A Gadget-Loving Business Traveler Gripes

I've been traveling with a portable computer of one sort or another since the eighties. Back then, and through most of the nineties, my biggest frustration was that hotel rooms almost never had modem jacks and often didn't have modular plugs, making it impossible to simply plug your PC's modem into the phone line.

That's no longer an issue for two reasons. First, no one uses telephone modems anymore. We now connect our laptops wirelessly via Wi-Fi or, in some cases, by plugging into an Ethernet jack. But, ironically, the other reason it's no longer a problem is because most hotels now do have modem jacks which arrived just in time to be no longer necessary.

Back in the day, I carried a kit with me that included a screw driver, alligator clips and a wire stripper so I could connect my modem to the phone line. That worked most of the time but got me into trouble in London where I was almost arrested for unauthorized access to what was at the time the government owned Phone Company.

When I tried to connect from a trade show press room at a conference center, I was told that I needed a licensed engineer to make that connection and I could be arrested and fined. A Japanese hotel nearly evicted me for messing around with its phone wiring and a Las Vegas hotel tried to hit me with a $100 charge for taking apart their phone jack. They finally agreed to drop the charge in exchange for my agreeing to remove the connectors.

Those days are over but I still have a "connectivity" problem with most hotels, because it's often hard or even impossible to find an available electrical outlet.

I'm writing today's column from the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC. It's an expensive luxury hotel with all the creature comforts you could ask for, including a flat screen room TV.

But I didn't come here to watch TV. I have work to do so the first thing I need is a place to plop down and plug-in my laptop.

The good news is that there is a desk and a chair that's suitable for working. Most hotels have desks but many have cushy chairs which are fine for lounging around in but not good for working at a computer.

The bad news is that there were no available electrical outlets anywhere near the desk. There is an electrical outlet below the desk but it's occupied by the lamp and coffee pot. The only open outlets in the room are in the bathroom and next to the room's cushy chair.

Because this has happened to me many times before, I now travel with an extension cord or power strip. Of course, any power strip will do but there are special ones designed for travel such as the Belkin Mini Travel Surge Protector with USB Charger ($16.99 on Amazon.com) or the Monster Outlets to Go Power Strip ($14.43). The Belkin model has three grounded electrical outlets plus places to charge two USB devices such as an iPhone, iPod or Blackberry. The Monster device has four outlets and a cord that conveniently plugs into one of the outlets so it doesn't dangle and get caught up in things.

Both are compact and fit easily into your luggage. Another alternative is just a regular old extension cord which typically comes with three outlets. The cord I'm carrying - which probably cost about $2 - doesn't have grounded outlets but most portable devices these days don't require a 3-prong outlet.

With my electrical needs taken care of, I'm a reasonably happy camper, but I still have some hotel related gripes. For one thing, most hotel rooms have awful lighting. There is rarely an overhead light so you have to walk around the room turning on lamps. And when you leave the room you should do the reverse but, of course, a lot of people are lazy about turning off lights, especially when they're not paying the power bill. Most European hotels have a simple solution for that. When you walk into your room you put your key into a slot that enables all the lights and outlets. When you take away your key, the power goes out. Europeans have long been paying a lot more than Americans for energy so have become quite creative in ways to save it.

Another gripe I have about luxury hotels is the cost of Wi-Fi. Many cheap or moderately priced motels - like Red Roof Inn and most Best Westerns, give free Wi-Fi, but expensive hotels add even more to the bill by charging up to $15 a night for Internet access. It's even worse internationally - I paid $25 for Wi-Fi in Turkey and $30 a night in Berlin. Some hotel chains - including Omni and Fairmont - will give you free Wi-Fi if you belong to their reward program but you have to ask. I signed up for Omni's program when I checked into my room and am now surfing for free.

Enough complaining. Now it's time to head down to the lobby for some over-priced coffee.

This column originally appeared at Larry Magid's www.pcanswer.com.