Whenever, wherever consumers travel, there is more to think about than packing the right clothes!  Of course, consumers will be thinking of travel costs. With higher gas prices than anyone would like, wacky and sometimes outrageous airline charges in addition to ticket prices, the craziness of TSA airport screening and a perpetual weak dollar overseas, travel costs continue to rise.  I’ve got tips to help make the most of your travel dollars.

From luggage and luggage locks to electrical needs and mobile phones, even flashlights, I’ve got you covered with advice for the cost-conscious and just plain smart traveler.  

Luggage – Yes, Costco sells everything, including luggage, but you may wish to think more carefully about your luggage needs with an eye toward longevity and not just price.  Do look at Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand for comparison, as well as the other brands sold by Costco.  Similarly check at Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart.  If the traveler is not likely going on more than one luggage-toting trip per year, and for only a couple of weeks at a time with only one or two occasions during that time to encounter luggage handlers, the inexpensive brands may suffice.  On the other hand, if lots of travel is the likely scenario, then it may be a good idea to spend the money for heavier-duty luggage that can stand up to whatever impediments may come its way.  As a seasoned traveler, I’ve learned the hard way the value of sturdy luggage.

Look at the warranty – Of course, lifetime, no-questions-asked is best and many of the luggage makers are now providing this coverage.  That’s the good news.  On the other hand, and I hate to be the buzz kill, if your luggage regularly requires free repairs, it’s a hassle you can do without.  Also, some of these warranties require that the consumer pay to ship the damaged bag to the repair facility, and those costs add up quickly.  But it’s the reliability I crave along with the great warranty.  No one can prevent accidental damage caused by faulty handling on the part of your transportation carrier, but having quality luggage built to take it and built to last will avoid many of those problems.  With longevity in mind, I look for semi-hard-sided, ballistic nylon luggage with a soft top, wheeled of course, and with pull-up handles. That’s just my preference.  Many travelers are opting for four-wheeled (“spinners”) soft or hard cases, and these, too are good choices.

Where to buy – My choice is to shop for the good stuff (not the really expensive bags), which can last through many, many years of rigorous travel and require fewest repairs. I have always found the best brands at the best prices right here in Southern California at Savinar Luggage (savinarluggage.com) in Canoga Park, CA.  If you are in the Los Angeles area, visit them at 6931 Topanga Canyon Boulevard, off the Ventura (101) Freeway, two blocks north of Vanowen Street on the west side of the street.  Call them at 818-703-1313 and please let them know Mr. Gadget® sent you.  Either take their advice over the phone (as I do) and let them ship directly to you or visit them in person. Let them suggest the brands and models that meet the traveler’s needs, whether it is Delsey (delseyusa.com), TravelPro (travelpro.com), Tumi (tumi.com), Swiss Army (swissarmy.com), or Briggs & Riley (briggs-riley.com), as well as many other recommended brands they carry.  If you think the best prices, even on sale items, will be found visiting a luggage store at the mall or the luggage department in a department store, forget about it.  The prices and selection at any other retailer I’ve found cannot match what I have found at Savinar, in business since 1916.  Even if Savinar is not near to you, first shop and price compare in your area. Then, call Savinar and they will likely beat the best price you found, including shipping.  I’ve found they even beat ebags.com luggage prices on the bags I want to buy.

Luggage locks – HIGHLY recommended (I never travel without using them), but the right ones are essential.  Whatever your choice, make certain they are TSA-approved.  This will assure that your locks should not be cut off by the TSA (in the US only, by the way) during inspection.  There are numerous TSA-approved locks from which to choose. The only ones I use and recommend are SearchAlert-type combination travel padlocks by Sesamee  (www.sesameepadlocks.com – then click on Products, then Sesamee Travel Security).

These locks permit users to set any three-digit code.  TSA (Transportation Security Administration) personnel have keys that allow them to open these locks for the purpose of luggage content inspection.  A Security Window, seen in the picture above next to the SearchAlert name, shows red to indicate entry has been made using one of these override devices.  Easily re-set to green ONLY by the consumer, travelers will know instantly at the destination if a lock has been opened so the contents of the attached suitcase can be checked before leaving the airport.  ONLY SearchAlert locks by Sesamee have this critical feature.  SearchAlert locks retail for about $10-12, so let Google find them using searchalert locks as the search term.  Savinar also carries them.  Put locks on each luggage compartment where there is a provision for one on the zipper pull, so you may need as many as three or more on each piece of luggage, plus a spare or two.

TIP: Don’t forget to put locks on your lockable carry-on bags.  You never know when you might be told there is no room in the cabin for a bag.  The lock in place means you are ready to hand over a carry-on bag for a gate check.  Without that lock, baggage handlers can easily help themselves to the contents (another lesson I learned the hard way!).

 

Portable digital luggage scale – It is bad enough that the airlines offer less service with higher prices, but most charge a fortune for luggage.  And they watch more carefully than ever the weight of that luggage.  Do not EVER get stuck with overweight luggage.  Weigh before you go! On nearly every trip, I see some poor sap at the airline counter frantically removing packed items from a suitcase in order to come in under the weight limit.  This slows up everything at the counter and is just plain rude, if not sometimes embarrassing!  Get an inexpensive portable digital luggage scale to avoid surprises and to be more efficient all along a travel itinerary.  My choice is Balanzza Mini Luggage Scale (balanzza.com), under $25 online.  Weighing about three ounces, it’s easy to use and goes along inside a bag so it can be used during the trip, too:  Strap the scale to your luggage, lift using the scale, wait for the beep, set luggage down & read the weight on the digital display.

 

Before leaving the general topic of luggage, there is another way to avoid having airlines lose or damage your luggage.  Consider shipping bags ahead to their destination using common carriers such as FedEx and UPS.  This recommendation comes from noted travel expert and former colleague, Peter Greenberg (petergreenberg.com).  He practices what he preaches, too, and has done this for many, many years.  He flies through airport security without luggage.  He never has to fight for overhead space, either.  His luggage is at the destination hotel, awaiting his arrival.  Peter says the cost may not be much different, in many cases, from what the airlines charge for checked baggage.  It’s worth investigating!

 

FlashlightsI urge everyone to carry at least the two flashlights that I carry. If you’ve ever been caught in a strange place in the dark (or if you NEVER want to be caught in the dark), you will appreciate this recommendation and solution immeasurably.

Everyone needs one of these inexpensive pocket lights that are indispensable to travelers, domestically or internationally.  They’re great for everyday use, too. Keep one on your keychain and give one for the keychain of everyone you love.

By far, the best, brightest little quarter-size light on the planet is the Photon Micro-Light II.  This little lifesaver lights the way in a powerful and indestructible thumb-size package. Traveling or not, I believe in and rely on this product. I have been told the same product is also used by the US military, Secret Service and even aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle and International Space Station. You can get the same super-bright light with long-lasting, replaceable Lithium battery!  The amount of light that comes from the Photon Micro-Light II is quite amazing.  Accept no substitutesThere is simply nothing like it or better than the Photon Micro-Light II. You’ll see other small lights, seemingly competitors, for less and be tempted to buy, but don’t do it.  Get genuine Photon Lights ONLY.  Most users need the Micro-Light II with the standard black body and white LED (as opposed to any of the other color LEDs available).  Battery life is up to about 12 hours, though by then it will be considerably dimmer.  Still, you’ll get many hours of useful light before needing to replace the pair of inexpensive batteries.  Available for less than the $12 suggested retail price at Savinar and elsewhere.  Shop online, too. Manufacturer’s Site: laughingrabbitinc.com.  The manufacturer’s retail Site is at this linkBuying from the manufacturer’s retail site assures you of getting the most up-to-date and brightest revisions and freshest inventory.  I like this light above all others because it is unlikely that it will be accidentally activated in a pocket or purse, then remain on and drain the battery, rendering it useless when needed most.  Yet, there is still a mechanical On/Off switch for those times you want it to stay on. ALL others lack this dual capability or are of demonstrably inferior quality.

An alternative or additional light is the same company’s X-Light Micro, a squeeze/click on and off design, with additional modes via micro circuitry inside. Read about it at the manufacturer’s Site above.  Notice that it has a suggested retail price of only $10.  It is simple and reliable, but it lacks the hard on/off switch of my favorite model, the Photon Micro-Light II.  This means it can accidentally be activated, that is, clicked on, and stay on, inadvertently depleting the battery.  Still, it is a formidable performer.

 

The second flashlight I rely upon and recommend to travelers (and everyone) is the $30 CC Trek LED Flashlight from my friends at C. Crane Company (ccrane.com).   Once at their Website, click the link to LED Lights, then LED Flashlights to find this model. This US-made powerhouse has proven its worth many times over for me, both while traveling and at home during power outages.  There is nothing better for the money, and nothing as good for less.  Four super-bright LEDs throw an amazing amount of light.

 

The CC Trek is great for taking along on dog walks, hikes or exploring antiquity in the dark. It’s also exactly what you’d want to have with you to light the area in the dark for any reason, and especially for those unplanned times when you need light and lots of it for an extended period of time. With fresh batteries (which are already installed), full brightness is maintained for at least 40 hours.  No other product can match this. If needed, it could be left on all night while you sleep in what otherwise would be total darkness and it would still be at its full brightness in the morning.  You can easily see why this is the light of choice for travelers, including this writer.  In addition, it is indestructible and waterproof to 160 feet. What’s not to love? CC Trek is also perfect for the glove box and for many other uses at home. Three inexpensive and readily available AA alkaline batteries power this LED flashlight.

For those who want even more flashlight brightness and high tech capabilities, the industry has responded to the flashlight-aholic.  Why even more power?  From experience, higher brightness flashlights allow daytime brightness where it is needed and otherwise quite dark.  I’ve used my favorite super-bright flashlights on hikes, to help others while camping, exploring cavernous buildings and caves and, dare I say, just for fun!  My favorites in this extreme category are by Chinese maker, Fenix, (fenixlightus.com).  I love their flashlights that use disposable AA alkaline batteries.  Why?  Because these batteries are inexpensive and widely available.  Some Fenix high-performance flashlights, and those from other makers, use more expensive, Lithium CR123 and similar disposable cells that are not the same size as AA and AAA.  I think the best performance and value comes from flashlights using disposable, standard size AA and AAA alkaline batteries.  In preparing for and anticipating certain travel needs, I sometimes replace the standard AA alkaline batteries with Energizer AA Ultimate Lithium batteries that offer greater runtime between the need for replacements.  Yes, they cost more, but they last so much longer so as to add a convenience factor that may be worth the added cost for extreme users.  It’s great to have the flexibility of power sources these products provide.

The Fenix models I like and recommend for travel include the single AA-powered LD10 R4, about $50, and their two AA-powered LD20 R4, about $60. Both are multifunction and blindingly bright.  Be sure to read about the multifunction characteristics!  Best prices, found at Amazon are linked above.

 

Powering your stuff – It sure would be nice if all the plugs and voltages in the world were the same, but, alas, they are not.  Having what’s needed for international and domestic travel will avoid the heartache of dead batteries and blown up products fed too much voltage during overseas travel. Convenience, voltage and the correct plugs combine to make your electronic equipment happy!

First and of greatest importance, look at the chargers for all your take-along products.  You will need to see all the writing to determine the input voltage range. If it says “100 – 240 volts” as I suspect most will, you are all set and need only plug adapters and NOT voltage converters or transformers for your trip.  For now, let’s assume you are good to go. If you only see 110 volts listed, and if you must take the device along on international travel, you will absolutely need to purchase and use a little, yet heavy, voltage adapter that steps down the 240 volts found overseas to the 110 volts of your product.  More on this later.

 

Convenience dictates accessibility to a hotel room wall outlet that is where you can use it.  For example, some hotel rooms are simply not equipped with conveniently placed wall plugs nor are there enough of them. Travelers need to charge mobile phones, camera batteries, mp3 players, electric shavers, electric rechargeable toothbrushes such as Sonicare, and computers, and maybe more. Note: Not all Sonicare toothbrush chargers are designed for international use. You may need to buy a Euro charger and may need to attach a plug adapter depending upon the country visited.  When it comes to toothbrushes, it’s best to just take a good old regular toothbrush unless you are certain that your electric toothbrush will operate properly either on a full charge without recharging for the duration of your travels or that the charger is designed for international use with a plug adapter as described below.

With potentially so many things to plug in I have a solution that has worked for me everywhere.  Start with a common, inexpensive 15-foot indoor extension cord with a standard two-prong grounded plug on one end and three outlets on the other.  The female side, the end that gets plugged into has one outlet on one side and two on the other.  The15-foot length will assure that the traveler will be able to access the outlet wherever it may be in the hotel room, yet use the other end, the business end with all those plugs, in the most convenient location in the room.

I bought mine at the local Do-It Center, but you’ll find what you need at most other hardware stores – Ace, Lowe’s Home Improvement, The Home Depot, and others.  Expect to pay about $6 for this type of 15-foot extension cord.  I chose a two-prong instead of a three-prong cord because this one is less bulky in consideration of less bulk and weight to pack.

 

Next, you’ll need what I call a triple tap, also from Do-It Center and also found at The Home Depot and Ace Hardware stores, among others.  It has a three-way plug and three three-way outlets around its perimeter.  The outlet configuration allows acceptance of both three-prong plugs, such as what many computers use, as well as standard two-conductor grounded plugs such as the “bricks” used with cameras, mobile phones and iPods.  By having them placed around the outside, one per side, the individual blocks plugged in will not interfere with each other.  This adapter costs about $5.

A grounded adapter is the final puzzle piece.  It will be used connected to the plug above, converting the three prongs of the triple tap to the two on the adapter.

Then, the two connected above are themselves connected with the single side of the extension cord.  Do this and your kit is ready for use – 15-foot, two-prong extension cord with three outlets; three-way plug triple tap with outlets around the perimeter; three-prong-in-to-two-prong-out adapter.  If you only need three standard outlets, you will not need these last two pieces for now, but do travel with all three pieces, separated until they are needed, and then separated again to pack them in your suitcase, carry on or computer bag.  Keep them all with you to be prepared for needing any combination – three standard outlets or as many as a combo of five if all the pieces are connected.

On the left, use the plug adapter necessary for the country visited and then plug the assembly in the power outlet in the wall.  On the right, plug the adapter stack in the extension cord.  Next, plug in up to five items as would be done at home in the US, so long as their voltage requirements range from 100-240 volts.  The four adapters shown cover virtually any possibility in Europe and come in an inexpensive kit detailed below.

I keep a reusable cable wrap with hook & loop closure (you may call it Velcro, but that is a brand name for hook & loop closures) to keep it all neat and tidy.  They are indispensable for jobs like this.  Search on reusable velcro cable strap.  Keep all cords neat, untwisted and wound in an orderly fashion and they should last for many years.  Don’t let them become kinked or closed in doors or in any situation in which their integrity may be compromised.  This is for safety’s sake as well as to maintain general reliability.  You do want it all to work for you, don’t you?

An alternative to the flexible and durable wrap above, and a good one at that, is the original Cable Clamp (cableclamp.com).  These are simply the best!  Buy a set for use on extension cords, garden hoses, even new little ones called CableClic (go to cableclamp.com and click on the CableClic link) for your earbud wires and other cords on small personal electronics, adapters, etc.

 

International voltage – International travel to countries with plugs and voltage different than ours is not a problem, but it requires care and planning in advance.  Just attach a single plug adapter to the plug end of the extension cord, and plug it into the outlet.  My extension cord “kit” provides up to five outlets as described above for up to FIVE devices that do NOT need voltage change.  You only need to find one plug in the wall in whatever country you visit, and, of course, you need only one plug adapter for any country, to plug in up to five products.  There’s less to pack with this system and less complexity.  So simple!

In my example above, the adapters on the left are PLUG ADAPTERS, not voltage adapters. Be sure to buy and take along plug adapters for all the countries to be visited.  Check with the resources below for your needs.

 

Don’t worry about overloading the circuit or the extension cord. All of your small electronic products as described above do not draw much current. In other words, the load is very light even including charging a computer.  DO NOT plug in an appliance, such as a hair dryer or flat iron, to this same extension cord along with other products.

International travelers are best advised to leave their hair dryer and flat iron at home.  To operate overseas on that other voltage, a small, heavy adapter is required. Forget it.  Why take extra weight and add to the complexity when it is not needed? Purchase a hair dryer and flat iron, if needed, which have a switch with a 125-volt setting and a 240-volt setting.  They’re designed with travel in mind!  Find them at Magellan’s (magellans.com) in their catalog online or in their Santa Monica or Santa Barbara, CA stores.  Do NOT get the models with their own adapter plugs as you will not need them.  Travelers may use the plug adapter from the extension cord setup above for the short time it would be needed to dry or iron the hair. Remember to disconnect anything else plugged in while using a hair dryer or flat iron.  Then, when finished with the appliance, remove the plug adapter and put it back on the extension cord.  TIP: switch to the 240-volt setting prior to packing to avoid mistakes that most assuredly would blow out the product the instant it is plugged in and turned on with the wrong voltage setting.

If you find that you do need to step down the visited country’s 240 volts to power your 110 volt only product, you must get a converter, the correct converter for the job.  You’ll have to look at the info plate on your device, and then look online at Magellan’s Voltage Converter page or call them at 1-800-962-4943 for assistance.   You may also try their Electrical Connection Wizard page and see if you can help yourself.

One final admonition – DO NOT PLUG IN ANY PRODUCT WHILE TRAVELING OVERSEAS WITHOUT BEING CERTAIN OF ITS VOLTAGE REQUIREMENTS BEFORE LEAVING HOME.  IF A MISTAKE IS MADE, EVEN IF ONLY ONCE, THE ELECTRONIC PRODUCT WILL BE TOAST IN A NANO-SECOND.

 

Phones, phones, phones – This topic is the most confusing and confounding for most consumers who travel abroad.  I wish I could report that it is easy, but, sadly, it is not. Do your homework!  The result will be a much less costly alternative than a surprise bill from a home carrier for many hundreds of dollars, or worse!

A mobile phone used today in the US might operate overseas. Then again, it might not. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution that can apply to all consumers.  It is more than likely that your US-based Sprint mobile phone will not, cannot work overseas, and if it can, you will be locked into using their expensive service even when in foreign lands.  It is likely that your existing Verizon phone cannot operate overseas, unless it is among few dual-band models also equipped with technology called GSM, the only standard in place just about everywhere in the world except for the US.  AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile customers’ phone are similar, though not exactly the same GSM handsets and they may have the right stuff to enable overseas service.  Ask your carrier, but beware, they will only know if that handset can operate, perhaps with voice only, with the existing SIM card inside. I know, this may be confusing, but let’s move along regardless.

The good news is that the AT&T and T-Mobile handsets of US consumers may work overseas.  The bad news is that, if your handset will work, the rates using your existing carrier’s SIM card for making calls back home and for receiving calls from home, in addition to making and receiving calls to and from callers within the country visited can be excruciatingly expensive.  Check with your carrier for all the information on pricing plans and the availability of services – voice, text, Internet and email, multimedia messaging and any other services of interest.  Oh, and be prepared for a shock when the cost is revealed as well as a not so easy to understand array of variables.

There is another, better way to go for the occasional international traveler.  It is possible to sign up with services designed for travelers at great rates as compared with using US-based carriers’ plans.  These services allow the use of existing GSM phones capable of being used in visited countries or the services can supply a purchased SIM card or a purchased handset with SIM card designed for the use of occasional business and vacation travelers.

In order to use an existing US-based GSM handset, the phone must be “unlocked,” that is, the GSM carrier (AT&T or T-Mobile, for example) must enable that it will recognize an installed foreign SIM card.  Your AT&T– or T-Mobile-branded handset is sold to customers with this feature blocked.  “Good customers” of AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile may get their domestic phones “unlocked” in order to use them while abroad with a foreign country SIM card, IF the handset (phone) is of the correct technology on the inside. Just because it works here does not mean it will work over there.  Call or visit your carrier’s retail location to ask about foreign compatibility and for details on how they can enter the appropriate code to electronically unlock the handset.  I’ve heard tales that retail location personnel will not always be helpful to walk-in customers and they may not admit to their customers that the handset may be unlocked.  If in doubt, call your carrier at “611” from the mobile handset and speak with a customer service person!  It is likely that the carrier will provide instructions via email detailing exactly how to unlock your GSM phone.  I’ve done this with all our AT&T-branded mobile phones so we are always prepared for international travel.

This will NOT work with AT&T iPhones.  AT&T will NOT unlock iPhones.  There is a way to get what you want, according to the Apple representative with whom I just spoke.  Purchasers of a new iPhone 4S, who get it for use on AT&T can travel to any GSM ONLY country (Europe and countries on that side of the world), remove the native AT&T SIM and pop in a local one.  Whatever services come with that SIM should work on that iPhone.

Alternatively, consumers may purchase unlocked GSM handsets either directly from some manufacturers or from non-carrier owned retailers selling phones and services.  These handsets are sold at a premium because the carrier is not subsidizing their use. In other words, there is no guarantee that your purchase of an unlocked handset will result in its use on a particular carrier, as you would most certainly use an AT&T-branded handset with your AT&T Wireless account.

 

ASK about and be certain of compatibility well in advance of leaving on your trip!

My personal preference is for unlocked handsets from Sony Ericsson (sonyericsson.com) that are not tied to a carrier and are, in my view, cooler than many phones sold by the carriers.  Go to sonyericsson.com and click on Products & services to see all the SonyEricsson phones.  Tri- and Quad-band phones should work in most foreign GSM markets, but always confirm with the manufacturer to get what you need, should you also want to use the phone in the US on either T-Mobile or AT&T, or on both.  Again, you will see there are many handsets available directly there that are not available through US carriers.

Check the Website (sonyericsson.com) to see styles and learn about features.  Then, call them toll free at 1-866-766-9374 to get advice on which models will perform the song and dance of your choice.  I’ve also found their personnel on the other end of information and tech calls to be exemplary.

Unlocked Motorola phones are available directly from Motorola through store.motorola.com.

Other handset makers, to my knowledge, do not sell directly to consumers.  That is, to buy their brands purchases must be made from the carrier.

In addition to the option of buying a carrier-locked GSM phone and having it unlocked by the carrier or buying an unlocked carrier-independent phone and using a domestic plan when overseas, following are those other available solutions.

Call in Europe (callineurope.com) offers mobile phone solutions for European travelers that make the most sense to me and are at the best rates I’ve seen.  I have used and have been pleased with service and plans from Call in Europe.  This is also the solution of choice for students studying abroad in Europe and in other countries of the region.

The company advises the following:

First, check to see if your cell phone will operate overseas by asking the carrier – AT&T or T-Mobile.

If your current provider is Verizon, Sprint, Alltel, Telus or any other CDMA carriers your phone will not work there (with few exceptions that your carrier can detail).  You have the choice to purchase a travel kit that includes a European cell phone and phone line that is ready to workwith a starting price of $58 at callineurope.com.  This is certainly your most economical option. You will receive a GSM phone that you can keep and reuse for future trips overseas.  There is no need to return it and you’ll benefit from the lowest rates available in the marketplace with per-minute calling rates well below those charged with a rental product.

If your current provider is AT&T, T-Mobile, Rogers or another GSM carrier your phone might work in Europe; however, you will need to confirm if your device is either a tri-band or a quad band phone as most European networks operate on 900/1800 Mhz. If this is the case, then you will need to contact your US or Canadian carrier and ask for the unlocking code of your device. This code will be provided to you for free in the US so long as you have been a customer with that carrier for at least three months. Once your phone has been unlocked, then you will simply need to get a Call in Europe SIM card providing you with the ability to make and receive calls at the lowest rates available in the marketplace.

To choose the SIM that will give you the most benefits, you will have the choice between a local prepaid card (offered by the carriers of the country that you are planning to visit), a European prepaid SIM card (cellularabroad.com, telestial.com) or a European postpaid SIM card (brightroam.com, callineurope.com).  Most of them may be conveniently purchased prior to departure. Among those previously listed, the most convenient option with the best quality of service and the lowest rates would be the European postpaid solution furnished by Call in Europe.

There will be no need to buy calling credits in advance that may expire if you don’t use them or to refill your card in the middle of a conversation. Call in Europe offers the lowest rates available in the market place conveniently billed in US dollars to protect against foreign currency exchange rate fluctuations. With prices that are 50% less than a local prepaid SIM card, 70% less than any US or Canadian carrier with no contract, no commitment nor deposit requirement, the savings offered by Call in Europe cannot be easily overlooked.

Call in Europe is partnering with the leading European carriers and offers a direct dialing solution not to be confused with a call back system (which is often not as reliable and tends to be more costly and less attractive). Incoming calls are free in France or in the UK, and $0.39/min elsewhere in Europe. Outgoing calls are $0.39/min to call locally, as well as call to another European country or back to the US/Canada. Text messaging is free to receive and between $0.19 and $0.39 to send depending on your location in the world. To compare with a US/Canadian carrier incoming/outgoing calls start at $0.99/min, whereas with a local prepaid solution, incoming calls tend to be free; however, local calls and calls to the US are between $0.80 – $1.20/min. International prepaid SIM card solutions offer free incoming calls; whereas, outgoing calls are often provided at rates from $0.50 – $0.99/min.  (Rates may have changed, so contact them via the above link for the most up-to-date info from Call in Europe.)

The Call in Europe solution is also ONE of TWO European SIM solutions that offers both data and voice access for Blackberry and other Smartphones.  Roamsimple.com is the other.

Thank you Call in Europe!  Smart ideas, reasonable rates and solutions for any traveler.

 

Here is additional information from Call in Europe and further food for thought.

• Remember that is it cheaper to receive calls in a foreign country when calls are from someone in the US.  This suggests that, whenever possible, call back that traveler on their foreign phone or plan.

• US carriers may filter text messages from Europe to the US, so a test is in order to be sure it works. I am advised that there should not be a problem texting to AT&T Wireless and other US carriers, but be forewarned.

• Text messaging to the US and to others that may also be in France, for example, costs 19 cents each. Texting from Europe outside of France to others in Europe outside of France may be at a cost of 39 cents per message.

• Incoming text messages to the foreign travelers in Europe using Call in Europe are free, though they are NOT free for us to send from here to there.  Ask your carrier for the rates that apply to you.

• Calling while in Europe to others in Europe has varying costs.  For example, calling within France, mobile to mobile, is 69 cents per minute.  Calling to others in other European countries while outside of France may cost 99 cents per minute.  There is no uniform rate.

• Calls from Europe back to the US from France, for example, cost 39 cents per minute and 99 cents per minute to the US from other European countries.

• Sending a simple email from a handset in Europe to the US may be less expensive than sending text messages to the US!

The biggest take-away from what has been learned from Call in Europe is that there is a cost-effective way to keep in contact with the US and with others traveling in Europe. In addition, we should stay clear of the inconvenient and costly pre-paid callback scenarios – the traveler calls home to the US, for example, and the US party must call back through a cumbersome series of numbers that ultimately rings the phone in Europe.  Who wants that hassle!  I think we just want to be able to call and be called with the best price and greatest convenience, and it seems that Call in Europe has the best, most cost-effective solutions available to the short-term European traveler.

If your travel plans call for visiting international destinations outside of Europe . . . The best alternative to using home-based GSM mobile phones in other locales, such as Australia, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, India, and Russia is brightroam.com.

What about Verizon or Sprint customers?  The technology of their wireless phones is called CDMA, completely different than and incompatible with GSM.  According to Sprint and Verizon reps, 4G CDMA smartphones should work all over the world, but only using Verizon or Sprint services or roaming in the other countries.  Translation?  A big phone bill!  See above for Call in Europe solutions for purchase of a travel kit or buy an unlocked GSM phone for this temporary travel, then purchase a SIM card through Call in Europe.

iPhone 4S is different, designed as a world phone, with technology inside for CDMA as well as GSM carriers.  I quizzed an Apple sales representative, asking, “What if an iPhone 4S, which initiates  service through Sprint or Verizon, is considered for travel?”  According to the representative, if an iPhone 4S begins service as a Verizon or Sprint device, it CAN have a GSM SIM installed in another country and it should work. Once back home, it will revert to being its original CDMA phone on its original network.

Again, check with your carrier!  You might want to check with your carrier before buying your next phone to learn about foreign compatibility NOT using your US carrier.  Even if you only occasionally travel out of the country and want to use your own phone with a foreign SIM inside, I want you to avoid the shock of a huge phone bill upon returning home to the US.

Taking a digital camera?  If your smartphone is not sufficient, take along a dedicated digital camera, the most modern of which can take not only stunning still photos, but also high definition videos.  Not all offer continuous autofocus with zoom in video mode, so look for one with this capability.

Be sure to take a large enough memory card or more than one.  Not only will you want to get loads of still photos, most of today’s digital cameras are also capable of taking high definition videos with sound. The camera’s manual will have more information or contact the manufacturer.

When it comes to brands, you’re in luck!  Many manufacturers offer excellent products that won’t break the bank.  Simple point-and-shoot, high on the megapixel count, small in size, great in low light, large LCD display, at least 3X optical zoom, excellent videos with zoom, good to excellent battery life, inexpensive high capacity camera memory, $200 range street price.  Low light performance is critical for consumers, in my view. Sure there’s a flash, but it does not carry far on any pocket camera.  Great low light performance makes it possible to capture the moments of life indoors and out, in the wide lighting circumstances of life, without flash much of the time, and without the graininess older cameras exhibit without this feature.  Fortunately, many modern digital cameras are getting better, even excellent results in very little light.  Good, inexpensive memory is important. It is the combination of features above that are in the cameras I think are best in the $200 range.

Look for cameras from Canon, Nikon and Panasonic, as well as Olympus as your best bets. Oh, and I should not forget about Sony pocket-size digitals in their CyberShot line, though I have not had much experience with them of late. It’s difficult to find a bad one among any of these brands.

My personal preference based on the most experience is for Canon pocket-size models, many of which are simply excellent performers in all aspects, including the ability to take 720p or 1080i high def video.  Amazing!

I want to recommend an additional important feature on just about any digital camera that is also particularly useful for travelers – a wide-angle lens.  This features allows the shooter to be closer to the object yet still take it all in from left to right and up and down.  The ideal specification is 24mm wide.  Some are only 28mm wide, but try to find one you like with the 24mm feature.  Imagine, for example standing at the corner of a large dining room table and being able to snap a photo of everyone at the table in one shot.  Or think about traveling to the great spots in Europe, in the Holy Land or in exotic Asia, in front of ancient sites.  Now, imagine being to be quite close, yet to be able to capture the full scope, left to right and top to bottom of some of the greatest buildings and other objects known to mankind, without having to stand back so far that all detail is lost.  THIS is why I recommend purchasing a camera equipped with a 24mm wide-angle lens.  And of course, it should have at least a 3X zoom lens at the very least. A better number would be at least 5x, but the combo or high zoom with wide angle is not common.

Today’s cameras may use high capacity memory called SDHC.   Newest cameras may also accept SDXC, the newest, highest capacity SD cards, perfect for those who want to maximize a combo of massive numbers of digital stills and lots of high def video, perhaps hours, all on one card!

TIP:  Be prepared for travel with enough memory to allow you to take tons of photos and videos.  Why not, it’s FREE to take them on reusable memory cards and you don’t have to print any of them.  With only one 8GB card, a 10-megapixel camera can take more than 1000 pictures at best quality, plus videos.  With a mix of photos and short videos, determine if one card will meet your needs.  

Higher megapixel cameras will need one or more cards of greater capacity.  The “sweet spot” in SDHC camera memory today seems to be 16GB cards.  I just looked and found my favorite Kingston brand in a 16GB Class 4 card for only $20.  Class 4 is a speed rating, the right speed for most point-and-shoot cameras as well as most others, including video cameras.  Check specifications for YOUR camera, though, then shop!  I know that careful online shopping yields significant savings on camera memory, so don’t wait until there is no choice but to pay more from a local shop.

Take multiple cards and use a permanent marker to indicate 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C on each so you can easily identify which is which.  Once a card is full, avoid heartache by LOCKING the card until it is time to remove the photos.  Notice the locking slider on the photo of the SD card below.  All of them have this sliding switch.

I buy, use and recommend camera memory cards made by Kingston Technology (kingston.com/flash/photo.asp).  I also find Kingston to be among the most reasonably priced name brands for reliable computer memory on the market.  Of course, there are other quality camera memory brands from which to choose, including SanDisk, Lexar and PNY, to name a few.  The higher the megapixel count on the camera, the greater is the need for a larger card – a 10-megapixel camera’s photo will be about 3 megabytes (MB) in size, for example.   Videos need lots of megabytes, but they are so worth the effort.  And high def videos eat up even more memory.  

Go ahead and take along plenty of memory for long trips so you can shoot and shoot and shoot some more, then bring them all back home to off load onto your computer.  Remember, seeing high def video and preserving on optical media are two different sides of the same coin.  Most of us do not have Blu-ray recorders to create high def DVDs, but save the files anyway as native high def, then create standard DVDs as needed using your computer’s softwar.  Whenever it is that it becomes cost effective to create Blu-ray DVDs on our computers, those files will remain and be able to be re-made in native highest quality onto Blu-ray DVDs!  In the meantime, streaming these videos on your high def TV is becoming quite popular.  It may come to pass that home-grown high definition videos remain on a hard drive and are played back ONLY from a hard drive.

So long as the high def videos remain on the memory cards, the camera can play back directly on a connected high def TV, using the proper cable. Consult your camera’s manual for more on this, but most use a mini version of HDMI at the camera end and a standard size HDMI on the TV side.  In addition, many modern computers feature some method of outputting the native high def files for display on an outside high quality monitor.  Many of today’s high def TVs feature this computer interface, so, again, consult your manual!

TIP: When the day’s or event’s shooting is done, it’s time to get the photos and videos off the card and transferred onto the computer, if possible. If you’re on vacation without the computer, this should be done soon after returning home. Once the transfer is made (using a cable from the camera to the computer or using a separate memory card reader) and you are certain all went well and that you can access all the photos and videos, it is time to dump them from the memory card to free up that space for more fun.  With the memory card back in the camera, access the camera’s menu and navigate to the setup menu to locate the Format Memory Card function.  Consult your camera’s manual if you do not know how to do this.  NOTE: Format the card each and every time photos are transferred to your computer and/or you have shared them with others who may want the shots for themselves on their computer.  Formatting the card makes the card behave as if fresh and new, preventing errors that can ruin your day!  Do this without fail and keep your memory cards happy and healthy and reliable for many years and untold thousands of photos in the future.

 

Camera batteries? – If your digital camera uses “AA” size batteries, there are two good options.

One is to get the new rechargeable so-called “hybrid” batteries that come pre-charged and hold a charge for up to 365 days. No other rechargeables are recommended. Unfortunately, using any rechargeable batteries while traveling is troublesome.  The user must remember to manage perhaps daily charging, taking a charger and multiple sets of batteries.  If this is your choice, I have tested and can recommend the newest Lenmar (pre-charged and ready to use right out of the package) AA and AAA rechargeable batteries (lenmar.com, then hold cursor over BatteryCentral, and at bottom of grey window that opens, enter the word rechargeable in the search box and click search – be certain to look at descriptions once the link opens since you want the “pre-charged” rechargeable batteries).  Duracell Pre-charged Rechargeable AA batteries (duracell.com, then enter rechargeable pre-charged in search box on top right) are another good choice, but generally cost more.  Be sure to get the ones that say Pre-charged on the label!  Find them at all the popular retailers, or shop online for better prices.  These batteries can be charged hundreds of times with any battery charger designed to charge standard Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries.  Other brands with similar technology include Sanyo Eneloop (us.sanyo.com/Battery-Products) and Rayovac (rayovac.com, then click on Rechargeables).

For cameras using AA-size batteries, a more manageable solution for travelers, though more expensive, is Energizer disposable AA Ultimate Lithium batteries (energizer.com).  These are power-packed and worry-free because there is no charging to manage.  If the camera takes a pair of AA batteries and normally would get, say, 200 shots on a set of charged NiMH batteries, it would not be unreasonable to expect up to 500 shots on a pair of disposable Energizer Lithium batteries.  An eight-pack retails for as little as about $17 at local stores. Shop online, too, at retailers including thomasdistributing.com.   Shop with my friends there for not only Energizer Ultimate Lithiums but also for the “hybrid” AA cells.

If your camera is supplied with a rechargeable Lithium battery – Most small and popular point-and-shoot digital cameras come with slim, rechargeable Lithium batteries.  The good news is that the chargers are most assuredly set for worldwide voltage.  In addition, replacement rechargeable Lithium batteries for most cameras are available from Lenmar, and they carry a two-year warranty (lenmar.com, then click on BatteryCentral to find your camera and its Lenmar replacement Lithium battery).   Copy the Lenmar product number that corresponds to your camera, then search online for the word “Lenmar” AND the Lenmar part number you find for that camera’s replacement battery.


You will be amazed at the prices found.  I often suggest that consumers do what I do; purchase a pair of two-year warranted Lenmar replacements.  With prices as low as $25 for two Lenmar batteries delivered to your door, how can you go wrong? Shipping is generally the same price for one or two batteries.

This way, the consumer can use the original charged battery and then easily pack two more that will hold their charge for many weeks when not in use. Be prepared and avoid being caught without a charged battery for your camera, especially when on a trip far from home.

TIP: If you have multiple extra batteries, use a permanent marker to write a 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C on each for easy identification.  Try to rotate their use so each battery gets exercised, that is, used and recharged, so all will be ready to go when needed.

 

Now that you are equipped with a small, point-and-shoot digital camera, extra batteries and memory, how about a small camera case that can hold everything but the battery charger?  Here is what I do.  I gather all the pieces together and head over to Best Buy where I find Lowepro camera cases.  I buy the smallest Lowepro case that fits the camera, at least one extra rechargeable Lithium battery (or set in the case of AA) and at least one extra memory card in its case.

Recharge USB-capable devices in a car, anywhere in the world.  Whether traveling in the US or around the world, any mobile device capable of being charged using USB can be charged using a vehicle 12V power adapter.  This is ONE worldwide voltage standard, thankfully.  There are many good quality, dual-outlet USB vehicle chargers available, so why not be equipped in the car at home and in the event you can make use of the plug while on far-away travel in other vehicles?  Charge a phone, iPod, iPad, and other USB-rechargeable products.  One example is from Lenmar, their model AIDCU2, routinely found online and at retail stores for less than $15.  This one also has a replaceable 2A car fuse.

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