It’s amazing the difference five years makes when traveling with tech.
In April 2013, I felt as though I was living on the edge when I took a 10-day trip to France, doing my best to go paperless and grab whatever cheap internet connectivity I could. This year, over 10 March days in Spain (via a quick stop in Germany), the digital connectivity and tricks worked even better.
So it’s time for a nerdy “second edition” of my Geek’s Guide to International Travel, if you too are considering a European sojourn.
First, two caveats: We research and book all of our vacation travel ourselves, and my wife Dee Dee and I don’t do group tours. So this won’t apply as much if you rely on others to do the groundwork or are into the herd experience. (Sorry. I’m really not into group tours.) But you will get most of the benefit of our work, and our mistakes.
We did all of this traveling with our Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphones, but clearly it’ll work with pretty much any iPhone or other up-to-date Android device. Our itinerary, for reference, was Seattle to Frankfurt airport, then a combination of air and rail to Barcelona, Madrid, and Cordoba, and finally back to Seattle via Frankfurt airport.
What tech did we discover we couldn’t live without — and what do we wish we had left at home?
Plan with both the paper and digital guide books. Part of the fun of a vacation is the expectation, and that’s where good guide books come into play. After once before having gone digital-only, I found paper guidebook versions provided visible reminders at home to do the actual planning (my favorites for independent travel are the Rick Steves and Lonely Planet series). But I only take the eBook versions with me on the road, avoiding weight and bulk, and reference them on my phone after I arrive. Key to making this work is to highlight important sections in advance so you can quickly find that city-specific tip you need in the Amazon Kindle app.
The Amazon Kindle app is free, but the guide eBooks are not.
Learn a bit of the language via app. Odds are you can get by with smiling and pointing, but it’s both polite and practical to at least try the local lingo. For that, Duolingo was good for prep with its excellent combination of writing, speaking, and listening drills. Once on the ground, I switched to the much-improved Google Translate, really helpful for real-time translation of menus, signs (with its “camera” feature) and dialogue (with its “conversation” and “voice” features, though it’s a bit awkward holding your phone between you and a stranger as if you were using a Universal Translator with a Gorn). Remember to download Google’s “offline translation” language dictionaries before you leave, so Translate works smoothly when you’re out of WiFi or cellular data network range.
Store digital copies of travel documents. You can’t travel with a digital passport. But can you scan your passport’s photo page and tuck that PDF copy in a folder shared with a traveling partner in Dropbox or in a shared offline notebook in Evernote (we did both), just in case you lose your physical passport and need to speed its replacement. We also stored PDF copies of our emailed advance-purchase rail tickets and attraction tickets (if they had bar or other digital codes). The phone versions scanned just fine at the train station and the museums from our mobile devices.
Be aware of RFID and security vulnerabilities. As touchless transactions have become more common, so have warnings about potential data theft from embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in credit cards and — yes — U.S. passports. While the practical risk appears very small, we purchased inexpensive RFID blocking sleeves for our passports and cards (Alpine Rivers, for example, sells an 18-sleeve pack for less than $10 on Amazon). We also bought day packs from Pacsafe. They also have an RFID-blocking pocket in them, but the Vibe line has ingenious interlocking zipper pulls designed to frustrate pickpockets, sadly common in crowded areas of Barcelona and Madrid, and keep smartphones or tablets safely with you for the entire trip.
Confirm an international data plan. Despite improvements, data charges outside of your home country can still be horrific if you don’t plan ahead. Our T-Mobile One plans included unlimited data roaming and texting where we traveled (once we remembered to turn our phones’ data roaming on, after landing). While promising only 2G speeds, we were surprised to see our connections in Spain at 3G and 4G rates. Other carriers also sell short-term international data packages that should be part of your prep research, though I’ve found T-Mobile’s program to be the most generous.
Give travel apps their own home screen. It is far easier to access what you need in a hurry (“OK Google, Donde esta el inodoro?”) if you cluster shortcuts to all of your travel apps together in a folder group or on a separate screen. In addition to other apps I’ve mentioned, my short list includes Lyft or Uber for airport transportation (surprisingly, Uber also operates in Madrid), Oanda’s Currency Converter for spending math, Google’s Arts & Culture for quick museum reference, AccuWeather for umbrella advice, and TripIt to keep my master list of all flight, rail, and hotel arrangements.
All of these apps are free, but I pay extra for the AccuWeather Platinum ad-free version ($3.99 Android) and for TripIt Pro ($49/year) so I can automatically share travel plans and get flight alerts, often faster than an airline’s own app will notify me.
Use the airline app(s). Even if you’ll never fly an airline more than a couple of short hops, downloading the airline’s app can have unexpected benefits. For example, Lufthansa’s app supported mobile check-in, boarding passes, and flight status alerts (as expected) for brief flights between Spain and Frankfurt. But it also automatically stored baggage tag information in the app in case our checked luggage took its own vacation. By comparison, Condor, the airline we took to and from Frankfurt from Seattle, didn’t even do web check-in properly.
Take the fast train. With cheap airfares rampant, the train may seem like a bit of Agatha Christie-era nostalgia. That thinking itself is old-fashioned as high-speed rail service in Europe continues to expand: for example, Germany has ICE, France has TGV, and Spain has AVE. Not only do these high-tech locomotives beat the choo-choos of yesteryear, they also compete with airlines once you factor in recommended airport arrival times. Our Barcelona to Madrid AVE took two-and-a-half hours. An airline flight would have been 90 minutes, but once you tack on another 60-90 minutes for airport check-in and screenings, it’s a wash at best.
If you don’t want to struggle with a country’s train system website (and payment process), RailEurope is well-known and issues electronic tickets. But I found Rick Steves’ RailEurope portal offers more options on ticket types. Either is a smart move 60-90 days out from when you’re traveling to get advance discounts.
Use digital audio guides. There’s no reason to do a walking tour with your nose in a guidebook. Take advantage of many free downloadable audio walking tours. I like Rick Steves Audio Europe because its city walking tours are easy to navigate, work well offline, and are free.
Activate photo backup. If you are taking most of your images with a smartphone instead of a dedicated camera, make sure whatever photo storage service you use is set to automatically back up your snaps, just in case. I used Amazon’s Prime Photos, which includes limited free photo storage for Amazon customers, and unlimited for Prime subscribers. If data roaming overseas is a concern, check the app settings to upload images only when you’re on WiFi.
Beware upbeat chip card claims. Yes, your U.S. chip-and-signature credit card will work in Europe. No, it won’t always work where you want it to, such as in automated subway or other ticket machines, which expect a PIN and not a signature to complete the transaction. This is an ongoing technological annoyance, so much so that I use my chip-and-PIN ATM card right after landing to take out enough Euros to use whenever I face an automated ticketing machine.
Ditch battery vampires. Relying on a smartphone for nearly every purpose paper used to serve is possible, but battery life is the limiting factor. I candidly found turn-by-turn walking directions in Google Maps weren’t worth the battery suck, and I had to ride herd on ill-behaved apps that kept drinking juice after I thought I’d closed them (that means you, AccuWeather, as my Samsung’s Device Maintenance app often told me). Another power-saving approach is to keep your phone in airplane mode even when you’re on the ground, only turning on WiFi or cellular data when you need real-time connectivity. That’s why having offline language dictionaries and audio tours is useful.
Avoid apps that don’t work where you need them. Some apps sound great, but just don’t work well on the road. MasterCard’s Nearby app, which I’d hoped to use to find low-fee ATMs tied to my credit union’s (BECU’s) network, simply got confused and couldn’t give me good location information when I was in a train station. If you’re using an app for the first time, give it a trial run before leaving home — and before relying on it overseas.
Much of my earlier Guide advice still applies — look for municipal WiFi hot spots (which appear to be more prevalent in major European cities than in the U.S.), bring the right charger adapter plug, and seek out good city- or attraction-specific apps at your destination.
But these days, it’s much easier to travel with less paper in Europe, and stay connected affordably the entire time.