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.


    I travel with an Australian 4-way power board - with a difference. I've cut off the Australian 3-pin plug and attached a male 3-pin IEC socket. Then I carry a power cord that runs from a female IEC connector to the power plug of the location I'm travelling to (US-to-IEC or EU-to-IEC or UK-to-IEC). Yes, an additional cable or two does take up extra space, but it generally avoids problems with power points close to benches and floors, giving me extra cable lenght and flexibilty in positioning and accessing my power board. I also have some moulded national-to-IEC plugs that will fit the socket on my modified power board, but these have right-angle bends that make them generally useless in most hotel rooms where the power point is just above the benchtop or floor.

    I regulary travel to ASIA and stay in a friends house. I took an Australian Power outlet and had an electrian add it to his house. No further issues

    I picked up on "Monster Outlets to go" power strip when I was in the US, and I backpack with it. Much appreciated by other backpackers because of the lack of power options in some hostels, and EVERYONE has at least 2 things to charge.

    I have a small AU/NZ adapter for the Monster above which I used in NZ, plus a big fat international adapter for when I go to Asia in a few weeks, but I am sure I will have the same problem as you.

    My whole solution involves extra batteries so I can last quite a while without a power source, as for my Tablet UMPC I have an AC Ryan external battery and for my iPhone I have a Richard Solo 1800 (which can be charged via the AC Ryan as well). I can also safely charge the external battery without worrying about theft if I go out.

    I do the same thing Angus, carrying the powerboard was a god send! I have now left a powerboard and adapter in the UK where I travel on a regular basis, no need to pack at all on my next trip :)

    I have a UK phone charger that i need for my milestone. It came with a nice compact UK to AU adapter for it but strangely enough the prongs aren't thick enough for it to stay in there and not come out, so electrical taped it around the back of the power boards it's sitting in. i've been looking for a better solution but no local shop has a nice small one that wont obstruct other power points, my pet hate.

    Anyone know where i could find a small, UK to AU adapter? :)

    At a conference in Argentina, they had powerboards that would accept US/Japan, Australian/South American, and European plugs. I've found them in US+Euro varieties in Thailand (where appliances with either plug are used routinely), but I've never found the ones that I saw in Argentina.

    Does anybody know if it's possible to get hold of one of these in Australia?

    Things to go shopping for in Malaysia: a powerboard where every socket is a universal socket.

    Can't find them in the UK, HK or Oz (either that or I haven't looked hard enough). Also available in Singapore but they cost 2x-3x as much there. I've accumulated stuff with EU, UK, US & Oz plugs and this powerboard takes them all. Changed the Malaysian/UK plug to an Aussie one and now it's just fine.

    But, no, I don't travel with this (though it's the same size as any average powerboard) - just a lot of little plug/socket adaptors. Thought you might want to know about a powerboard that'd make you power-socket-sharing-friends around the world.

      A power board like these

      5x (I use a similar one to this)



      And for the Other End (I use this one and it worked well for me.)

        Links were missing:

        5x: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.34673~r.78454077

        4x: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.34672~r.78454077

        3x: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.34671~r.78454077

        Other end: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.1088~r.78454077

    I feel like I've been jipped after reading that... didn't describe the 'hidden trap' solutions to everything...

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