Apple, converter, dual voltage, electronics, gadgets, iPad, iphone, iPod, Kindle, light travel, micro-USB, packing tips, smart phone, tablet, travel, travel electronics, USB, USB adapter
Travel and USB Electronics
Universal Serial Bus (USB) electronics have changed how we travel. These devices are small, lightweight, and work internationally. This is why traveling with USB is one of the Five Key Principles of Light Travel. An increasing number of electronics charge and communicate via USB, making it even easier to take electronics on the road. Unfortunately, many people don’t fully understand how USB really works. Since they don’t understand USB they are travelling with more equipment (and more weight) than needed. Today we’ll look at how the majority of USB powered devices work and show you how to travel lighter with them.
Many electronic devices have a USB charge option
When most people think USB they think of smart phones, MP3 players, battery packs, and GPS devices. But wait, there’s more! Manufacturers have expanded the choices to include personal computers, headlamps, batteries, mobile Wi-Fi (MiFi), and portable shavers. Almost any low power device is now available with a USB charge option. Consider looking for a smaller and lighter USB version of your electronics the next time you shop for a new or replacement item.
All USB chargers convert incoming voltage to 5 volts direct current (DC)
All USB chargers are known as “step-down” converters and drop the output voltage to 5 volts – regardless of the input voltage. So why do you really care about this? It means that the charger will convert any standard input voltage to the correct output voltage. You can use a USB charger on all continents without using a voltage converter. All you need is a country specific adapter plug. You can also use the 12 volt power port in your automobile. Your USB power device is happy and fine with it.
USB electronics have multiple charging options
USB devices are low power direct current (DC) devices. This means that they have many charging options that are not available for higher power alternating current (AC) devices. USB devices charge through solar cells, USB auto power plugs, USB wall chargers, computer USB ports, and hand crank batteries. The odds are that you will find at least one of these options available during your travel. The solar charging and hand crank options also make USB devices great for emergency situations. It may take a while to charge the device, but at least you will eventually charge it!
Most newer USB devices – except for Apple – use micro-USB connectors
Several manufacturers met in 2007 to standardize mobile phones. This means that most phones manufactured after 2007 use micro-USB connector/synch cords. Other electronics groups started using this standard too. The only major exception is Apple, which uses the Lightning protocol. Why do you care? It means that all of your non-Apple devices can share the same connector cord. Rumor has it that Apple will be forced to use to the new standard by 2017. Apple does provide a micro-USB to Lightning adapter if you only want to use a micro-USB connector cord. I have had mixed success using the adapter. I have never had problems charging my iPhone but have had multiple problems synching with iTunes. I finally gave up and decided to carry an extra Lightning connector cord when I travel. That means I bring 2 cords – an Apple connector for my iPhone and a micro-USB connector for everything else.
USB devices come in 0.5 Amp, 1 Amp, and 2 Amp versions
Most of the older (pre 2007) and smaller USB devices take 0.5 A as the input current. Smart phones take 1 A as the input current. Larger devices, such as Kindle, iPad, PCs, and tablets need a 1.8 – 2 A input current. This means that you can’t use a 1 A smart phone charger to charge your 2 A iPad as it doesn’t have enough current. But here’s something you should know – the same 2007 standards that directed that USB devices use micro-USB connectors also directed that USB electronics automatically limit current so they won’t blow up. That means you can use your 2 A iPad/Kindle charger to charge your 1 A smart phone. That’s right – a single 2 A charger will charge all your devices! If you want to charge two devices at once then buy a 2 port USB charger that outputs 1 A on one port and 2.1 A on the other port. This will take care of all your charging needs.
Warning #1 – some multi-port USB chargers list their amperage as a combined amperage. The spec will say something like “2.1 A combined”. This means that the total output is 2.1 A. If you plug a 2 A device into one port then there is nothing left over for the other port. If you want a true dual port charger that charges two devices at once it will have a 3 A total rating. (1 A + 2 A). Read the specification before you buy!
Warning #2 – Older automobile power ports are not equipped for the higher current dual port chargers, although true cigarette lighters do have enough current. You will blow the auto’s fuse if you try to charge a 1 A device and a 2 A device at the same time in a low power port (you’ll know when it goes dead). Keep your charge current below 2 A in an older auto (one iPad or 2 smartphones). Even some newer autos only output 1 A, which isn’t enough for a tablet device. It will charge very slowly, if at all. Autos are slowly switching to higher power outputs but it is a bit of a gamble, especially with rental cars.
My Personal Solution
I travel with an iPhone and several standard USB devices. Sometimes my travel companions use a higher power iPad. My solution is to bring a dual port USB wall charger. One side charges at 1 A, and the other side charges at 2.1 A. That means that I can accommodate any type of USB electronics. I have a dual port auto charger configured the same way. I can charge two items at the same time using the wall plug – I just need two connector cords.
Because I have an Apple device, I bring two different types of connector cords. One cord is a micro-USB cord and the other is an Apple Lightning cord. My Lightning cord is 4 feet long (1.2 m). The longer cord lets me use my smart phone while it is charging. It also reaches the auto power port when I have my phone mounted on the car as a GPS device. If I did not own any Apple products I would bring two micro-USB connectors.
I bring a USB powered head lamp and a USB powered battery charger in addition to my synch cords, auto, and wall chargers. My electronics fit into a small zip-loc.
Travel lighter – dump the chargers!
Take some time to go through your travel electronics. See if you can combine chargers and cords. Consider ordering a multi-port USB plug so you can combine chargers even more. Dual port chargers eliminate fights over the wall plug/auto power port. They are also great when all the wall plugs are in use. You can almost always negotiate sharing the plug with another user if you have a dual port plug. That feature alone is worth the investment!
Updated on July 7 2014 – Added warning about dual port USB chargers in response to a question from Facebook.
Lynne in NC said:
Great posting; appreciate the time and effort to put together all this information. Thanks for sharing how to minimize your electronics when traveling. Very useful tools.
Sarah G said:
Great posting. One more thing that I have to add is make sure that you are using a compliant and safe USB wall charger. A young woman in NSW, Australia was electrocuted just last week from using a cheap USB wall charger. She had purchased it from a mobile phone accessory stall at a market. Unfortunately, the cheaper chargers are often not insulated and standards compliant. Here is the news story about the death (http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/warning-over-usb-chargers-after-woman-dies-from-apparent-electrocution-20140626-zsngd.html) and the official Australian safety alert http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/ftw/About_us/News_and_events/Media_releases/2014_media_releases/20140626_safety_alert_usb_style.page.
Cindy Heazlit said:
So very sad. The price of an approved device is usually only a few dollars more. It’s not worth it to buy electronics from discount dealers. Even if the device is safe it usually isn’t rugged.
As the news article stated, we should look for the safety approval markings on the electronics. If you look at the one picture in my post showing the charger specification you’ll see the European “CE” marking which shows that device conforms with the standards. Legitimate companies go through extra expense to get an item approved. If they win the approval they will proudly display the approval marking. If you don’t see a marking or it isn’t listed in the specification it isn’t because the company forgot about it. It’s because that item isn’t approved.
One thing I’ll do is go to the manufacturer’s website and look up the specs on the product. I’ve had good luck with Lenmar.
Cindy Heazlit said:
An analysis on the Australian death is posted here:
Long story short – a cheap charger can kill you. Please don’t save money by buying unapproved chargers!
Anne Perdow said:
My son recently explained I could use a single charger for multiple devices and he purchased one for himself. Now it makes sense to me and certainly makes traveling less cumbersome and confusing.
Is there a usb charger you recommend for traveling abroad? One that complies well with an adapter? Basically what would you use for an iphone and a kindle if you were going to Europe?
Great article, really learned a lot.
Cindy Heazlit said:
All approved devices are good for international travel, and all will take a travel adapter. If you want to charge both your Kindle and iPhone at the same time you’ll need a 3.1 A dual port USB charger. You’ll have to plug the Kindle into the 2.1 A port.
Kim J. said:
Thank you for the great article, it answered several questions I had but raised a new one. The charger that came with my iPad Air is a 1A is that why it takes so long to charge? Do I need to invest in a different charger or did Apple change reduce the amps required to charge the Air?
Cindy Heazlit said:
The iPad Air has had problems with recharge times. It needs a 12W charger port as it has a heavy drain on power. You should have a 2.4 A charger with your Air. A 1A charger usually will not charge the device. It is possible that you received the wrong charger. I would contact the person that sold it to you.
Some Air users state that the device charges faster in Airplane Mode.
Can I charge e-cigarette batteries in the UK using an adapter with a USB port? The e-cigarette battery has a voltage range of 3.4V-4.2V. Thank you.
Mark Hartrum said:
Can you plug a radar detector on a U S B port my new Chevrolet doesn’t have a cigarette lighter plug
Cindy Heazlit said:
div dir=”ltr”>You carry a radar detector whi