Smart Phoning: Traveling Without a Cell Phone

Using one of Britain's iconic phone booths is practically a cultural experience.
Many hotels offer a shared computer and printer tucked in a corner of the lobby.
By Rick Steves

If you prefer to travel without a mobile device, you can still stay in touch using landline telephones and Internet cafés.

Landline Telephones

As in the US, these days many Europeans do most of their phoning on mobile phones. If you don’t bring a mobile phone, you basically have three options for making calls: hotel-room phones, pay phones, and call shops.

Phones in your hotel room can be great for local calls and for calls using cheap international phone cards (described in the sidebar). Otherwise, they can be an almost criminal rip-off. I use hotel phones only when I’m feeling flush and lazy, for a quick “Call me in Stockholm at this number” message. Many hotels charge a fee for local and “toll-free” as well as long-distance or international calls — always ask for the rates before you dial. Since you’ll never be charged for receiving calls, it can be more affordable to have someone from the US call you in your room, rather than the other way around. Note that smaller, B&B-type accommodations often don’t have a landline in each room.

While public pay phones are on the endangered species list, you’ll still see phone booths (in most European languages, these are called cabina, kah-bee-nah) and banks of phones in post offices and train stations. Pay phones generally come with multilingual instructions. Most public phones in Europe work with insertable phone cards that you buy locally (described in the sidebar). While some card phones also accept coins, most don’t. If you use a coin-op phone, have enough small change to complete your call. Only entirely unused coins will be returned — so don’t plug in large coins until it’s clear that you’ll be having a long conversation. Press the “follow-on call” button (rather than hanging up) to make another call without losing your credit.

You’ll see many cheap call shops that advertise low rates to faraway lands, often in train-station neighborhoods. While these target immigrants who want to call home cheaply, tourists can use them, too. The clerk assigns you a booth and can help you with your long-distance prefixes. You sit in your private sweatbox, make the call, and pay the bill when you’re done. Before making your call, be completely clear on the rates. For example, the listed price may be per unit, rather than per minute — if there are 10 “units” in a minute, your call costs 10 times what you expected.

Internet Cafés and Public Internet Terminals

If you don’t bring your own mobile device or laptop, no worries — finding public Internet terminals in Europe is no problem. Many hotels have a computer in the lobby for guests to use. Otherwise, head for an Internet café. These misnamed “cafés” are sometimes just a big, functional, sweaty room filled with computers (not waiters), but they’re an easy and affordable way to get online. Even if a small town lacks an Internet café, there’s almost always some way to get online — at libraries, bookstores, post offices, copy shops, and so on. Ask the tourist office or your hotelier for the nearest place to access the Internet.

European computers typically use non-American keyboards. Most letters are the same as back home, but a few are switched around, and many of the command keys are labeled in a foreign language. Many European keyboards have an “Alt Gr” key (for “Alternate Graphics”) to the right of the space bar; press this to insert the extra symbol that appears on some keys. European keyboards have different ways to type the @ symbol:

  • French:  Alt Gr + 0
  • German:  Alt Gr + Q
  • Italian:  Alt Gr + @
  • Spanish and Portuguese:  Alt Gr + 2

If you can’t locate a special character (such as the @ symbol), simply copy it from a Web page and paste it into your email message.

Often a simple keystroke or click of the mouse can make the foreign keyboard work like an American one. Many computers have a box in the lower right-hand corner of the screen where you can click and select which type of keyboard you prefer. If not, ask the clerk for help.