The iPad Saga

07/25/2010 - My son Steven and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Europe. We were in London for 5 days, during which we took a day trip down to see Stonehenge, Glastonbury (where legends say that King Arthur lived), and Avebury. From London we took the high-speed train under the English Channel to Paris, where we stayed another 5 days, during which we took a day trip to Normandy to see the D-Day landing beaches and surrounding area. All in all, it was a great trip and a wonderful experience for my son and me.

This was also my first extended trip with my Apple iPad; I’ve taken some short business trips, but nothing this long or challenging fo Internet connections. I learned some valuable lessons about international travel with the iPad and iPhone, which I will share here.

The outbound trip to London wasn’t without a brief but unsettling wrinkle. In Chicago, while waiting for our flight to London, my iPad froze, and repeated attempts to restart it failed. Finally, on the 4th or 5th attempt, I waited while the Apple logo remained on the screen, and finally clicked the round all-in-one button just to see what would happen--and the iPad came back to life. I was relieved, especially because I’d loaded the iPad with movies for the flights, our itinerary, notes about places to visit, tour guides, and more.

In our hotel in London I immediately discovered that the hotel did not offer free Internet service. The cost per day was 20 pounds, which equals $31.00 US--an exorbitant rate, especially considering it applied to a single computer and could not be shared between the two laptops that my son and I were carrying. In addition, this was a WIRED connection, which meant that I couldn’t use it on the iPad.

No problem, I thought, I’ve already bought a 50MB data plan for use in Europe; the cost for 50MB of data: a whopping $60. That ought to hold me, I thought.


Within 15 minutes, those 50MB were gone; updating my RSS feeds in NewsRack (my RSS reader of choice--and I’ve tried all of them) was enough to use up those precious megabytes. OK, I thought, I’ll bite the bullet and buy 50 more megs, turn off push, stay off the RSS reader, and use the data plan for checking my email.

Here’s the wrinkle: you can ONLY buy international data plans directly on the iPad. Needless to say, this means you need either a 3G or WIFI connection. When my first 50MB ran out, I mistakenly upgraded my DOMESTIC plan rather than my international plan, so my international data plan ran out, leaving me with no connection to the Internet--and no way to buy an additional block of data plan. When I called AT&T, they removed the domestic plan update, but were unable to set me up with more international data--I had to use the Internet to do that. But I HAD no Internet!


No problem, I thought, I’ll just zip across the street to Gloucester Road to the nearby Starbucks, where I could get a nice double espresso and make use of their free wifi.

“Do you have a Starbucks card?” I was asked. No, I told them, I don’t. “We don’t have any cards here, we ran out. You have to have a Starbucks card to use our wifi here; the nearest Starbucks from this one is a few blocks away.”

So my son and I walked down the street 3 blocks to another Starbucks (amazing, they’re literally everywhere in London, and we saw some in Paris too), where I bought a Starbucks card and sat down to connect to the Internet so that I could buy an additional data plan.

No go.

My iPad wouldn’t login; everytime I got to the login prompt, the iPad refused to budge. We walked back to the original Starbucks, where I tried again--same thing.

Frustrated, I went back to the hotel; my son was now urging me to give up on my quest. I think not, I said with steely determination; I’ll get this to work.

At the front desk, I was told that if I bought Internet service in the hotel room, I could use the WIFI in the lobby for the same fee. Okay, I thought, that will do it; I bought a day of Internet service up in the hotel room, and went downstairs with my iPad to connect and update my international data plan.


It turned out that I had to use the SAME computer in the lobby... which meant my MacBook Pro... which would do me no good. I could also buy some WIFI time for the iPad if I wanted, for 5 pounds, which equates to about $7.50 US (the hotel graciously refunded all of my Internet charges at checkout, by the way, when I explained that the main reason I had bought Internet service was to use my iPad).

So I trekked BACK upstairs to my laptop, got on the web and started researching connectivity problems with the iPad, in hopes of getting my iPad to work in Starbucks or at least in the lobby. I quickly found reference to a problem that some users had experienced, which sounded exactly like the issue that I was having at Starbucks. I reset my network settings as recommended, went downstairs and bought some WIFI time, and managed to connect to AT&T so that I could buy another block of international data plan. I bought another 50MB block of data, which cost me another $60 US.

At this point I had spent $30 for the first day of Internet for my son, plus $120 for two 50MB blocks of data plan, plus another $7.50 for WIFI in the hotel lobby--I was up to $157.50 in the first 2 days. I carefully nursed these 50 megs, and managed to last another 2 days before I ran out AGAIN.

I was faced with 4 choices: a) I could do without Internet service on the iPad--unthinkable; b) I could buy WIFI in the hotel lobby; c) I could go to Starbucks to do do any Internet connecting on my iPad--totally unworkable; and d) I could buy an additional block of data plan.

I'm a professional, I thought, with obligations to my clients to make sure that everything is going well with my servers. That was enough justification to me, and I made the painful decision to now buy yet ANOTHER block of data plan--this time, I spent a whopping $200 for 200MB of data plan. As it turned out, it's a good thing that I did so, because I used every bit of it before leaving England.

If you're keeping track, this totals up to $320 that I'd spent on Internet connectivity (the hotel refunded all my Internet charges). Ridiculous. At this point I was a man possessed; I had to have my iPad connectivity, and I made the painful decision to spen that last $200 without looking back. Until now, that is.

A few days later in Paris, I was pleased to see that the hotel offered free wifi for as many devices as we wanted. Between my son and me, we had 5 wifi devices--two iPhones, two MacBooks, and an iPad.

So for 5 days in France, I didn't have to use any of the data plan that I'd bought. Great, I thought, I've now bought this data plan that I don't need. Wrong.

After a great 5 days in Paris, we took the high-speed Eurostar train under the Channel, back to London for the last day and a half, so that we could catch our flight home to Nashville. We returned to the same hotel, where I used my data plan in the hotel room and my son was fine without any Internet connection.

To my great disappointment, one of my web servers had a problem that caused it to suck up all available bandwidth, leading to unusable connection speed for my clients. My phone was ringing constantly (it rang straight through from the US), and I spent hours tracking the problem, until I found that one of my FTP servers was misbehaving. Thankfully, the iPad allowed me to VNC directly into the server, where I fixed the problem and ran speed tests to ensure that things were back to normal.

By the time we left London the next morning, my data plan was all used up, and I didn't buy any more. I'd spent a whopping $320 on Internet service over the span of 12 days.

Here's what I SHOULD HAVE done: on the first day, when we realized that there was no wifi in the hotel rooms, we should have jumped into a cab and driven down to the Regent Street Apple Store, and bought an Airport Express. With that device, I could have used the hotel's Internet service at $30 per day, which would have amounted to $150 for 5 days as opposed to the ridiculous amount I spent on international data plans. In addition, I would have the Airport Express for use elsewhere; I plan to buy one soon.

Another thing that I will do when I return to Europe is to bring a small power strip. WIth two laptops, two phones, and an iPad, my son and I were constantly needing to charge at least one device, so we had to negotiate for time with the power adapter--thirteen-year-olds aren't so good at compromise.

So by now you're probably thinking that I'm totally crazy and that I wasted a ton of money on Internet fees. True, perhaps, but part of owning a hosting company is the obligation to closely monitor servers, and that required that I have an Internet connection at all times to check email and look at my database and web servers.

Here's another option that I didn't research, but would probably be the easiest and cheapest solution for using an American iPad on the Internet in Europe: I could have established an account in London for my iPad and bought an unlimited data plan for a month. This would have cost me about $50 I think, if I could have found the mini-SIMs that the iPad uses--I suspect that would have been fairly easy to do in London. Assuming a local phone company (I used Orange while in London, and Vodaphone on the iPhone) would give me a SIM card, I could have popped out the existing card, stored it safely, and used the new SIM while in London. I wish I'd thought of that before the last day in London. Sigh.


Having said all that, how was the iPad in Europe? Fantastic. The only time I used my MacBook Pro was when I needed to make a small edit to a web page on one of my clients' sites; other than that single use, the MacBook stayed stored in my travel bag for the entire trip. Between my son and me, we used the iPad to watch movies, to check my email for 12 days, to surf the web, to play games, to listen to music on the plane, to read books, including travel guides I'd bought for London and Paris, to look for Tube information before going across town on the London subway, to check the weather, to use the new FileMaker GO application to access my company database, to check my Twitter feed, to keep an eye on the impending tropical storm, to transfer some funds, and I'm probably leaving out a few things.

Other than that, the iPad really wasn't used for much.