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Rick Steves' Europe: Travel smart with your smartphone

Rick Steves’ Europe: Technology enhances Rick Steves’ travel experiences.
Oklahoman Published: July 20, 2014

I love all the technology that makes travel easier than ever. Even when you want to get away from it all, it makes sense to take your smartphone (or tablet) with you. You can keep in touch if you want to, plus you’ll have instant access to resources that can enrich your trip. I wouldn’t leave home without mine.

Essentially, a smartphone helps you make the most of your travel time. For example, some of Europe’s blockbuster sights, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome, allow you to buy tickets and have them sent to your phone — enabling you to skip the formidable lines when you get there.

You can also check hours and get directions to places you want to visit and confirm other details that help you plan your itinerary. I generally don’t care about the weather, but while filming recently in the Italian Riviera — where good weather was critical — I repeatedly checked my weather app hoping for a better forecast than the predicted drizzle.

Besides managing the nitty-gritty details, you can enhance sightseeing with audio tours and podcasts. (It works best to download these at home before your trip.) I’m even starting to see more innovative ways to use your mobile device when sightseeing, such as QR codes posted at spots of interest in Colmar, France. Scan one, and you’ve got the information right there on your screen for free.

Keeping it affordable

Using your phone abroad isn’t hard, and horror stories you may hear about sky-high roaming fees are dated and exaggerated. With a little preparation, you can text, make calls and access the Internet without breaking the bank.

First, confirm that your phone will work internationally. Find out your service provider’s global roaming rates for voice calls, text messaging and data roaming and tell the provider which of those services you’d like to activate. (When you get home, remember to cancel these services to avoid extra charges.)

If you’d rather use your phone exclusively on Wi-Fi, ask your provider to deactivate roaming options on your account. You can also put your phone in “airplane mode,” and then turn your Wi-Fi back on.

Luckily, Wi-Fi is easy to find throughout Europe. Most accommodations offer it, usually for free. When you’re out and about, head to a cafe. They’ll usually tell you their Wi-Fi password if you buy something. Some towns have free public Wi-Fi hotspots scattered around highly trafficked areas. Keep in mind that using a shared network comes with the potential for cyberattacks. It’s safest to use a password-protected network rather than being open to the world. If you’re not actively using a hotspot, turn off Wi-Fi so your device is not visible to others. And save your banking and finance chores for your return home.

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