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Mac OS X for the Traveler, Part 5

by FJ de Kermadec
10/01/2004

Editor's note: In this final installment of Mac OS X for the Traveler, F.J. shares some of his most clever tips for surviving on the road. You might not follow every one of these precautions. But I've noticed already that they are in the back of my mind as I prepare for a trip, and I've made some nice adjustments as a result. I hope this series has added a dose of preventive medicine to your travels too.

Go Small

Some of your handheld devices can also be extremely helpful to store snippets of information that you want to keep at your fingertips without having to take out your computer. For example, your phone may store short sound files and images (a picture of your kids or pet echidna, for example), your iPod can store small text files (like driving directions, departure gate information, or even conversational phrases in a foreign language) and, obviously, sound files.

While your camera's smart card is probably not the ideal storage media for Keynote presentations, you can have fun with various devices and see what they can store (making sure that you do not damage them, of course). Indeed, most electronic gizmos are now miniature full-featured computers that can do a lot more than advertised by their user manuals.

Storing information on these devices will not only make your life easier, but it will also help you keep your computer safe and sound while you glide through crowded concourses.

What About CDs and DVDs?

Should you lose your installation CDs or a special movie you love and took with you on a trip, wouldn't it be nice to have a backup? Yes, certainly. Are you allowed to make one? Probably not.

Indeed, software disks and disks containing copyrighted content fall under international or domestic copyright laws that you should follow. Moral considerations aside, you may not want the customs to confiscate your whole computer case because of a suspicious CD-R.

The best advice I can give you is to carefully read your license agreement and/or contact your legal advisor--it may be worth it if you rely on software that costs large sums of money. This should provide you with a definitive answer regarding what you can and cannot do.

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Mobility

Mobility is one of today's buzzwords. With your super-traveller, frequent-flier international card, you can earn miles for worldwide hotel and resorts chains, and win round-the-globe cruises on international waters. While this sounds great, this marketing-powered appearance should not trick you into thinking that you can rely on all your partners--i.e., the companies you usually work with--while you travel (or at least easily).

Indeed, in most cases, your various contracts are only applicable in your country of origin and most of the perks surrounding them (toll-free numbers, on-site help, 24-hour counseling) vanish when you cross the border. This is even true of very expensive business services. Why? Nobody really knows, but increased costs, time zones, and language barriers are my suspects of choice. Just as you don't expect your airline's codeshare partner to help you with a customer service issue like the original company would, you shouldn't expect your phone provider's foreign partner to help you troubleshoot international calls or GPRS connections.

Therefore, it is important, before you go on any trip, to ensure that your partners are reliable, can be reached electronically (since you won't be charged long-distance call fees to send an email abroad like you would be if you had to phone them) and are willing to go out of their way as much as possible to help you, should it be required.

Service Providers, Hosts, and Technical Support

The first thing to do is to have a look at your various hosting and services contracts and to look for the following points:

  1. Can the company be reached through email or chat? If yes, do they respond quickly and efficiently? If the company uses chat, do they outsource it (generally a very bad sign)?
  2. Do they operate 24/7 or do they, at least, reply quickly to your email?
  3. Are they willing or able to answer detailed, unusual questions if needed? (Some support systems expect their customers to only ask questions contained in a pre-written script.)
  4. Can they call you back on your cell phone if you ask them to do so?

Once you have conducted your very own survey, grade the company. If you're not entirely satisfied, it may be worth considering switching providers before going on a trip. Indeed, you will probably not be able to check your email as often as usual while you are traveling, and will certainly have things to think about other than your ten-digit customer follow-up number--if a company cannot remember you by name, it's a bad sign anyway.

As we have seen, .Mac and the iTunes Music Store are backed up by email support that allows for easy interaction around the globe. Some companies, though, still insist that you do call them. Keep in mind that toll-free numbers are only toll-free within their country of origin (with the exception of some rare international emergency numbers like 112, the European equivalent of 911).

Mac users can always post on the AppleCare Discussion Forums, on which they can find community-powered help from users around the world.

If you can do so, you may also want to make sure that you have "insider" access to the company. For example, knowing the work email of a level-2 support person or a customer service representative can allow you to bypass the usually inefficient layers of script-based support and annoying answering machines. Just make sure that these persons know that you have their addresses and have allowed you to use them!

Check Your Warranties

There is nothing more frustrating than having to send one of your devices for repair while you are on the go. Indeed, not being familiar with the country you are in can make finding the right service provider a long, painful process. Depending on your contract, the reseller may refuse to perform warranty work.

Here is a true story: a big Japanese electronics manufacturers once told me that I needed to write in Dutch to their central customer service office in the Netherlands to get a list of internationally approved service providers that could help me with a basic camera issue. Needless to say, none of these resellers were in Paris, where I was staying at the time.

Therefore, it's a good idea to carefully read your warranty before going on a trip and to pack all of the necessary papers with you. iBook and PowerBook users who chose to purchase an AppleCare Protection Plan will enjoy one of the best international support systems in the industry--a comforting thought. If you're not sure which plan you have or which one you should purchase with your next laptop, you can have a look here. Also, take the time to browse the Apple site from your country of destination and use the reseller locator to print a few addresses to keep with your warranty papers.

This page should give you a few ideas if you travel within the United States. Apple recently updated its reseller and service provider locators, turning them into advanced databases that are a lot easier to browse than the earlier versions were--yet another success story from the Apple webmasters.

The golden rule with Apple products is to only let Apple Authorized Service Providers touch your equipment. Indeed, only AASPs have the necessary knowledge to treat your device with due respect, without breaking your warranty.

Unfortunately, all manufacturers are not as simple to deal with as Apple when it comes to warranties. Digital camera manufacturers, for example, are notoriously painful to deal with. This is why you might want to inquire on a per-peripheral basis before leaving for your trip and make sure that you have a basic idea of what to expect.

Keep Recurring Costs to a Minimum: Managing Your Accounts

Our daily online lives typically rely on multiple accounts, from various providers. Whether we need to lease SMTP servers, register a domain name, share files, or host a web site, we soon have a list of partners that expect us to pay recurring fees and will, despite their good will and wish to please us, shut our accounts down if they do not receive due dollars or euros in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately for us, many credit-card companies are so afraid of fraud that they will sometimes prevent foreign companies from withdrawing money from our accounts. I have received many angry mails from providers having been accused of conducting "fraudulent activity" by my overzealous and short-sighted bank. Therefore, instead of choosing a partner in every country you travel in, it's very often more convenient to deal with companies who have global reach. This is neither a requirement nor a warranty, but will take care of many credit-card processing glitches as well as currency exchange issues.

Better yet, the companies you're dealing with should be able to accept credit cards from various countries--if you have multiple accounts, that is.

Dealing with people you can trust and rely on is an essential step when you are on the go. But dealing with people who can reliably provide you with as many services as possible on one bill is even better, since it makes the possibility of forgetting a renewal fee a lot more remote.

Some credit card companies are also a lot more international-friendly than others and will be able to assist you through their local customer service offices, should you need any help. While this may sound like a detail when you are at home, having someone to talk to if your card suddenly stops responding the day you are supposed to renew your domain name can save your life, or at least it feels that way at the time.

If bill-paying services are available and legal in your country, you may want to rely on them to take care of renewing your accounts. That way, transactions will only occur from the same country and will take place smoothly without requiring you to keep an eye on them too frequently. Should you opt for this solution, make sure that you deal with trusted companies only, since you will be (so to speak) giving them the keys to your bank account.

Incident Response

Despite all of our efforts, sometimes things go wrong. Terribly wrong. Your hard drive was wiped out by an airport security scan while your peripherals were sent to Dusseldorf (DUF), Saarbruecken (SCN), and Copenhagen (CPH), in three different packages. Shortly afterwards, someone on board your plane stole your PowerBook, replacing it with a stack of illegally copied CDs and called the customs to search you at your arrival.

OK, there may be a little exaggeration in this scenario, but frequent travelers know that things can easily go wrong, especially when you stroll through unknown places, on a tight schedule, and do not always have the time to stop to think things through.

Technical Problems

Whenever you face a technical problem, you should immediately stop using your computer. It's easy to make things worse in a moment of panic. Then, if your computer is in good shape and the circumstances allow for it, perform a complete backup. This will at least provide you with the assurance that your experimentations won't lead to a digital disaster, miles away from home.

Then, depending on the nature of the problem, perform your usual maintenance and troubleshooting steps; after all, troubleshooting remains troubleshooting, wherever you are. Keep in mind that, even though your network administrator or good Mac friend may not be at hand, you are not alone! Indeed, both the AppleCare discussion forums and the Knowledge Base will assist you through the troubleshooting steps.

Here's a tip: should you ever need help, it's a good idea to switch your interface to the language best spoken by the person who will help you. Mac OS X makes it extremely easy to do, and this may speed up troubleshooting a lot if the person assisting you does not speak English fluently.

Following the good old saying, "Better safe than sorry," keep in mind that traveling times are not the best moments to play around with your Mac. Sure, your computer is here to be enjoyed, but you should take good care of it and react at the first signs of aging (to speak in fashionable terms). Unusual slowness or error messages that may seem innocuous while you are at home should raise red flags while you travel. Indeed, as a general rule, troubleshooting is easy at the beginning and gets increasingly complex as you let issues spread across your installation.

Here is an interesting tip: before going on a trip, you can partition your drive and install a fresh copy of Mac OS X on the second partition. Set up basic functionality--security and networking are especially important but you can, for example, skip the cosmetic details. Should your main Mac OS X installation fail unexpectedly, you can simply reboot from the other one to get a fully functional Mac in the blink of an eye.

Whenever possible, factor in the time required by your various maintenance operations. For example, most directory recovery software will take hours (if not days) to save a failing drive. This is all very well, but does turn your Mac into a posh paperweight while it is running (since moving a computer that is engaged in heavy optical drive/hard drive action is the best way to lose any chance of seeing your data again). When troubleshooting, take your time! A Mac that is shut down won't damage itself by magic, so you do not have to panic if you notice a problem at a bad time: back up, think happy thoughts, and shut down. (Notice that you should back up before shutting down, though!)

Internet Connection Issues

One the things that is most likely to go wrong when you are on the go is your Internet connection. Indeed, everywhere around the world, switches implode, DHCP servers fail, and phone lines get destroyed--even in quiet places. It's therefore important that you have more than one way to connect to the Internet, especially if your business relies on your ability to communicate with other members of your work team.

It is no news that most big hotels now provide high-speed Internet access in their rooms. While slightly costlier, this option has one big advantage: it lets the hotel deal with any local connectivity-related idiosyncrasies that you might otherwise have to face all alone. As a general rule, Ethernet is your best option since it does not require any drivers of any kind. Some hotels also feature wireless Internet access, but the advantages of this method may not outweigh the added reliability and security issues.

If you need to connect to the Internet by using a telephone line, be aware that phone systems do vary from country to country and that you could, in extreme cases, damage your modem. Once again, the Apple Knowledge Base will provide you with the information you need about your modem (namely, operating specifications). In a good hotel, the concierge or front desk should also be able to provide you with pointers.

Hot spots in airports, cafes and strange places are also a good way to connect to the Internet, provided that you are aware of the security and privacy issues we discussed earlier. This page will provide you with links to hot spot finders, sites that list various hot spots around the globe. Keep in mind, though, that these sites are rarely entirely accurate. They provide you with a rough estimate of the connectivity possibilities of an area, at best. Indeed, since anyone can create a hot spot with two pieces of string and an AirPort base station, new access zones are popping up every day--and it is just as easy to pull the plug.

Finally, should you be willing to get a bit geekier, you can use your mobile phone as a wireless modem, either through a data account or simple dial-up. This last method, while extremely convenient, is probably a bit off-topic since you are likely to be outside of your original provider's network, which usually makes the price of phone calls rise tremendously. Some phone providers are now introducing lower international rates or special contracts that feature a certain number of reduced-fee international calls. It's probably worth checking what options are available to you before going on a trip, should you need to resort to this last method.

Theft, Loss, and Other Agonies

Should your Mac be stolen or lost, the absolute first thing to do is to alert your local law enforcement authorities. Onboard a plane, this means alerting a flight attendant; in a hotel, the manager on duty and the police. Even if chances of getting your laptop back are slim (I know this is depressing to hear, but let's be realistic), it is important that you file an official claim. This will help you get insurance coverage once you return home.

Once the police have been alerted, you can call your insurer and ask about the best procedure to follow. This will usually involve lots of red tape, so be prepared to fill out multiple forms. A good hotel or airline will usually offer to assist you, but don't get your hopes too high--and keep in mind that even if it is proven that an employee stole something, this does not mean that the "company" in itself is dishonest. So stay calm and courteous, and accept all of the help that they are willing to give you.

You may also suggest that the police (and the police only) call Apple Corporate Security, a special office inside of Apple that handles such issues. While Apple cannot get your PowerBook back, they will at least keep an eye on computers sent in for repair or exchange and help law enforcement as much as possible.

Playing the community card by spreading the word sometimes works, but you should keep in mind that thousands of Macs get stolen and that every Mac user cannot watch for stolen PowerBooks all day long. In some countries or on some forums it may also be illegal, so use caution!

Should you have added any tracking devices to your computer, tags or tracking software, do let the police and your insurer know about it. This will show your goodwill at the very least, and will provide them with additional clues to track your computer down. Some tracking companies require that you notify them of the theft as well, in which case it is essential that you do so.

Peripherals or objects that aren't tagged can safely be considered lost forever, but this should not prevent you from contacting the police, either. Having your packing lists handy will be of a great help, especially if you included enough information on them to get the search started: giving an exact description of what was stolen shows that you are making a trustworthy claim, based on actual facts.

Interesting Tidbits

Now that we have focused on security, portability, redundancy, and mobility, you may be interested in a few additional anecdotes that depict what travelers can expect. Of course, they are only the reflection of personal experiences, but they may prove helpful to you.

AirPort and the Law

Wireless networking is without doubt one of the best allies of the Mac traveller. Thanks to Apple's work on the technology, you can connect to various hot spots with extreme ease of use. Unfortunately, this is at the same time an endless source of concern for the international traveler.

Indeed, various countries have various regulations set for wireless networking and may threaten to throw you in jail if you do not respect them. This article should provide you with some good basic information when it comes to selecting channels for both your cards and station. It is unfortunately slightly out of date and should be taken with a grain of salt.

In big cities and crowded areas, chances are that an "illegal" card will not be detected. However, moral considerations aside, there is some potential for serious legal action and damage, especially if you happen to be around military installations or hospitals. Your card could also unknowingly disrupt communication between important devices that have not been designed to deal with interference gracefully. Finally, some countries still consider any form of wireless transmission illegal, so proceed with care and make sure that your AirPort card is turned off before boarding on your plane or crossing the border!

The Joy of Plugs and Voltages

Owners of recent iBooks and PowerBooks can travel with the knowledge that their power adapters can accept both 130V and 230V alternating current, which makes using their laptops a lot easier when traveling. In order to make sure, have a look at your adapter. It should say: "Input 100-240V 50-60 Hz."

This may unfortunately not be the case of every one of your peripherals! Make sure that you remember which ones can be plugged in everywhere and which ones require special adapters. Indeed, plugging a 130V device into a 230V plug is as potentially damaging as the reverse, so be careful! While most countries have unified their electricity systems, not all have completed this step, and you may be in cities that still offer a mix of 230V and 130V plugs (or some other bizarre voltage).

Many companies offer travel kits containing pre-approved adapters. These are usually slightly more expensive than what you can buy at your local electronics store, but using them may be essential to avoid voiding your warranty. Some peripherals manufacturers like Palm even throw them in the box, free of charge--with certain models, at least.

This page should provide you with plug information--remember, we are only talking about the shapes of the plugs here, not the voltage. The Apple World Travel Adapter kit will provide you with high-quality adapters, for example; look it up on your local online Apple Store.

As silly as it may seem, purchasing a good travel guide for a country will provide you with lots of important information regarding the use of electric devices.

A word of caution about adapters--should you require a device that actually intensifies or diminishes voltage, and not only the shape of the plug, treat it with care and ensure that there is sufficient airflow around it. Transformers heat pretty easily, especially the cheaper or smaller models sold in travel shops, which do not always have sufficient shielding. Unplug them when you step away from your desk to avoid overheating and the potential fires that go with it--sure, it's an extreme case, but it's not a chance you want to take while traveling.

What Airport Security Scans Can Do to You

Airport security scans are usually harmless to computer and storage media. Indeed, the field that exists inside and around checking devices is rarely able to go through the shielding in which your data is wrapped. Nevertheless, with the increased number of scans and the introduction of new machines, handled with more or less care by their operators, it is a good idea to keep a copy of your most important files, should anything go wrong.

Also, computers and peripherals are handled quite roughly while going through security checks and this is an endless cause of accidents--drops and breakage being the most common. Therefore, it is important to only carry in your computer case things that can be handled with relatively less care without suffering too much.

Unfortunately, in the name of security, filing complaints if one of your belongings has been damaged by security personnel is quite difficult. In most cases, though, it is possible and important to do so since it will help you with insurance claims. You will probably be allowed to stay in the security area if you want to boot your Mac from the hardware test CD and see if it works. Do not hesitate to ask.

Email and Port Blocking

There is nothing more infuriating than traveling for long hours, plugging your laptop into your network and realizing that you cannot send anything because your email provider is down. Or is it really?

Indeed, many hotels and Internet Service Providers now block ports associated with SMTP requests in order to prevent (so they say) spam and viruses from propagating on their networks. Unfortunately, this means that they also prevent you from using your usual email account, unless your provider allows you to connect to the SMTP server on a non-standard port--which is quite uncommon.

Therefore, if you can afford it, you may want to get an SMTP-only account, specifically designed for travelers and users in your situation. DynDNS is a known provider of such services--and their servers support SSL, which is a huge plus!

Final Thoughts

The Mac, without a doubt, is the best possible computer for travelers. Like any computer, though (and especially computers around which your entire life revolves), it requires handling with relative care and efficiency to stay an invaluable, faithful travel companion. I hope that these words of advice will help you better plan your trips.

As they all say, you can now "sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight."

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.


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