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European Electricity and the Connected Tourist

European power, power converters, plugs and more - What you need to know about plugging in when you travel Europe.

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On your first trip to Europe the thing that stands out about your hotel room might very well be the wall sockets. They're different. The're big.

The second thing you'll probably notice is that there aren't a lot of them. Power, you see, is quite expensive in Europe.

So what you need to run that laptop, hair dryer, electric shaver, or miniature toaster oven is a doohickey that converts your plug so that it fits whatever socket they use in the European country you're visiting. No problem. They're cheap. You can buy plug converters at many travel-oriented stores in the US, as well as electrical and hardware stores in Europe. See the picture of the converter that works in continental Europe below.

Before you say, "Cool. I'm off and running!" I need to warn you of something: what's coming out of that socket is a whopping 220 volts at 50 cycles, twice the voltage of American power systems. It may be way too much for your appliance. Remember: an adapter plug doesn't convert the voltage, it just converts the hardware plug (see the definitions below).

Definitions For Electrical Conversion Devices
Plug Adapter - an interface that attaches between the American two-pronged plug and a specific European socket. The result is that the American appliance will be connected to European 220v 50 cycle electrical power. Power Converter (or transformer) - converts the European 220v to 110 volts so that American appliances will operate on European Current. Watch that the power rating (in watts) exceeds the rating of all appliances you expect to plug in at one time.

To see a video of European plugs and sockets, see: Electricity in Europe Basics

European Electricity - Some People Learn the Hard Way

Once when in Sardinia on a volunteer archaeology project we spent a day without lights because one of the volunteers had plugged one of those 27 zillion watt, 110 volt hair dryers into the standard 220 line. When asked if she knew the voltage was different, she replied, "Of course I knew! I just wanted to see if it'd work."

Science is a good thing. So are experiments. The result of this one was a smoldering and distorted mass of cheap plastic and a candlelight dinner. You see, the 220 volts had caused an overpower condition that turned the whole unit into a lump of smelly, overheated parts.

Hair dryers can be a problem. They take massive amounts of power. If you can't do without, you might consider buying one in Europe to make sure its power requirements match those of the counties in which the device is used.

Taking Stock of your Electrical Needs when you travel in Europe

  • Determine which countries you'll be traveling in.
  • Choose the plug adapters you'll need in those specific countries.
  • Take stock of what appliances need power converters. Most modern laptops will automatically sense voltage changes and adapt; you may only need a plug adapter--check your owner's manual. Shavers, and any small, electrically frugal items may still need a voltage converter (sometimes called a transformer). These are readily available as well. Hair dryers are a special case, as their power requirements are enormous. If you wish to be a good neighbor to the Europeans, consider leaving the contraption at home. If you can't, make sure you buy a heavy duty converter that will handle as much as 2000 watts (2 kilowatts).
  • Remember that if you're taking a recharger for your digital camera batteries, it'll probably need at least a plug converter.

How to Determine if you need just a Plug Adapter or a Voltage Converter

120 volt poewer brick picture To the left is a picture of the back of a Sony power brick that requires 120 volts of AC electricity at 60 Hz or cycles per second. You will need a voltage converter to run the device that this attaches to, like one of these. It's very low wattage though, only 6 watts, so you don't need a big, expensive converter.
100-240 volt power brick The back of my Canon battery charger shows it will handle any voltage from 100 to 240 at 50/60 hz. This was designed to work just about anywhere in the world, and the US version will work in Europe by using a plug adapter as seen below.
plug adapter Here is all you need to convert the US rectangular pronged plug to a European round plug used in most continental European hotels. It is the kind I take to Europe. This adapter probably won't work in the UK or Malta. While you can buy these in Europe, an online source is Magellans, a reliable converter I'd recommend.

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