I'm writing this column at a Starbucks in Istanbul, Turkey. I've been in the country for a month, and before that I was in Greece for three months. During that time, I haven't used any of the translation or advanced planning apps I have installed on my iPhone -- not even once.
The reason is that mobile broadband is massively expensive.
When you want to use a translation app, for example, you're usually approaching someone on the street, or walking into a hotel or store. At that moment, you don't have a connection.
You can find Wi-Fi here and there (mostly here -- at Starbucks), but it's harder than it looks. Most networks are password-protected. Even the open Wi-Fi networks and those where they give you the password can be super flaky or nonfunctional.
You really need mobile broadband abroad to take advantage of the travel app revolution.
There are many different ways to get mobile broadband. One is to sign up for your home carrier's International plan.
I use AT&T, and they charge -- wait for it -- about $30 for every 120MB of data on top of your regular wireless bill. A megabyte is trivially easy to download -- especially since there's no telling how much data is being transmitted when you're using apps.
But if, as an example, you managed to limit your mobile broadband usage to a tiny 1GB per week, you're looking at an additional $900 on your monthly phone bill.
There are other options -- including local or regional mobile broadband services. But these are always hideously complicated, flaky and also very expensive. They also tend to be country-specific. So if you go on a trip that involves five countries, you've got five massive research projects to figure out what your options are.
The reality is that mobile broadband abroad simply isn't worth the cost and trouble, so you're not going to have it. And if you don't have mobile broadband, the travel app revolution doesn't matter -- you can't participate.
It's not just the super-advanced new apps that are out of reach. Sites ranging from AirBnB to restaurant finders and review sites all require Internet connections. Even something everyone in the U.S. takes for granted, map apps like Google Maps, aren't useful when you really need them the most -- when you're lost in a foreign city.
First World problem?
I know, I know. People lucky enough to go traveling abroad shouldn't be whining about the high cost of mobile broadband. It's a First World problem (even if you're having that problem in the Third World).