Juice up: dealing with outlets and electricity in Europe (or elsewhere) as an American

I’ve been over to Europe several times, but until recently, I hadn’t really bothered to educate myself about the whole “using electrical gadgets in a different country” thing, and tended to just borrow a small transformer (down-voltage converter) from a family member when I traveled, or use someone else’s on the trip. This is because, to me, European electricity basically seemed like witchcraft and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t constantly resulted in conflicting answers from whomever I bothered to prod on the issue.

As you might imagine, this was annoying. Some people would tell me I needed a converter, some said I just needed a plug adapter, some said I could get a power strip and an adapter, and some said a power strip and converter. If you search the web, you will find equally confusing and conflicting pieces of information out there on this topic. This is apparently because what was true about bringing American electronics to Europe 20-odd years ago is no longer generally true today, but people still are providing advice based on the old understanding of Europe / American electrical compatibility.

Let me see if I can break this down a bit more simply (granted, my explanation is probably not going to be completely complete, nor technically detailed).

Smartphone / tablet chargers, laptop chargers, camera chargers, electric razor chargers, and basically <insert fairly modern gadget charger here> generally do not need power converters. In fact, you can potentially damage these gadgets by using a down-voltage converter.

Simpler appliances like hair dryers, irons, speakers, and lamps, however, usually do. The rule of thumb I’ve found is generally this: if it’s digital, it probably works without a electricity converter. If it’s analog (like the stuff I just listed), it probably doesn’t unless it explicitly says otherwise on the box / cord.

This is because as time has gone on, most gadgets and modern, digital-ish appliances have adopted standardized hardware as part of their charging interfaces. It’s generally much easier from a logistical standpoint to build a charging interface that accepts a wide range of voltages than to tailor them to individual markets, unless absolutely necessary, or unprofitable. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets are almost universally capable of accepting voltage in the range of 100-240v, meaning they can be powered by almost any outlet in the world using only the appropriate wall outlet adapter.

The other thing worth knowing? There are power strips out there capable of accepting 100-240v (aka universal voltage), too. The best-reviewed one, as far as I can tell, is the Monster Outlets To Go line – some of them even have USB ports. While it doesn’t say so on the strip or the box, Monster does say in its FAQ that the OTG line is capable of accepting a wide range of electrical inputs, and they’re presumably rated 100-240v. Just attach the appropriate adapter to the wall plug and you’re set to go pretty much anywhere. Then, you don’t need adapters for your individual gadget chargers.

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As far as which gadgets are compatible, just check the charging brick for the respective device. If it says 100-240v anywhere on it, it should work just fine without a converter. And like I said, most smartphones, tablets, and laptops produced today generally are universal voltage-friendly.

The Outlets To Go strip can handle quite a lot of draw, too, so it’s unlikely you’ll need more than one to power all your stuff. I took one to Germany with me and it worked like a champ. There are other 100-240v-friendly multi-outlet solutions out there, though, so it’s definitely worth doing your homework.

Finally, don’t use a power converter “just to be safe.” Travel converters are finicky, cheap, makeshift tools that were never designed to provide precise, consistent, low-current electricity to sensitive electronics. It may be fine, but it may also cook your charger, or worse, your phone / laptop / tablet. Most converters don’t even work with cheap 120v power strips in the first place (I’ve blown enough breakers to know). Power converters should be reserved for things like hair dryers or other high-draw, low-tech analog appliances that simply won’t accept 240v.

You will probably still read conflicting information out there on the web about converters and adapters, but as I said, much of that seems to be based on an outdated understanding of the electronics we travel with. Get an adapter and a universal voltage compliant power strip, and read the labels on your various chargers. If you find one that only works with US voltage (110/120), then it’s time to get a converter, or better yet, think about replacing that gadget. After all, your life will only be easier for it.

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