By Rick Steves
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. To make these work, you’d need to buy a separate, bulky converter (about $30), but it’s not worth it. 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 Magellan’s “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 and B&Bs 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. (Switzerland uses its own style of electrical plugs: three slim round prongs arranged in a triangular shape. But if you already have an adapter for continental European outlets, it’s likely to work in Switzerland, too). 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 while you charge your camera battery and smartphone.
As you’re packing, try to go light with your electronic gear — you want to experience Europe, not interface with it. Of course, some devices are great tools for making your trip easier or better. As the functions of smartphones, tablets, cameras, GPS devices, and ereaders become more similar, think creatively about how you might pare down the number of gadgets you bring on the road.