Electronics for the Road
Go light with your electronic gear — you want to experience Europe, not interface with it. Of course, some mobile devices are great tools for making your trip easier or better. The lines separating smartphones, tablet computers, portable media players, cameras, GPS devices, and ereaders continue to blur. Think creatively about how you might use your gadgets (especially if Wi-Fi enabled) on the road.
Note that many of these things are high-ticket items; guard them carefully or consider insuring them.
Mobile phone/smartphone. Your American mobile phone might work perfectly in Europe, or you can buy one to use while you're there. Smartphones are a nice compromise for travelers who need to stay plugged in, but don't want to lug along a laptop.
Other mobile devices. Take your pick: tablet, portable media player, ereader. Download apps before you leave home.
Digital camera. Take along an extra memory card and battery, and don't forget the charger and a cable for downloading images.
Laptop. More and more tourists enjoy bringing their laptop along.
USB flash drive. If you're traveling with a laptop, a flash drive can be handy for backing up files and photos. If you're thinking of simply transporting files to Europe on a flash drive, be aware that some Internet cafés don't allow you to use them out of fear of infecting their machines. As an alternative, consider the free and handy Dropbox, also available as a mobile app, which is essentially a virtual flash drive that you can access anywhere.
GPS device. If you'll be doing a lot of driving and have a portable GPS device at home, you could buy European map data to use on vacation.
Headphones/earbuds. These are a must for listening to music, tuning in to audio tours, or simply drowning out whiny kids on the plane. (I never travel without my noise-canceling Bose headphones.) Pick up a Y-jack so you and a partner can plug in headphones at the same time.
Chargers and batteries. Bring each device's charger. Look into getting a universal charger, with multiple plugs to fit each device (the octopus-shaped Chargepod is convenient but pricey), or a dual charger capable of juicing your iPad and iPod at the same time.
Electrical Adapters and Converters
Europe's electrical system is different from ours in two ways: the voltage of the current and the shape of the plug.
American appliances run on 110 volts, while European appliances are 220 volts. Newer travel accessories and electronic gadgets are "dual voltage," which means they work on both American and European current. If you see a range of voltages printed on the item or its plug (such as "110-220"), you're OK in Europe. Some older appliances have a voltage switch marked 110 (US) and 220 (Europe) — switch it to 220 as you pack.
A few old, cheap American appliances aren't equipped to deal with the voltage difference at all, and they could be damaged or destroyed if plugged directly into a European wall outlet. In these cases, you'll need to buy a separate, bulky converter (about $30). With so many dual-voltage gadgets available, I haven't traveled with a separate converter in years. Still not sure? Travel stores offer useful advice on plugs and adapters (such as the "Electrical Connection Wizard").
Once you've dealt with the voltage, you'll have to consider the plug. A small adapter allows American-style plugs (two flat prongs) to fit into British or Irish outlets (which take three rectangular prongs) or continental European outlets (which take two round prongs). I bring both continental and British adapters (handy for long layovers at Heathrow Airport). Secure your adapter to your device's plug with electrical or duct tape; otherwise it can easily get left behind in the outlet (hotels or bed and breakfasts sometimes have a box of abandoned adapters — ask). Many sockets in Europe are recessed into the wall; your adapter should be small enough so that the prongs seat properly in the socket. If, for some reason, your adapter doesn't work in your hotel, just ask at the desk for assistance; hotels with unusual sockets will invariably have the right adapter to loan you.
Some budget hotel rooms have only one electrical outlet, occupied by the lamp. Hardware stores in Europe sell cheap three-way plug adapters that let you keep the lamp on and your camera battery and smartphone charged.
Updated for 2012. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.