Top 10 Tech Tools for Today’s Traveling Freelancer

Once you get your freelance business up and running, there’s no “rule” that states you need to work from home these days.

Or that you only get to vacation for two weeks a year. That’s not a vacation … that’s a pit stop!

When you work for yourself, a whole new world of options opens up for you.

Want to work from home? Travel the country? Go somewhere exotic? Experience a place you’ve never seen before? Live somewhere completely “off the grid”? The choice is yours. With the right technology, you can live and work wherever you want, whenever you want.

What’s more, when you take advantage of favorable exchange rates, you can wind up saving more money – and living better – than you would back home.

Here are 10 tech tools that will allow you to make a great living from just about anywhere in the world:

  1. A Dependable Laptop. This goes without saying. If you genuinely want to work “from anywhere,” you’ll need to take your work with you wherever you go.

    How do you choose the best laptop for you? Well … that largely depends on what you want to do with it. If you’ll be taking lots of videos and downloading lots of MP3s, videos, applications, and more, you’ll want a large hard drive (at least 250GB). If you’ll be using lots of applications at the same time, you’ll want more memory (at least 2GB). And then, if you want everything to run quickly, you’ll want a fast processor (at least 2.0GHz).

    However, if you simply want the basics … like email, access to the Internet, and a word processor, a “beginner” laptop will serve your needs perfectly. I just checked Dell’s website, and right now, you can get a Dell “Inspiron 1525” laptop – with a 120GB hard drive, 1GB of memory, and a 2.13GHz processor, for only $479. Not bad.

    Choosing the right laptop is a very important decision. And one that requires careful and thorough research. I’d suggest going to CNET’S reviews page, PC Magazine’s reviews page, and PC World’s reviews page to research what’s best for you and your chosen profession.

    I chose my laptop rather hastily, but it’s served me well. Here’s what happened … Right after I landed my first full-time copywriting gig in the summer of 2005 (which required me to relocate to Paris, France), I knew I’d need a laptop ASAP. So I simply made my way over to Sam’s Club in Honolulu, Hawaii, to find a deal for something “mid-range.”

    I knew I wouldn’t be playing video games on it since I’m not a “gamer,” so I didn’t want anything high-powered and expensive. However, I also knew I’d be running multiple programs at the same time, uploading and editing a lot of photos and videos, and using it to watch movies and videos, too. So I didn’t want a “bare bones” laptop, either.

    I wound up choosing the HP Pavilion DV4000. It cost me around $1,300 back then … and it only had an 80GB hard drive. However, prices have dropped since then … and you can get a much better laptop these days for less. Amazingly, after three years of global wear and tear, it’s still running … but it’s definitely past its prime. I bet I’ll cry when it’s time to replace it.

  2. Job-Specific Software. For starters, you’ll want an “office suite” like Microsoft Office (for both PC or Mac) or iWork (for Mac). That’ll take care of your word processing, spreadsheet, email management applications, and more. But that’s only the beginning. You’ll also want, of course an updated web browser to do research on the Internet. Go with the latest version of Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. Both are free. (Internet Explorer is often included when you purchase a PC laptop, as is Safari for Macs.)

    Then, depending on what you do as a freelancer, you’ll need additional software to do your job effectively. For example, if you’re a freelance photographer, an image editor like Adobe Photoshop is a must. Or, if you’re a web developer, you’ll want a high-quality HTML editor like Adobe Dreamweaver. Musicians will want software like Cubase and Wavelab to edit their tracks. And on and on and on.

    There are literally thousands of freelance careers that you can choose from … and each has software best suited for it. So my suggestion is to jump on Google and see which software is best suited for your particular career.

  3. A High-Quality Laptop Bag. This took me a little bit of time to figure out. Back in 2005, I had my brand-new laptop, but I didn’t have a laptop bag. Didn’t even know they existed. Instead, I carried my laptop around in a standard backpack … with a towel wrapped around it. A goofy idea, I know.

    But one day, I sauntered into the local tech store during a lunch break and saw that they were selling special backpacks for laptops. I was elated! I bought one right on the spot and gladly ditched the towel routine.

    With a laptop bag, your laptop won’t move around (and possibly get damaged). And it gives you a lot more room to put other stuff like books and other items in it as well.

    How do you choose the right laptop bag for you? Depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re a bonafide style maven like AWAI Executive Director Katie Yeakle, you’ll want a bag that makes a statement. She suggests going to Levenger.com to find laptop bags that’ll turn heads. Or, if you’re like me, and you walk around a lot, you may want a backpack-style laptop bag. (The laptop bag I purchased in Paris can be found on Targus.com.)

    Or, you may want a laptop bag that doubles as luggage. No problem! If you go to Magellans.com and click on “Luggage” and then “Briefcases & Laptop Bags,” you’ll find several excellent laptop bags that have ample room for clothing and other personal belongings. And, they’re small enough to use as carry-on bags during air travel, which can save a lot of time, hassle, and money from possible overweight charges, too. Nice!

    TIP: If you’re looking for a laptop bag you’re going to carry around a lot, whether it’s as a backpack or on one of your shoulders, you may want to try it out in person – in a store, if possible – to make sure it’s comfortable for you.

  4. A Carefully Executed Email Strategy. Your email address is essentially your lifeline to the rest of the world, wherever you are. But here’s the thing … Just having an email address is one thing. Knowing how to use it to cover your ass is another.

    That’s right. You can configure your email so that if anything horrible happens to your laptop while you’re on the road, all of your work will still be backed up online.

    Here’s how I executed my “cover my ass” email strategy.

    First, when I went overseas, I opened a Gmail account. Then, I configured my Microsoft Outlook so that all of my Gmail emails would get automatically forwarded to my Microsoft Outlook email in-box. This way, not only did 100% of my emails (and all of the attachments) reside permanently on Gmail, but they also would appear in my Microsoft Outlook email in-box.

    This gave me a lot of peace of mind. You see, whenever I had my laptop with me and I had Internet access, I could read and send emails from Microsoft Outlook. And then if I were somewhere else without my laptop but still had access to a computer with Internet access, I could use it to check my Gmail account – and the exact same emails – and not miss a beat.

    For example, while I was living in Koh Phangan, Thailand, I’d often eat at restaurants that had computers with Internet service. I wouldn’t have my laptop on me, but if I wanted, I could quickly check my Gmail using one of their computers while waiting for lunch or whatever. Then, when I got back home to work, the same emails were automatically forwarded into Outlook. Very, very convenient.

    And here’s where the peace-of-mind comes in. If anything were to happen to my laptop, every single one of my important work emails AND attachments would still be guaranteed to be on Gmail. Nice.

    To set up your Outlook to receive forwarded emails from Gmail or another email service provider like Hotmail or Yahoo, here’s what you do: Go to Tools > Email Accounts in Outlook, and simply follow the directions. It’s fairly easy … and if you get stuck, just use the Help function, and you’re good to go.

    ONE MORE THING … If you’re traveling with a wireless-enabled laptop, and you’re staying in a hotel, ask the front desk if the hotel has a “hotspot” or “Wi-Fi” access – an area where you can use a wireless-enabled device. You’ll often find a hotspot in hotel lobbies, as well as local coffee shops (Starbucks is famous for it), restaurants, libraries, college campuses, bookstores, and airports. Most places these days, wireless Internet access is free. But in some places you may have to pay for service.

  5. A Fully Loaded Mobile Phone. Now … is a mobile phone absolutely, positively necessary? Again, it depends on your career. I had one (for a little while) in Thailand, until I got saltwater all over it and it broke. I decided not to get a new one … and I was perfectly fine. I didn’t really, really need it anyway. But there’s no question that it’s terribly convenient to have one on you.

    Not only can people get in touch with you almost anywhere you are (depending on your coverage), but with the better mobile phones, you can go online, check your email, send text messages, take photos and videos, listen to music, and more.

    Here’s a “black-belt” tip … If you want to go all out, get a phone with GPS built into it. That way, you’ll never get lost! Not only that, but you can see where taxi drivers are taking you … and catch them red-handed if they’re making circles and milking the meter. (My friend did this once in Bangkok and busted the cabbie for it. He said it was extremely gratifying.)

    NOTE: It’s often much, much cheaper to get a local SIM card when you’re overseas than to use your local provider and pay expensive roaming fees … especially if you plan on using the phone often. You’ll find SIM cards for sale – often inexpensively – at most convenience shops overseas, and they almost always have an English-speaking option which will help you understand how to install it.

  6. A Wireless Cellular Modem. I think this is perhaps the coolest gadget ever invented. What’s a wireless cellular modem? It’s a device you plug into your laptop that allows you to go online wherever you can get a cellular signal. This means that even if you’re nowhere near a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can still go online, check your mail, and surf the Internet. How super cool is that?

    I’ve used my wireless cellular modem to go online and check email in some of the most random, remote, offbeat places imaginable – on the beach … on a ferry boat … on a train … at a bus stop (in rural Cambodia, by the way) … and many other “no-Wi-Fi-for-miles-in-any-direction” areas.

    You can purchase wireless cellular modems at tech superstores like Best Buy and Radio Shack … or go online and find them, too. But here’s the thing … You’ll also need a SIM card (just like you would for a mobile phone). But there’s a difference. You’ll want to make sure that the SIM card you use with your wireless cellular modem is configured for “data usage.” This will allow you to use the SIM card for Internet usage … and often very, very inexpensively. (I paid 350 baht – about $11USD – for 100 hours of usage in Thailand.) When you purchase your SIM card, go to the company’s website, find the “English” option, and follow the directions. In most cases, it’s quite simple.

  7. A Skype Account. Sooner or later, you’ll need to contact your clients via phone while you’re traveling. And if you call from your hotel phone or your mobile phone, you’re going to pay an arm and a leg for it. Skype to the rescue!

    What’s Skype? It’s software that uses VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), which allows you to make phone calls over the Internet … often at greatly reduced prices.

    Skype is a great, great deal. For example, while overseas, I was able to make conference calls to Ireland, Paris, Baltimore, and Florida, and never pay more than a penny or two a minute. And Skype is free to download!

    But yes … there’s a catch. Sometimes, the reception isn’t so hot. In fact, at times, it flat out sucks. I’m sure that the engineers at Skype are hard at work to fix this, but I’ve been on calls where I could barely hear some of the other people on the call. But also, I’ve been on calls where someone 12,000 miles away sounded like he was right next door. If they were on a landline, I could hear them perfectly. But if they were on Skype … and I was on Skype … then reception was often quite subpar.

    My suggestion? Give it a shot. Download Skype for free, create an account, put $5 or $10 into it so it doesn’t break your budget at first, and use it to call friends and family or whatever. See how it works for you. If you feel that the reception isn’t good enough, then you’ll have to resort to using landlines.

    That’s not all bad, though. You’ll find plenty of Overseas Calling Centers when you’re traveling … especially in places frequented by tourists. They’ll usually give you an honest rate for overseas calls. You can also purchase an international calling card and use that from any pay phone or even your hotel room. Just make sure to do a little comparison shopping before you purchase an international calling card. Rates are all over the board … and you don’t want to overpay.

    TIP: Don’t ever make conference calls to your clients from noisy Internet cafes. They’ll hear all the noise and commotion in the background. Do your homework in advance and find a quiet place to call. I ran into this “challenge” several times in Koh Phangan. I’d be all set to make a conference call at what I thought was a quiet location on the top floor of a restaurant called “Mama Schnitzel” on Haad Rin’s infamous Chicken Corner. And then, right when I was about to make the call, about a dozen backpackers would barge in the room and start yelling and screaming like they owned the place. I actually had to cover the microphone with my hand while not speaking, so that everyone else on the line wouldn’t here all the ruckus in the background. It drove me absolutely nuts. So make sure you make your calls where it’s virtually guaranteed to be quiet from the beginning to the end of your call.

  8. A Digital Camera. In my opinion, this is absolutely, positively, without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt critical to bring with you when you go traveling. Why? First of all, it’s so much fun to take photos of where you’re going and then send them to your friends and post them online.

    Not only that, but you can use your digital camera to generate additional income! If you’re a travel writer, photographer (duh), web designer, or whatever else, you can use photos to increase the value of your offerings. And if your camera has video capabilities, you can take videos, edit them with video-editing software, and post them on YouTube to promote your business.

    What kind of digital camera should YOU get? Depends on how serious you are. I used a simple “point-and-shoot,” and it took great day photos, night photos, and videos as well. In the U.S., the model I purchased (the Canon PowerShot Digital IXUS 75) sells for around $200. If you’re a serious photographer, though, you may want to invest in something more substantial.

  9. An Online Banking Account. You probably already have this set up, but I want to bring it up, anyway, because there are a few things you need to keep in mind about your online banking when you’re traveling as a working freelancer. First, your clients will need your banking information so that they can wire you money after finishing up projects.

    For example, they’ll need to know your full name, name of bank, and your routing number … and possibly more information. Check with your bank, your clients, and your clients’ banks to ensure everything is sorted before you go … just to be safe.

    Another plus of having an online banking account … and using it in conjunction with an ATM card (see below) is that you’ll see how much money you’re taking out in U.S. dollars while you’re overseas. This is a huge help when you’re dealing with fluctuating exchange rates … especially if you’ll be overseas for quite some time. For example, if you withdrew 200 pounds from a London ATM in January 2008, you’d see on your online banking statement a deduction of $394.80 USD. But if you took out 200 pounds in January 2009, it would be a deduction of only $293.84 USD! Having online banking helps you realize that you’re not dealing with “Monopoly money” when you’re overseas … and also keeps your finances in check … which is, of course, rather important!

  10. An ATM Card. This is HUGE. Using an ATM card overseas will often help you get the best exchange rate. This can help you save a LOT of money … especially if you’ll be overseas for a considerable period of time. Rates are all over the place … and you’ll often get ripped off if you use traditional “money exchange” kiosks, which are ubiquitous in frequently visited areas.

    Here’s a tip … If you do plan on using an ATM card while overseas (which I recommend), you may want to bring some traveler’s checks with you as well … just in case you lose your ATM card, it gets stolen, or it no longer works. Sometimes it can take a few weeks for a bank to send you a lost or stolen card, so you’ll want a back-up plan.

    Also, open up a PayPal account. This way, if you lose your card, you can use PayPal to wire money to yourself (for a rather steep fee) and then pick it up at the Western Union closest to you. But at least you won’t starve while you’re waiting for your new ATM card to arrive. (This strategy saved my ass in Bali, Indonesia, once.)

But wait, there’s more!

I wouldn’t feel right about not including the following additional tech tools as well.

All of them are also extremely helpful …

  • Facebook account. Keep in touch with those you know. (www.facebook.com)
  • Portable hard drive. Keep all of your hard work backed up for safety.
  • Your own website/blog. You may need your own website … depending on your business.
  • Google Docs account. Free word processor, spreadsheet, and more that you can access from any computer with an Internet connection. (www.google.com/docs)
  • Adaptors and converters. Plug into those crazy outlets in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
  • An MP3 player. Great for improving your craft through listening to educational MP3s … and also to keep your mind occupied during long trips (especially on airplanes that have crappy in-flight movies).
  • Extra USB cables. Essential for plugging in your camera, MP3 player, mobile phone, and more to your laptop.
  • A headset and microphone. Most Internet cafes and business centers will have these on hand … but often, they’re junk. Plus, I don’t like wearing headphones that have been on hundreds of other sweaty heads, either. Yuck. You can get your own headset and microphone rather inexpensively, and they now make compact versions ideal for travel, too.
  • Speakers. Nice to have for when you want to watch a video on your laptop … but the motorbike traffic outside your hotel room is relentlessly loud.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones: Wonderful when you’re flying … and you simply want to get some sleep. Good for working in noisy Internet cafes, too. Especially in Ireland where you’ll often have dozens of little kids playing video games right next to you and screaming while you’re trying to work.
  • Laptop cleaning spray. If you’re working in areas where there’s a considerable amount of filth (try Khao San Road in Bangkok), this’ll help keep your laptop nice and clean.
  • A calculator. Very handy when you have no idea how much 76,400 baht, 54 pounds, or 855 kroner equals in U.S. dollars before you pay.

In conclusion, you will DEFINITELY need …

 … A Backup Plan! When you’re traveling, things can go wrong. Sometimes, horribly wrong. Your laptop could get stolen. Your digital camera might get submerged in saltwater because you forgot it was in your pocket when you went for a swim in the ocean. You might sit on your mobile phone and break it. (All have happened to me, by the way.)

What will you do if this happens? My recommendation is … imagine it would happen, and what you’d do about it … BEFORE IT HAPPENS.

Lose your laptop? Have your info backed up on Gmail and a portable hard drive.

Break your camera? Make sure you upload all of your photos every day before you bring it out with you.

Break your mobile phone? Upload all of your phone numbers so that if it gets lost, stolen, or broken, you don’t have to email all of your friends, family, and clients and ask for their numbers.

And get travel insurance! Save your receipts! So in case you do lose or break something or it gets stolen, you can get all or part of your money back.

Happy Travels!

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Published: January 13, 2009

1 Response to “Top 10 Tech Tools for Today’s Traveling Freelancer”

  1. Great post, but you forgot your e-book reader!! I am a fan of Amazon's Kindle, but there are others. How can you, as a successful freelance copywriter, travel without books to read?

    Susanna PerkinsMay 12, 2009 at 6:35 pm


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