Note from the Editors: Lynne and Henry Heilbrunn spent much of 2001 and 2002 traveling in Europe. They headed to Europe again earlier this year, and we invited them to share with our readers what has changed for the broadband traveler between their visits.
Henry Heilbrunn is the founder of InterActive Directions, providing strategic management consulting services and interim executive placement in the U.S. and in Europe. Henry and Broadband Home publisher Dave Waks collaborated on home information services in the 1980s and 1990s while at CBS and Prodigy, an early online service owned by CBS, IBM and Sears.
Currently a Teaching Fellow at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Henry led German students at the University of Leipzig in 2006 to dream about new ways to communicate in the next 5 to 20 years. His wife, Lynne, is busily using her broadband connections wherever they are to determine their next itinerary in Asia.
The Broadband Traveler -- An Update from Europe
If you’re off for broadband travel in Europe, no need to weigh down your bags with all the gadgets, adapters, and wires you once hauled with you. There is a downside, though: your wallet will be lightened by new technology usage charges.
We’ve returned to the U.S. from three months of hotel living, apartment renting, and bunking with friends in the bigger "Old Europe" cities and in spectacular remote mountainsides along a 9,600 kilometers (about 6,000 miles) route through Austria, Germany, Holland, Hungary and Italy.
Our travel was markedly different from the nearly 12 months in 2001 and 2002 that we moved through western and eastern Europe. In 2006 we arrived with fewer guidebooks, foldout maps, and no music CDs. We had less certainty about our itinerary and far more confidence that we could wing it. Our luggage contained far fewer electronics. And we carried more conviction to stay in closer, more frequent touch with family, friends, and the world.
In our 4-year absence, we discovered that Europe leaped forward. No longer was an RJ-11 telephone adapter required for each country visited (the electrical system still needs its converter). The Eurodollar currency you exchange in one country works in (most) others and it’s easily obtainable through plenty of ATMs with your home bank card (and a four-digit PIN).
If you’re on the right U.S. cellular network, your same mobile phone with the same U.S. number rings anywhere you are through the European GSM network. (Caution: remind your callers of the 5 to 7 hour time difference to avoid middle-of-the-night wakeups). In fact, cell phone reception is far better than in the U.S., including atop the mountains and deep in kilometers-long tunnels beneath those mountains. All this is a sharp -- and welcome – contrast to the three incompatible cellular technologies in use in the U.S.
What to Carry – and What Not?
So what did we carry in 2006 and what, from years earlier, did we leave behind?
Our even more miniaturized lifeline laptop travels with us everywhere.
Its longer-life battery, greater memory, fewer peripherals, and built-in wireless this time around gave us greater access to the growing traveler’s online tool chest.
We found online more precise European maps (tire manufacturer Michelin's
City guides are now ubiquitous online for large and small places, with chain and private hotel and B&B suggestions for the random stops we prefer just prior to nightfall. These are known as “gite” in France compiled at Gîtes de France; “gastehaus” or “landhotel” in Germanic nations available through Hotel Reservation Service (HRS); and rural tourist homes in Italy at Agriturismo.it.
In most hotels, we could connect our laptop. This was a considerable upgrade from earlier when we would take apart the telephone to bypass wires or use multiple adapters to get a faint modem tone for the PC to detect. In 2002 the national telecoms were rapidly upgrading hotels to ISDN Internet connections. This was one big frustration that we would discover from the front-desk clerk who proudly announced the installation of a new digital telephone system. We would moan about its incompatibility with our analog modem on our older laptop.
Expensive Wireless to the Rescue
All of that is history. Wireless is in many large and small hotels—and in some coffee shops. But it’s far less pervasive than in the U.S., where access—free or for a small fee—is readily available at the ubiquitous Starbucks, with 20,000 retail U.S. locations eventually expected, and nearly every one of its competitors; in 7,000 McDonald’s; and in book stores, hotel and office building lobbies, university campuses, auto rental agents, and public libraries. (The more limited other European options for wireless: self-service laundromats, an every 7-day routine for us, and Internet cafes.) When we needed to plan our road trip ahead, confirming wireless availability was one of the essential determinants of whether we would check-in for a night.
There was another question we needed to ask.
Unlike in the U.S. where wireless often is free to attract you to a hotel, in Europe wireless has emerged as a significant new revenue source. The more expensive the hotel, the higher the fee and the more ridiculous the pricing structure. Flat fee for a day is less typical. In the U.S. if you had to pay, you frequently can buy 24 hours of service for $10. In Europe, you buy 10, 30 or 60 minutes, for example, for 2, 5, or 10 Euros, respectively, for either “continuous” or “accumulated” usage. That converted to 20 U.S. cents a minute (at $1.25 to 1 Euro) while we were abroad.
Watch out what you buy! Here’s the exorbitant profit from two types of access. “Continuous” starts the clock when you initially log in and, for example, 10 minutes later by the clock you are out of time, regardless of whether you remained on or if you logged off after fewer than the 10 minutes. Your time and Euros have expired. “Accumulated”, which we learned late to look for, starts the clock when you initially sign on and only counts down the time while you are online, letting you return in the future to use unexpired minutes. The hotel doesn’t give you a choice and the minutes are only good for the specific service provider at the hotel. Occasionally the service provider gives you a clock of your unexpired time. We became very efficient in our log-ons.
Staying In Close Touch
In 2001, we departed our home outside New York City weeks after 9/11. Staying in touch with family and friends, who were more nervous than we were with our roaming through Europe, and staying current with the news were essential. We—two language-challenged travelers—relied on the text, graphics, and pictures of U.S. online newspapers that remained reluctant to put resources into their Web offerings.
Our news habit changed significantly in 2006. We would salivate Monday through Friday with the knowledge that nightly network news from home was available. NBC introduced its feed of Brian Williams. It was posted while we were asleep so we filled ourselves in the next morning, with great sound from a tiny USB supplemental speaker. ABC and CBS now offer theirs, too.
We were equally excited about tracking the latest exploit of Jack Bauer on “24”; the campaign for the new president on “West Wing”, and who would be in trouble next on the “Lost” island. Big disappointment: Access from overseas was detected and our viewing prohibited. Good thing our friends were still TiVo-ing, a relatively new device from our earlier trip, so we could watch upon our return. Next trip we’ll consider Slingbox, which sells hardware to transport your home TV signal to another receiving device – anywhere.
Maintaining contact with home was so much easier. First, our family and friends are more comfortable with their own PCs. They have adopted instant messaging at home and work so they are available more hours; text messaging, or SMS, on the mobile phone is far more accepted in Europe than in the U.S., and voice-over-Internet-telephony (VOIP) let us surprise many with a cheap and reasonable quality telephone call from afar. We purchased an unbranded USB telephone handset and a bare amount of Skype credit to make 2.1 U.S. cents a minute calls back to the U.S. (versus 99 cents a minute through our U.S. cell phone carrier). Skype, you’ll recall, is just 2-years-old.
More, Better Hotel-Room Entertainment
For the evenings in a farmer’s guest room atop the aromatic barnyard or for the endless drives up and down the autobahn, we had a new entertainment savior.
For our first trip, we stuffed CDs (minus the jewel cases) into the sleeves of two thick soft pack organizers, grabbed the non-bump-absorbent portable CD player, two 3” high stereo speakers, and the electrical connectors for the room and the car. It filled space and accounted for weight, a worsening problem as flights within Europe have recently reduced the number of checked bags and weight allowance that will result in our paying hundreds of dollars in surcharge fees the next time we fly.
As we were starting our first trip, Steve Jobs introduced the iPod. What a difference by 2006. We carried more songs then ever before, even our favorite campfire sing-alongs for the really boring (and self-embarrassing) harmonious moments. Our Griffin iTrip Auto FM transmitter and charger, that converted our car radio into an iPod amplifier, performed magnificently in Germany and Austria. It was foiled in Hungary and Italy by the electric power lines slung along the highways and lack of spare FM frequency.
The songs were also on our laptop so we could plug in our tiny speaker in the hotel room. Whenever we wanted to absorb ourselves in a novel in the car, we had books-on-MP3 from Audible. In previous trips we always ran out of English-reading material. No more. Only lack of time stopped us from listening to podcasts, including audio tours of the cities we were visiting.
Key Advances in the Car
Even our driving was easier in 2006. The brand-new car we purchased for 88 days (and then was bought back) from Renault was equipped with a large-screen GPS navigation system that spoke to us in its native French, German, and, before we left the pickup point, English so we could follow the directions (and traffic advisories in the more populated areas). Its urban and rural accuracy on the Euro-nation highways and one-lane country roads that parallel busy bike paths made for marriage-saving months. Peugeot offers a similar program. U.S. passport holders can, in effect, rent a just-out-of-the-factory car for 17 to 180 days in many cities in Europe at rates competitive to the auto rental agencies.
There was even new technology that made the laptop in the car more secure. Our first year we would carry the laptop and other valuables in a knapsack whenever we parked the car. Weeks before we departed this year we learned about a slash-proof, stainless steel mesh bag with interlocking security that would hold our laptop locked into a grommet bolted into the trunk of car.
It was the latest example of keeping an eye everywhere for the technology advances that will make our broadband traveling even easier for the trips ahead.