Over the years, a lot of road warriors have asked us how to work on the road and set up a mobile office. How do we get business done when we travel over 300 days a year? Based on our 20+ years of experience working all over the world, we built this resource to give you a detailed guide on how to work on the road and set up a mobile office. Today, there are a host of devices, software, apps and even paradigms that make work on the road easier, less expensive and more doable than ever. There are also a number of pitfalls. This guide to work on the road is intended to be comprehensive. You can read the entire article or skip to a specific section you need. It is also intended to be simple to understand so you don’t need to be a world traveler or techie to benefit. And while the information is directed towards international travel, most is applicable to domestic travel as well. We’ve broken it down into three areas to make it easy: Communication, Security and Computing. Enjoy and happy travels.
Communications for the Mobile Office
When you live and work on the road, you want to stay in touch with family and friends and need to stay in touch with your company, peers, employees and customers. The goal is to effectively stay in touch while minimizing expenses.
Cellular when Working on the Road
There are a number of great options today to stay in touch voice to voice. The thing to avoid like the plague is using a US based cellular carrier (like Verizon or AT&T) with their international voice and/or data plan because these plans are outrageously expensive. Cell phone service in the rest of the world varies from relatively cheap to dirt cheap if you go local. This means purchasing cell service from a provider in the country you are visiting and this is easy to do. The first thing to understand is that cell service in the US works differently than just about any other country. In the US, phones are cheap or free because their cost is subsidized by the cellular network providers. Part of the deal for you to get a new phone is that you sign up for a multiyear contract with the cellular provider where you are billed on a monthly basis and typically have a plan with an allotted number of minutes per month.
Overseas, it works differently. Outside the US, you generally pay full (unsubsidized) price for a phone and then get what is called a SIM card from any cellular provider you want to use. SIM cards are about half the size of a SD camera card and slip into a slot in your phone – usually located inside the phone, behind the battery. The SIM card is what gives you your phone number and you prepay for minutes on your SIM card rather than having a monthly bill and allotted minutes. It’s really easy to recharge minutes on your SIM and in many countries you can buy SIM cards at convenience stores, airports and even roadside stands. We have SIM cards for different cellular providers in over a dozen countries and whenever we visit that country, simply slip the appropriate SIM card into our phones. That gives us a local phone number and cheap rates to make local or international calls. Note that in most of the rest of the world outside the US, it doesn’t use any of your minutes to receive calls.
As far as phones, you can buy one overseas or get a quad band, world phone in the US. We use a Droid Incredible 2 and the iPhone 4s is now (finally) a quad band world phone. You can use a US phone overseas with a foreign carrier as long as it is quad band and unlocked. Unlocked means that it will work on other carrier‘s networks using their SIM cards. We called Verizon to unlock my Droid and they were very helpful and did it quickly. When we are in the US, we leave my Verizon SIM card in the phone and when overseas, change to a local carrier. Currently Verizon will unlock their iPhone 4S for use overseas on different networks but AT&T will not. Consider this carefully when getting an iPhone from AT&T (we wouldn’t recommend it). Policies change so make sure and check with your cellular provider.
Email on the Road
Finding an internet connection just about anywhere in the world has never been easier. WiFi is ubiquitous now at cafes, bars and restaurants, airports, libraries, resorts, hotels, conference centers – just about everywhere. There are apps like JiWire and WeFi that help you find the nearest WiFi but generally we just ask someone or turn on our Droid or Mac and see what free networks are available. No doubt the mac daddy of email is Gmail. We’ve used Ymail, AOL (back when grunge was a new musical genre) and Outlook (only because we were forced to) for years and nothing compares. Now with Gmail, you can work on and offline. If you want to be able to use Gmail offline, simply download the Gmail Offline app from the Chrome webstore, it’s free. The Gmail app for Droid does this automatically. We love the priority mailbox feature which helps me stay focused on the most important stuff and of course the search capability for old emails is unmatched. You can set up different groups and have your email auto sorted by group in your inbox. And of course, all your precious email is password protected and securely backed up. These guys are smart and good.
Google Voice, Indispensable for the Mobile Office
G Voice is a single phone number that can follow you anywhere in the US and has a ton of very cool features for the road warrior. You simply set your G Voice number to forward to whatever US cell or landline you want. You can change your forward number at anytime and this way people aren’t trying to figure out what number to contact you at. Currently, you can not forward your G Voice number to an international number (but that’s OK, see below for what we do). The voicemail feature is fantastic. You can get message playback via the G Voice app on your smartphone or online. Even better, voicemail can be transcribed into text and delivered via email. This is hugely convenient when overseas so you don’t have to make long distance calls back to your home country to check your voicemail. If you need to call someone back, you can use G Voice to make international calls at very inexpensive rates – usually pennies per minute. GV supports free texting in the US and Canada. And by customizing groups and settings, it will even act as your own personal secretary. And it’s free. God love Google.
GV doesn’t currently support international text but texting using a foreign cellular service provider (see using a quad band phone with SIM card above) is usually dirt cheap – even internationally – which makes texting a great tool to communicate from country to country.
Chat is great for brief, international communications. We use both Facebook and Google chat and like each of them. You can see which of your friends or colleagues is online and connect with them instantly. When Sharkman was mountain climbing in Tibet, he communicated with Mantagirl via FB chat to update their blog daily.
What is Skype?
When Skype first came out, we thought it was the coolest thing since the internet. It is an indispensable tool for all travelers and we hope that Microsoft doesn’t do anything to mess it up. Skype lets you call from computer to computer anywhere in the world for free. It also lets you call from your computer to any landline for pennies per minute. You can get the exact rates at www.skype.com. You’ll need to sign up for an account, add credit if you are going to be calling landlines and invite friends to connect with you. You can also use Skype for video calls and conference calls. It works great with an iPad too.
Does anybody really still do this? If so, use eFax. Incoming faxes come as attachments right into your email inbox. Very easy. You will need to download the eFax reader so you can read the incoming faxes.
Computing When Working on the Road
Hardware for the Mobile Office
For years, we used a Dell laptop with a 17” screen and while the screen and computing power of this “desktop replacement” were nice to have, the size and weight of this thing just became a giant pain in the ass. Everything from transport to working on a plane becomes problematic with a beast this big. If all you do is email and basic word processing and file (picture, music) storage, a windows based netbook can work great and is highly portable. Even better, get a Mac. If you have a Mac and still need to run some Windows applications, simply partition your hard drive using Boot Camp – it’s easy to do – and your laptop can run both Mac OS and Windows XP/7. We’ve done this and it works great. We still want to be able to play video games which are primarily Windows based and don’t want to have to buy a Mac version of Adobe Photoshop. So we simply run these on the Windows partition. If you are buying a Mac, pass on the Mac Book Air. They are super cool but pricey. You can get the same uber portability and plenty of storage and horsepower with a 13” Macbook Pro at a lower price. You can also get refurbed models for cheap. That’s what we did and it has worked great. For you super-techies, here’s how to hack a netbook and install a Mac OS on it to make it a mini Mac. Very JB.
We are seeing a lot of people traveling with iPad’s these days and it just makes sense. They are small and portable and easy to use on a plane. If you’re going to be doing some typing, you can get a collapsable keyboard. The only questions is will the limited computing capabilities of the iPad – relative to a laptop – let you do everything you need to do? If so, they are ideal for the traveling road warrior.
Cloud storage is simply online storage that you can access from anywhere with an internet connection. This has two great applications: First, you can have all your files, pictures, videos and music available online in a secure place where you can access everything from anywhere in the world. How cool! As a professional photographer, I want to have all my images accessible whenever and where ever I need them but don’t want to haul around the numerous portable hard drives it would take to store them all. So I store them “in the cloud.” Meaning, with a service that offers online storage. And second, cloud storage gives you a secure backup of all your files. If your hard drive on your laptop crashes or even worse, your laptop is stolen, you can still access all your files. Cloud storage companies have multiple redundancy so it is highly unlikely that your stored data would ever be lost. Some companies offer storage for free and some is paid. Check out Moby, Drop Box or iCloud – which is built into the new Lion OS for Mac.
One key to work on the road is to go as paperless as possible. Completely paperless if you can and odds are, you can. Paper not only produces clutter but becomes problematical to transport and store. After all, you don’t want to have to haul around tons of files. Your mail is already paperless and everything else can be too by using a portable PDF scanner like the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300. Small and very portable, a PDF scanner quickly puts everything into a digital format which can then be stored on your laptop or cloud based storage. Make a digital signature by making a custom stamp for Adobe Acrobat or using a simple JPEG for word documents. Then you don’t need to print & sign anything.
Charging Your Stuff
The US is 110V and most of the rest of the world is 220V. Also, power plugs around the world use different layouts (US, flat two prong; Europe, round two prong, etc.) Most power adapters for laptops and phones today are dual 110V/220V so you can plug them in and charge them all over the world. For traveling overseas, you can find the adapter you need for your specific country here: http://www.electricaloutlet.org. There is always confusion over the difference between electrical adapters and converters. Converters actually step down electrical current from 220V to 110V so you can plug in a 110V only electrical device. These are large and heavy and rarely needed since most electrical appliances are dual voltage. Adapters are small plastic devices that let you plug your two flat prong plug into a different plug outlet but don’t change the voltage.
Security for the Mobile Office
Unsecured WiFi networks which are common throughout the world are a serious security threat you may not be aware of. You and your personal data, including passwords can be easily hacked. There are over a dozen readily available programs designed to let someone hack into your computer through an unencrypted WiFi connection and these programs have been downloaded over a half million times. That means there is a LOT of hacking out there. Unsecured connections are common in airports, coffee shops and restaurants in the US and worldwide. The WiFi connection you are using isn’t secured unless it has password protected encryption (like WPA or WEP). You know the connection is secured if you have to get a password to access the network. You have two choices to avoid this threat: 1. use only secured (password protected) networks and 2. use a VPN (virtual private network) when using an unsecured WiFi hotspot. VPN’s are services that create an encrypted pathway from your computer to the internet and prevent electronic eavesdropping. Many corporations have a company VPN available to employees. For everyone else, there are a number of effective and cheap services with the two best being Strong VPN and Hide My Ass. If you use an unencrypted WiFi connection without using a VPN, you run the risk of having your passwords stolen or worse.
If your laptop or iPad crashes, is stolen or stepped on by an elephant, you better have your data backed up or you can lose invaluable and possibly irreplaceable data. At the least it will be an epic pain in the ass. There are a couple of key pieces to a solid backup strategy. First, leave a backup at home before you leave. That way you always have a base you can come back to if needed. Next, take a portable hard drive with you and back up to it as you go along – especially if you are taking pictures or shooting video or creating any kind of irreplaceable work. Today, portable hard drives are cheap and about the size of a deck of cards. Put your backup hard drive in a different bag than your laptop. You can also back up to the cloud and we highly recommend it. “The Cloud” is a really cryptic sounding name for what is essentially just online backups. Via the internet, you simply copy whatever files you want stored with a service where they securely store whatever files you want to put there. This allows you can access your data, music, photos or videos from anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection. Services include Mozy and Dropbox. You can backup individual files and folders or mirror your entire hard drive. Mirroring lets you take a “snapshot” of your hard drive so if it crashes beyond repair or is stolen, you can restore it exactly as it was in terms of programs, settings and data without having to copy individual files and reinstall all programs and settings.
Though this sounds a little JB (James Bond), encrypting the data on your laptop hard drive is a really good idea. If your laptop is stolen, do you really want somebody to be able to go through everything you’ve stored on it from emails to documents? For Windows use Truecrypt. For Mac, you can use Truecrypt but the Lion operating system has built in encryption called File Vault 2. Snow Leopard uses File Vault 1 which received some mixed reviews for slow performance. We used it without issue.
A good first step for your laptop, iPad and smartphone is to enable a password for accessing the device at startup or when it comes out of hibernation. This capability is natively built into all of these devices. These passwords with thwart a casual thief but not a trained hacker.
We keep our laptops with us most of the time but if we have to leave it in a hotel room, we do one of three things. We either put it in a locked piece of luggage, the room safe (if it will fit) or use a laptop lock. Laptop locks are inexpensive cable locks that fit into a slot on your laptop and then around the leg of a desk, post or other unbreakable object. We wouldn’t expect our laptop to disappear from my room at the Peninsular in Hong Kong but like to have this security for many places we stay.
Paying for Things When You Work on the Road
A recent study found that no-international fee credit cards on the Visa/Mastercard network are the best tools for spending money overseas. The fine print here is that you need to get a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. Most credit cards charge 3% or more of all purchases made overseas on a foreign currency. The exceptions include the Chase Sapphire card, American Express Platinum card, Citi Thank You Premier Card and Chase British Airways card.
Using ATMs to withdrawal foreign currency is a close second. Again, it is important that you use a bank that waives ATM fees as foreign ATM fees can be a hefty $5 per transaction or more. Banks that waive foreign ATM fees include Charles Schwab (our favorite), Bank of America and Wells Fargo (but only for PMA accounts). Check with your bank and ask them specifically what are the requirements to waive those fees. Once you use an ATM in a foreign country the first time, look at your statement online and calculate your exchange rate. Compare that to banks and your credit card to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
Automation when you work on the road.
All your credit cards should be set up for paperless, online statements only and set up for autopay where your complete balance is automatically debited from your bank account each month. No mailing checks, manually transferring funds or late fees. Set this up online or call your credit card company to do it.
If you live, work or travel extensively overseas or even in the US, what do you do with your mail? Get a mail scanning service that receives all your inbound mail, sorts it and only emails you what you want. You can read it, print it and still have the physical mail forwarded to physical address if you want. They can even deposit checks. Check out Earth Class Mail.
Virtual Assistants and Outsourcing
Need help with a project or managing personal things while you are on the road? Go to Elance and get the help you need. You will find everything from virtual assistants to web designers and accountants.
Travel Gear the Road Warrior Can’t Be Without
- Noise canceling headset and iTunes or Pandora – from crying babies on the plane to jamming out in your hotel room or cafe. Create your own little sanctuary and get your work done. Pandora is a user definable online jukebox that is oh so cool.
- An e-reader, either a Kindle or iPad or Nook. Paper books are awesome but take up too much space and weight when traveling. You can also get your newspaper and magazine subscriptions.
- Patagonia light weight merino, long sleeve top – gotta be comfortable to work.
Finding Things You Need When You are on the Road
- Yelp and Urbanspoon – Both available as smartphone apps. Use them to find your mobile office, i.e. – search for cool cafes with WiFi as well as a good place to grab some local chow. Take reviews on these sites with a grain of salt as many are submitted by owners, employees and even competitors.
- Hearplanet – Want to know what attractions are around? AND learn about them?
Practical Apps for Working on the Road and Getting Around
These are our favorite, don’t miss apps for travel and work.
- Trip It – Tripit is an easy way to keep up with multiple flights, car rentals, and hotel reservations. Just forward all travel confirmation e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org and Tripit delivers a master itinerary to your phone. Very bueno.
- Kayak – enables you to easily compare hundreds of travel sites at once for flight, hotel and car rental bookings. Offer travel management tools including an itinerary management tool, flight status updates and price alerts. Indispensable.
- Google Translate – Can decode a menu, phrase, or travel site within seconds. Plus, you can use it to mess with all your new friends on Facebook when you post in their language.
- World Customs app: http://www.appstorehq.com/worldcustoms-iphone-23627/app so you don’t accidentally piss off or offend anyone.