Online in Europe (Maybe)

Okay. I know that certain members of my family are going to laugh at this, but when I go to Europe, I never get a car with GPS in it. I know it’s partly pride. My wife, Linda and I do a pretty good job of navigating ourselves. Especially in France, where we think nothing of driving into a strange city and navigating to the tourist office by following the “Office de Tourisme” arrows to get a map to figure out the rest of the place. Okay, it’s mostly pride. However, there are times when it would be really nice to know where we are. I’m not saying we get lost, but…well, sometimes I don’t know where some of the other stuff is.

But it’s my belief (which conveniently shores up my argument against GPS) that the only way to keep up the ability to navigate is to keep navigating; use it or lose it. If I find my own way to somewhere, I remember how to get there. If you sit beside me and tell me how to get there, I might be able to find it again. If I sit in the back seat and you drive me there, I have no idea where I am. However, I do admit that sometimes it would be nice to look at a map and say, “Oh. I’m right there,” and start the game all over again. Sort of like the GPS does when you deviate from the course you set in its little electronic brain, and it says, rather desperately, “Recalculating…recalculating.”

So for this trip, when I was going to be navigating around Hungary (where it’s rather more difficult to just stop and ask someone where you are) I was looking for electronic help. I have recently purchased an iPhone, and I thought maybe I could use Google Maps. Not to actually navigate, you understand. I’ve already got one voice whispering instructions in my ear, thank you. Just as backup. In case I can’t…find somewhere.

However, a test run in Vancouver using my iPhone as a wifi hotspot and my iPad as a GPS (in which I burned through three months’ supply of data in fifty minutes) persuaded me to be very careful how I use my data plan overseas. We’ve all heard the horror stories about roaming charges. I can see how they happen.

How Much Do You Need?
So you’re going to Europe and you want to use your phone or your tablet. How do you organize your voice, text, and data time? Well, most of us have a vague idea of how many phone calls and texts we’re going to make, but the first big hurdle is figuring out how much data we need. It comes in megs, purchased by the hundred, and everyone’s needs are so different that nobody will hazard the slightest guess as to how much anyone else will use. So my path to this wisdom has been tortuous, and continues to wind higher in a steep learning curve. However, I will tell you what I know. This is what you need for a month, as near as I can figure out:

100 mg.
This is enough when you want to check your email once a day and download about 10 documents. Maybe check a few facts on Wikipedia. But if this is all you’re going to do, why don’t you just make sure your hotel has wifi, or go to the nearest MacDonald’s? There are even places that are setting the whole town centre up as a wifi hotspot. If 100 megs is all you’re going to use, don’t go through all this hassle. Skype is a much cheaper way to phone home.

300 mg.
This is enough to download your emails and run your Facebook page. You might even get away with checking the immediate area out for restaurants once a day. That’s what I have purchased for, as it turns out, the two weeks left in my visit. More on that later.

1000 mg, or 1 gig.
This is starting to get into real internet user stuff. I mean, you can kick back and relax if you’ve got a gig stored up. But don’t watch too many movies. Just to compare, my data monitoring program predicts I’ll be using 12 gig of wifi data this month. But I’m a pretty serious user, running two websites, transferring big photo files, etc. And it’s easy to use when it’s free.

So now that we know what we need, let’s go shopping. Where can you buy data, and what does it cost? Disclaimer: I’m only talking about data here, because most phone plans seem to me to provide plenty of phone minutes. Of course, I’m not the type to phone Mummy or the office from Europe and talk for 15 minutes a day. I mean, why do we go on holiday?

Plan A: Don’t Plan at All.
Just use your phone/tablet. Pay the $3,472.95 roaming charges when you get home and chalk it up to experience. Some of us can afford to do that. Must be nice.

Plan B: Do It From Home
Your local service provider will happily sell you a plan that offers voice, text, and a limited number of megs of online time. Limited because it costs so much. The advantage is that it’s all done before you go, and you can go online and top it up any time you like. But if you’re Canadian, count on at least $25 for that useless 100 megs. If you want to spend closer to $100, you can set up a gig or so. Americans get it cheaper, but it can still cost a bundle if you overuse.

Plan C: Waste Your Holiday Running Around Trying to Make it Work.
The “smart” way is to take an unlocked device to Europe with you and buy a new SIM card (easy and cheap). Plug it into your phone, make a call to register, and you’re up and running, with considerably cheaper data than you get at home. If it works.
And Away We Go

So, being Scottish by heritage and by inclination, that’s what I did. And I’ve been holding this blog post for three weeks, awaiting a reasonable conclusion for the story.

The beginning part was simple. I had a layover in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, and I went to the nearest Tabac and bought a Europe-wide SIM card for 10 euros and 300 megs of data for another 10. Made the phone call and seemed to be home free. 5 euros of free phone time included. In France, anyway.

Until I Got to Prague.
Nothing. Phone doesn’t work, data doesn’t work. Can’t get online with the French company’s help line because the numbers they gave me don’t work. Even if I could figure out which number was which. However, the Czech Republic is full of WiFi. I could walk down the street anywhere and log onto something, open Google Maps, find out where I was and keep the map going in the cache until the next hot spot. Needless to say, I was navigating by the time-honoured method of trying to decipher the cheap tourist map, and fighting the stereotype by asking for directions. Which is the plan that works the best, let me tell you. Humans are always so nice to someone who is pleading with them to demonstrate their superiority.

So when I got to Hungary, I wasn’t in any hurry to use the phone because I actually bought a serious road map, and I was navigating just fine. Then I noticed a little line at the top of the phone screen that said “vodafone HU.” Well, whaddaya know? I had no one in Hungary to call, so I phoned Canada and got through, no problem. Go figure. However, we had so much fun when the phone actually worked that we talked to our Hungarian friends in Canada until the time ran out. Which (foreshadowing music, please) turned out to be a big mistake…

France, the Telecom Capital of the World
…because when we got to France, nothing worked. I couldn’t use the data. I couldn’t use the phone (I knew that; I was out of reserve) I couldn’t call any of the help numbers, because they cost phone time. Worst of it, when I called the line where you top up your phone contract, they asked me to insert my 10-digit code (my phone number has 10 digits, so that must be the one – they didn’t give me any other) and when I punched it in they said it wasn’t acceptable!

The Think-Outside-the-Box Solution
I used my iPad on wifi to go on the top-up page of the company’s website, but it wouldn’t accept the number and password. So I changed the password. They let me do that. Why not? They wouldn’t accept that one either.

The Jump-Through-Hoops Solution
I finally, painstakingly, went through a whole registration process, (they want my birthdate, my full address, and the departement in France where I was born? I lied.) and actually got to send an email asking for help. I scheduled a phone call between 9 and 10 the following morning. And went to bed feeling as if I’d accomplished something. Just shows you how low I was getting.

The Phone Call
9am the next day, I am awakened by the phone ringing. As you may guess, this is the time of day when I’m at my sharpest. Does the guy speak English? No, actually. Not a word. Now, my French is good enough for a chat with the shopkeeper, and “Where are we on this map?” but when it comes to talking on the phone, and technical jargon at that? I’m not even sure what of most of it means in English. So after half an hour of sending emails (did I mention the wifi where we’re staying is intermittent?) and screen shots back and forth, we gave up.

The Go-and-Talk-to-a-Real-Person Solution
However, wrestling with a problem often breaks loose other channels of thought, and I got on the website for the telecom company and discovered that they had an office in a town about half an hour away. We made a special trip over (no problem finding it: we navigated by the road signs) and went in. The young lady looked at my phone, listened to my problem, and said, “No trouble. Just go down to the Tabac at the end of the street and buy a top-up. Phone the top-up number, press “1” when the menu comes around, and punch in the 10-digit code the Tabac gives you.”
“The top-up code they give you is a 10-digit number.”
“Mais oui.”
“Just like the phone number.”
“Ce n’est pas le meme chose.”
“No, I suppose it’s not.”

So I did. I bought a 5-euro phone top-up, took the code from the cash register receipt, called the number to register it, and immediately my data stream came on line. I suppose I can make phone calls, too, although I’ve got nobody to phone, and believe me, I’m not going to waste any credits trying!

Now all I have to do is worry about using up too many megs of internet data. I’ve only got 292 left, because I wasted 8 playing around to make sure it was actually working. Well, We’ve only got 10 days to go. If our navigation is spot-on and we don’t get lost…

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