Technology for Europe

In the last blog I promised to give a few tech tips for those travelers in Europe. This is all circa June 2013, and with the fast pace of technology I can’t guarantee that any of this will be useful in six months.

During the 12 day trip I had to stay in daily contact with my co-workers while visiting three countries. Since I’m already regularly a “virtual worker”, I’ve already got all of the collaborative online tools that I need in place (shared calendars, documents, Dropbox, etc), so I’m not going to talk about those specifically.

Because we were going to be moving almost every day, and luggage would often be stored in a rental car, I didn’t want to risk my expensive laptop, so I brought an iPad with a Logitech keyboard. Not only is the iPad much cheaper to replace, it’s less fragile, smaller to pack and much lighter, and can be quickly recharged in the hotel room or car. The keyboard nests with it to create an aluminum shell, too, so I could just toss it in my luggage and not worry about breaking the screen. The iPad solution turned out to be a great move, so I recommend it to anyone who can do without their laptop for a while.

Before the trip I used the iPad on shorter domestic trips a few times to verify that it had all the apps I needed. For insurance, I installed a copy of LogMeIn and left my laptop on & connected to the Internet at home so I could access the laptop in an emergency.

I also brought two iPhones. The iPhone 5 model A-1429 from Verizon comes unlocked, works on CDMA and GSM networks, and can accept a European SIM card to give me an in-country phone number and avoid extravagant roaming charges. It’s a “world phone,” and I highly recommend it. I bought a German pre-paid SIM from Lebara because it offered ridiculously cheap calls to the USA at $0.01 per minute (plus $0.15 per call). With this we were able to make calls back home for as long as we wanted.

One day at the rally, I had an hour-long call with Brett about business stuff, and paced around the rally field while I was talking. I didn’t realize people were watching, but later some folks came up to Eleanor and asked if we had an emergency, since it had to be serious business for me to pay for an international call that long! In reality, that call cost me 75 cents. If you are paying $1-2 per minute to call home from major European countries, you’re getting ripped off.

The Lebara SIM can be bought in “dm” stores (which are sort of like a CVS) along with a ‘top-up’ card for extra airtime. I bought €20 and used €9.90 of the credit to activate a 500mb data plan on the prepaid SIM card. The remainder lasted me for the entire trip with plenty to spare.

Note the most European SIM cards will come with a PIN code that has to be entered to “unlock” the SIM each time the phone is switched on, so don’t throw away the card that comes with the SIM! The PIN # is printed on it. Be sure to bring along a paper clip so you can remove the tray to swap SIMs.

The iPhone 4 I brought was deactivated and can’t work on European GSM networks anyway, so it was only along as a backup to use when we had wifi, and as a GPS. (A deactivated iPhone is basically an iPod.) I pre-loaded it with a GPS app and local maps for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. This would have been great but I picked the wrong GPS app (Skobbler) and it was abominable. My advice: just get the GPS from the rental car agency.

The iPhone 5, being the only device that could get online via cellular, was the “hotspot” for the other two devices as needed.

The iPad and iPhones were all loaded with:
– copies of all the electronic documents we had received (airline, trip insurance, hotel confirmations) and a few other things like our US Passports and local subway maps. Sensitive information was stored in an encrypted file using mSecure app.
– Genius Scan: I used this to ‘scan’ all the receipts so I could chuck them daily instead of accumulating paper. This amounted to over 40 receipts by the end of the trip.
– WordPress app: I wrote the blog from the iPad but occasionally made quick edits from the iPhone.
– Skype app: This is a great app but we had no luck using it when we needed it. In Italy the calls were very poor quality due to the hotel’s WiFi, and in Switzerland the hotel blocked Skype so the calls wouldn’t go through at all. When we got skunked we fell back on email and AOL Instant Messenger.
– all the booked hotels and flight information on a shared calendar so that all three devices would be synchronized whenever we got to a hotel and updated our itinerary. Since we were researching and booking hotels as we went, this was very useful later when we said “Now, where are we going today?” and needed to look up the hotel info. One day we forgot to update the calendar with the hotel’s address and couldn’t find the hotel for half an hour.
— various other useful apps: Dropbox, Pages, Numbers, Hotels.com, my bank’s app, Google Translate, Facebook, Twitter, and Weather Channel. Not so useful: Yelp. There just weren’t enough reviews in the local areas for it to be helpful and we found the database to be riddled with errors in Italy.

Part of my goal was to have the absolute minimum number of cords to untangle at the end of the day, so everything charged off the same USB cord with various adapters to connect to iPad, iPhone 4 & 5, Logitech keyboard, European plugs, and car 12-volt outlet. Only the Nikon and Eleanor’s camera required separate cords or chargers.

I also brought specialized connectors, including Apple’s 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter for the iPhone 5, a 30-pin-to-HDMI adapter so I could give a presentation from the iPad, and a micro-USB adapter so that the Logitech keyboard could be recharged. By the way, you can transfer photos from your iPhone to your iPad using the proper connectors and a USB cable.

Traveling to different countries in a short time span presented a particular problem. The Lebara SIM would allow roaming in Switzerland and Italy, but not data. Data was really what I needed most. Also, the cost of calls to the USA soared from a penny a minute to as much as EU1.49 per minute (about $2), so effectively my German SIM became useless once we crossed the border. I could have bought Swiss and Italian SIMs but in those countries I still couldn’t find a good deal on calls to the USA and it just wasn’t worth it to get new SIMs for only a day or two of use, so I fell back on hotel wifi instead.

If you do plan to buy SIMs in various countries, research them before you leave home but buy them when you arrive. You can buy them in advance from various companies at massively inflated prices, but there’s no reason to do that. You can easily pick them up at the cellular network’s own outlets (which are located in virtually every city and large town), as well as grocery stores, pharmacies, and tobacco stands just about anywhere.

Each country has several competing networks so it takes a bit of research to find the ones that offer the deal you need. You’re looking for a prepaid or “rechargeable” plan. Data and voice are often sold separately, and the tariffs can be confusing. Some countries require registration with a passport when you buy the SIM, but that’s no big deal as long as a local address isn’t required. A requirement for a local credit card can sometimes be bypassed simply by purchasing the SIMs with cash in a local store. Read the fine print when doing your research. Google Translate is a big help here.

If you have an iPhone 5 you’ve got a special challenge. This phone requires a ‘nano SIM’ which is smaller than what are typically offered. The easiest thing to do is buy a SIM cutter than will chop a standard micro-SIM down to nano size (if you do it correctly the SIM will still work), and bring the cutter with you to trim the SIMs you buy.

Hotel wifi is unpredictable. As I’ve noted, sometimes certain services will be blocked. Don’t count on Skype or any streaming service such as Netflix or Facetime. Some connections are tediously slow. More annoyingly, many hotels charge a daily (or even hourly) fee to use their Internet connection and this can really add up, often €9-20 per day. We looked for hotels with free wifi, free breakfast, and free parking since these three items will typically add €50-60 per day to the bill, but we usually only got two out of three. This information is usually listed in the details provided by major online booking services, and it’s worth checking the reviews by prior hotel guests to see if they thought the Internet service was usable.

Even “free” public wifi (such as at a coffee shop or in a city center) often requires you to register and receive a text message (SMS) on your phone with a passcode. All three places outside Germany where I found “free public wifi” required me to have an in-country phone number, which I couldn’t supply, so I couldn’t use the wifi.

The iPhones provided us with two pocket cameras but we most often used dedicated cameras, one Canon digicam and my Nikon D90. I brought three lenses for the Nikon but only used two of them: the utility Nikkor 18-200 zoom with a polarizer, and the Tamron 10-24mm ultra-wide for interior shots. The cameras both had 16gb memory cards so we would have huge photo storage capacity (over 2,000 JPG high-quality photos) and so wouldn’t have to worry about downloading the pictures and clearing the card during the trip. If I were going to be out longer I’d probably look into either a way to backup the card via Dropbox or I’d copy the photos to the iPad just in case the camera was lost.

Before going you may want to check with your bank to see if they offer a replacement VISA/Mastercard with a European SIM embedded in it. Supposedly some European establishments now have card machines that require this SIM, so I had one of my cards upgraded, but in practice we never found any store that required it. Everyone took American Express except those restaurants that only accepted cash.

Beware of machines that claim to accept credit cards, like automated train or bus ticket machines, parking garages, toll booths, etc. We found that many of them would refuse our cards (even the one with the SIM in it) without explanation.

Personally, I’d just be sure to have two working ATM cards so you can get local currency easily without exchange fees. By picking up cash only as we needed it, we ended the trip with about 3.80 in Swiss francs and ten Euros, so we lost very little to exchange fees when we turned in the cash at the airport on our last day.

Got questions or more info? Go ahead and put them in the comments. Hope this helps.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine