My wife and I just returned from a two-week vacation visiting Oslo, Bergen and the fjords in Norway, and several towns in Normandy and the Loire Valley in France. I was able to try out some products — not to make work more efficient, but to help make our vacation run smoothly. We carried a MacBook, iPad, and two phones, a Verizon iPhone and T-Mobile HTC One.
Getting connected was less important for email and work, and more important to get in touch with the surroundings to make good choices and better use of our time. WiFi connections at the many hotels we stayed in were free, but in several of them the service was too slow or erratic for browsing or making Skype calls.
While I tried T-Mobile’s new international plan in China a couple of months ago and found it to work well, this was my first time trying it in Europe. Like almost everywhere else in the world, T-Mobile offers free data and phone calls for just 20 cents a minute.
Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the most useful gadget we brought. Last time I was in Europe, I was reluctant to use my Verizon phone for data of any kind, fearful of all those exorbitant international roaming charges. I had to be extra careful: Turn it on, check out directions or a restaurant, and quickly put it back on airplane mode. Even then, I paid nearly $200 for a week of carefully monitored use.
With the T-Mobile service, there were no concerns, no worries and everything worked much as it does at home. We used data for getting directions, checking out restaurant reviews and researching the areas we visited. We gave out our phone number without a concern, knowing that a short call might cost $10 or $20 on other carriers. We made local calls, calls back home and even responded to some email messages. And we used Yelp to find local restaurants and visited the websites to check menus.
Our data connection varied from 2G to 4G, depending on location. It was mostly 3G and 4G in and near cities. 2G data, mostly in the countryside, was marginal and you wouldn’t want to browse, but it usually worked for directions and email. And with a feeling of satisfaction, we used the T-Mobile phone’s hotspot to connect my wife’s iPad and my Verizon iPhone to the Internet to check mail and make a Skype call.
In France, where we rented a car, our most important use was accessing the phone’s GPS. However, we found Google Maps to be disappointing and not nearly as good as it is in the United States. It occasionally got confused and led us astray, once when we were driving to a famous chateau in France and another time driving to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
On several walking excursions, it sent us to the wrong location and didn’t seem to know where we were. When searching for a destination, it often failed to return directions. No matter how we set it, the directions that it did give seemed to be the shortest route between two points, no matter that it was through a farmer’s cornfield!
Most noticeable was its abysmal pronunciation of French street names, even well-known names. For example, “Voltaire” was pronounced as Vault-er. I can understand the app doesn’t speak French, but to mispronounce so many words so badly made the speech nearly unrecognizable.
On the other hand, Waze, now owned by Google, worked much better. It instantly found routes, offered detours around traffic and identified accidents on the highway.
I also took along a new Garmin GPS to try out. Before I left home, Garmin had provided me a subscription to their European maps ($100). But loading the maps was a complicated process: I had to register the GPS unit by plugging it into the computer and it took several attempts to be recognized.
I then downloaded the maps onto a microSD card in the device; that took almost an hour over a fast home cable Internet connection. When I was all done, and it told me it was successful, I tried checking for the maps on the GPS, but the simplified user interface had no way to let me check its map contents, as best as I could tell.
When I arrived in Norway and again in France and turned on the GPS, it failed to show any local directions or destinations. Even if it had worked, with such complexity, I’m sad to say the Garmin is no longer competitive for either cost or ease of use.
One of the frustrations in visiting Europe is that U.S. banks still don’t offer chip and PIN credit cards. They’re standard in Europe and provide greater security because your information is read from a chip imbedded in the card — not the magnetic stripe — and it requires you to enter a PIN number. Shopkeepers bring you a handheld terminal so you always have your card in your possession.
Some credit card companies (American Express, Chase, and Citibank) offer a card with a chip, but you often have to request it, and it’s available only on premium accounts. While we were able to make purchases and pay for meals, we ran into trouble paying highways tolls and buying gas. The cards didn’t work for either, and we needed to use cash. This is just one area where we are behind in technology.
According to milecards.com, the only issuers of chip and PIN in the United States are State Department Federal Credit Union EMV Visa Platinum, Andrews Federal Credit Union, GlobeTrek Visa, PenFed’s Platinum Rewards, Promise & Gold Visa, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard.
I took along a few other products that proved useful: a portable power strip that turns one outlet into three, something very useful with most hotel rooms having a scarcity of outlets. I used the Travelocity 3 Port Travel Outlet for $15. It’s the smallest one I could find, but there are similar units from Belkin and Monster. You just use it with an outlet plug converter such as the OREI Grounded Universal 2 in 1 Schuko Plug Adapter from Amazon ($6.25), and you can charge three items at once.
I traveled with a $75 ScottEVest Pack Jacket. This lightweight jacket with a rain hood took very little space to pack, and was vital during the many rainy days. Its 16 pockets were perfect for protecting my camera and phones and even holding an umbrella and mini-iPad. (www.scottevest.com)
On the last night of our stay we found online that a flight to San Diego opened up where we could use our mileage for super saver awards, so we wouldn’t need to fly into LAX and rent a car to drive home. I immediately called United Airlines from the hotel room using Skype, knowing it would be a lengthy call. But Skype was not working well, so I redialed using the T-Mobile phone. Even a 20-minute call was only $4 and the connection was superb.
The bottom line is, if you travel internationally, it’s important to take the right gadgets. As it turned out, I used mostly the T-Mobile phone and notebook computer. I would have left the other devices home. Most important, taking along a T-Mobile phone will save you a fortune and make your trip easier and more enjoyable.
If you do consider T-Mobile, one caution is that it doesn’t have as big a data network as Verizon and AT&T across the United States, so check your local coverage. My experience over the four months of use is its coverage has been more than adequate for me throughout Southern and Northern California.Read More...