iPhone travel apps could cost you thousands in data usage fees

iPhone travel apps could cost you thousands in data usage feesTo the shame of many short-sighted iPhone app developers, many budget travel apps have an enormous flaw. This fatal issue could turn a 99-cent app intended to save you cash into a nightmarish drain on your cell phone bill. The problem: Many travel apps require a data connection to work.

When I'm shopping for apps, the first question I ask is: "Does the information it needs live on my phone?" If the answer is no, and if the program requires a network connection to deliver results to me, it's out. Domestic data usage is included in your plan, but international data usage, including in Canada, Mexico, and just a few miles offshore on ships, is head-spinningly expensive. You'd be alarmed if you knew how many travel apps require data usage as part of their structure. Turn off the data network, and the app becomes useless.

AT&T unhelpfully lists the roaming rates as "$.015/KB in Canada; $.0195/KB the rest of the world." What does that mean in practical terms? How many KBs will you use trying to find a local cab company or calling up the correct Italian pronunciation of "Check, please"? That's anyone's guess, since apps don't tell you how much data you're using as you use it. And it's how customers have come back from European trips with $3,000 phone bills, based even on curtailed data usage.

The prices are so outrageous that even AT&T issues a list of tips to help customers reduce data usage while abroad and drummed up a rough rate calculator based on a few normal activities such as reading e-mail. According to it, reading just 5 web pages and reading 5 e-mails without attachments will rack up about 30 MB of usage.

No matter whether you use an iPhone, a BlackBerry, or whatever, the amount you spend in data could far surpass the amount you thought you were going to save by using the app.

Bless them, but computer developers are not known, as a group, to be intrepid travelers. They are known for embracing new technologies, though, and that characteristic isn't always compatible with thinking like a traveler does, and travelers know that data usage means money.

Before buying an app, comb the product description for the phrase "no internet connection required," "off-line," "locally stored" or something similar. Many data-reliant applications will gloss over this programming failure by simply neglecting to mention it, and if that happens, comb the user reviews for a customer who will deliver the truth about how it works.

There are workarounds. You could activate a Wi-Fi network, but in most places outside of America, free Wi-Fi signals are hard to find. They're also site-specific, which defeats the purpose of being able to roam anywhere you want and have information at your fingertips. You could also "jailbreak" your iPhone, meaning liberate it from the strict Apple-and-AT&T-controlled interface, allowing you to insert cheaper pay-as-you-go SIM cards wherever you travel. But that method could accidentally destroy your phone, and it violates your contract with AT&T.

Probably the worst offender among travel app genres is language learning. Almost all of them require an expensive data connection to function and many of them just dump you into an inefficient, web-based translator. It's also not only expensive to whip out your phone in India, but it's also an impractically ostentatious display of wealth in many countries.

One of the iPhone apps I do like is Lingolook. In fact, the app's product information page in the App Store quotes a positive review I wrote of it for a slideshow at Travel + Leisure. (I'm not named. But those are my words.) It's like having a set of language flash cards on your phone, and if you touch the pictures, you hear the corresponding phrase pronounced, so you can either learn it yourself or let your phone do the talking. For $5, all the information it requires will live on your device, no data connection required. The only thing you need to worry about it having enough space on your phone to hold the information.

Mobile guide books are also a problem. One brand that stores maps and directions locally, enabling you to use key features without a data connection, is mTrip. But one of the biggest boys in the market, Lonely Planet, requires you to activate the iPhone's self-location function to adequately access the hotels and restaurants. Frommer's does the same, hooking you into its database every time you search for something as menial as a restaurant. You don't want to connect your phone to the network to do anything if you're trying to save money abroad, so it's a huge design flaw, and a potential for budget catastrophe.

Computer programmers need to learn that just because new technology exists doesn't mean it's always reasonable to use. International travel and data usage don't mix, and until app makers write accordingly, it's buyer beware.
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