Take Your Gadgets, but Have a Plan B

These days, most people travel with high-tech gadgets: a smartphone as a minimum, and often a tablet or notebook. For reading materials, either a tablet or a Kindle has replaced the traditional stack of paperback "penny dreadfuls." You include whatever chargers and adapters your devices require. On my recent trip to Europe, I took a smartphone, a notebook, and a Kindle. Yes, the Kindle was redundant, but I much prefer its paper-like display to the notebook's LCD screen.

When they work, these gadgets are great. But as I quickly found out, they don't always work as intended. So you also need plan B alternatives, just in case. And although much of my stuff worked, I suffered some serious breakdowns—breakdowns that call for the ability to improvise.

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Smartphone: Before leaving, I signed up for international roaming. That's not the least expensive option, but for a short nine-day trip, it was less hassle than getting a new European SIM card or buying/renting a separate local phone. Beyond voice and text communications, my phone could serve as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing online access through the phone network in places with no Wi-Fi. You have to pay roaming data charges, but that's better than not getting online. For some reason, however—still undetermined—the first time I tried to make a call from London, I got that dreaded "unable to find network" message. Low-tech plan B is using a local calling card, which is much less expensive than using a hotel's phone.

Internet: I took the notebook so that I could keep up with news, receive and send email, and post reports from the road. I made sure that all hotel bookings promised "free" in-room Internet. Although the notebook worked flawlessly throughout the trip, "free Internet everywhere" turned out to be optimistic. Lack of problems on last year's extended round-the-world trip lulled me into a false sense of security, quickly shattered by reality:

  • The hotel at my first stop, London, did, as advertised, provide in-room Wi-Fi—sort of. Although signal strength was adequate, the throughput was agonizingly slow, reminding me of the olden days of dial-up online connections. I was able to do what I needed, but the snail pace was exceedingly frustrating.
  • The Wi-Fi hotel at my second stop, at Chateau d'Oex (Switzerland) never did get a signal to my room. I worked in the breakfast room or stayed offline.
  • The promised Wi-Fi at my third stop, in Lucerne, didn't materialize at all. "We've sent for the technician."
  • The promised Wi-Fi at my last stop, Geubwiller, wouldn't let me log onto the signal. I had to go next door to an affiliated hotel.

The normal plan B for Wi-Fi problems is, of course, the smartphone's hotspot capability. But that's not much help when the phone can't find a network: then, it's go to the lobby.

Navigation: Before leaving, I had plotted out all my driving routes using Google's mapping capability, including printing out the step-by-step directions. That worked quite well until my last day, driving to Charles De Gaulle Airport. The printout said to get off at the 'Highway D215' exit and follow that route for a while, but when I got off at the exit, Highway D215 vanished into thin air.

Plan B for navigation is always a good old-fashioned paper map. Even when everything is working, a small-screen GPS or computer display is totally inadequate for detailed route planning. No matter how high your tech, you really need good paper maps for trip planning.

The purpose of this report is not to whine about my misfortune. Instead, I want to highlight the fact that no high-tech system always works exactly as intended. No matter how robust your system—and how tech savvy you might be—you have to keep in mind that Murphy's Law obeys no national boundaries or continental limits. Take the good stuff—but be prepared when it fails you.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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