Trip to Cologne: using the Internet on holidays

The real point of the Internet is to explore the unknown anytime and everywhere

Ich liebe Köln!

I went on holidays to Cologne a few weeks ago. It was great and I realized how dependent we have become on the Internet and how it’s becoming a necessity, even during holidays.

A few years ago we would have planned the trip searching what exactly to see and do there before leaving. Today, we go on holiday in the mindset that we can search for what to do and see once we are there because we count on the Internet to guide us. We rely on the Internet because we are used to have it at home, in the pocket, everywhere. The Internet avoids us the planning and allows us to live more spontaneously in a “decide as you go” mode. When I say the Internet here, I refer to mobile Internet on the smartphone, the most convenient use on holidays. Also I mainly refer to Google’s services and I’m going to describe in this post how very useful and pleasant these were for us during the holidays. Using the mobile Internet abroad made me realize the real point of the Internet: explore the unknown.

Not planning the holidays

2 applications to have in the pocket:
- Google maps
- Google places/Hotpot

We didn’t plan anything specific for our visit because we lacked time to plan a program that would suit the 6 people in our group, also we were already on holidays in our minds, we wanted to discover, we didn’t want to stick to a schedule. So we counted on the Internet to assist our exploration once there. Fully ready to discover, we drove from Paris to Cologne. 7 hours drive.

But, oh surprise when we got there : no Internet! How could we miss that, the Internet is still something national, it doesn’t cross geographic frontiers, of course! What year is this again ? 2011? Ah, the 1911 of the 21st century… right, the Internet is not global yet. It seems we got used too quickly to the comfort of having the Internet “everywhere”. And if you wonder, Internet roaming was out of the question because it costs a fortune (see the end of this article for more explanation). Faced with that unexpected problem, I settled down for three old solutions:

1. Buy a giant paper map so we know I’m a tourist from 10 miles away every time I try to read it
2. Fill my pockets, hands and bag with cumbersome paper booklets from the tourist office and decide from there
3. Get access to the Internet at the hotel and write the addresses on paper, then look for the addresses on the giant paper map

Those three solutions worked for a while but were not really satisfactory. Indeed, my goal was to discover and visit by myself according to my own interests without too much planning because I was on holiday but still with a lot of active learning and experiencing . Simply put, I wanted to explore.

Yet, all this paper in my hands was forcing me to plan precisely what to do, I was 60% on holidays, and 40% trying to not get lost. Not to mention that the information given in some paper guides was so outdated that some restaurants we went to had actually closed! True, to totally avoid the planning I could have just gone on a guided tour. But hmm no, I don’t like that, on holidays I like to feel free. Finally, another option was to do like my parents suggested and do like they did in the 70′s and let the feelings guide us. Hmmm. How to explain this. No: we need the information!!! We don’t like wasting our time, that’s today’s reality…

So, really the best solution remained the Internet in the pocket : it lets you free of your moves, it gives you the realtime and updated information you need when you need it, filtered according to your interests, it informs you on anything you see, it’s not cumbersome and bad for the environment, it guides you and helps you chose the things you like doing. In theory, the Internet in the pocket is THE perfect tool to explore, discover, visit and not get lost.

Saved by the Internet, of course

Fortunately my brother spotted a special offer in an O2 store : a 5€ sim card with access to the Internet for one month limited to 250mb. Wooooosh! That revolutionized our holidays. From the giant paper map, we upgraded to Google maps, the savior. That’s how we always remembered where we parked the car, and knew where we were. But the most pleasant use we made of the Internet was Google places. Everytime we were looking for a place to eat, we checked the local places and their ratings on Google places. I never use that application spontaneously at home, but I could see its real worth in a completely unknown territory.

Using Google places on holidays

The good experience: visions of ice cream

A memorable example was when we were looking for a place to fill our bellies with giant cups of German ice cream.

Let me describe you the context. In Cologne, a big ice cone costs no more than 1€, in France the same big ice cone costs no less than 3€, so I felt a little like in paradise there, I’d never seen this before. Not only their ice creams were big and cheap, but they were also incredibly delicious and proposed in infinite flavors. So, as we were walking in the streets to visit, we were constantly teased by subliminal visions of people everywhere eating their big ice creams on the tables outside. They were eating their ice cream like they would eat fries, like a meal. Some were eating their giant cup of ice cream at 10AM after jogging, some were just sitting alone eating their ice cream. Ice cream seemed to be part of their lifestyle like fries and beer. So, first we tasted the 1€ ice cone (wow ++), and after seeing all the giant ice cups on our way, we also wanted to sit and taste that for real.

But when we finally cracked and decided to find a place to sit, all the ice cream places had strangely vanished! You know the feeling. Oddly no place would suit us. We ended up wandering hopelessly in the streets looking for the vanished ice cream. Then suddenly we had to stop, and stare : a bunch of people was passing before us with ice cones in their hands. They were like ants carrying their trophy sugar. Just like them, we sensed the presence of Ice Scream and instinctively walked to the source. At the end of our quest, we arrived at a temple of ice cream where people were queuing to get their ice cream. Should we wait? Should we sit? Is it worth it? That’s when we asked Google places. 4,5 stars out of 5. So we stayed and got an ice cream overload:

Part of the source

ice cream

German hazelnut supreme ice-cream (not the biggest witnessed)

German ice cream (biggest witnessed)

The ice cream temple: Eiscafe Pia go, go go!

I know, it’s a superficial use of Google places. I mean, it didn’t save our lives. Yet it’s still very pleasant. But Google places revealed itself really useful actually when we didn’t have it. Let me explain.

The bad experience: the sauerkraut salad

After 2 days in Cologne we got used to consulting the Internet for everything : what to do, where to go, where to eat, what to see. Then on the third day: Internet breakdown. My brother had forgotten his magic sim card at the hotel! No Internet. We bravely thought that we could manage without it, “come on, what are we? Internet junkies? no worries we can do it!” So indeed we managed to spend the day without the Internet. But at dinner time, we went to look for a good place to eat around the Rhine bank and just couldn’t make a choice. Our minds were paralyzed by indecision.

The Rhine bank was so animated! People were singing (yelling), playing music, having fun, they were just really happy, it was the week-end. All the restaurants seemed nice, but we couldn’t make a choice. We wanted to taste the original “Sauerkraut” that we thought to be typically German but it appeared nowhere in the menus we saw. As we passed in front of the restaurants, trying to make a choice, all the waiters were advertising their restaurants begging us to come taste their meals, and even promised us the “Sauerkraut” even if it was not indicated on the menu. Unable to make a choice, we finally caved and got into the best “marketed” restaurant, the one that promised “Sauerkraut” not on the menu. What a big mistake!

Before anything about this episode you should know that sauerkraut is cooked cabbage that usually looks like this:

sauerkraut

Original Sauerkraut

But, when we ordered “Sauerkraut” they served us…wait for it… a raw cabbage salad! Even merely prepared. Pooowah! No wonder why it was not on their menu. Then when we claimed that was not sauerkraut, the waiter still assured us that it was, and only after a while the manager brought us real sauerkraut in a micro-sized plate merely explaining what just happened. Our faces were already 10 metres long. Also their beer tasted like beer + water. Yuk. Finally, we realized. Tourists. That’s what we were. Fooled tourists!

Anyway, we still finished our dinner, disappointed and upset, and when they told us that we could leave a tip on the bill if we wanted to, we politely said “No, thank you” and left the table with our glasses still full of “beer”. We were really disappointed, we had been completely fooled by their marketing. In any country, tourists are the easiest to fool, just serve them seemingly traditional food in a nice setting, they won’t come back anyway, what do they know, they’ll like it. But we wished we had a way to warn other tourists of their bad practice. Fortunately, the Internet allows exactly that. So we rated the restaurant back at home and left a pretty bad review. An act of cyber civism.

But the question still pending was, what if we had the Internet to help us make our choice then? During the dinner we bet that the restaurant was no more than a ⅖. And guess what? It’s rated ⅖ exactly on Google places. Woosh.

The place to avoid: Steakhaus Augusto ewww.

That’s when the Internet reveals itself the most useful: when you don’t have it. Everyone should have it in the pocket to avoid being fooled by noisy marketing. We have the right to be informed.

Anyway, fortunately this last episode didn’t ruin our holidays at all. I genuinely loved Germany, people just know how to live and be happy there, it was my first time there but I’d love to go back there soon.

The lesson: the real point of the Internet is to explore the unknown anytime and everywhere

This holiday experience made me realize that the Internet is still very far behind in the matter of tourism and discovery. It could be the perfect tool for modern explorers, but it’s not yet because of many limitations like battery length, roaming impossibility and lack of information. Ideally, the Internet in the pocket would be the perfect tool for anyone who wants to explore the world.

The examples I gave were a rather superficial use of the Internet. The Internet contributed to our comfort but we could still almost manage without it. Indeed we were in Europe so it was still a familiar environment. Now let’s extend this state of exploration further.

Exploring the world

Exploring the world

Imagine, you’re on a three months trip in Madagascar. You encounter a plant you don’t know in the middle of nowhere. You snap it and instantly know what it is. Then you’re suddenly super thirsty, you look up on your phone, and instantly know where the nearest water spot is or ok, easier, where the nearest shop is. Then when you want to communicate, unable to translate what you want, you quickly translate what to say with your phone, or show a picture of what you mean. Woosh, right? That’s where it’s headed, but currently still science-fiction. I won’t even describe the scenario of you on holidays on another planet with a microchip in your head. Yeah, intergalactic Internet!

As of now, the Internet in the pocket is still for limited use for city dwellers only. All the web apps and cool stuff we can find on the Internet are only for local use and just participate to our comfort, it’s superficial. For example, when you’re out you can use the Internet to know the time of your train, you can also use Google maps to quickly visualize where you are. But, you can’t use the GPS or the Internet all day long, because it uses battery. Yet, the real use we can make of the Internet is when we are in an environment that we don’t know and need to know, typically when we’re on a trip.

For now the web still focuses on “comfort” apps, assuming we have desktop Internet, but actually the Internet is really only at the beginning of what it could be. Twitter, Facebook, etc. etc., what’s the use of this when you’re not in a city? Yes, the Internet itself is pretty useless out of the city. One day though, when we solve the energy problem, and when the Internet goes global, we’ll have it as a general knowledge resource to tap into every time and everywhere we want to explore our world. All the information being on top of reality, and everyone isolated in a bubble of virtual information, I like to imagine that travelling will be a way for us to meet and experience the real. It’s nice to dream.

Anyway, all of this to say that tourism is another really interesting area that the Internet could get more involved with because there are many problems it could solve for tourists. I realized that most apps were comfort apps, not necessary apps. The necessary apps are not widely developed yet. Surprisingly no app treats the “discovery” need that some people naturally have. There is still a lot to invent. Or do you know some good apps to have during holidays?

Epilogue: The cost of Internet roaming

To conclude, we spontaneously didn’t use the Internet roaming because psychologically we “felt” it would cost a fortune. Yet, you could wonder, we’re in 2011, the Internet is widely spread, mobile Internet too, maybe the Internet roaming has evolved too but we’re just not informed enough.

So when back from the holidays I actually calculated the real cost of the Internet roaming given the way we used it. My phone operator charges 0.001€/ko in Europe. So I calculated a total Internet roaming cost of about 80 € for 4 days of holiday. I used the application Netcounter to measure the data traffic. Here are the details of my calculations.

For my calculation, I queried and used Google map + Google places + geolocation with wireless networks for 35mn. That includes:
- 15mn of chronic indecision debate where everybody discusses what they want to do choosing from what is suggested by Google places
- 20mn of walk from point A to B guided by Google map using the compass feature and the geolocation. Everything in Cologne can be done by walking, it’s a very pedestrian city, so we practically didn’t use public transport, we really needed an interactive map to guide us when walking.
Those 35mn costed 7.74mb

Then, I queried Google to simulate the fact that during the holidays we were searching information about museums for example while we were on the road to know if they would open on bank holidays, so we consulted various websites. Or if we were curious about something we used to just tap into Wikipedia to know about a local custom (ex. the kolsh beer drinking).
A 8mn query costed 2.22mb

Finally, it also happened that we used Google translate to translate some words from German to French or vice versa.
5 translations costed 0.1 mb

In total in one day, we used Google map+places+geolocation 2 times (morning/afternoon+dinner) which costed 2*7.74mb = 15.48mb, we made 2 web queries which costed 2*2.22=4.44mb and we translated 5 words which costed 0.1mb. So for one day we used 20.02mb, and since we stayed 4 days, for the entire holidays we used 80.08mb. Since the costs is 0.001€/ko, the price for 4 days would have been 80.08€.

This price is actually reasonably far from what I was afraid of (around 300€), but the use of the Internet I described here is still the minimum we restricted ourselves to mainly because of the battery limitation, so this price is the bare minimum we would have had to pay for Internet roaming. The price would have been much higher if I counted the use of the Internet at the hotel where the battery is unlimited. My brother said that he consumed 200mb with the sim card in total by using the radio, surfing at the hotel and other things like that, so the real cost was 200€.

Still, I pay around 30€ per month for mobile Internet up to 500mb, which makes it cost 1€ per day, so 4 days should cost me 4€. Yet, abroad I’d have to pay 20 to 50 times this price to get the same access to the Internet. Something is obviously blocking in between. Not to mention that this calculation is only for a certain group of countries, if I go to a really far place like Madagascar, the rate becomes 0.01€/ko, so the minimum price would be 800.8€! We are so far from the science-fiction dream of travelling anywhere and getting instant information about our surroundings. Yep, Internet roaming is still a luxury, not a utility yet.

But I guess it depends on phone operators, some have good offers when roaming you just need to get prepared before leaving. Fortunately we paid 5€ for 4 days (normally 1 month), it seems fair.

How much did you pay for Internet roaming?

  • eloone

    Possible solution: http://www.triposo.com/ ? An app to download free travel guides. I need another trip to test it.