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Choosing the Right Adapter for International Travel

If you're preparing to go on an international trip with all your gadgets, how sure are you about which adapter plug you need to bring so that you can actually use the local outlet? Are you worried about blowing out your device's power adapter by plugging it in? Or, maybe, you're just wondering why your plug-in digital clock seems to run fast (or slow) but you don't understand why? I'll try to answer these and other important questions in this post about choosing the right adapter for international travel.
Source: International Electrotechnical Commission
Whenever I travel, I like to keep it simple and not bring too much stuff with me that requires electricity. Not only does this save on weight, but I get through the lines at security much faster. But, in today's connected world, chances are you are traveling with at least a cell phone and probably a computer or tablet.
So if you're ready to get "plugged in" to the irrational world of power standards, let me help you identify the adapters (and/or transformers) you should bring with you to the countries on your itinerary.

First, let's go over some basic electrical terminology (or skip this section and go straight to the part about determining what plug you need). One of the most daunting things about understanding electricity is just getting the terminology correct. To be perfectly honest, I switched majors from Electrical Engineering to Mechanical Engineering because I just wasn't getting it. Decades later, I've got a handle on it using fluid analogies but I have to assume that you might also be somewhat confused by the terminology.
  • AC vs DC power: Alternative current (AC) is what is usually in the walls, Direct Current (DC) usually comes from a battery. Not to be confused with AC/DC, a classic rock band. For sake of completeness, current is measured in Amperes.
    • Alternating Current changes (alternates) the direction of the current flow, usually because of how the current is generated. This inherently changes the polarity of the voltage as well. Analogy: Waves washing up on the beach...they go up, and they come back. That's one cycle.
    • Direct Current doesn't change direction. It flows from greater to lesser potential. Analogy: A waterfall.
  • Plugs vs receptacles: Receptacles are the holes in the wall that the plug, um, plugs into. Sometimes receptacles have more holes than any plug really has, and that's to accommodate two or three different plug types:
  • Adapter: This is that little bit of plastic and metal that you put on the end of a plug that allows you to plug into a different receptacle. However, it does not change the voltage, amperage, or the frequency.
  • Voltage: It's the difference in potential energy across a conductor, and is measured in Volts (V). Most places around the world are based on a 110-120V or 220-240V range. For the most part, a 110V device will work on a 120V power source, even though I'll refer to 110V or 220V throughout this post for consistency.
    • Analogy: Imagine a lighthouse being hit by waves. The height of the wave is the fluid equivalent of electrical voltage. A big wave has more potential than a little wave.
    • Transformer: A device that can change the voltage, most commonly seen as the little box part of your computers and phones charging cables. They get hot because they are transferring electrical energy between two circuits, and some of that energy turns into heat.
      This is not AC/DC
  • Amperage: Commonly referred to as Amps, the unit of measure is the Ampere (A) to describe the electrical current. The Ampere is a measure of flow rate of electric charge.
    • Analogy: Using the lighthouse again, the speed of the wave is an example of flow rate. The faster the wave is moving, the greater the flow rate.
    • Fuses and circuit breakers are measured in Amps, and the common domestic ones range from 5 to 20 A. They are designed to "pop" or "blow out" when too much current tries to go through. 
  • Frequency: Measured in Hertz (Hz), this is how many time a second an event occurs. Limiting our focus to electricity, most of the world's alternating current is either 50 or 60Hz. 
    • Fun fact: TV in the US is 30 frames a second because it's half of the local 60Hz frequency, but TV in Europe is 25 frames a second because the local frequency there is 50 Hz.
    • Frequency Converters are used to, um, convert frequencies (but not necessarily voltage or amperage).
    • Analogy: How many times a second the light house gets hit by a wave.
  • Wattage: For the purpose of this discussion, it's the product you get when you multiple volts by amps and is has the units of Watts (W). There is actually a technical difference between Watts and Volt-Amps but for this post I'm using Watts for convenience.
    • Analogy: The size of the wave and the speed of the wave will determine how "hard" the wave hits the lighthouse. That impact force is the wattage. A fast moving wave (large A) that is small (low V) won't have nearly the impact of a fast moving wave (large A) that is tall (high V). But, then again, a small wave (low A) that is moving really fast (high V) can do damage too...like a flash flood. See this video for more about the whole amps vs. volts thing.

Plug Types
Ok, so you've made it through the terminology section to what you actually came here to read about. Considering all the combinations of plug types, voltages, and frequencies around the world, Your first stop should be http://www.iec.ch/worldplugs/map.htm to identify what they use at your destination location. Their interactive map will tell you what kind of plug(s) to expect as what the voltage and frequency are.
You may find universal receptacles in nicer hotels,
but don't count on it.
Armed with the knowledge of what the situation is at your destination, here's how to apply it:

Look at the device you want to plug in. It should have a sticker or something on it that tells you the input range in Volts and Amps. If it says 110-240V, 50-60Hz, you're good to go with just an adapter. If it only says 120V, 60 Hz, it's probably an American model that will burn up if you plug it into a 220 V outlet unless you put it on a transformer (I'll go over this next). Pro Tip:  I've got all my single voltage (as opposed to dual-voltage 110/220V) labelled as either "110 Only" or "220 Only".
"Dual Voltage" (100-240V) vs. "Single Voltage" (120V) Markings on Equipment
Source: http://www.adaptelec.com/
If you're looking for which international travel adapter set I'd recommend, it's the Imperial Design adapter set. It has the most common plug types plus USB, so you don't need two adapters to charge your phone!. It also has a convenient form factor for storage. Also, it can be a lifesaver if the airport you're in happens to have a third plug type that is different from either your origin or destination.

One thing you might not know until you get where you're going is that a lot of the plugs in Europe are recessed a good 3/4", so those clunky all-in-one (box) adapter units might not actually be deep enough to fit. I usually travel with two or three small US to euro plug adapters in my bag, just in case.

Just remember, this adapter will do you no good if your device is strictly 110-120V and you want to plug it into a 220-240V receptacle. What you need is a transformer to address this voltage differential.

Voltage Issues
Ok, so you have a 110 V device and a 220 V receptacle. First thing you need to consider is whether there are any electronics inside your device. Things that have electronics (usually identified by having digital displays) can be far more sensitive to voltage spike than more basic device using resistance heating (ie, a blow dryer) or motor (ie, vacuum or blender).

When you fry a 110v appliance in a 220v country
A word of warning on transformers: Be aware that some plug types allow you to put the plug in "upside down" and that simple mistake can blow out your device (a friend of mine blew out his computer this way, which is how I learned about it). It's a simple fix: just use a simple polarity checker to make sure that everything is plugged in correctly.

I recommend the Hilo travel transformer combination set because it has a low (50W) and a high (1650W) setting and comes with adapters too. To figure out which setting to use, you'll need to do a little  math. Remember the formula:
Volts * Amps = Watts
You know the voltage from the wall is either ~110-120V or ~220-240V. Your device should say how many Amps (A) it requires to operate. If your formula kicked out 600W but you only have a 50W-rated transformer, it's considerably undersized. If your transformer rating is greater than your formula answer, you're good to go...but know that the transformer is pulling that many Watts regardless of what you actually need.

Which is to say that you shouldn't use a 1600W transformer for a 5W demand unless it's the only thing you've got (which is why I like the switching option on this particular Hilo model). Here's a handy guide to estimate your appliance wattage, but the best thing you can do is look at the information on your device.

Frequency Issues
The last thing to worry about is the frequency. It really doesn't make much difference unless you want to plug in something that uses the cycle frequency to tell time, like an alarm clock.

Fun story: When I first deployed to Qatar, I brought a standard plug-in digital clock from the US. Sadly, the clock was keyed on a 60Hz cycle (the clock advanced 1 second every sixty clicks), but the power provided was 50 Hz (1 second was equal to 50 clicks). When means that after 6 seconds on a 50 Hz supply (300 clicks), my clock thought that only 5 seconds had elapsed (5 seconds * 60 Hz also equals 300 clicks). Propagate this out, and in one minute (60 seconds), my clock only registered 50 seconds...it was losing 10 seconds every minute, which is 600 seconds (10 minutes) every hour. That's 240 minutes (4 hours) every day. Cycle converters are too costly and impractical for travel, so just use the alarm on your phone.

Hopefully I answered any lingering questions you had about what international adapter/transformer you need to buy to plug your device in during your travels. One last tip: an electrical fire is usually accompanied by white smoke and has an acrid smell. Safe travels!

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