Holidays: Useless without mobile or WiFi connectivity?

Two weeks ago I took the family to Crete for a week. It’s the first proper holiday — or, for the international readers, our first proper ‘vacation’ — that we’ve taken as a family. The boys are still young and we didn’t fancy subjecting ourselves to a 12-hour travel extravaganza each way to visit somewhere far flung.

We actually went heavily commercial, opting for high-end High Street by selecting a Thomson Sensatori break. I was attracted to the functional service level promised by the familiarity of the brand. I’ll write more about the experience over at The Pursuit of Quality shortly.

Today’s post is to remark that the era of the disconnected holiday is now over.

For me, anyway.

I don’t think I ever want to take another ‘break away’ without decent internet connectivity. I can manage it, but I won’t enjoy it as much. 

Our Greek resort — “Sensatori Crete” — was earmarked to get free hotel-wide WiFi “starting May 2014” (We were arriving the month before). I’d noted the asterisk way back in December when we booked. I wasn’t bothered. Vodafone obviously covers Greece and the fairly decent Vodafone EuroTraveller Passport policy allows me to take my standard price plan benefits abroad for £3.00 per day. (Or a rather eye-watering £21 for 7 days but put that to the back of your mind as every other Vodafone customer does). 

I was surprised to find that there was indeed WiFi at the resort. For the first day I didn’t bother with it. I just switched my phone on and sat expectantly as it located the “Vodafone GR” signal. 

And that’s when it all went wrong for me. I struggled to get anything better than a GRPS connection. You remember GPRS, right?

The GPRS in Crete isn’t like GRPS back at home in the United Kingdom. It actually works in Crete. Just, it is EXCEPTIONALLY slow. 

So slow is GPRS that most of the mobile apps I wanted to use either reported ‘no connection’ or just crashed, clearly because developers didn’t expect to have to wait for more than 30 seconds to refresh an RSS feed when there is a connection available. Basically, the whole thing sucked. 

Whatsapp was more or less unusable. The iPhone battery spent most of it’s day trying to figure out how to handle the stupefyingly slow data connection that, if I walked to the top of the resort, would occasionally hit a fairly usable ‘E’ status. I don’t think I saw a 3G identifier for days. 

I tried to tell myself that I didn’t need connectivity whilst on holiday. I didn’t believe myself, though.

Oh, I did focus on the family. I developed what I reckoned was an ingenious game by accident: Burying plastic dinosaurs in the sand that my two boys (3.5 and 2 years) could then root around for and then dig up, so they could pretend to be dinosaur hunters. We got hours and hours from that. 

When I wasn’t on duty (i.e. directly supervising the children) I wanted some connectivity, principally to send some photos and video back to both sets of grandparents who were waiting with baited breath to see how things were proceeding. 

In today’s world they are accustomed to enjoying their grandchildren’s exploits on a daily basis. It gives my wife and I pleasure to meet that demand and the expressions of delight from the grandparents are unending. So I was frustrated in this regard. 

I also wanted to knock out a few Touchnotes to the grandparents on a daily basis. Not even Touchnote (the photo-to-physical-postcard service) could handle the 2.5k/second throughput the local Vodafone Greece connection was able to muster. 

In the evenings, when the boys were asleep, that’s when I really wanted usable connectivity, principally to query the internet for all sorts of issues, jointly with my wife. It’s part of the normal to-and-fro of conversation for us. Yes, we can happily exist without connectivity, but we wanted to enhance our time away by using the internet.

For example, we’d noticed signs for a nearby Dinosaur museum/exhibition during the taxi ride to the hotel. Our eldest, Archie, is rather keen on dinosaurs. This could well be a useful and educational distraction for him. I asked at the hotel reception and they were able to confirm that it was indeed ‘Dinosaur related’. And that was it. 

Opening times, exact location, features, all of that was my problem. So I resolved to look it up. 

It took me minutes. 

First world problems, I know. Using the internet on your mobile phone when you’re getting a whopping 10 or 15k per second throughput is not fun. It took me ages to establish that the museum was suitable and then more click-and-wait-for-5-minutes searching to establish that it wasn’t open until May. 

I then needed to get some Euros for the return journey on account of spending the balance I’d taken out at Gatwick on toys. The receptionist duly pointed me roughly in the location of the nearest ATM. 

“Up that road, round the corner for a few minutes,” 

Great, thanks. I like to know precisely where things are. I don’t really want to dick about with wild goose chases, not when my time is precious. Indeed when I’m spending time with my family, part of the joy of connectivity is being able to augment the family experience via connectivity. 

I flipped open Google Maps to find the nearest ATM. Useless. It couldn’t do anything decent with the 25k/second connection (I was standing at the top of the resort and managed to locate an “E” connection so it was slightly faster). It eventually located one about 40km away. I was about to go exploring for the ATM when I found some spare Euros in my back pack. 

And then it was time to make an Ocado order so that the morning after we arrived back, we’d have the requisite groceries delivered for the family.

I wanted to read a book on Kindle one night. Only I’d forgotten to download it to my tablet. Whoops. I managed, after 6 attempts, to get the Kindle app to download the 100k book via the dodgy hotel WiFi. This was excruciating. Again, first world problems, but I am accustomed to connectivity when I need it.

No connectivity (or, perhaps worse, semi-connectivity) really impacted my general wellbeing. This was meant to be a holiday. A significant element of my day-to-day environment involves connectivity. Therefore my holiday experience was substantially degraded.

I was, strangely, able to watch Netflix via VPN (thanks to <a href=http://www.getcloak.com>getcloak.com</a>) using the hotel’s WiFi, but only after about 1130pm when, strangely, the connectivity was able to handle a consistent stream of data. Netflix worked. Almost everything else didn’t work. 

I was able to enjoy spending time with the family. That was wonderful. But I’ve now come to a point where I don’t intend going away unless there is WiFi — decent WiFi — or at usable mobile data connection. 

About 5 years ago I did a MIR mission to the Maldives — I spent 10 days on a desert island writing a series of features — and one of the reasons I was able to do this was that the hotel (Conrad, Maldives) had proper WiFi in every villa. 

Next time I am going to carefully examine the connectivity capabilities of the hotel, villa or resort. 

And the final thing I need is someone to independently verify the connectivity quality. 

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  • Mike42

    Cue posts from people saying ‘just switch off, nothing’s that important’.

    Except that they don’t get it. As a form of recreation, I have spent many a happy day hiking in mountains, totally self-sufficient with food, tent etc. I don’t need or want data for that.

    But as you clarify above, and particularly for families, fast, effective data access these days means TIME. It means a better experience. It means being better informed, therefore more efficient, particularly regarding utility things like nearest ATM, toilet, or pharmacy that’s open. We frequently use self-catering accommodation, which also frequently means no-one onsite to contact at 11:45pm when your child has a temperature of 38.5 and climbing, and what you need is Ibuprofen NOW – from a place that is open, has it n stock, and that you can find, in the dark, in a foreign country, and that accepts Visa or is close to an ATM.

    Or maybe you need nappies. In which case nothing short of a National Guard callout will suffice (shudders).

    It means you can look up that strange sign, or rumoured park etc, and plan a trip the next day that won’t see you staring at a rusty padlocked gate under a spousal glare after an hour’s drive.

    It means your other half can be on Wikipedia as you drive, so you learn a lot more about the area, its history, culture etc that ever before possible without carrying a mountain of travel books. It *facilitates* serendipity, instead of smothering it. Relying on the same pile of dog-eared out-of-date brochures in the gité is the old way. Vive la 3G/WiFi!

  • 186k

    ha ha ha, Ewan, you really do sound like a barrel of laughs on holiday. My fav bits were the dire Ocado order situation and you spamming the poor grandparents – I feel for them!

  • Chris Bignell

    Hi Ewan

    Why did you not take the Goodspeed device I sent you? You would have been able to use 1 Gigabye of data per day for €5.90 on 3G…

    Chris

  • maethorechannen

    Don’t forget to bring one of those “pocket routers” (like one of the Asus WL-330 series) with you. Then you only need to log into the hotel WiFi once (well, you might need to relogin each day or after a timeout period, but at least you don’t need to go through the captive portal on every phone/tablet and laptop). If you set it up with your home network SSID and password then your phones/tablets etc will then ‘just work’.

    It’s less of an issue now, but I’ve been in hotels that only allowed one device to connect per room – the pocket router got around helped (though I have been in hotels where I needed to change the router’s MAC address).

  • http://www.mobileindustryreview.com Ewan

    Oh that is an excellent recommendation!

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