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Portable Travel Gadgets and Gizmos: The Winners and Losers for 2008

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Memory StickThis past year I logged a half-dozen international trips (mostly to Asia) and dozens of domestic trips that took me both across the country and up and down the West coast.

I’m always trying new gadgets that are designed to make my trips more productive, but more often than not they just make my luggage heavier.

My measure of a useful travel gadget is one that I still use after three or four trips and makes me smile as I use it, because of its neat design or cleverness.

So here are my top 10 favorites for the new year that I wouldn’t leave home without:

Scott E-vestScott E-Vest – This jacket solves the problem of luggage overload. By stuffing the 22 pockets to the brim you can carry 30 or 40 pounds of gadgets, and even ditch your carry-on bag entirely if you want. The pockets can accommodate anything including phones, water bottles, cameras, magazines and music players, but you won’t look bulky or overloaded. You can also use it while sightseeing in faraway cities because it allows you to carry your camera and other accessories in the pockets instead of a having to tote a separate bag. There are several different styles which cost from $150 – $250.

Link: Scott E-Vest

The LugBuddy – This elastic cord contraption lets me carry any bag on top of my rolling bag by just strapping it to the handle. It’s easily adjustable and holds everything from a wide duffel bag, to a briefcase, to a jacket or package of any size or shape. $15.

Link: LugBuddy

Belkin Portable Mini Surge Outlet – As soon as I get into my hotel room I plug this device into one of the few outlets that I can find, and it instantly gives me three additional AC outlets, plus two USB ports to keep all of my electronics charged. The unit rotates on the plug so it works regardless of the outlet’s location. $24.

Link: Belkin

InCase Power Slider

iPhone Case and Battery – I love my iPhone 3G, but it hardly has enough battery power to get through the day. So I’ve been using the InCase Power Slider which is a battery and case all in one. This case turns the phone into a chunkier package, but it doubles the battery life and is great for my transpacific flights. It costs about $99. A similar, but less attractive product from Tekkeon does much the same for $70.

Links: GoInCase, Tekkeon

Google Maps – Using Google Maps on a BlackBerry, iPhone or other smartphone is  amazingly helpful when traveling to strange places. The free application shows you where you are and lets you mark locations to find them again. I’ve used it in the middle of the Australian outback, in China and in Europe. I once used it on a train in the Netherlands and figured out that I had gotten onto the wrong train and was heading in the wrong direction. It works best with a smartphone that has built-in GPS.

Link: Google Maps

Garmin Nuvi GPS – If you plan to drive in an unfamiliar city, a portable GPS device is a must. It relieves stress and provides guidance wherever you are. I’ve been using an older Garmin Nuvi, proving that even the basic model works just fine. Some of the newer models now contain maps of North America and Europe. Prices start at $149.

Link: Garmin

AirPort ExpressApple AirPort Express Base Station – This little device that looks like a power adapter for an Apple notebook turns a hotel room with a hard-wired connection into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Plug the room’s Internet cable into this device, then plug the device into an AC electrical outlet. In about 30 seconds you’ll have a secure wireless zone allowing you to use your computer anywhere in the room, so you won’t be tied to a desk. It also lets multiple users access the Internet. About $99.

Link: Apple AirPort Express

Skype – Not so much a gadget as a service, Skype lets you call home from anywhere around the world for next to nothing, using just a computer and an Internet connection. Best of all, prices average around two cents per minute.

Link: Skype

3G Data Modem – While Wi-Fi is fine if it’s available, it can’t compare to a cellular 3G connection that’s available most everywhere. I’ve been using Sprint’s 3G data service and a Novatel U727 USB modem which connects to the Internet from just about anywhere in the U.S. in seconds. The biggest problem is you can’t roam outside the U.S.

SwissTechToolSwiss+Tech 6-in-1 Key Ring Tool – Since the TSA forbids pocket knives in luggage, I’ve often been stymied when looking for a way to open a package or remove a tag while in my hotel room. Though I would never encourage breaking the law, I can tell you that this little gadget that looks like a key and is carried on your keychain has never been detected over the course of hundreds of trips I have taken. It has a straight knife blade and a serrated cutting surface, a micro-sized screwdriver, a Phillips screwdriver, an eyeglass screwdriver, and a bottle opener, and weighs in at an amazing 0.5 oz. $10.

Link: Swiss+Tech

So what have I abandoned in 2008?

Universal Adapters such as the iGo for powering multiple devices. They’re too large and use expensive proprietary connectors that easily get lost.

Tiny Bluetooth headphones – Unless I’m calling from inside an isolation booth, those whom I speak to complain about not being able to hear me clearly when I use one of these. And you always need to remember to keep them charged. I now use an Etymotic HF2 wired headphone that also works as a stereo earphone. It needs no batteries and has good sound.

Netbooks – While these mini-laptops are a real novelty and very compact, I’ve found them to be very slow and often missing the applications and files I need. Not to mention the small keyboards make typing painful. And even though they are two or three pounds lighter than an average laptop, that’s nothing when your briefcase already weighs 25 pounds.

By Phil Baker for PeterGreenberg.com. Check out Phil’s blog at http://blog.philipgbaker.com.

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