Travel Hacking: Best Holiday Gifts For Low-Tech Travelers

I’m an unapologetic Luddite. My colleagues at Gadling will attest to this. The fact that I write for AOL is both cosmic luck and hilarious irony given my initial reluctance to embrace the digital era.

I can’t help it; it’s hereditary. At least, that’s what I tell myself, whenever I watch my dad pecking away on my grandparent’s 1930s Smith-Corona (not a lie), or fumbling with the remote.

It’s unsurprising that when I travel, I try to keep things as low-tech as possible. It’s a matter of both practicality and part of my old school aesthetic that leads me to eschew costly devices and other gadgets. I’m also incapable of figuring out how to use them, so I look at it as less items to get stolen or malfunction.

I know I’m not alone, so I’ve compiled a list of holiday gifts for the die-hard travelers on your list who refuse to change their old-timey ways. Just remember, one of these days, us minimalists are going to be cutting-edge for being retro.

Gift card to an actual bookstore (preferably independently-owned), or travel store.
Yeah, books are heavier to lug than a Kindle or a Nook, but as a writer, I value the written word. So do a lot of people, and one of the joys of traveling for us is exchanging books with fellow vagabonds or trading in at a guesthouse or hostel.

Prepaid international phone card
Cheap, abundant, and a hell of a lot less of a hassle than dealing with Verizon overseas (in my experience). A prepaid international card is easy to purchase, although do note it’s usually less expensive for travelers to purchase cards at their destination. It’s the thought that counts.

Netbook or airbook
I may be tech-challenged, but I’m not crazy. I can’t earn a living if I don’t travel with a computer. My inexpensive little Acer has seen me through a lot of countries and fits neatly into my daypack, along with its accessories. Don’t forget a wireless mouse to go with it.
Waterproof journal
Many travelers keep journals, and some of us who travel occupationally still carry notebooks (I don’t even own a tape recorder). It’s a huge bummer, however, when the inevitable rain, beer, wine, or coffee renders covers soggy or writing illegible. An all-weather notebook is the solution.

Ibex undergarments
I used to work in a mountaineering/ski shop in Telluride, and I swear by Ibex. Their 100% merino wool, American-made boy shorts, long johns/long “janes,” cami’s, sports bras, and adorable, long-sleeve, stripey tops are the ultimate underlayers for cold weather adventures. I road-tested some items on a month-long backpacking trip through Ecuador, from the Amazon Basin to one of the highest active volcanoes on earth. I was able to do laundry exactly twice. Ibex: 1, Stench: 0. Men’s and women’s items available; they also make outerwear.

Travel scarf/shawl/blanket
Many women get cold on airplanes and long, AC-blasted bus rides. Since I backpack, I’ve found several different drapey items in my travels that pull triple duty. Depending upon what part of the world I’m in, I’ll use a soft, alpaca shawl to dress up outfits, as a lap blanket, or an impromptu pillow. In the Andes, I sub a llama wool poncho. In the tropics, it’s a pretty, airy sarong. When I get home, I have a wonderful souvenir.

If you’re buying for someone departing on a trip, any department store will have a wide assortment and price range of pashminas or scarves. Just be sure it’s a dark color, to hide dirt and stains, and that it’s made of soft, preferably natural-fibers, so it won’t absorb odors as readily. The item should be able to withstand sink-washing.

Multi-purpose beauty products
Regardless of gender, everyone loves multi-purpose travel products: more room for souvenirs! I like Josie Maran Argan Oil, which can be used as a lightweight, yet rich, face or body moisturizer, or to condition hair (use just a few drops for soft, gleaming strands). Rosebud salve comes in cute, vintagey tins, smells lovely, and soothes everything from dry lips and cracked heels to flyaways. Many top make-up brands produce multi-use products: I crave Korres Cheek Butter, which is also gorgeous on lips (all available at Sephora).

Lush makes luxe bar soaps that work on body and hair, but perhaps the kindest gift for the female adventure traveler? Inexpensive fragrance that does double duty as perfume and clothes/room freshener. I never leave home without Demeter’s Gin & Tonic Cologne Spray.

[Photo Credit: jurvetson]

HP Mini 5102 netbook review

Last year, we reviewed the HP Mini 5101 – what I then considered to be one of the best netbook options on the market. Earlier this year, HP refreshed their lineup, and the 5101 became the 5102. Not that much has changed on the new version, but it is enough of an upgrade to warrant a fresh look.

First the basics – thankfully, the outside is the same, as is the the keyboard – which is just as well, because the “near full size” keyboard of the 5101 was quite simply the best on any netbook. As you can see in the photo above, the keys reach the entire width of the machine, making them a real pleasure to type on.
More power

The majority of changes are on the inside – the first major change is a new processor lineup. You can now order the Mini 5102 with a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 or a beefier 1.83GHz Atom N470. New operating system options have also been added, and you can order the 5102 with Windows 7 starter (in addition to the previous options of Windows XP, SUSE Linux and FreeDOS).

I have to say that Windows 7 really does feel at home on the 5102 – the faster processor obviously makes a slight difference, but the entire experience just feels faster.

More options

The list of available options on the 5102 has increased considerably – the most notable being a touch panel display. This multi touch display supports a variety of gestures, including pinch and rotate. The touch option is an additional $51.

Other options include a GOBI enabled broadband adapter with GPS (additional $125), the Broadcom Crystal HD decoder ($45) and a really cool carrying handle ($30). I played with this carrying handle at the HP booth at CES earlier this year, and found it to be one of the coolest innovations I’ve seen on a computer in ages. The handle is primarily designed for the educational market, but travelers will really love it.

Sadly, the broadband adapter and HD decoder can’t both be added together – there is only one slot for add-on cards.

And finally – the Mini 5102 is now also available in red and blue, in addition to black (additional $28).

Same high end protection

When it comes to “never changing a winning team”, HP did well here. On the new Mini 5102, you still get the HP DriveGuard 3D hard drive protection system, spill resistant keyboard with DuraKey coating, which prevents the letters from rubbing off the keys after prolonged use.

Included software suite

The Mini 5102 comes with an impressive array of free software – including Corel Home Office, PDF Complete, Skype, HP QuickSync (for netbook to desktop data syncing), HP QuickLook 3 and QuickWeb (for instant data access without booting) as well as several trial versions of popular software packages (McAfeeTotal Protection and Microsoft Office Professional 2007).

On Windows 7, you also get the newest version of the HP Support Assistant, which helps with driver and OS updates as well as basic computer health checks. HP also added an array of security features, making the Mini 5102 a great choice for business users.

Battery life

With the basic 4 cell battery, the Mini 5102 will stay powered for up to 4 hours and 30 minutes – an upgrade to the 6 cell pack brings that up to ten hours, though it will add a little bulk. With the 4 cell pack, HP’s Fast Charge system can recharge the battery to 90% in just 90 minutes – perfect for those short layovers at the airport.


A good computer does not come cheap, but with a starting price of $415, you do get a lot of computer for your money. The price does go up quickly once you start adding options, and a fully spec’d HP Mini 5102 can easily climb to $770 – but for that money, you essentially get a broadband enabled touch-screen computer – and the final price is still lower than the top of the line iPad…

The HP Mini 5102 for travelers

For travel, the advantages of the Mini 5102 over other netbooks are easy to spot:

  • A near full size keyboard
  • Spill protection on the keyboard
  • Optional worldwide compatible mobile broadband
  • Optional carrying handle (making it very easy to lift the machine out of a bag at the checkpoint)
  • Good battery life
  • Excellent array of pre-loaded software
  • Drop protection on the hard drive
  • The Mini 5102 uses the same charger found on almost every HP – making it easy to shop for a replacement or spare charger

The bottom line…

With its all metal frame, drive and keyboard protection and extensive options, this is not a budget computer. But if you travel, and need a computer that won’t let you down, the extra investment won’t disappoint you.

Personally, I find the extra options to add a little too much to the price, especially once you start adding Bluetooth, the touch screen and HD video decoder – I would have preferred to see some of those features included in the base price.

But you can’t argue with the quality – I have several netbooks here, and the HP is by far the best built, and most sturdy. There are no squeaks or creaks, and the keyboard doesn’t have the “flex” you’ll often find on cheaper machines.

Justifying the investment is as simple as answering a question – how inconvenient will it be if your computer breaks in the middle of a trip?

You’ll find the lineup of ready-to-ship HP Mini 5102 models here, where you can also start customizing your own machine.

The Nokia Booklet 3G – Sexy and well connected – the Gadling review

Yes – Gadling may be a little late to the party (Engadget reviewed this machine last year), but the Nokia Booklet is still important enough to warrant its own review here on Gadling.

For those that missed all the other reviews – the Nokia Booklet 3G is the first netbook designed by Nokia – the world’s largest producer of mobile phones. Needless to say, when a company like Nokia sits down to develop a netbook, the end result has to be pretty damn good.

On paper, the Nokia Booklet 3G is like most machines on the market – a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of memory, a 120GB hard drive and a 10″ screen. Thankfully, that is where the similarities with other machines ends. The Booklet 3G has a glass frame high-definition screen (running at 1280×768, unlike the weak 1024×600 pixels on most other machines), GPS, Bluetooth, worldwide 3G support and a battery capable of keeping the machine running for up to 12 hours.

The design is also unlike any other netbook on the market – forget cheap flimsy plastic, the Booklet 3G is designed around a single aluminum frame, and the end result is quite simply stunning. The one poor design choice is in the lid – instead of making that in the same finish as the rest, Nokia picked a glossy plastic cover – making the machine one big fingerprint magnet. I tried keeping it clean for the first couple of days, then just gave up.


This one is simple – the Booklet 3G performs like any other Atom powered netbook. Don’t purchase one of these if you plan to do any heavy lifting in your applications.

The combination of the slow processor, 1GB of memory and a sluggish 4200RPM hard drive makes the machine feel a bit underpowered. Web and email work won’t scare it, but you won’t be watching any HD videos on the Booklet 3G.

Thankfully, gaming and videos are not something its target audience wants anyway – the Booklet 3G is the perfect business machine. All work and no play. But thankfully, the work portion is something it excels at.

Keyboard / trackpad

I could keep this portion really short – the keyboard and trackpad are just right. Normally, most computers I review have something I hate. But Nokia got this just right.

The Booklet 3G keyboard is “chiclet style”, with a bit of spacing between the keys. Typing is a pleasure on it, obviously helped by its bright hi-res screen. The trackpad is just the right size, and its buttons are easy to press, unlike some others on the market.


The real “unique selling point” of the Booklet 3G is of course the “3G” part of its name. Inside the Booklet 3G is a 3G HSDPA modem capable of working on 850/1900/2100 bands. This makes it compatible with AT&T in the US, and most foreign operators.

The lack of AWS/1700MHz support rules out using it on the T-Mobile 3G network, and in my tests, I could not get it to find the T-Mobile EDGE network. This is either because the machine is SIM-locked to AT&T, or because the EDGE frequencies are locked out of the modem.

Other connectivity options inside the machine include Bluetooth, 802.11a/b/n Wi-Fi and GPS.

Connectivity through ports is somewhat limited – you get an SD memory card slot, 3 USB ports, HDMI and a combined audio in/out jack. Hidden behind the SD card panel is the SIM card slot. Above the screen is a bog standard 1.3 megapixel webcam.

The lack of Ethernet is a tricky one – not everyone will still need Ethernet, but some hotels insist on offering their Internet service wired only, so you may need to invest in a small USB to Ethernet adapter. Slightly trickier is the choice to offer an HDMI port. Even though HDMI is becoming more popular, picking HDMI instead of VGA means you may need to invest in another adapter if you plan to use the Booklet 3G on a projector.

Thankfully, the Nokia assortment of accessories for their Booklet 3G includes a USB Ethernet adapter and an HDMI to DVI plug (though no HDMI to VGA).

Included software

The Booklet 3G comes with Windows 7 starter, a much better choice than the old XP installations on most netbooks. Windows 7 feels at home on the Nokia, and things run quit smooth (unless you open too many applications).

Nokia also pre-installs applications from their Ovi suite – including Ovi maps and a social networking application that supports Twitter. The desktop software also lets you send and receive text messages, but you’ll need to be sure that text messaging is bundled in your plan, or these messages could cost a fortune.

To make using the Booklet 3G easier with a Nokia smartphone, the box also includes a special dual USB charge/sync cable (because Nokia still doesn’t believe in charging over USB).

Purchase options

The Nokia Booklet 3G is only available from or your local Best Buy retail store. Out the door from Nokia, you’ll pay $599.99 for the Booklet – which is about $200 more than a similarly spec’d machine from other brands. Thankfully, a cheaper option is to order one combined with a 2 year AT&T wireless mobile broadband subscription.

This 2 year contract drops the price of the machine down to a more manageable $199.99. $149.99. Service is $59.99/month, so you’ll need to do some math to determine whether this makes sense for your specific connectivity needs.

Update: I noticed that Best Buy is now selling these for $149.99 when purchased on a two year AT&T plan.

The Nokia Booklet 3G for travelers

On paper, the Nokia Booklet 3G looks like the perfect netbook for travelers – you get fantastic battery life, a hi-res screen, decent keyboard and mouse, 3G, Bluetooth and GPS all in a gorgeous machine that weighs a little over 2 lbs, 10 ounces.

And to be honest, it really is the perfect machine for the roadwarrior – the only downside to the Booklet 3G is its price – unless you already have a need for an AT&T mobile data subscription, that $600 price tag is going to hurt a lot. Especially when a more powerful machine can be found for at least $100 less.

That said – there is something awesome about a machine this well built. I hate to draw comparisons with Apple, but if you don’t mind paying a premium for a machine that isn’t carved out of 20 pieces of plastic, you will love the Nokia Booklet 3G.

Final thoughts

Pricing aside, the Nokia Booklet 3G is a brilliant little machine – though a lot of that brilliance is in its design, the connectivity options, great display and long battery life do help complete the package.

PROS: design, connectivity, long battery life, great screen

CONS: price, slow hard drive, non-upgradeable memory

It is hard for me to tell someone that this is a “must buy”, because that price tag is a tough one – but if you are already budgeting for 3G access, then the investment in the Booklet 3G suddenly becomes much easier to justify.

$200 for a netbook is a no-brainer when you already need 3G access. Best of all, you are not stuck with the 3G inside the Booklet 3G – you could always buy a (used) AT&T 3G modem, and swap the sim around when you need it, especially if you need your mobile broadband on more than one computer.

The Nokia Booklet 3G is available directly from Nokia, or from your local Best Buy. Call your store for availability, only Best Buy stores with an in-store Mobile department stock the Booklet 3G.

Daily gear deal – Kensington cordless netbook mouse with nano receiver for $25

Today’s gear deal is for the new Kensington cordless netbook mouse with nano receiver.

This 2 button mouse runs off 2 AAA batteries (included), and communicates with your netbook with its “nano receiver”.

The mouse is part of a larger lineup of Kensington netbook accessories which includes a universal netbook charger and a compact netbook lock.

If you have ever spent any length of time using the tiny trackpad on your netbook, you’ll understand how a mouse could make your machine quite a bit easier to use.

The mouse is on sale for just $24.99
, which means you are one penny short of reaching the $25 threshold for free shipping. I recommend adding something really cheap to reach $25.

Daily gear deal – Acer Aspire One with Windows XP and 120GB drive for $240

Competition between Netbook makers is fierce – for the past 6 months, prices have been dropping at a very steady pace and have finally brought these machines to the price point where you really should consider picking one up if you are looking for a smaller and lighter laptop.

Today’s deal is for the popular Acer Aspire One. This 1.6GHz machine has 1GB of memory and a 120GB hard drive, which means it stands out amongst all the other sub-$250 Netbook deals. Most other machines in this price range have limited memory and a cramped SSD drive of just 8GB or less. The machine also comes with Windows XP.

To complete the package, the Aspire One also comes with an integrated webcam, WiFi and a multi-card reader.

The only downside to this particular Aspire One is the screen size – at 8.9 inches it may be a tad small for you. Other than that, it has the power to do most on-the-road tasks, and its 120GB drive means you can bring some music or video content with you for a little in-flight entertainment.

The Aspire One is available in black and white for $240, or for $20 more you can get the white version with a 160GB drive. Shipping is free.