Travelling Tech – Going abroad if you’re a geek / IT worker.

As is probably obvious by this blog, I work in IT. For this reason going abroad and travel in general has always been ‘of concern’ to me. I am responsible for servers, have clients who may need me to remotely fix something, or even visit them in person. Obviously, if I’m on the other side of the world, physical attendance isn’t going to be possible but I recently spent 17 days in Adelaide, South Australia – covering the Xmas/New Year period.

I thought a blog post may be of use to others in a similar situation who are contemplating traveling but who wish to remain ‘teched up’ whilst they are away. I will try and cover everything I learned and tips and tricks, plus anything that made the travel a bit nicer (but isn’t strictly related to IT).

The Traveling itself

Well a flight to Australia involved (in my case) approximately 13 hours from LHR to SIN. Luckily I was on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 380. Although I was only in economy class, this is not as uncomfortable as it could so easily have been. The A380 is a LOT quieter than the 747-400 I traveled the same route 16 years ago. And on Singapore Airlines, you get good onboard entertainment, lots of TV and films and so on.

Furthermore, they give you a USB socket into which you can plug your smaller devices, AND (brilliantly) a 110v mains outlet so you can hook up a laptop! Specifically on my flights, I found that a standard UK 3 square pin plug could be used with no adaptor (despite being told I would need one). The plug goes in upside down (with its cable pointing upwards).

The onward flight (approx 7 hours) from Singapore to Adelaide was on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 333. This also had USB and 110v mains; bonus!

For the travel, therefore, I was quite able to keep my mobiles charged, and my laptop. So no worries there at all. To make the flight more pleasant and give myself a degree of ‘stuff to do’ I bought a subscription to Audible and downloaded all the books of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy; read by Stephen Fry and Martin Freeman. Very excellent indeed. I also downloaded Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” as although I’d read it, it was a long time ago. Read by Hitch himself. Also fantastic.

In order to listen to these esteemed tomes in the best possible fashion, I spent a lot of money (for me, anyway) on some noise cancelling headphones; specifically, BOSE QuietComfort QC15s. These are basically amazing. Whenever you demonstrate these to somebody, and they flip the switch to enable the noise cancellation, a slow smile of disbelief crosses their face as if to say something like “how? … what? … is this a trick?”.

These headphones really make the flights far far more pleasant; I often had them over my ears without any audio; just to get rid of the background engine/air noise. There isn’t really any way to do them justice in writing other than to say if you are thinking about buying a pair, and know somewhere where you can try them out, definitely do it. They are very effective indeed and worth every penny of the almost £300 they cost.

Telecoms and telephones

Mobiles: I took two phones with me; an Android (HTC Desire S) and my newly acquired iPhone 4S. There were several reasons for this; first I didn’t know I’d be able to charge them on the plane, so took two phones to double my chances of not running out of battery, secondly the iPhone had only turned up a few days before and I thought a holiday would be a good chance to play with it, and thirdly because I wanted to be able to carry a phone with a number that friends and family knew, but work contacts didn’t necessarily know. As a device to own and use, I am now convinced that the iPhone is better than the HTC Desire S. Better audio, better screen, better OS, better apps. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.

Skype: I actually paid for some Skype credit, and also paid the fee for a London number on Skype. This, I reasoned, would allow me to make and receive calls extremely cheaply provided I was able to get wireless access once I arrived in Australia. In practice this cost me just £25, all in, and I still have most of my credit left. Note: it’s also a very cheap way of sending texts whilst you are away compared to probably 35p with your mobile provider on roaming.

Whatsapp: A brilliant app for Android and iPhone. Essentially this replaces texting to your nearest and dearest whilst you are away. It’s actually a lot like iMessage on iPhone, except it’s cross platform, and it won’t send a SMS without telling you if it doesn’t have Internet access (which is costly when abroad). Download Whatsapp.

Computers and devices

I did take my Android tablet but didn’t use it even once. Not because it isn’t a handy device in some circumstances but because I had my MacBook Air with me. This is the best laptop I have ever owned. Amazing battery life, a superbly clear screen, good WiFi sensitivity, very fast. Also very light weight, which if you are lugging it through an airport does make a difference.

Internet Access in strange and interesting places

Obviously this is entirely wireless. For a start the MacBook Air doesn’t have wired ethernet. In LHR I was obviously able to use 3G.

In SIN, there is no free WiFi, but there is WiFi included as part of use of a transit lounge. I recommend this 100% if you are in Changi Terminal 3. It’s called the Ambassador’s Lounge and it costs about 35 Singpore Dollars (about 20 quid ish). This gives you 5 hours use, a shower, and food and drink, and WiFi. They give you the WPA key when you come in and pay. The access is reasonably quick, and reliable.

In Adelaide Airport there is free wifi through a service called InterNode. In several pubs and bars I also found an InterNode access point; in particular the Belair Hotel and the Wheat Sheaf in the city. The access is free of charge; you just click guest. It does seem to time out and require you to re-connect, from time to time. However I found a way around this…

For normal day to day internet access I was staying with family, and they had broadband (though not WiFi), so I took a cheap TP-Link access point with me and donated it (left it behind) 🙂

The other thing I would recommend is a VPN tunnel service. I joined StrongVPN and paid about 85 dollars for a year’s use. This gave me a UK based static IP address (useful for updaing access control lists on the servers you manage). Also, whilst away over New Year’s it’s nice to be able to watch London Fireworks on Iplayer. Iplayer doesn’t work from an Aussie IP address….. But tunnel it via your VPN and bingo; Iplayer works like a charm.

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