Travel adapters and converters aren't always the same thing

Electricity is a mystery to most of us. But even if you don't know AC from DC or volts from watts, if you've traveled outside the United States, you are aware that plugs and outlets are different in other countries. In fact, there are about 15 types of electrical outlets in use throughout the world.

When you want to plug in one of your devices abroad, you'll need an adapter, which serves as a sort of "go-between" as it plugs the appropriate prong style into the socket and your cord plugs into the external side of the adapter.

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And here's where it gets a bit more complicated. In many countries — most in fact, except for the U.S. and Canada — the electrical voltage is 220/240V. Our American devices are designed for 110/120V which is not compatible, even when correctly plugged in through an adapter. You know this first-hand if you've ever fried a hair dryer or curling iron while traveling. This is where the converter comes in.

best travel adapter converters best travel adapter converters Credit: Getty Images

A travel power converter converts or "steps down" the electrical voltage from the outlet to 110/120V so that American devices can be used safely. One more thing: many devices are now made "dual voltage," enabling them to be used with both 110/120V and 220/240V. The trick is to know whether your electric toothbrush, hair dryer, charger, or flatiron falls into that category, which would allow it to be used safely with an adapter alone. If you can't find the voltage listed on the device, check online or look at the instruction sheet it came with.

To be safe when you're traveling with tech, it's smart to invest in a combination adapter/converter. There are universal products that handle both functions, and we've rounded up four options that should help to eliminate electrical confusion while you're on the road. As with all electronic devices, make sure to carefully read the safety instructions before using any of them and to check wattage limitations on the product you purchase before plugging in.

Foval Power Step Down Voltage Converter

foval travel adapter converter foval travel adapter converter Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

This pick is a top-seller when you search for "220v to 110v converter," with over 1,900 five-star reviews. It powers four USB slots and two three-prong plugs and is slightly smaller than similar devices on our list. This one's not intended to be used with hair tools, regardless of their wattage, and make sure the total wattage of your plugged-in electronics adds up to less than 200W.

To buy: amazon.com, $36

Bestek Universal Travel Adapter and Voltage Converter

bestek travel adapter converter bestek travel adapter converter Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

With more than 3,600 five-star reviews, the Bestek adapter/converter is often on Amazon's best-seller list in the Power Converter category. Patented technology converts the voltage to 110V to charge up to seven devices simultaneously (with a max of 250 Watts) in more than 150 countries. It comes with a five-foot power cable that's detachable for easier packing. And note, this one is not compatible with hair dryers, coffee machines, or other high-power appliances.

To buy: amazon.com, $37

Bonazza 2000W Voltage Converter/Adapter

Black power converter/adapter Black power converter/adapter Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

This compact device works both as a converter and adapter in the U.K. Europe, Asia, and more. When using the adapter mode, you can easily charge dual voltage appliances, ranging from 100v to 240v. In the converter mode, it even works with hair dryers, steam irons, and electric kettles.

To buy: amazon.com, $30 (originally $50)

Doace 2000W Converter/Adapter Combo

doace travel adapter converter doace travel adapter converter Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

This one also has two modes: adapter and converter, controlled by a small switch on the side of the device. Dual-voltage appliances, like your MacBook and iPhone, should be charged in the adapter setting and converter mode is what will enable the step-down to 110v. Plus, this one is able to power basic hair dryers and styling tools as long as they have a simple on-off mechanism — nothing automatic, timer-based, or touchscreen compatible. USB ports are another bonus.

To buy: amazon.com, $36 (originally $46)

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