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Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones and tablets

Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy
Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy
Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe Last updated: October 2017 To many Americans, staying in touch with a cell phone or tablet while in Europe can seem difficult and expensive. But savvy travelers know it doesn't have to be. Having a phone while you're there can be a major time saver and convenience. This article tells you how to stay in touch and save money. Why don't US cell phones "just work" in Europe? For various reasons, the United States developed and deployed wireless technologies that were incompatible with those deployed in the Rest Of the World, which went with a standard called GSM ("Global System for Mobiles" - one of the reasons why Europeans use the term "mobile" and not "cell phone"). This meant that for many years, the only option for US travelers to Europe was to rent a GSM phone, which was expensive and inconvenient. But all that has changed in the past few years.

GSM comes to America (AT&T and T-Mobile)

Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless, Verizon and T-Mobile. Many (but not all) of these phones will not "just work" in Europe. The US uses different radio frequencies to the rest of the world, so you need a "World Phone" that is designed to work in the US and outside the US. The most popular smartphones all work internationally: the Apple iPhone series, the Samsung Galaxy series and the Google Nexus phones. As a rule of thumb, the cheapest phones are generally those that do not support international roaming. The net? Make sure you buy a phone that clearly states is can be used internationally or is called a "World Phone"

The simple five-step guide to renting a Villa in Italy or France

Renting a villa in Italy, France or Spain isn't just for millionaires. Perhaps surprisingly, villa rental can be more reasonable than staying in a hotel, especially if you're a family a larger group (though being a millionaire does help if you want to rent an entire Tuscan village from the Ferragamo family).

Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
There are just five simple steps: 1) Decide if a villa vacation is for you. The pros are that you'll have a base for a week or two that you can come back to each night. You can stay in all day, lounge by the pool or in the garden, take in the culture somewhere else, eat in or out... all up to you. The cons are that there's no daily maid service or other hotel amenities, you are in the same place (so visiting places far from base means a longer round trip), and you have to keep the place reasonably clean and tidy. You'll likely be doing cooking yourself if you stay in, though you can also hire a cook -- and in some places you can also hire a maid if you want more frequent cleaning. Personally, I am happy to trade hotel amenities for a more relaxed and flexible vacation. 2) Pick a country and general geography -- South of France, Tuscany etc -- based on the kind of things you want to do and see. Get a few guidebooks to places you think you might like to go. My personal favorites are the Dorling Kindersley "Eyewitness" travel guides (DK guides), and the Rough Guides. I like the DK guides because they're chock full of photographs so you can get a better idea of what a place is really like, and they're also a good starting point for planning photography trips. The Rough Guides are impeccably researched with good writing on places, history, art and contemporary life, with great vignettes on the famous locals. However, although brimming with great maps to get you around, they are sparsely illustrated when it comes to photos.

Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services

Updated October 2015

Fashionistas leave an exclusive boutique in Florence, Italy
Fashionistas leave an exclusive boutique in Florence, Italy
If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question "How can I use my cell phone in Europe?" and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.

What's easiest and best for European data today?

WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. In addition, carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have many roaming partnerships in Europe that can reduce the costs. Wifi connection quality varies widely -- from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you're stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing. Mobile wireless data: You'll find yourself with 3G or GPRS/EDGE (see below for definitions of the technology) 90% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is picking up speed and is mostly available in larger towns and cities. European 3G coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 3G with up to 1Mbit/sec of data transfer speed, and again you don't need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to EDGE or GPRS coverage (256Kb/sec) outside of 3G data areas.

Plug converters / adapters for Europe

An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won't work. This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices] Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here's how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn't like to save money? If you haven't done so already, register with AT&T's web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called "I want to...", which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on "I want to..." to get this menu

Lytro Light Field Camera Review

Photography began with the concept of capturing light in a single plane -- the idea of what's in and out of focus in an image has been central to photographic composition for more than 100 years. The photographer's job has been to direct the viewer's attention by deciding which subjects are in focus, while ensuring that the background (and less frequently, the foreground) are appropriately blurred. The Lytro camera turns that entire concept on its head by delivering a "living image" where the viewer can change the point of focus to explore the image. When my Lytro arrived, I couldn't wait to try it out. What follows is my review of the 1.0.0 version of the Lytro camera and 1.0.0 software following my attempts to take good photographs. I'd love to embed some Lytro photos in this post, but that doesn't seem to work. So, instead, here's a link to my Lytro gallery (opens in a new window): Lytro example The Lytro camera "out of box" experience is very well done and will be very familiar to anyone who owns an iPod or iPhone. It comes in a white box, with the camera held firmly in place with plastic inserts. Underneath the camera is a white cardboard box containing the paperwork, lens cap, cleaning cloth, wrist strap and USB cable. The camera itself is small -- just 4.4 inches long -- and arrives with some charge in the battery so you can start shooting immediately. It's shaped like a square tube, with the lens at one end and a small viewing screen at the other:

Lytro light field camera
Lytro light field camera
A small power button on the bottom turns on the camera, and the shutter button is on the top. Zooming is accomplished by dragging a finger left and right on the rear top edge of the camera. It's a little clunky, as it can be hard to set just the right composition, but it works. The camera is fully automatic: it sets shutter speed and ISO automatically with a fixed f2 aperture. You can tap on the rear screen to tell the camera the exposure metering point and it will do its best. The Lytro needs a wide aperture to capture the best light field -- the direction of the light as well as its intensity and color. There's a little clicking sound when you point the camera at a very bright object like the sky on a sunny day, and exposure is reduced. I suspect it's inserting a neutral density filter inside the lens barrel to reduce the light intensity. In "Everyday mode" (the default), the Lytro takes photos instantaneously when you press the shutter button. Lytro makes much of this "instant capture" capability in its marketing, because a light field camera doesn't have to focus. In theory, yes. In practice, not so much, which is why there's "Creative mode", accessed by swiping a finger upwards on the rear screen and tapping a small icon, allowing you to focus the camera. The physics of optics has crashed the "focus free" light field party here: the camera has to focus the lens so that the captured light field has a useful range of potential focus planes. The net? The Lytro camera requires very careful framing and composition of subjects to give the viewer an interesting set of subjects separated by distance. While the camera might be point and shoot, the composition work is anything but instantaneous! Creative mode offers more flexibility in composing the subjects by distance (handy if they are inanimate) and careful control of the camera to ensure it is properly "focused". The square (1:1) aspect ratio of the image doesn't help with composition, making it hard to get everything into the frame. The camera would be easier to use if it had a wide aspect ratio, as there would be more room in the frame for the subjects. This is really the crux of the challenge presented by the Lytro: how to use it to produce an effective photograph that is interesting and aesthetically pleasing for the viewer. Many of the examples on the Lytro website are contrived compositions with near and far elements to show off the novelty of being able to re-focus after the fact. If that is all there is for light field images, then its impact on photography has been dramatically over-hyped. Plugging the camera into your Mac (Windows support just shipped) allows you to install the Lytro Desktop software -- a nice touch. Once installed, you unplug and replug the camera to download images. You can then view the images -- though not at full size -- and change the focus point. You can also share images on Facebook and Lytro's own website, and export JPEGs (so I'm told -- I have never managed to find this function in the software). The only effective way to show an image is through the flash file stored on the Lytro website, which is severely limiting. Lytro touts the camera's low-light capabilities, but I think that's a mistake. There is significant noise, banding, lines and other odd artefacts in low light. Shutter speeds are low, even at f2, so camera shake is a real problem, and there's no flash integration. Overall, the Lytro camera is intriguing more for future possibilities than what it can do today. Version 1.0.0 is pretty basic and effective composition is extremely time-consuming and requires full cooperation of your subjects. With light field photography, we ought to be able to produce 3D photographs, change the viewers position, tilt and shift the plane of focus to our liking... there are many more possibilities than capabilities in the current software. Today, I find myself leaving the Lytro at home more often than I take it out, and that's a shame.  

Happy New Year!

Thank you to all our clients for your business in 2010 -- we hope you have a prosperous and successful 2011, and look forward to serving you again.

Car rental agencies and recommendations

Some have asked for recommendations of websites or agencies they should try for car rentals in Europe.

Tourists in a miniature car slip into a space between cars to enjoy a view of the Golden Gate Bridge

Not all rental car companies are equal -- San Francisco CA

Here are the sites I use:

Stonehenge: the story behind the picture

Stonehenge inner circle

It has to be one of the most famous places on Earth, never mind the United Kingdom: the prehistoric stone circle that is Stonehenge. But if you have ever been there, you'll have found yourself behind a low fence on a paved path, well away from the stones themselves and far enough away to make good photographs difficult.

It's hard to blame English Heritage, who own the site and are responsible for maintaining Stonehenge. Over the years, visitors have chipped off pieces of stone and carved their initials. Today, you can still see graffiti carved in the 1800s, when the stones were simply sitting in a corner of a lumpy field on the edge of Salisbury plain rather than a protected monument.

How is it that I am so special that I got to go right into the centre of the circle to get the angles and photos you see on the site?

The story behind the picture: Joust Of The Saracens

On the front page of Lodge Photo is a crop from a photo showing a man on a horse with a lance, tilting at a strange target. It's one of a sequence of four:

Joust of the Saracens, Arezzo

This is the Giostra del Saracino - Joust of the Saracens - held twice a year in Arezzo, Tuscany.

How the credit crunch makes going to Europe easier

Bank of England: Have you felt the bubble burst?

Just how is it that the freezing of the world's credit markets can help you go on vacation? There are two answers: changing Dollar currency exchange rates, and the fall in the price of oil. One Euro today costs $1.34, whereas six months ago it was $1.60; a British pound now costs $1.49 versus $2.00 in the middle of July. The dollar has been helped by several factors. One is that foreign investors have been trying to liquidate (turn into cash) investments in stocks, bonds and, yes, whacky mortgage-backed securities. Much of these are dollar denominated, so they needed to buy dollars to do so -- and that raised demand, thus making the dollar stronger (the same happened for the Japanese Yen, but this is not a Japanese travel photo site!) Another reason is that those trading in currencies for a living believe that the Dollar and Yen are "safe" and more tradeable than other currencies. The fall in the price of oil, due to reduced demand from China and other large economies, has meant that airlines have been gradually cutting the price of tickets as fuel becomes cheaper. Falling demand has had something to do with that too: airlines are far more likely to pass on falling fuel costs if they think it will fill their 'planes. The net:take another look at that European vacation -- it might be a lot cheaper now than it was 6 months ago!