Laptops reduced to shrapnel? Melted PCMCIA cards? What to expect from plugging in overseas

I'd been warned. I was packing for a six-day trip to Brussels, and I wanted to stay as wired to the Boston office as I could. "Well, you can do it, but it won't be easy," one colleague told me. "Be ready for hours of frustration," another cooed. "Your machine will blow up if you use the wrong voltage adapter," added yet another, which led to a fourth arguing that it wouldn't really blow up but rather would melt down. Both agreed, however, that the destructive process would be swift and that there was little I could do to thwart it once it began.

OK, so maybe my colleagues aren't the best source of advice. But I took their words at face value and decided to gird my technological loins against the impending doom by stocking up on whatever it would take to keep my Toshiba T2130CS running overseas.

First, I gave Toshiba's technical resource division a call to ask what my laptop needed to run on Brussels electricity. Kara, in sales, advised me to purchase a "teleadapter" kit, which sells for $150. She couldn't sell it to me, she said, but I could call the company's accessories division, in Phoenix, and order it. Sure, pass the buck. Send me to the boys in the desert so they can take the fall when I'm found in my hotel room, computer carcass melted to my hands.

But I played along and called the 800 number. I spoke with a sales representative who told me that he'd be glad to sell me the adapter kit but that I didn't really need it because the Toshiba T2130CS has a universal power supply that lets you plug the machine into any outlet anywhere in the world. I brought to his attention my colleagues' concern about rapid meltdown. "Well, you can worry about that," he told me, "but it isn't going to happen."

What I would need, he said, were some outlet adapters and telephone-jack adapters to make my laptop's plug and phone-jack cord compatible with whatever European plugs and jacks I'd come across. So I trekked over to my local Radio Shack and paid $7.99 for a 273-1405D Foreign Travel Outlet Adapters package, which contained four different plug adapters that, the labeling said, would allow me to connect in "England, Hong Kong, Africa, Israel, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, South America, and the Caribbean." I also dropped $14.99 for a 279-412 International Telephone Adapters package, which contained three different phone-jack adapters, one each for Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.

Still not convinced that I was safe, I did what I should have done in the first place: I checked the user's guide. Sure enough, there on page 279, directly under the heading "Power Cord Connectors," was this sentence: "Your T2110CS or T2130C Series computer features a universal power supply you can use worldwide." Lesson Number One: When you're ignorant and fear explosion, read the manual.

Of course, I continued to have my doubts about connecting to the computer back in Boston from a hotel room in Brussels. My colleagues (who else?) had warned me about incompatible tones and modems and data connections. Mostly I wanted to be able to call in for E-mail using the cc:Mail Mobile software on my laptop and to get on the Internet.

When I finally got to my hotel room, I immediately unpacked the laptop from my briefcase and spilled the adapters out onto the desk. I stripped down to T-shirt and jeans, ready to do battle. I saw right away that the plug adapter for England was the one I needed, so I connected it to the laptop's plug and then plugged the machine into the wall and waited. No smoke, no sizzle, no zapped hard drive. Curious, I thought. But I wasn't through yet. I looked under the desk and behind the bed at the phone-jack outlets in the wall. Hmm. They turned out to be the same type used in the United States, so I didn't need the adapters after all. I hooked up the laptop's modem to the phone jack under the desk and prepared for the true test: dialing into the Boston office and retrieving my E-mail. I booted up the cc:Mail Mobile software and switched the program's dialing to "manual" so that I could dial up the Belgian access number for my long-distance provider and then, using my calling-card number, dial up Boston.

To make the connection I had to dial one phone while the laptop was plugged into the other phone's wall jack--not an easy feat, given that the two jacks were some 15 feet apart. So I developed what I like to call the "winged-armspan technique." If I put the laptop on the very edge of the desk and then stretched the phone on the nightstand by the bed as far as it could go toward the desk, I could dial the phone with my right hand while holding onto the receiver and then reach my left hand (actually, my left index finger) out as far as possible and tap the Enter key on the laptop just as I heard the modem for the cc:Mail server ring in the Boston office. Now, the sight of me stretched between nightstand and desk with receiver in one hand and computer keyboard near the other may have startled one or two of the chambermaids, but it connected me to home and was also a nice stretching warm-up before I headed down to the hotel gym for a workout. It had taken me all of 18 minutes to set up the machine and dial into the Boston office.

I was stunned--disappointed, really. Where was the technological apocalypse my colleagues had prophesied? And things got even simpler. An E-mail message from a colleague informed me that America Online has a local access number in Brussels that I might want to try when I wanted to log onto the Internet. I dialed in direct to the local access number and connected right away. In fact, it's a lot easier and quicker dialing in and getting connected to AOL from Belgium than it is from the States. The hotel didn't charge for calling-card access calls, but it did charge 55 Belgian francs (about $1.75) for each local call. Still, it was a small price to pay for immediate access. Lesson Number Two: Sometimes preparing for the worst is a waste of time.

I figured I was golden. For four days I tooled around Brussels, and then in the evenings I'd connect to the office in Boston. Colleagues could reach me and I could reach them, and we could trade files back and forth across the Atlantic with no more difficulty than if we were down the hall from one another.

Then, on the fifth day, I hit a snag. But it had nothing to do with European connections whatsoever.

I dialed into the modem for the cc:Mail server in Boston, and it rang busy. Now, occasionally that modem gets finicky and rings busy when it's not. The only way to know if the signal is legit is to have someone check the modem back in the office or to keep trying to see if you can get through. My calling card lets you redial when you get a busy signal by hitting the pound sign on the dial pad. So I hit the pound sign. Busy signal again. Pound sign again. Busy. Pound. And so on, until I finally gave up.

Later I used the calling card to dial in once more. I got a recorded message that told me I was using an unauthorized number. I figured I must have dialed my calling-card number wrong, so I gave it one more try. The same recording. I freaked and called the local office of my long-distance provider. An icy-sounding woman picked up and started grilling me: What was my office address? What was my local phone company? Where had I been traveling and using the card over the past several weeks? Then she transferred me to security. What I imagined to be a burly guy with a nightstick or an electronic stun gun got on the phone and began asking me even more questions about myself, my work, and my phone habits.

I recounted the earlier episode with the busy signal and the pound-sign punching, and explained that I might have tried to redial the number half a dozen times. "You tried 20 times in a two-and-a-half-hour period," he snapped. I think I was supposed to be shocked at the double digits. And then I caught on: assuming that someone had stolen my calling card and was using it willy-nilly to dial around the world, the phone company's security division had shut off my card. Burly Guy confirmed this, was satisfied that I hadn't stolen the card, and assured me that he'd "change my parameters" so it wouldn't happen again. I thought about awakening him to the irony of how wonderfully simple it had been to stay connected in Brussels to Boston all week and how my first major snafu came from a company back in the States. And I thought about asking how he would feel if his ATM card were eaten by the machine after he'd inadvertently keyed in his password inaccurately with those big, burly fingers of his. But instead I concentrated on Lesson Number Three: In a world where equipment can blow up at the flip of a switch, just be glad when things work.

Traveler's Toolbox

Here's all you need to stay wired to home while traveling overseas:

  • Conversion plugs for electric outlets
  • Telephone-jack adapters
  • A voltage adapter (if your computer doesn't have a universal power supply)
  • The overseas access numbers for your long-distance provider and your on-line service

Products are available at electronics and travel stores.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is coexecutive editor of Inc. magazine.