Handheld Europe

by Mary Stanley

Mama says don’t leave home without your smartphone, but first make sure you have unlimited text and data download or you’ll come home from Europe with a phone bill bigger than Texas. Ask your cellphone provider for their best travel options. For a small fee, my provider allowed me to use my U.S. number while in Europe—to phone home or call my traveling companions, who also had U.S. numbers—and gave me unlimited data download and texting so I could freely use my apps and GPS. International calls were still very expensive, but I didn’t use my phone for talking. Instead, I used it to keep from becoming lost; to book trains, accommodations and dinner reservations; and to research a destination’s information, such as museum hours, history and photography. Here are some things I learned along the way.

Before leaving home, download the TripAdvisor app—used by Europeans more than any other travel review service—to peruse reviews from locals and visitors alike on restaurants, hotels and B&Bs. For my trip, I discovered that there was a little-known chef-owned B&B across the street from the coast guard docks near the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome. I slept well in its modern rooms and dined on the Michelin-star restaurant’s specialty of local fish and seafood. Thanks to TripAdvisor, the experience ranked as the best of that trip, and since the B&B was located less than 10 minutes from the airport, it saved me untold early morning travel anxiety. 

Airbnb.com is extremely popular with young Europeans, and the Airbnb app is a great way to meet locals who will graciously sell you a peek into their daily lives by sharing space in their dwelling. Both traveler and host are screened, and guests and hosts verify their IDs by connecting to their social networks and scanning their official ID or confirming personal details. Not all accommodations are shared with the owner, though. Some—such as the incredible houseboats in the Netherlands or a medieval suite in the Jewish quarter in Girona, Spain—offer more privacy, but accommodations of both types run the gamut from cheap to ultra-luxurious. Best of all, Airbnb allows those of us who desire to “do as the Romans do” to trade our chain restaurant and hotel Americanisms for a more unique and authentic experience when traveling abroad.

To truly learn the lay and way of the land, consider agritourism at a farm or vineyard. For example, through agriturist.it, I found Tenuta Maraveja—a charming B&B, winery and vineyard in the Berici hills, a short distance from the historic center of Vicenza, Italy. Owner Gildo Gennari prepared a wonderful Barolo risotto for us, and took us to a sagra (festival) in a neighboring village where we tasted all the freshly pressed, but not yet fermented, juice from the region. We also received an introduction to grappa as the vinaccia (remains from the wine pressings) were being hauled away in truck-sized bags to the distilleries. Other agritourism sites for Italy include agriturismo.it and agriturismo.net/en.

EuroGites, the European Federation of Rural Tourism, gives similar choices for 27 countries in Europe, and at visiteurope.com/plan/where-to-stay/pensions-and-gites you’ll find a portal for all of the members’ national or regional websites with links to several apps to help locate the perfect rural, country or farm accommodations. This site is also a mother lode of travel information with links to practical, “need to know” information, such as currency converters. In fact, a currency convertor is great to have on the phone (I use the one available at xe.com) as is the Word Lens translation app (available at questvisual.com/us) if you need to translate a local sign or, say, directions on a box. Simply point your phone’s camera at the phrase for an instant translation. Word Lens is available in seven languages for the iPhone, and similar camera-based translators are available for Android phones. And consider downloading a voice translator app such as Voice Translator (50 languages), available at the Google Play store, or Translate Voice Free (10 languages), available in iTunes.

Paid parking is expensive in Europe, and since many cities don’t even allow cars into the older sections of town, renting a car to tour is impractical. Traveling by rail, however, is fast and convenient. Why not travel in comfort, stretch out your legs and have a cocktail at more than 130 miles per hour? Rail Europe (raileurope.com) has a mobile booking tool and a wealth of information about 35 of Europe’s rail lines across 32 countries, allowing users to book tickets, look up train schedules and get advice on everything from passport information and night trains to lockers and luggage storage at stations. Some rail fares even include museum tickets or discounts. Before hopping the rail, search for your destination’s metro app and download it for access to subways and bus lines once you’ve arrived. 

Most states or regions in Europe have their own sites, such as Emilia-Romagna, Italy (emiliaromagnaturismo.it/en). And many have their own apps to download; one of Milan’s apps does everything from keeping you abreast of the latest city events to pointing out all of the locations linked to Verdi or Leonardo da Vinci. Also be sure to check tourism websites; many tourism offices offer special packages or city cards for discounts on museums and city bus tickets. Milan, for example, offers a Milano Card, which not only includes museum entrance fees and restaurant discounts, but also access to an emergency medical services hotline, discounted doctor visits and 40 free prints of your photos. 

And perusing a city tourism site is the only way you’d discover a package like the one offered in Dinkelsbühl, Germany—a picture-perfect, 15th-century town along the medieval trade route from Würzburg to Neuschwanstein Castle. The city entices visitors with a five-day stay that includes a welcome drink upon arrival, accommodations in a first-class room for five nights, breakfast buffet, guidebook and tickets to the Museum of the Third Dimension and the city’s historical museum, called the “House of History—of war and peace.” Guests are encouraged to patrol the town with the night watchman as he sings for his evening beer (which he passes on to the tourists), and each receives a voucher for the casino in Feuchtwangen. Price per person is €221, which my exchange calculator says is about $305 total, or $61 per person, per day—less than most hotel rooms in Austin. Congratulations, you’ve just snagged the most picturesque, fairy tale German adventure one could ever imagine—and you’ll probably be the only American there.

And speaking of picturesque, let’s say you’re halfway through your trip and your phone is groaning with videos and pictures. Consider the mobile version of Dropbox (dropbox.com/mobile) for storing your photos in the Cloud. And any one of a number of apps that stitch photos together into a breathtaking panorama is a must-have to preserve those impressive sweeping views. What about all of those things you can’t see, though? With the Wikitude app for Android (wikitude.com/app) your phone can act as a third eye. Simply point your camera down the street and see notes left by those who have gone before. Wikitude’s augmented reality capabilities literally show you that you are, in fact, standing in front of that accordion maker you wanted to visit, and the app uses GPS and what your camera sees in front of you to search the Internet and tell you all about it. Want to dig even deeper? Take a field trip (fieldtripper.com) to discover a mix of stories about a location. The Field Trip app runs in your phone’s background and when you get close to something interesting, it automatically pops up a card with details. If you have a headset or are Bluetooth-connected, it can even read the info to you. 

Now that you’ve done your homework, load the smartphone and head out on that great adventure. You’ll be able to confidently communicate with the natives, learn about points of interest and wander around like a true local.