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 also can check hours and get directions to places you want to visit, and confirm other details that help you plan your itinerary. 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 the 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.
Accessing the Internet
Using your phone abroad isn't hard, and horror stories you may hear about sky-high roaming fees are both 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 your provider which of those services you'd like to activate. (When you get home, remember to cancel the 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 also can put your phone in "airplane mode," 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. The staff will usually tell you their Wi-Fi password if you buy something. Some towns have free public Wi-Fi hot spots scattered around highly trafficked areas. Keep in mind using a shared network comes with the potential for cyber-attacks. It's safest to use a password-protected network rather than being open to the world. If you're not actively using a hot spot, turn off Wi-Fi so your device is not visible to others. And save your banking and finance chores for your return home.
Data roaming -- accessing the Internet over a cellular connection -- is handy when you can't find usable Wi-Fi. It's important to set up data roaming with your service provider before your trip; if you do this, it costs about $25 for around 100 megabytes (enough to view 1,000 emails or 100 websites) -- more than you'll likely need to bridge the gaps between reliable Wi-Fi.
'Fetch,' don't 'push'
Budgeting data is easy. For example, you can limit how much you use by switching your phone's email settings from "push" to "fetch." This way, you can "fetch" (download) your messages when you're on Wi-Fi rather than having them continuously "pushed" to your device. If you receive an email with a large photo or other attachment, wait until you're on Wi-Fi to download it.
Also, be aware of apps -- such as news, weather and sports tickers -- that automatically update. On some phones, you can select which specific apps can use data roaming; to reduce usage, check your phone's settings to be sure none of your apps are set to "use cellular data."
Because there are various ways you can accidentally burn through data, I like the safeguard of manually turning off data roaming on my phone whenever I'm not actively using it -- try checking under your phone's "cellular" or "network" menu, or ask your service provider how to do it. Then, when you need to get online but can't find Wi-Fi, simply turn on data roaming long enough for the task at hand, then turn it off again. By sticking with Wi-Fi wherever possible and thoughtfully budgeting your data use, you can easily and affordably stay connected throughout your entire trip.