Entertaining Oneself On One’s Travels

What should you bring with you when traveling?

Joe Brancatelli asked several travel writers to discuss what books, music and video they take with them on the road.

Here’s our response, and rather than giving you any favorites, we’ve chosen to answer “everything”, and explain, below, why and how.

The last few decades have seen extraordinary developments when it comes to in-flight entertainment.  The first ever in-flight movie was shown on a demonstration flight around Chicago in 1921, and then for real on a flight in 1925 between London and Paris.  Since that time we’ve progressed to what is sometimes referred to as IFE – “In Flight Entertainment” systems that can offer us up to 1000 different videos, all available to watch on a high-definition personal monitor, complete with high quality stereo sound and headsets with noise cancelling, to say nothing of games, audio, and increasingly, high-speed internet access too.

But, astonishingly, and all these riches notwithstanding, we seem to also be moving back to a system where we are being required to provide, at least in part, our own in-flight entertainment and distractions.  There are two reasons for this.  First, no matter how fast the airlines evolve and enhance what they provide us, our expectations and the “state of the art” in general seems to evolve faster.  Second, although modern IFE equipment is smaller and lighter than ever before, it is still a measurable weight and an extraordinary cost to the airlines.  We are used to buying tablets for $100 – $500, the airlines are paying ten to one hundred times more per equipped seat on their planes.

In these days of extreme cost sensitivity, every dollar and every ounce that can be eliminated is being seized upon by the airlines, whether or not the items in question are valuable to their customers or not.  The airlines speciously claim that eliminating seatback entertainment is “for our convenience”, and while that is utterly untrue, if we are careful and plan ahead, we can at least minimize the inconvenience they are now creating.

Furthermore, although it is true that some airlines (most notably Emirates) provide 1,000+ different video programs on their flights, others provide many fewer.  Just yesterday, I flew on a couple of Icelandair flights that provided a shameful 47 only movies to choose from.  When you take out the movies you’ve already seen and the movies you don’t want to see, that leaves precious few to choose from, and in the context of a roundtrip journey to Europe, with perhaps 20 hours in the air in total, I for one definitely ran out of movies to watch from their limited selection well before the flights were completed.

Happily though, it is easier and less expensive than ever before to bring your own entertainment with you.  If you can remember back to the “bad old days” of packing multiple books to read, and then carrying a cassette player and cassettes, or, more recently, a CD player and CDs, and of course, with a total impossibility to bring any video content at all, or perhaps some DVDs and a laptop, the new digital choices are extraordinary in their variety and richness of choice.

Let’s look at solutions to all three traditional types of media/entertainment.

The Kindle Paperwhite eBook reader – now largely replaced by apps on phones and tablets.

1.  Books

Is there a single person reading this who is unaware of the eBook revolution?  After years of inconclusive attempts by various companies to get eBooks into the mainstream, Amazon released its first ever Kindle reader in November 2007, and since then, the world has changed, and eBooks are now mainstream.

Since that day in 2007, two important things have happened.  The first is you no longer need a special reader device.  Any phone, any tablet, any computer – anything can be used, and with higher resolution larger size screens, reading a book, even on a regular smart phone is now entirely practical.  To prove a point, some years ago we read a long Dan Brown novel on an iPhone 3G with a tiny 3.5″ screen and a dismal (by today’s standards) 480×320 pixel (at 163 ppi) resolution.  It was a perfectly satisfactory experience, and so reading on a new iPhone or Android phone, typically with at least 1920×1080 pixels and 330 ppi or more resolution is a dream.  So pretty much no matter what type of device and screen you have, it would work fine for reading books.

The second thing is a battle between Amazon and publishers about pricing eBooks.  Initially, Amazon decided no eBook would sell for more than $9.99, and even sold some titles at a loss so as to ensure that pricing target was maintained.  But, bizarrely, the major publishers objected to Amazon doing this, even though it cost them nothing and resulted in more book sales for them.  After several publishers boycotting Amazon, Amazon was forced to give in and follow their pricing guidelines, and now you will sometimes find ridiculous situations where eBooks are priced the same or even higher than a printed book.  When you consider a printed book has large costs for printing, distribution, and shipping, whereas an eBook has zero costs, the unfairness of this pricing is breathtaking.

But, and here’s the good news.  With some careful shopping, you can also find extraordinary bargains.  Several strategies can help.  First, if you are an Amazon Prime member, take advantage of their free book offers each month and perhaps subscribe to their Kindle Daily Deals mailings too.  If you read a lot, consider joining their Kindle Unlimited program where you pay a flat $9.99 fee a month for unlimited reading of a huge number of books.  Also, be aware of their Prime Reading program that allows you to read a more limited number of books entirely for free.

In addition, sign up for the free BookBub mailings.  This service features huge reductions and even free books.

One more thing – there are lots of very aggressively priced or even free books on Amazon, too.  Out of copyright books in particular can be very low-priced.

Over time, I’ve amassed a collection of 320 Kindle books, and probably 2/3 or more of them have been either free or less than $2 each.  And – here’s the great thing.  That means that whenever I travel, I have a library of 320 books, sitting without weight or space, on all my devices, waiting to be read if I wish.  You should do the same.

One more thing.  A few books, when you buy the print edition, have a deal that allows you to buy an eBook version for only another dollar or so.  I do that, too.

If you’ve not yet tried eBooks, make it your 2019 New Year Resolution to do so.  You’ll be delighted.

Oh – and as for the Kindle eReaders?  While largely obsoleted by all the other devices that will also display eBooks, they are still out there.  There are reasons to still consider a Kindle – they are very small and lightweight, and they have a very long battery life.  The Kindle Paperwhite (currently discounted to $99.99) is probably the “sweet spot” of Kindles, but there is also a lower priced entry-level unit with not as good a screen, and a much higher priced unit that offers little more than the Paperwhite.

A Fiio M3K high-quality music player. Long battery life and low price make this a bargain.

2.  Music

Just like everyone probably knows about eBooks (albeit, sometimes, imperfectly and not completely), probably everyone is aware of the iPod and the vast array of other portable electronic music players.  While the iPod wasn’t the first electronic music player, its release in October 2001 brought the concept of MP3 type players into the mainstream, just like with Amazon and the Kindle.

And just as the Kindle has evolved to now be a free app on any electronic device, electronic music files these days are seldom enjoyed on a dedicated player.  Most people have music files on their phone, or perhaps on a tablet or regular laptop.  We’re not even sure if Apple still sells iPods – there’s no obvious link at the top of their website homepage.

But unlike the Kindle, we do recommend you should continue to consider a dedicated music player, for several compelling reasons.  First, the best format to store your music these days is FLAC, and not all phones support FLAC files.  Second, you can grow a fairly large library of music, both in terms of hours and MB/GB, and your phone might not have sufficient storage.  Third, you could drain your phone’s battery while listening to music, and while one solution to that would be a portable spare external battery, a separate music playing device might be better.

A less compelling reason to consider a separate device is that an external player might provide better quality music and a better interface.

We recommend you consider the Fiio range of music players, in particular the M3K with a stunning 24 hour battery life (only $70 at Amazon) or any of their higher priced X series (probably the X1 or X3).  There is little reason to buy a high-end player (like the Fiio X5 or X7 or assorted other brands and models).  Unless the rest of your music system is at an esoteric laboratory-grade level, you’ll not hear any difference in quality whatsoever, and with the storage for your music files probably in the form of a separate Micro-SD card, it is hard to see what the higher end players give you (other than a larger screen and fancier interface) that the lower priced ones do not also provide.

The greatest thing about electronic music files and players is you no longer need to choose only a selection of your favorite tunes.  I travel with 200GB of music on a single Micro-SD card, and that represents the lion’s share of all the music I own.  You should do the same.  An hour of music represents about 0.5GB of data using FLAC files.  With MP3 you can use very much less data, but because Micro-SD cards are so cheap these days, there’s no reason any more to be forced to compromise the sound quality by using inferior MP3 format instead of perfect lossless FLAC format.

Indeed, these days, there are now 256GB and even 400GB Micro-SD cards, giving you still more open-ended choices for how much music you can take with you.

The wonderful large 10″ screen on the Fire HD10 tablet. Unbeatable value, great for watching video.

3.  Video

The most exciting development in the last year or two (in our opinion) is the ability to now save movies to an offline file from both the Amazon and Netflix streaming services.  Twinned with that is a reduction in the price of a good player device to watch the movies on.

This means you can now fill up a Micro-SD card with movies to watch on your favorite player.  If you choose highest quality resolution, you’re probably going to be using about 2GB of data per hour of stored video, but who cares when a 256GB memory card is a mere $60, and a 400GB card is less than $100.

So, rather than settle for some random selection of movies on a flight, none of which you want to see, why not download exactly the movies and tv series you do want to see to a player device (and the Micro-SD card within it).

This also means you have a library of movies to watch in hotels and elsewhere.  If the internet is slow, or if you are overseas and can’t watch your normal US content, this is very useful, too.

We use the Amazon Fire HD 10 as a player – this has a 10.1″ screen with 1920×1200 resolution so it shows full HD quality video with no resampling.  It is priced for as little as $120 currently (normally $150).  Alternatively, the much smaller Fire HD 8, with a less exciting 1280×800 pixel screen, is only $50 at present (normally $80).

So, what video do we take with us?  It varies, but always way more than we end up watching!

A large capacity external battery pack is an essential part of your road-warrior kit.

4.  Some More Things

You need something to listen to your music or videos.  We recommend the Bose QuietComfort headphones – either the QC25 or QC35.  We say this not for their musicality or sound quality in general, but for their best-of-breed noise cancelling capabilities, an essential part of listening to anything on a plane.

Generally we much prefer using a regular wired connection to the music source, there are added complications, more things to understand and go wrong, and often some sound quality compromises when using Bluetooth cordless headphones.  So we see no need to spend more for the QC35 model.

With your several different devices, you may start to risk running out of battery.  Most planes these days seem to provide USB charging ports, although usually these are very low current, meaning that if you are using a tablet, the rate of charge is about the same as (or sometimes even slightly less than) the rate of power being used by the tablet.  In other words, rather than re-charging, the power outlet will struggle to let your tablet hold its charge.

Sometimes the USB plugs are broken, too (we suffered that recently on an Alaska Airlines flight when both our USB connection and the one at the next seat over didn’t work).

So it is prudent to travel with an external battery to recharge your electronics if needed, plus also of course a cable to connect to your device.

Choose a high-capacity external battery (at least 10,000 mAh and better 15,000+ mAh), and which can charge at a fast rate (2 amps or faster).  We like these three – RAVPower 22,000 mAh for $42, Anker 20,100 mAh for $50, and a “no-name” brand unit with 30,000 mAh of stored power for $46.

We also really love this connecting cable.  It is almost indestructible, boasts very low internal resistance so will truly charge fast and not waste power in the process, and has connectors for all three types of connection (USB micro, USB-C and Apple Fire).

As for maps and phrase books/dictionaries, we have virtualized those, too.  We download offline Google maps for the places we’re visiting, and we use Google Translate for language issues (and download their offline translation files too).

1 thought on “Entertaining Oneself On One’s Travels”

  1. When it comes to electronic books, you didn’t mention that many (if not most) public libraries loan both e-books and audible books for FREE. This can all be done from home and be downloaded to your device. I find it easier to search for content on my computer, and then download to my phone for listening.

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