Cheap mobile data turns holidays into detox disasters

Now you can stream without borders, roam like at home and forget you’re on holiday at all

A streaming service I subscribe to has emailed me its updated terms of use and loosely translated it reads: there is no escape.

The company behind it wants me, Valued Subscriber, to know that it has verified that I live in the European Union and I can now access its service in other EU countries, which is lovely of them, and more to the point, in total compliance with new EU rules on "streaming without borders".

The EU regulation, in effect since April 1st, is logical and full of good intentions: if EU residents have paid for an online video, audio or gaming service, then they should be able to access it when they’re on holiday or on short visits to other EU countries – no more galling “geoblocking” or “sorry, this service is not available in your area”.

Artificial barriers that prevent people from using the services for which they are shelling out money contradict the principle of the single market, the thinking goes. And ostensibly, this is great: that Amazon watchlist won't watch itself.


Likewise, it would be hard to see the “roam like at home” regime, introduced last summer after a decade-long EU campaign to banish mobile roaming charges, as anything other than a wonderful victory for consumers.

But let’s have a go anyway.

Once, the terms and conditions of a holiday abroad were understood to include a near total media blackout. That was part of the appeal. Unable to maintain the consumption habits we had locked ourselves into in cold everyday life, we treated the paperbacks in our possession like solid gold, became masters at sudoku and watched the weather globe on the one English-language news channel spin round and round until somewhere other than Kuwait had a go at being the hottest city on Earth.

International editions

It is not so long ago that the most viable way to reconnect with events back home, should we be keen or desperate to do so, was to traipse up to that one shop selling thin, international newspaper editions for what seemed like a hyper-inflated price but is probably only the standard cost of a Sunday newspaper today.

Into this blissful ignorance arrived the smartphone. At first it was a sleeper agent. The spectre of mobile phone “bill shock” meant devices were rendered useless weights on holiday. This was the period when hotels had definitely heard of the internet but classified it as an exorbitant “extra” to be accessed through special kiosks or PlayMobil-style keyboards attached to the TV set. Wifi may have started to creep on to the premises, but hotels weren’t going to do anything radical and tell you where. Newspapers were still printing overseas editions.

But soon every self-respecting media company was reminding us we could download digital content in advance, save articles for later, keep track of everything "on the go", lose touch with nothing. And thanks to the ever-helpful EU and its years of tortured negotiations with resistant telecoms companies, we can turn our phones back on before we get to the baggage belt and carry on obsessively checking various feeds or working through part-watched Netflix series one scene at a time.

It seems most of us have our own version of this: in June, mobile operator Three said its customers were using 220 per cent more data when travelling in the EU since the passing of the roaming regulations the year before. Goodbye to the days when an SMS from a well-meaning friend might somehow break through with vital news of the fall of the government or a celebrity death. Hello to an influx of push notifications on the beach.

Complex detox

At a time when people talk about detoxing from their phones in the same tone once reserved for craving a Lotto win or finding the elixir of youth, this is a disaster. Beset by feelings of addiction and overload, we’re having to design and implement complex weaning-off strategies for so-called holidays, disabling notifications, temporarily deleting news apps, announcing no-screen policies for children like some kind of dictator and hiding social media apps in the vain hope of forgetting where it was we put them.

The problem is we don't forget. Worse, certain social apps demand to be fired up while on holiday – what is the point of Instagram otherwise? And sometimes there is information that we simply must know, as anyone who recently took an outbound flight with strike-hit Ryanair and fretted about the return journey will testify.

So you might as well check the rest of the miserable news – and your work emails – while you’re at it. If you don’t, you’re actively devoting a portion of your energy to not checking the rest of the miserable news and not checking your work emails, which is even more draining.

As everyone knows, the first and most important thing to do when on holiday is to try to recreate as much of what is familiar about home as possible. This is the rule that I, Valued Subscriber, live by now. Have apps, will travel – in body, if not in spirit.