Plugged In Abroad

July 19, 2007 5 min read

MILAN, Italy — Monday morning, 7:30 a.m. Preparing for a business meeting, a hotel guest takes out his laptop to review some notes.

He plugs the laptop's adapter into a transformer, connects the transformer to the wall outlet and turns the laptop on.

PLAKROOF! The loud sound is followed by a burning smell. The computer's adapter is fried.

Luckily, the concierge locates a substitute transformer in the hotel's business center and delivers it to the guest.

"It happens frequently when guests are in a hurry or tired or preoccupied," says the concierge. "This gentleman doesn't travel often to Italy and is unfamiliar with our electricity. His transformer is the wrong type, so poof. We also have hair dryer blowouts and problems with medical devices. Our hotel provides substitute adapters and transformers on a limited basis, as well as emergency hair dryers, and our electricians try to help with small repairs. But many hotels cannot offer this level of service. To be safe, travelers planning to use electrical devices from home while they're traveling should thoroughly research electric systems in countries they're visiting."

Fortunately, following this advice doesn't require much work, and appropriate equipment is accessible, easy to pack and inexpensive.

Basically, there are three variables: plug configuration, voltage and alternating cycles.

Plug configuration is easiest to deal with. Standard two-prong plugs used in the United States are common throughout Canada, Mexico, most of the Caribbean and some of South America and Asia (especially Japan, Korea and Taiwan). However, in some places wall outlets don't have the third (round) hole required by two prong plugs with a third (round) "grounding" prong. You'll need an add-on plug with openings that fit your appliance plug on one side and prongs to fit the wall outlet on the other. These are available at hardware stores for about $1.

You'll need an adapter for continental Europe, where most outlets require plugs with two round prongs. You'll need a different adapter for Great Britain, Ireland, Singapore and present or former British colonies — where outlets require plugs with three flat prongs — and another for Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and China, where sockets require plugs with three flat prongs — but in a different configuration.

Not all hotels provide adapters, so carry your own all-socket-type adapter set.

The second consideration is voltage — the pressure under which current flows through an electrical system. Most U.S. appliances work at 110 volts; many foreign countries use 220 volts. Some appliances have toggle switches for dual use. For non-duel voltage appliances, you'll need "step down" converters to protect your appliances.

There are two different types of converters — one for heating appliances (hair dryers, curling irons, clothes steamers) that use a lot of power and another for motorized and electronic appliances (razors, laptops, radios, recharging camcorders) that use less power. Power consumption, measured in watts, is indicated on appliances or AC adapters. Appliances using more than 50 watts require high-power heating converters.

When traveling with both types of appliances, use a converter with a toggle switch, making sure the switch is on the appropriate setting, lest your appliance (or adapter) may burn out.

Many converters (including toggle types) aren't designed for continuous use. If you're using laptops for a long time, use heavy-duty transformers designed for that purpose.

The third system difference is alternating cycle, or number of times electrical current changes directions each second. In the United States, the cycle is 60, but in Europe and other places it's 50. This disparity doesn't affect heating gadgets, but computers and video equipment may overheat when used with the wrong cycle. Ask appliance manufacturers whether you need a transformer that allows 60-cycle electronic items to work with a 50-cycle system.

Adapter plugs, converters and transformers are available in luggage shops and travel boutiques, and Magellan's Travel Catalog ( dedicates several pages to electrical and telephone conversion devices and offers free problem-solving advice.

"Before selling electrical products, we ask where clients are traveling, how many watts their appliances use, how long they'll run appliances at one time," says Magellan's staffer Lynn Staneff. "For travelers using computers abroad, we recommend surge protectors and detection devices to test whether electrical currents in foreign telephone lines are compatible with their modems."

To find out more about Jennifer Merin and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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