When Your Universal Adaptor Doesn't Fit

A universal adaptor lets you charge your travel gadgets anywhere in the world, but there’s one hidden trap to watch out for.

I’ve long been an advocate of packing two power-related items for any work trip: a powerboard and a universal adaptor. The former ensures you can charge multiple devices at once, and can also make you the most popular person at conferences or airports where there are only limited outlets. (Charging via USB will reduce the number of chargers you travel with, but is inevitably somewhat slower, so I like to have both options.)

The latter means you can plug in the powerboard (or an individual device) anywhere in the world without worrying about whether you have the right adaptor. That’s particularly useful if you’re on an around-the-world trek, but even on a single-destination trek it can be handy. If you’re heading to Europe, for instance, you’ll need an EU adaptor when you get there, but a UK one if your transit city is Singapore or Hong Kong.

While I still routinely pack both items, I’ve come to realise there is one annoyance with the universal adaptor: its bulk. In order to incorporate the four typical settings used around the world — US/Asia, European, UK and Australia — the typical adaptor is much bigger than a single-country adaptor.

This can become a problem in locations where the power outlets are placed low to the floor, as the adaptor sometimes simply won’t fit. The bulk can also make the adaptor more likely to fall out of the socket, especially on trains. In both these situations, a more compact single function adaptor can work better than the chunky all-in-one solution.

A related annoyance comes in the US, where the relatively small size of power outlets means that what looks like a double outlet on the wall often works out to be a single in practice once the adaptor is in place. Want to plug in the coffee maker and your laptop? Sorry, no dice.

At times, I’ve been tempted to purchase a US powerboard just to deal with the issue, but that rather goes against my compact packing principles. I have left an Australian powerboard with its own AU-to-UK adaptor with one overseas relative I visit regularly, but that’s a fairly unusual situation. I also have a UK double adaptor to use on trains, so I can take advantage of the many services that have one power outlet for every two seats and offer to share with my neighbour if necessary.

For now, the most clutter-free general solution does seem to be putting the universal adaptor in my hand luggage, and packing the powerboard and whatever region-specific adaptors I need into the checked luggage. It might not be the most minimal solution, but it guarantees I can always get the juice when I need it.

How do you handle power challenges on the road? Share your tactics in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman knows he owns too many power adaptors. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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