Getting Ready for Travel

I’m headed to Kubecon NA next week, so I thought I might jot down a bit about the technology I tend to pack in my travel bag, since I’ve been optimizing it over the last few years. I haven’t travelled by plane for 18 months, but prior to COVID I was often travelling to the Bay Area from Seattle about once a month, usually for a “long day” trip to San Francisco (though occasionally to Palo Alto).

Since I’m no longer working for Google, I expect that I may have new routes to learn; here are some tips for the day trip to SF from Seattle:

  • Note: this is a long day (5am – 11pm), and flights may have changed since COVID did a number on the airline industry. I’m generally a fan of Alaska Airlines, so that may affect some of my flight choices.
  • 7-9am, SEA -> OAK
    Flying in to Oakland in the morning often has a more reliable arrival time than SFO. As was explained to me, SFO tends to get fogged up in the morning, which reduces the number of landing runways from 2 to 1. Since east-coast planes are already in the air, west-coast planes may get asked to hold on the runway (so that they aren’t burning fuel). This means morning delays sitting on the runway in Seattle, which is no fun. Oakland has only a single runway and doesn’t get fog, so the chances of delay are much lower.
  • The best way to get from Oakland to San Francisco is BART. In general, I prefer to use public transit; while it’s sometimes slower, it also means that I’m not contributing to the congestion on the city streets, so I tend to load about $20 of credit onto a BART card, and then keep it in my travel bag and refill it as needed from the terminals.
  • 8-10pm, SFO-SEA
    While Oakland is a good place to fly into in the morning, the last flight leaves around 5:30PM, which makes for a short workday; instead I fly out of SFO, which has more dining choices and later flights.

Since I’m doing a day trip, I’m able to pack pretty light — usually a jacket (mostly for rain, occasionally for warmth) and a small laptop bag.

What’s in the bag?

I try to pack fairly light, and I’ve been using a Timbuk2 Quickie 13″ laptop bag (ebay picture), purchased about 10 years ago in Portland (I don’t recall why I needed a laptop bag during the trip, but I did). The main compartment is the perfect size to fit a 2010 era MacBook 13, which also means it will fit my 14″ screen Lenovo or a similar size work laptop; if I’m willing to squeeze, I can sometimes fit a personal and a work laptop, which I’ve needed to do once or twice.

One nice feature of this bag (which is almost a “laptop sleeve with a shoulder strap” is that it has four pockets — two squarish ones on the front, the main pocket for the laptop, and then a thin pocket on the back.

Front Left Pocket

This is my cable pocket. I’ve tried to mostly standardize on USB-C for my gear, so I have:

  • Wireless earbuds in charging case. This is pretty small, and fits in the middle of my cable coils; I’m currently using a set of PaMu Quiet from a Kickstarter, but I wouldn’t really recommend them; their max volume seems pretty quiet, and the active noise cancellation isn’t really noticable.
  • Long 6′ USB-C charging/low-speed (2.0) cable. The longer length can be handy when there’s a distance between the wall-socket and my phone or laptop; the lower-speed cable is narrower and more flexible, so it takes less weight and can be more convenient to unroll.
  • Short 3′ USB-C high-speed (Thunderbolt) cable. For connecting to docking stations or transferring data.
  • USB A to C cable, about 3′, and USB-C to A-socket adapter. While this can function as a USB-C-to-C charging cable, it also enables connecting my phone or less port-enabled laptop to standard USB-A tools like a keyboard or mouse.
  • Samsung watch charger, which (I think) is a standard Qi charger. I’m in the Android ecosystem, and I’ve been pretty happy with my Samsung Watch Active — sleep tracking enabled by greater than 24 hours of battery life, if I don’t use Strava for a long run (including if I use the built-in activity tracker). It’s also waterproof and has a speaker/microphone, though using it as an actual phone would be laughable.

None of these cables are particularly hard to find; I think most of my USB-C cables are from Monoprice, but the great thing about that ecosystem is that the cables are generally pretty interchangeable. A few cables that I don’t carry and once in a great while regret are:

  • HDMI cable. If I really needed one, these are often fairly easy to find; the main use would be connecting my laptop to a TV or other device to use it as an extra monitor or for presenting.
  • Ethernet cable. Every so often you want to plug into a wired network, but you don’t have your own cable. I might add this to my kit in the future.

This pocket ends up basically being a set of coiled cables with the earbud case in the middle; I use cable ties or GearTie-type twist ties hold them in a coil.

Front Right Pocket

This my accessory pocket for larger, more blocky items:

  • 3-port USB A and C charger. I’m currently using a HyperJuice Stackable charger, but I’ve used various other multi-port chargers before. I like the HyperJuice because it’s quite small and has 3 ports, so I can charge phone, laptop, and watch at the same time.
  • A portable battery. I’m using an Anker PowerCore 10000 PD, which has a USB-C input/output as well as a USB-A output. (Remember what I said about standardizing on USB-C charging? Having two outputs on the battery for the cost of two ports is really nice.)
  • A USB-C portable docking station. I’m currently using something like this Satechi hub; the critical items in my opinion are:
    • HDMI port: primarily to enable presentations, but also enabling connecting to a monitor if you end up at a hotel desk.
    • Ethernet port: Sometimes you need a wired connection (because WiFi is bad at a conference, or because you need to download some content fast). Having this in your docking station cuts down on the extra items you need to carry.
    • USB-A port: Another way to get a C -> A adapter, and lets you plug in a mouse or keyboard if needed. The Lenovo keyboard is probably better than most keyboards you’ll find lying around, but 2018-era Mac butterfly keyboards are much worse than your typical Dell membrane keyboard, in my opinion.
    • PD passthrough: Lets you charge using the same port as the dock; this is mostly a convenience feature, but having your laptop charged when you leave for your flight back makes it much more likely that it lasts through the trip.

With only 3 items in this pocket, they all fit fairly well at this point; back when chargers were larger (think Apple MagSafe chargers), this mostly fit a charger and a battery, and I didn’t have a docking station in there.

Back Pocket

There’s a zipper packet on the body side of the bag; this is where reading material goes (e-reader or printed docs to review on the plane) as well as any paper tickets or the like that I need. It doesn’t have a lot of bulk, but it’s just wide enough to fit an 8.5×11 page if I take some care fitting the top of the page under the zipper.

For an e-reader, I’ve used a few different models, but I currently have an Android-based Boyue Muses e-ink reader. Despite the slightly eccentric platform, I like the android-based e-ink readers for a few reasons:

  • Support for multiple reading apps. I have some books on Kobo, some on Google Play, and some from the library on Libby, and access O’Reilly through my ACM membership, plus read PDFs of academic papers. I can use all these apps, plus view web pages and Google Docs if needed. If I’m not using WiFi, the tablet easily lasts for a week at a couple hours per day, and the e-ink with backlight is much nicer than a phone for low-light reading.
  • Digitizer and pen for free-form note-taking. While I only occasionally use this for live note-taking, it’s great for sketching out ideas, wireframes, and organizing thoughts. I know some people like tools like Miro for this, but for me there’s something about pen-to-paper that’s really useful. With that said, I feel like there’s a lot more that could be done here with sketch -> layer and the ability to annotate the sketched objects.
  • Works with a bluetooth keyboard if you want. I haven’t done this a lot because I don’t have a great portable bluetooth keyboard, but I’ve hooked up a keyboard once or twice to get a bit of typing done without much distraction.
  • USB-C charging (and ability to hook up a physical keyboard via USB-C to A-socket adapter).

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