ROBERT ST. JOHN: Travel technology made European journey more beautiful

By Robert St. John

After leaving the Trapani Salt Flats on the western coast of Sicily on a late November afternoon, I maneuvered our vehicle down yet another remote, unmarked dirt road and passed dozens of vacant houses. No one was on the streets. It had been 10 minutes since we had seen another car. Sunlight was at a minimum. We had been warned several times about remote areas of Sicily.
I approached a 90-degree turn through a small opening in a massive stone wall that looked like it had been there since the Romans were in charge. I checked the GPS once again to make sure I was in the right place. It was there on the screen, all of it – the tiny rock-filled road, the 90-degree turn and the passageway through the wall.
Nothing about this area seemed like the “right place.” The turn was so tight I had to back up, turn the wheel and adjust my position three times. I questioned the GPS instructions, as I had done several times during the previous months. Once again, the Garmin was correct. I made it to the small road on the other side of the wall, and in a matter of meters, wound up on the highway to Palermo, just as the mechanical female voice in the GPS instructed.
In many parts of Europe, a driver finds himself on roads originally built for horse or foot traffic. Roads that have never been widened for automobiles. Navigating the continent can be a challenge.
While driving through 17 countries on two continents, over a six-month period, one has many opportunities to get lost. I never had a problem. In six months – for over 15,000 miles – I never once got off course, and almost always traveled from point A to point B with little effort or stress. Thank you, Garmin. Even through the most remote sections of Croatia, Albania and Bosnia, I never had to ask for directions.
We landed in Sweden in August. I picked up the small SUV that would carry us across the continent and immediately drove to a Media Market (the European version of Best Buy) and purchased a Garmin GPS. It would be the smartest money I spent the entire six months.
Technology has made traveling so much easier.
Here they are
The following are the top 10 tech tools I used during the journey.
10.) Facebook – When traveling with a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old for an extended period, it’s important for them to be able to stay in touch with their friends. It works just as well for parents.
9.) Skype – The kids were able to communicate with their friends on a regular basis, and I was able to keep in touch with the daily progress of my business, by speaking eye-to-eye with those involved, thousands of miles away.
8.) International city and country apps for the iPhone – If you are going to travel overseas, buy an iPhone. In the app store, look up the country or city you plan to visit, and download one of the apps associated with your destination. There are several companies that develop travel apps. Cityscouter is one of the best.
Most apps offer accurate dining and lodging recommendations, must-see sight information, local tourist tips, and usually have map features that are fully integrated with the iPhone.
7.) vrbo.com – I spent over two years on the various pages of vrbo.com (Vacation Rental By Owner) while planning the trip. The site is easy to use, it contains detailed information on various available properties, and it puts the potential renter in touch with homeowners all over the planet. I found the property reviews to be accurate and informative.
I mostly used vrbo.com for locations where we needed to stay for a week or more. They list villas in European countryside, apartments in major cities, but also include remote houses off the beaten path and in some of the most isolated and secluded areas of the continent.
6.) Hotels.com – For stays of one or two nights, or for week-long stays in cities where apartments wouldn’t be optimal, I used www.hotels.com. This website is easy to navigate and offers severely discounted prices on hotel rooms throughout the world. The reviews are almost always spot on.
5.) Trip Advisor – I used Trip Advisor on my laptop in the hotel room when researching places to eat, and on my iPhone – via the Trip Advisor app – when walking through cities looking for a locals-only trattoria or brasserie.
The reviews are all sometimes inconsistent, but after a while it’s easier to spot the stray outlier review that might pop up.
4.) www.onesimcard.com – One of the biggest dilemmas I faced when preparing for this trip was what type of phone to bring along. A local company with an international plan was too expensive, and I couldn’t purchase a phone in Europe because I was going to be traveling from country to country.
After two years of research, and at the final hour, I purchased an unlocked iPhone, and set up an account through onesimcard.com. I chose a telephone number that would be my international number for life. Using PayPal, I uploaded a balance to the phone, which gives me access in over 200 countries.
The rates were good – approximately 40 cents a minute for outgoing calls – but the key is that all incoming calls and texts are free. If I needed to call my office, I would dial the number, and when they answered, ask them to call me back. I could spend over an hour on an overseas call for 40 cents. Beautiful.
3.) Google Maps on the iPhone – You can drop me blindfolded in any European city and say, “find restaurant X and walk there,” and I would have no problem. The built-in Google Maps feature on an iPhone is an amazing tool.
One can look up an address, cut and paste that address into Google Maps, select “directions from current location,” turn on the compass feature, and then watch yourself on the screen as you navigate the streets of Paris, Rome, Venice or the most remote little fishing village on the planet.
2.) Navigon – Before leaving the United States I purchased an app for my iPhone called Navigon. At $100, it would be the most expensive app I have ever purchased, but it would turn out to be the second-best purchase I would make on the trip.
I lost the Garmin on a ferry and never missed a beat as Navigon took me through Europe as well as its $300 GPS predecessor. It has most of the bells and whistles of a larger GPS, all packed into the workings of a pocket-sized iPhone.
1.) Garmin GPS – I brought a standard road atlas of the book variety. My wife kept it next to her in the passenger seat. In the end, we just used it to mark places we had visited.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like trying to navigate the European continent in an automobile in the era before GPS was available. It would have been doable, but much harder, and it would have taken a very long time with missed turns and exits.
Steve Jobs passed away while we were in Italy. As a family, we listened to the Isaacson bio via my iPod while driving through France and Spain. Thanks to his genius we had the freedom to move about the continent easily, efficiently and at a fast pace. Even in the scariest corners of Sicily.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.