockets, less so. Even better, keep your iPhone in your bag or a zipped jacket pocket.
Label your gadgets: If you lose your device, make sure it has your contact information and instructions for returning it—in multiple languages, if necessary.
I also put contact info stickers on my camera and SD cards, and left READ ME.txt files on the SD cards.