I’ve been in Europe the last couple of weeks and have some thoughts and tips about getting around and staying connected (if that’s a priority for you – it is for me). A lot of these tips apply outside of Europe too. Just as an aside, I got pulled aside for a random bag check and the security guy was impressed with my collection of tech (2 universal adapters, 1 universal 4-port USB plug, external battery, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Macbook Air, DSLR…some say it’s a sickness….).
5 Things to Know
1. Staying Connected….Internationally
If having full use of your mobile device is important to you while traveling (it is to me), you have a few options. Obviously you can get whatever international package your existing carrier offers, but that’s usually costly. There are also options for truly international mobile hotspots and SIMs with data, but those can run you in the range of $15-25….per day. Fine for a real quick trip but anything longer….ouch! If your phone is unlocked, what I HIGHLY recommend is getting a prepaid SIM from a local carrier, wherever you’re going. Keep in mind that even with the same carrier you probably won’t be able to use the same data package and/or SIM in different countries.
2. Unlock Your Phone…Before You Leave
If you’re out of contract, unlocking your phone is usually not a big deal. Also, I’ve heard that some US carriers (Verizon or T-Mobile) allow you to use foreign carrier’s SIMs without issue. I use AT&T so I unlocked my iPhone 5 online on AT&T’s site, and it took me about 5 minutes to get that done. You’ll need to factory reset your device to complete the process unfortunately.
If your phone is under contract and with a carrier that won’t let you use international pre-paid SIMs, your options are more limited. You can pay their exorbitant rates or just get your hands on an older, unlockable phone. I’d recommend the latter.
3. Get a Local SIM…Unless you LIKE giving your carrier a ton of money
Once you’ve unlocked your phone you have a lot of options to get a prepaid SIM. The Pay as You Go SIM with Data Wiki is pretty comprehensive and contains most of what you need to know about how to get a prepaid SIM card for your phone in most countries, including a breakdown of your carrier options.
Finding a carrier can be a little challenging at times. Although, for example, in the Lisbon airport, there’s a Vodafone store right on the way out.
4. My SIM Is Too Fat
OK, this part is a little tricky. Not all carriers/stores will carry a nano-sized SIM if that’s what you need. I couldn’t find one in Andalucia, Spain, they just had the micro size. In Lisbon, Vodafone had the nano size no problem. In any case, if you can’t find a nano SIM, you can always cut a micro SIM down to size either with scissors or with a SIM cutter. The SIM cutter route is obviously easier, and you can buy them on Amazon for around $20. However, unless you’ll be traveling to multiple countries, it’s probably not worth it. Especially since they’re not super small. You can cut a micro SIM down to nano size with a pair of good scissors, it just takes attention to detail. Basically you just cut all around the metallic parts. You’ll end up with something that’s slightly smaller than a nano SIM, but will still fit into the SIM tray for your phone.
OK, hard part’s done. Now, on the card they gave you with the SIM, there’s a PIN code. DO NOT LOSE THAT. You’ll need to enter that PIN any time your phone shuts off. I recommend taking a picture of the PIN code too. You lose the PIN and you’ll be buying a new SIM card.
5. Getting Around
Google Maps is great overall, especially for walking. However, it falls short on transit, depending on the country. In London, for example, it’s pretty good for the underground schedule. But in Lisbon, Portugal, it only covers trains and buses…NOT trams. Also, outside of Lisbon proper, they don’t cover public transit at all. A lot of places have great free apps, specifically for public transit. Most major European cities (that I’ve visited) are highly pedestrian friendly so I’ve only needed a car when venturing outside large cities.
Flying within Europe and many other countries is great. In Europe for example, an hour flight can get you to a multitude of different countries. And it’s generally cheap, with some caveats.
RyanAir – Doesn’t get much cheaper, but there’s a reason it’s so cheap. They charge for EVERYTHING. Want a particular seat? There’s a charge for that. No free check-in baggage is a given. Forgot to print your boarding pass? No problem, just hand over 15 EUROS and they’ll print it for you. They have an app with electronic boarding passes but they state they don’t work everywhere. I’m guessing the app works fine if your flight is not anywhere on the planet Earth and if you book your flight for November 31. If you are careful, however, RyanAir is a great option for the budget conscious. (There’s other airlines that are similar that I won’t get into here, but just keep in mind that their luggage policies are different than in the US.)
IMPORTANT TIP: Make sure your gadgets have enough power to turn on completely! If you get asked by airport security, you will need to show that your gadget actually works for its intended purpose. If your electronics can’t power up, you’ll have to charge it up or it may get confiscated 🙁
Yelp Sucks (internationally)
The first time I went to Paris I had to pick restaurants at random. I mean, like walking down a street and walking into a restaurant at random. Most of the time, this didn’t work out very well for me. At the time, Yelp wasn’t available at all in Paris. Now in 2014, Yelp is available in most countries. HOWEVER, nobody uses Yelp so it’s still pretty useless. TripAdvisor is extremely common and there’s another service called zomato that works pretty much just like Yelp. Zomato isn’t available everywhere, but if it’s available in your location it’s not a bad option. It’s actually better designed than either TripAdvisor (UI is pretty bad) or even Yelp.
5 Things To Use to Make Your Trip Easier
I got a great charger from Amazon that allows you to charge up to 4 USB devices, including 1 tablet. The cool thing about this particular charger is that it includes snap-on adapters for all the major plugs (US/UK/Europe).
A lot of international flights have electrical sockets you can use to charge your devices on the long flights. Some even include USB sockets. However, I HIGHLY recommend that you avoid using USB sockets and instead use your own chargers. It’s been proven recently that plugging your devices into unknown USB receptacles is a good way to get malware or hacked.
2. External Battery
Got mobile devices? You need one of these then. If you’re the type of traveler that goes out all day to check stuff out and like to post photos or video, you’re probably going to run down your device battery. You can carry around a plug and hope you can find an outlet (actually easier than in the US), or you can bring an external battery with you. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re rated by how much of a charge they can store, measured in milliampere-hour or mAh. I had a 3200 mAh battery that gave me an extra 1.5 charges on my iPhone 5. They make them a lot bigger but keep in mind that size and weight is directly proportional to the amount of charge. BTW, they’re always bigger than they look when you’re buying them 😀
3. Travel luggage scale
You can buy these for about $20 USD, and they’re totally worth it if you’re anywhere close to the limit on weight and you’re flying within Europe. Remember, the weight (and size limits) are different from the US, so if you travel anywhere within Europe (for example) the bag you so carefully packed when leaving the US, may NOT meet the weight limits for another country. With the luggage scale you can repack your bags easily (or at least see how screwed you are) and it makes it easy to switch from pounds to kilos too.
4. Universal Adapter
You’ll also need a universal adapter for regular plugs so you can charge your laptop, camera battery, etc. These are usually brick shaped and include all the necessary plugs, some even include a USB port.
5. Helpful Apps and Services (these are all IOS/Android and/or web)
Wordlens – This is a cool little app that will convert written words (like a sign) from one language into another (I only tested Spanish and Portugeuse to English). Your mileage will vary depending on the language and sign, but it can be helpful at times. Using it on a menu is always entertaining. It only works with a limited number of languages however.
Google Translate – Not much explanation needed here. This app from Google will translate most languages back and forth and will prounounce words or phrases for you. It also displays the translated phrase in large letters which can be helpful for example when you’re trying to tell a taxi driver where you want to go.
WhatsApp – Traveling with a bunch of people? This app is great for you then. You can text or send voice messages to large groups and you can also pin your location to tell people where to meet you. You can do all this with other services (like Facebook) but with a multi-generational group not everyone may have a FB account.
TripIt – It’s a cool service that lets you organize your itinerary and share it with others, either fellow travelers or people you’re visiting. If you get the Pro service it has some extra bonuses like alerting you of last minute changes on flights and seats.
SeatGuru – Especially for long flights, making sure you don’t have a bad seat is crucial. Strangely, not all seats are created equal, but on SeatGuru, they have practically every plane mapped out with notes on particularly good or bad seat locations.
OffMaps2, I highly recommend this app – especially if you are on a limited data plan. Again, it doesn’t help with transit, but it’s a really cool app that easily lets you pin locations on a downloaded maps so you can plan out all the places you want to go and see where they are in relation to each other. It also lets you download the Wikipedia article for your downloaded location so you can see all the sites you might want to visit and gives you some background without needing a tour guide. [Looks like it’s IOS only for now, sorry Android users]
Well, that’s all I can think of for now. Hope this will help my fellow nerd travelers and feel free to drop me a line via email or twitter if you have any specific questions, I’ll do my best to help! Hope you have a great trip and have fun out there.