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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
  To many Americans, going wireless 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. [This is part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe] 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. No one could reach you on your US cell phone number; you had the hassle and cost of receiving and returning the phone, and both phone rental and calls were astonishingly expensive.

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

Using Canon 50D and 5D MkII with older Photoshop and Lightroom versions

Judging by the comments on photography sites, many people have yet to upgrade Adobe Photoshop CS3 to CS4, or Lightroom 1.x to 2.x. Adobe doesn't update the Camera Raw plug-in for older versions of Photoshop, which is a problem because updates are the only way to get support for new camera models. The same problem exists for Lightroom, where a new version of the program is required. The Canon 50D isn't supported in Lightroom 1.4 -- only version 2.x. While the 50D is supported in Camera Raw 4.6, which means you can use it with Photoshop CS3, owners of the 5D Mark II are not so lucky: no support in Lightroom 1.4 and no support in Photoshop CS3 either; it's supported in Camera Raw 5.2 which only works with Photoshop CS4. To solve this problem, use the latest version of Adobe's free DNG (Digital NeGative) converter to translate the RAW files from newer cameras into .DNG files. Lightroom 1.4 and Photoshop CS3 can open any DNG file, regardless of the original camera type. The DNG converter can be found here, and there are PC and Mac variants. It is updated at the same time as the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop when new camera support is added. It works in batch mode -- you point it at a directory (folder) full of RAW files and it grinds away creating DNGs in another directory. Taking the long view, DNG is probably a better file format for archiving images because it is open, unlike the proprietary camera-makers' RAW file formats.

When credit card rental car insurance leaves you uncovered

I'm a fan of not paying for rental car CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance, because it's usually unnecessary and expensive when many credit cards already offer coverage. I've written before about positive experiences with American Express' rental car insurance, but a recent trip highlighted the importance of re-reading the small print. Francesca, one half of LodgePhoto, had rented a car at London Heathrow, and was pleased to get a free upgrade to a Jaguar, which is this rental car company's standard intermediate model. Now, there are Jaguars and Jaguars, and this was one of the former -- i.e. at the low end of the range, nothing exotic, but a pleasant step up from the more typical Ford or Peugot. At the end of the rental, there was a small chip in the windshield, which American Express explained would not be covered "because Jaguars are exotic cars"... which, if true (there's some doubt, see below), means that she'd been driving around without insurance for a few days. Some digging on the Amex website revealed the small print of Amex's rental car insurance (it is hard to find -- it took two failed searches before following a series of links). There are some fairly substantial limitations in the current rules:

  1. Exotic cars: anything by Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini (and other supercar makers). Also listed is the Jaguar XJS, which is not what Francesca rented. Also the Mercedes E320, which I would not consider remotely exotic. Check the document for the full list.
  2. Expensive cars: an MSRP greater than $50,000. This can be a really tough one to figure out when renting overseas -- is that the price of the car when purchased in the US, or the price of the car in purchased in Europe converted to dollars? How would you know either price when presented with a particular car at the rental counter? Is that price at the current dollar exchange rate, or when it was purchased?
  3. Full sized SUVs and Vans: Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition, Chevy Van etc. If you have a lot of stuff and/or a large family, this might also be a surprise. In Europe I always recommend getting more, smaller cars vs. one huge one, if that is possible, as smaller cars are easier to drive and park on narrow European roads (especially in medieval cities).
This is not the full list of limitations, by the way, just some edited highlights. So, it's not clear if the windshield chip is covered or not, since Francesca wasn't driving an expensive or exotic car per the small print. We'll find out. The take-away from all this: re-read the small print. Even if you read it before. It might have changed!