Adapters, converters keep travelers plugging away

May 27, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

ALTHOUGH FRIENDS and colleagues peg me as a computer geek, for years I've had mixed feelings about taking a computer on vacation.

On one hand, vacation is supposed to be about getting away from all that stuff. On the other, I do like to keep in touch with my family and daily headlines from U.S. newspapers.

Laptops are definitely lighter and easier to travel with these days. And more hotels are catering to road warriors with modem-friendly room phones, high-speed Ethernet jacks and wireless access points that make it a snap to get connected.

I've also switched to digital photography. Having a computer to store photos and upload the best to an online album on a regular basis makes it less likely that an electronic glitch will turn my pictures into a puff of electrons.

All these factors came into play this month when we headed off to England and France for two weeks - and I decided to tote a 4-pound Compaq tablet PC and a new digital camera with a rechargeable battery.

This was the first time we'd traveled overseas with anything more complicated than a hair dryer, and it meant looking into the mysteries of electricity abroad. Foreign current is different from ours, so if you're traveling with any kind of electronic gear, you'll have to prepare for it, country by country.

The first issue is the voltage itself - outlets in England and most of Europe provide 220 to 240 volts, twice the voltage of the United States. Plugging any piece of U.S. electrical gear directly into a 240-volt outlet will fry it, unless it's equipped to handle dual voltages.

Luckily, you can't just plug a U.S. appliance into a foreign outlet because the size and shape of the outlets vary from country to country. Not many of them look like ours.

So depending on what equipment you're lugging along, you'll need a voltage converter and set of plug adapters. There's a difference, and it's important.

A converter contains a transformer that reduces foreign voltage to the standard 120-volt current that most U.S. appliances require. It also handles the difference between foreign 50-cycle AC and 60-cycle U.S. current. You'll need a converter for most electrical gadgets ranging from hair dryers to digital camera battery chargers.

The main exception to this rule is your laptop computer. Because they're so widely used by international travelers, almost every laptop sold today has a dual-current power supply - that's the external black brick that plugs into the wall outlet.

It can convert either 240- or 120-volt AC current to the low-voltage, direct current the computer needs. If you're not sure about yours, look on the brick itself. It should have a box with fine print that says something like: "Input: 110-240 volts."

Newer laptop power supplies automatically adjust to the voltage they're receiving, but some older models may require you to flick a switch between 120- and 240-volt settings. So read your laptop manual.

Plug adapters are exactly what the name implies. They'll let you plug a U.S. appliance into the outlets abroad. Researching this column, I found at least 13 different plugs in use around the world, which can be frustrating, even if you're not traveling that far. For example, England is separated from France by just 13 miles at the point where we crossed over by train in the Chunnel, but Britain uses a different plug than continental Europe.

If the laptop is the only gadget you're traveling with, you won't need a current converter, just a set of plug adapters. But for most other devices, a converter is necessary. If you plug a hair dryer designed for the U.S. market into a European outlet using a straight plug adapter - with no converter - it's likely to expire on the spot. So be careful.

You can buy converters and adapters at Radio Shack, in department stores and luggage outlets. Most offer kits containing a converter and a half-dozen adapters that will cover you in most of the electrified world. Just make sure the converter is heavy-duty enough to supply all the current your devices need.

Of course, having researched all of this long before we got on the plane, I forgot one thing. All the converters and adapters we had were designed for two-pronged American plugs, not the three-pronged plug on my laptop's power supply. Normally, you can solve this problem with an 89-cent adapter that's available at any hardware store here. But try finding one in Paris.

As luck would have it, a friend of my son who joined us for two days is an engineer who had thought of this problem and had the right adapter. With it, I was able to pump enough juice into the tablet to provide sparing use for a few more days. But I sure felt like an idiot.

I never had to try a dial-up connection because our Paris hotel had a wireless access point, provided by the French Telecom subsidiary Orange, that worked flawlessly. But if you do want to dial into a European provider, you might have to buy a phone jack adapter, too.

To figure out what you'll need overseas, check out Steve Kropla's Help for World Travelers Web site ( It's an excellent guide to the world's electronic mysteries.

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