When you’re packing for a trip out of the country, two things that are easy to forget are adapters and converters. Hey, aren’t they the same thing? Not really. They’re related and it’s frequently difficult to use one without the other, but they do different things. Here’s a description of each and the when’s and why’s of when you’ll need them traveling abroad!
An adapter is meant to change the plug shape, or adapt the plug you have, so that it fits in the outlet you’re trying to use. There are tons of different plugs and, even if two countries use the same voltage, the plug shape may be different, further complicating things. Even if you’ve got the right adapter for the right country, you may run into a snag. When we were in Tahiti, we had the correct adapter, but it wasn’t deep enough to fit into the plug, so we had to put two adapters together (one into the other) in order to make it all fit into that really deep plug. We actually only had one adapter. Fortunately, the hotel front desk had a few (which is sort of rare). I was then able to plug the converter into the “double adapter” and into the plug. Yeesh….
How do you know which plug to use? For my purposes, I use what’s basically “adapters for dummies” - written on the plug is the country it will work in. Thank goodness.
To sum up – an adapter doesn’t change the voltage, it just makes the plug usable for you.
A converter, on the other hand, changes, or converts, the voltage from one level to another - either up or down. For example, most American devices operate on a 110/120V, but in many countries in Europe, for example, France, they operate on a 220/240V. I’ll use a hair dryer as an example. Since your hairdryer runs on one voltage and the outlet puts out another voltage, you’ll need to make them compatible. That’s where the converter comes in. If you’ve got, say, a hairdryer that you brought from the U.S., you’ll need to plug your U.S. hairdryer into a converter so you don’t fry it using the French outlet (and so you don’t start a fire). Plug the converter into the adapter, then into the outlet.
Note: Converters are only meant for short term use. You’ll be okay if you’re using a hair dryer, but you shouldn’t use them for long periods of time…and really, don’t most hotels have hairdryers anyway? Leave the hairdryer and save the space for souvenirs!
And, Making Matters More Confusing, We Have… Transformers
No, not the robots that change into stuff, but the converters that are meant for electronics (like your laptop). But, before you get totally confused, spoiler alert - you won’t need this. I only mention it because you may hear someone refer to a transformer from time to time, when they probably mean a converter. Read on…
To recap, a converter steps up or steps down the voltage for small appliances, like your hairdryer. Similarly, a transformer does the same thing as a converter, except for electronics (things with a chip or a circuit). Why can’t I just use a converter for my laptop? A converter is only for small appliances. A transformer is specifically for anything with a chip or a circuit. While a transformer can be used for your hairdryer, a converter can’t be used for a laptop. And, a transformer is a lot more expensive...
Not to worry though. Nowadays, laptops, tablets, phone chargers, cameras are almost certainly dual voltage (but double check), so you’ll really only need an adapter, not a transformer. Whew!
Why and When Do You Need Both… Or Not?
If you don’t have a dual voltage appliance, you’ll need both - an adapter to make your appliance fit into the plug, and a converter to make the voltages match. If you have a dual voltage appliance, you’ll only need an adapter so that the plug matches the outlet, but not a converter, since you’ll have the ability to change voltages. Just make sure to switch the voltage on you appliance.
You Mentioned Dual Voltage Items. What About ‘Em?
A dual voltage appliance is one that can switch between 110/120V and 220/240V. So, if you have a hair dryer that can run on either voltage, you won’t need a converter because you have the ability to switch. Again, make sure you’re on the right voltage and you’ll still need the adapter.
How Do I Use It All?
Using adapters and converters is easy once you figure it all out. For example, your hair dryer will plug into your converter (unless it’s dual voltage, then just switch to the right voltage). Then, plug your converter into your adapter if needed (remember to match the plugs) then plug the whole thing into the outlet. If you’re like me and have an old converter, the whole set up might be a bit heavy, so you may have to prop something under the converter/adapter set up to keep everything from falling, but after that you should be good to go.
Buy a converter and adapters before you leave. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to buy them at your destination or that where you’re staying will have them. You can find all-in-one converter/adapter units. The unit is small and light with the adapters built in, so you only need to slide a lever to extend the adapter. I have one (in addition to my old clunky one). Having an all-in-one unit saves a bit of space and weight, plus you don’t have to keep track of individual adapters. They aren’t that expensive either and it would be a real vacation killer if you weren’t able to charge your camera to take awesome pics.
What items do you take on your travels that need an adapter, converter or both? Let me know on Facebook or in the comment section below!