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THE HIGH-TECH TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
By Joe Brancatelli
July 14, 2010 -- Sometimes you learn the lessons of high-tech business travel in the strangest places. Even in your own backyard on a torrid Fourth of July weekend.

As I struggled to keep my tomatoes hydrated using a low-tech watering can, two women with strappy sandals and big-city sensibilities appeared and inquired about hiking the mountains surrounding my country village.

"The trails aren't marked, it's getting dark, and you shouldn't try to hike in those shoes," I said.

"We came up from [New York] on the train on a whim and thought it would be fun. Maybe we should just get a hotel room for the night?"

"Good idea," I said. "But the problem is…"

"Oh, no problem," one of them said. "I have this!" She flashed her iPhone at me. "All I have to do is look it up. I get all my travel information from this."

I didn't see the Strappy Sandal Sisters again, but I know what their iPhones would have told them. My village has three inns with a total of just 24 rooms, but there are nine big chain hotels clustered around an Interstate exit just 10 miles away. What their iPhones weren't likely to tell them? All 24 rooms in my village would have been sold out long ago, the train doesn't stop anywhere near the Interstate exit, and taxi service is nonexistent.

Moral of the tale: Don't come to my neck of the woods without the right shoes, and don't expect high-tech tools to solve all of your travel problems.

Tech tools have simultaneously made travel easier and more complicated—and made travel more essential and less necessary. And business travelers created the market for a slew of high-tech devices: Who but us needed portable computers, transportable digital audio and video, and mobile devices that allowed immediate communications with anyone, anyplace, anywhere on the planet?

But the tricky part of the equation is that the rules of managing both travel and high-tech change all the time. There is no immutable "truth," only an endlessly nuanced and evolving set of procedures that get you to the next improvement, the next adjustment, the next must-have "killer app." Here's what matters now:

Less Gear Is More Practical
We may never get to the fabled "convergence device" that allows us to use one convenient piece of gear to do everything on the road. But that doesn't mean we should carry a paratrooper's stash of gadgets to do our business remotely. Do we really need a notebook computer and a netbook? Is carrying a Mac laptop and an iPad logical? Why schlep a music player, a book reader, a mobile phone, and a PDA too?

The "simple" solution? Take two and no more. A good, current-generation smartphone--a BlackBerry, an iPhone, or the equivalent--can handle the functions you want accessible in your pocketbook or your pocket. To varying degrees, of course, they'll all make calls, do email, and texting, surf the Internet, play music and video, and handle other media. They all have built-in tools (calculator, alarm, calendar, address book, still camera, and video recorder) that once required separate devices. For heavier-duty needs—spreadsheets, word processing, extensive Internet access, and other "traditional" tasks—settle on one "laptop/notebook" portable computing device.

Whether you choose to live in the Wintel or Mac universe, need a physical keyboard or a virtual one, want to compute in your device or in the cloud is a personal decision. How much weight you want to carry is personal too. But two devices should do it. Before you add another high-tech device to your carry-on bag, ask the obvious question: Can my laptop or smartphone do what the third device does? The answer is almost always yes.

Apps Are Where It's At
The iPad and netbooks notwithstanding, the high-tech action now is apps for your mobile smartphone. Apps aren't magic, by the way. They are simply mini-software programs that do a specific Internet-related task. But with three competing systems--BlackBerry, Android/Google, and Apple--ferociously battling for market share and media-conferred status of "hot" and "trendy," the apps market is flooding the zone with creative approaches to task management.

What apps should you have? How should I know? This is, after all, personal technology. If you want a fart-noise app or a trip-planning app, who am I to tell you no? If you insist your apps be free or you're willing to pay for them, who am I to say? The trick is sifting through the hundreds of thousands of competing applications. If you want a Twitter app or an app that generates Millard Fillmore quotes on demand, you're on your own. But I can direct you to the collected travel-related apps for the iPhone, the BlackBerry, and Google's Android operating system.

The Essential Accessory
When you boil it all down, high-tech tools are all about managing, manipulating, and displaying your information. The devices themselves are simply conduits to the business and personal data you need and want. We've been through all sorts of data-storage devices in the past 30 years: floppy and hard drives of various designs and capacity; optical drives like CDs and DVDs; memory cards; and the "thumb drive." I think thumb drives are now the essential accessory because they are the best current intersection of price, physical size, data-storage capacity, and durability. Low-volume thumb drives cost next to nothing; in fact, thumb drives emblazoned with corporate logos are now a popular leave-behind. More capacious ones that also allow you to store and access application programs are cheap too.

You can stash five drives in an empty mints tin. What's more portable than that? I personally use a vintage Tabloid Tea container, which I find historically hilarious because the original Tabloid-brand products were the first generation of travel-sized consumables for 19th century English travelers.

Roam If You Want To
If you travel overseas, a global plug adapter is often the difference between power and panic. A local-number SIM card will slash your mobile phone costs; Telestial sells prepaid SIM cards for dozens of proprietary national networks. And Skype remains one of the travel world's greatest disruptive innovations. What's better than talking free to anyone around the world? And if they aren't close to their computer, you can connect to their landline or mobile phone for just a few pennies a minute.

Remember the Unmemorable
Like all armies, business travelers may travel on their stomachs, but they are nowhere without the unmemorable bits of gear that keep their high-tech tools running. So make sure you have an RJ-45 cable for wired Internet connections; the retractable, flat-pack Targus cord is 6.5-feet long and even has converter clips that allow it to double as telephone cable. A backup USB cable has a multitude of uses. I use the free version of LogMeIn to keep my laptop remotely connected via Internet to my desktop systems. I've also ditched my mobile phone's AC power pack and recharge it using a cable that connects it to my laptop's USB port. Check with your phone provider for the appropriate connection.

The Fine Print …
Complaints about the phone-reception and dropped-call problems of the iPhone 4 are getting louder and more definitive. Consumer Reports magazine this week said that it could not recommend the iPhone 4 until Apple offers a free fix for the reception issues.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.