By Jason Snell
July 31, 2018 8:47 PM PT
Notes from the travel desk
Earlier this summer my family and I spent a couple of weeks in Europe. After spending my first three decades tethered to North America, since 2000 I’ve traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on many different occasions, and it’s given me a chance to reflect on just how much advances in technology have changed (and, on balance, improved) the travel experience.
This year’s trip was very much a greatest-hits anthology. Since we were bringing our kids along for the first time (or at least, for the first time as active participants who we weren’t carrying from place to place), my wife and I decided to revisit places we’d enjoyed in past trips and come up with an itinerary that wouldn’t make our kids spend the rest of their lives reminiscing about that awful trip their parents dragged them on in the summer of 2018.
My daughter expressed vague approval of the idea of Amsterdam—I think she had a friend who went there and said she liked it?—so we started our trip there. Then it was on to the north of England and the Lake District, and finally we spent a week in London.
As you might expect, going back to places we’d already been to—Amsterdam in 2004 and the Lake District in 2000—caused me to compare those trips to the ones we’d taken previously. And while the lakes and hills in the Lake District haven’t changed at all in the intervening 18 years, our connection to the world has.
I have a clear memory of ducking into an Internet Cafe (!) in Keswick to check on what was going back at home, including a brief glance at email and a peek at how my favorite baseball team was doing. A pitcher hit a grand slam! It was May 24, 2000.
This trip, I had a prepaid Three SIM card in my iPhone, so I had unfettered full-speed access to the Internet via a supercomputer in my pocket. Yeah, things have changed.
Now, there’s an argument to be had that this is not a change for the better. After all, back in 2000 I had to make an effort to occasionally connect to my life back home; in 2018, I was effortlessly connected to it—whether I liked that or not. In 2000, it felt like we were a world away from everything we knew. In 2018, my daughter was Snapchatting with friends constantly, and I was sharing photos with friends and family.
I think I prefer it this way. If you really want to be isolated, you need to choose to be—rather than having it thrust upon you. I know that not everyone can choose to be isolated—there’s a boss somewhere who demands on ruining your vacation with a panicked phone call about something that’s not actually an emergency—but I think most of us can if we make an effort.
Beyond the cultural issues of immersing yourself in travel versus carrying a window on your travel and showing it to the people back home, there’s the sheer upgrade that technology gives the basics of getting around. Consider:
The SIM cards. For less than $30 I had more data than I could possibly use, for 30 days. In those early days of smartphones, when international data cost a fortune, I remember wandering around Stockholm, toggling my iPhone out of Airplane Mode just long enough to load a street map. It was the worst. These days, not having data is just not an option. For us—given the length of our stay and our carrier back home—the Three SIM cards were the best deal. Check with your carrier to see what their plans look like if you’re going to take a trip, but keep in mind that if your phone’s unlocked, buying a temporary SIM card can be a great option.
Transit directions. The single best thing about this trip in terms of technology was our use of the transit directions in both Apple Maps and Google Maps. In Amsterdam, we bought 48-hour tram passes and were busy zig-zagging our way around the city, from our rented apartment that was conveniently located on a block with a tram stop.
Public transit in an unfamiliar city can be really stressful. All that stress vanished with the aid of the transit app on my phone. At one point, we were standing in a plaza in central Amsterdam, and my family was unsure about what we wanted to do next. I had a couple of friends recommend a brewery on the other side of town, next to a windmill, but I had looked on a map and realized it was nowhere near anywhere we were planning on going. But I put the brewery into Apple Maps and it couldn’t have been simpler: Walk a block and a half to a very specific tram stop, ride that tram for 10 minutes, and walk across a canal to the brewery. The beer was really good and the Dutch crowd quite enthusiastic, because Germany was in the process of being knocked out of the World Cup while we were there.
I’ve used the Tube in London for ages so I feel much more confident with it, but the location of our hotel wasn’t near the right tube lines for some of our destinations. With the added confidence from my map apps, we were able to walk a couple of blocks and hop a double-decker bus to get us where we needed to go. Other than the stifling summer heat of a London heat wave, the bus was great.
Apple Pay. In the U.S., Apple Pay is kind of a crapshoot. Some places have it, and some places don’t. In the UK, almost every terminal supports contactless payments, because most credit cards have RFID chips embedded in them. (This is not the case in the U.S., for whatever reason.) And in the UK, if a terminal supports contactless, it supports Apple Pay. So basically, the whole country supports Apple Pay, and so almost everything I bought in the UK, I paid with my Apple Watch. (The exception was purchases above about £40, where I had to insert my card.)
In the Netherlands, alas, Apple Pay is not yet active, though there are rumors that it’s coming soon. I hope so! Several of the places we went in Amsterdam have converted entirely to cards—they don’t accept cash at all. (Unfortunately, there were also a few places—like a grocery store—that wouldn’t accept any American credit cards, so we had to pay with cash. Get it together, Holland.)
Nintendo is dumb. My son has a Nintendo 3DS that he wanted to bring with him to Europe. And while I’m a big fan of Nintendo in general, I can’t believe that any major consumer-electronics company is allowed to get away with what they’ve done with this product. In North America, the Nintendo 3DS is sold without a power adapter.
No problem, you think. Just use one of a million USB cables that you’ve got around your house. That’s a great idea, except the 3DS also uses a proprietary power connector, so you can’t use any cord other than the one made by Nintendo. What a bunch of jerks.
Anyway, it gets even worse. While prepping for this trip, I rounded up all of my plug adapters—little plastic things that convert North American plugs into the electrical plugs formats used by Europe and the UK—to toss in a bag. They’re great! And I realized that while all of Apple’s adapters (save the tiny iPhone cube) and my Anker 5-port USB adapter can handle the different voltages of the U.S. and Europe, I didn’t know if that Nintendo adapter did.
Welp. It doesn’t. The must-buy-separately power adapter for the Nintendo 3DS is so cheap that it only accepts the 110V standard found in North America.
We just brought the Nintendo Switch instead. It charges via USB-C.
CarPlay! I have written about Apple’s CarPlay in-car connection technology a bit. I even bought a CarPlay stereo and installed it… on my desk. But this was the first time I have ever used CarPlay in person in a moving car, because we rented a car in Newcastle and drove it through the Lake District. It was fun to see the map actually update because we were moving, because my desk doesn’t go above 1mph.
I will say this, though: Because the current version of CarPlay only supports Apple Maps (this fall, with iOS 12, things will change!), we were forced to use it—and got bitten more than once. In the first case, Apple Maps rerouted us without telling us, moving us off of a large, well-traveled A road and instead sending us through a shortcut down terrifyingly narrow roads not suitable for Americans who haven’t driven in the UK in 18 years.
In the second case, Apple Maps navigated us to a Texaco station that was, in fact, someone’s house. With no station in sight. Fortunately, there was a gas station a quarter of a mile away, but this was an outright phantom point of interest. I used the Apple Maps feedback mechanism to indicate that indeed, the “Texaco station” was no longer in business at that location—and in fact, had never existed. At some point in London I received a push notification from Apple Maps indicating that, thanks to my feedback, that POI had been removed from the Apple Maps database.
So that’s something, I guess? But the next time I’m driving in Europe with CarPlay I’m using Google Maps.
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