Packing for a trip when you've got to work on the go means a lot more than clean socks and a toothbrush. Whether it's in a conference centre, a hotel room, or an airport lounge, there's a number of items – both physical and virtual – that can make your extended office work.
Let's start with your laptop. Adding a few tools to your software arsenal can allow you to work as though you were at your desk from anywhere with an Internet connection.
A virtual private network (VPN) allows you to securely connect to the company network over the Internet, while preventing unauthorized access. Once you have that connection, you'll have your office's shared drives at your fingertips.
This method does require some work at the office end. Depending on the VPN in use, you may require a device called a concentrator, or a specially configured server. But if that sounds like more than your IT can handle, you can also buy a VPN as a service for a monthly fee, from companies such as AccessAnywhere.
If your company uses Voice over IP (VoIP) phones, chances are there's what's called a softphone – a program that lets you make and receive phone calls from your office number on your laptop – that you can install. Cisco, for example, offers IP Communicator. Add a USB headset with a decent microphone to substitute for the handset on your desk phone, and when the phone rings in the office, you can answer it on your computer, regardless of where you are. The caller won't know the difference.
If your e-mail system includes a unified communications component, voicemail messages will land in your inbox, where you can listen to them with programs like Windows Media Player.
Even when you're travelling, you'll probably end up getting pulled into meetings at the office, and [on the road]hat means either an audio conference or a web meeting. When choosing one of these services ( WebEX or GoToMeeting, for example), check that it allows VoIP connections. That way you will be able to save the cost of a phone call by connecting to the conference over the Internet, through your laptop. This is especially handy in airports, where you'd otherwise be stuck on an expensive cellular call.
If you have Internet connectivity but no VPN access to your home file-server, cloud storage may be the way to go to swap files with colleagues, or simply stash them safely for your own use.
There are a couple of caveats attached to this very convenient file-handling method.
First, ensure you have read the terms of service for your chosen cloud system. Make sure your data will be as secure and as private as you need it to be; putting documents about a critical deal on an insecure cloud location could be career suicide.
Second, once you sign up for cloud storage, don't assume the default settings will protect your files. Configure the settings yourself, so you know precisely who can access the data.
With the software taken care of, a few useful bits of hardware will make life easier on the road. A portable power strip such as the Monster Outlets to Go or the Belkin Mini Surge Protector with USB Charger is worth its weight in gold when you have several devices to power and can only find one outlet. It's really handy in airports, too, when several travellers battle for one lonely plug.
An ethernet cable doesn't take up much room, and can save a panic call to the front desk when the hotel wireless isn't working and there's no patch cable for the wired connection in your room. Tuck a USB cable of the appropriate type into your bag as well, and you'll be able to charge your phone or e-reader from your PC.
Speaking of USB, a data key is another small but useful addition to a traveller's arsenal, to back up those critical files you are working on and protect them in the event of computer problems.
A smart phone is a great travel tool, but it can also be an expensive one. Roaming charges, even with a carrier's discounted travel plan, can be a killer.
If you're lucky enough to carry a BlackBerry, you have several advantages. It compresses data in transit, and the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) lets you download headers only and filter out high-volume mailing lists or other large items.
Other smart phones may allow you to turn off cellular data when roaming (Windows Phone 7 does it automatically, unless you deliberately turn off the setting), but can't filter for only download headers. That can make a huge difference; on a recent trip, a BlackBerry's data roaming charges were one tenth those of another smart phone, for the same traffic. With most modern smart phones, including BlackBerry, you can also take advantage of WiFi, where you can find it, to download e-mail or hit the Web and save yourself cellular roaming charges.
Finally, hauling all of this gear around can be a backbreaker, so choose your bag well. If you do a lot of travel through the U.S., a checkpoint-friendly bag gets you through TSA security without removing your laptop, giving you one less thing to juggle. Most major bag manufacturers offer at least one model, so check around to find the best deals.