Are We All Flashpackers Now?

working on the beachFlashpacking is a term used to describe backpackers who upscale their travels. They travel with a backpack but they stay in nicer digs, carry fancy electronics, tend to be a bit older, have a bit more money to spend, and don’t cook in hostels every day. They are backpackers with means. This distinction has been around for a few years and, as I’ve traveled around this past year, I think is totally meaningless. In fact, I believe we have all morphed into a “flashpacker.” The old way of travel- a backpack, a few bucks, and a worn guidebook is well behind us.

When I first started traveling in 2006, I hardly ever saw someone with a cell phone and barely a few people with an SLR camera and never with a laptop. Hostels had computers but hardly any had wi-fi. Eighteen months later when I traveled Australia after living in Thailand, I noticed a lot of travelers had phones, some hostels had wi-fi but few had computers.

Now everywhere I go, I see mobile phones, wi-fi available, netbooks, and SLR cameras. And I see expensive phones too. I’m amazed at the number of people with smart phones, iPhones, and Blackberries. Moreover, there are a lot of people carrying MacBooks and expensive PCs- it is not just netbooks travelers have. In short, backpackers today are much more wired today than they used to be.

The nature of backpacking has totally changed and it’s not going back. This isn’t a good or bad thing but just a reflection of our connected and different times. Walk into an internet café or a hostel and take a look at the computers. Everyone is on Facebook. Facebook is as ubiquitous on the road as it is back home. Additionally, I’m usually not the only one laboring over my laptop in the hostel common room.

Back in the “real world,” people are used to being digitally connected. We’re used to having our cameras and our phones taking pictures. What used to be expensive and inconvenient on the road and, thus only available to “flashpackers”, is now cheap and easy for all.

checking your ipod emailAs I sit and write this post, I am in my hostel’s common area. It’s dinner time and the place is full. Next door, on the leather couches in the common room are five backpackers on computers. In the kitchen and around me are backpackers not in the cheapest clothes available but wearing name brands like Diesel and Armani. A girl just walked through carrying a hairdryer on the way to her room. This is not your parent’s backpacker crowd.

Hostels have upscaled in response to this and as this has become widespread, we expect it to be standard. But while that is a change, the biggest thing I have noticed is not about style but about behavior. I’ve noticed a dramatically changed notion of security. Back when I started traveling, people had PacSafes and took great pains to keep their stuff locked up. Now, I see people leaving phones on their beds, iPods plugged in while they are out, and bags unlocked. When I first started traveling with a laptop, I brought it out in secret. I was always afraid someone would take it. Now, I sit in my bed typing away. People just don’t seem as worried as they used to be.

Moreover, now that backpackers seem to have some extra money, there is a whole network of backpacker services looking to help them spend it. Travelers seem to be taking more tours, more hop on/hop off buses, and staying at nicer and more expensive accommodation. They are looking for the backpacking experience with all the ease of a prepaid holiday. In New Zealand, I’d say about 75% of travelers use one of the backpacker buses. In Europe, I’ve noticed more and more travelers flying between destinations. In Asia, more tours are springing up for young travelers.

I don’t see this freight train stopping anytime soon. I suspect as common as iPods are today, computers will be tomorrow. But the rising affluence of most travelers means that even those who are “broke” will still carry their toys and comforts on the road with them. For me, that’s OK so long as once in a while they unplug, take out the iPod, and interact with the destination they spent so long saving to interact with.

  1. Andy

    Carrying a netbook / mp3-player / cellphone or whatever around isn’t a big problem. as most of todays stuff is really light weight. but what really adds up (in space and in weight) are all the different chargers, cables and batteries you need. that stuff takes almost 1/3 of my entire backpack…someone should really invent a universal charger, don’t you think?

  2. We certainly travel with all the toys – DSLR, 2 Macs, iPod, cell phone, etc. We use it all to keep up with our website and do our freelance projects. But, I do wonder if we’d be carrying almost as much equipment even if we weren’t working along the way.

    I still appreciate the old school backpacker who doesn’t carry any of this stuff and looks at us like we’re crazy because we do. We’ve met quite a few during our travels in Asia and Latin America and I hope they never go away. But, I do see that the numbers seem to be in decline. I also find that the number of flashpackers seems to increase as the country they travel through is more developed. For example, we see a lot more in Argentina than we did in Bolivia.

  3. As I’m planning for my own trip right now, it feels like the definition of “roughing it” is using a netbook of a Mac book or those who try to make due with an iPhone :)

  4. I think you’re on point here. This is a trend of people being able to retain some of their “normal life” routines while they travel. Perhaps it will mean a greater volume of travelers, as there are plenty of people who want to see new places without being completely out of their element. iPhones, laptops, facebook – all of these tools make it more difficult to unplug from your routines and get “lost” somewhere new. Maybe that isn’t such a good thing, but I’ll be sure to blog about it on my MacBook while I’m away 😉

  5. Great post, Matt and SO true! I noticed the same trends in myself and others. Though I confess I absolutely love those far flung places where neither cell phones nor laptops are available. It’s there I truly relax and experience. :-)

  6. I have to agree with Keith that if you’re not making money working, freelancing or keeping your ad-supported blog updated, taking Facebook, Twitter, etc on the road just tethers you to the world you’re traveling so far to escape. I like the idea of being able to upload photos to the net for storage, but is it absolutely necessary to let everyonee you know how you’re trip is going every day of every week? What a world.

  7. Very interesting observations, Matt. I can’t understand why people are less careful with their stuff now that they’re carrying more expensive gear with them. That seems cavalier to me, given how costly it is to replace technology on the road if it gets stolen.

  8. Things have changed! Before I would crash in a $3 room in Bangkok for a night and then head out to some island or beach for a week, but now I can’t leave home without my camera. I miss too many golden opportunities to get pictures and video of people, places, signs, anything. But the camera only has so much storage space, which means I need my computer to put the photos and video on and upload. What I have discovered is that I can get away with less other stuff. I bring one pair of shorts that convert to pants, one light hoody, if tropical or desert climate, two shirts, two pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of socks. Now I know what you are thinking — only two! I supplement my clothing on the road. I purchase whatever is cheap and local and use it until I’m done with it, then I give it away to a needy person. It cuts down on what I need to bring and I get to help someone in the process.

  9. I’m new out in the backpacking world (1 week out) but I’ve noticed quite a few people like myself that have work we can do while travelling thanks to internet access being available in more places. The flashpacking trend has made my new life on the road is possible, so I’m more grateful than I can say.

    That said though I’m looking forward to going to out of the way places and being able to disconnect and truly take vacations from modern life. I guess I’m hoping to have the best of both worlds. :)

  10. I’ve noticed more families like us (parents in 40s to early 50s, kids school-age or teenagers) doing more “flashpacking” or “glamping” now instead of staying in traditional hotels. Some of our best times traveling as a family through New Zealand were in campgrounds/backpacker lodges rather than hotels.

  11. I think another reason is the growing number of Asian yuppies who are traveling. The growing Indian and Chinese economies spurred a wanderlust among the young, mobile and techie-oriented Asians.

  12. I’m a huge fan of this article and my experience mirrors yours in terms of timeline.

    My travelling days were 2002-2004 and some decent time in 2006. The most nostalgic feeling I can think of while travelling is the sense of disconnection. I’m not so sure that’s as realistic any more. Of course, one would just make the decision to leave the iPhone at home and really get immersed.

    But your main point – it’s here to stay – couldn’t be more right.

    We’ve all gone digital.

  13. Sofia

    On our way home from South East Asia we stopped over in a few countries in Europe. What we found was that it actually turned out to be a lot cheaper to fly between the countries than taking other transports such as trains and buses.

    Things seem to have changed lately. Now the Inter Rail Passes are for those who can afford to pay a little extra, and Ryan Air and Air Berlin for those who prefer not to…

  14. Jan

    To travel means to leave your normal life behind, get out of your comfort zone, live a different lifestyle and dive into uncertainty.

    The way these flashpacker travel today seems like the most efficient way to avoid all of this. You basically take your online life with you on the road. You are connected with your friends in the same way as from your small appartment at home. Your heads are docked to your computer screen the same way your are at home. Anything uncertain gets elimited by being able to access all the information you need about your next destination.

    Asking for the way used to be the easiest way to get in contact with locals. Now with GPS’ed phones people even managed to avoid that.

    It does not surprise me that you see backpacker in Armani. Technology has made it very easy, comfortable and risk free to do the “backpacking thing”. it’s not a commitment anymore as it used to be.

    It’s traveling minus the adventure. Seems very boring to me. I kind of feel sorry for them, cause they are missing out so much of what i could be like.

  15. Coming from an IT career its been very normal for me to think to take my macbook, iphone etc with me. I reasoned it because I want to keep my blog updated and also do a little work as I go to supplement my travel.

    5-6 years ago facebook, twitter etc didn’t exist. As time goes by we become more and more digitized and with technology getting cheaper its perhaps opened the door for more people to travel as they can still be connected to friends/family at home. Having the safety of that connection is a comfort perhaps?

  16. Yeah but…

    Everyone seems to be drinking the flashpacker Kool-aid without looking at the downside. It blows my mind to be in a guesthouse where 10 people are in a common area and all of them are looking at a glowing blue screen, talking to the people back home instead of the ones right beside them. Why travel if you’re going to spend every night on Facebook and Twitter just like you do at home? Same routine, different place. That’s an improvement?

    • I don’t think it’s a case of talking on twitter every night and ignoring those around you. I might spend an hour on a computer each day or so when i’m travelling. I will be talking to friends back home/emailing them etc during that time but when i’m finished I come off and mix with the friends i’ve made at the hostel for a large part of the day. For me, I think it’s important to do both. Going travelling is all about the experiences you have, but at the same time, if I want to call up my parents on skype, chat to an old flatmate, or just catch up with some people i’ve not heard from in a while I like to know I can. :)

  17. Thoughtful post, Matt. At my first tweetup with rerunaround, he brought up traveling in the nineties. At that time there was no internet or social networking sites in existence. He said it took an hour from India to connect a call to Canada! Imagine that! Travel back then meant you were truly cut off from everything you knew. Which makes me think these tools are a safety net as The Aussie Nomad pointed out. I sort of view them as aids, and secondary to the experiences I’ll have.

  18. I’m totally a flashpacker. Maybe it is the new backpacker, and the ‘old style’ backpacker needs a new name instead. Retropacker maybe?

  19. Hmm… When I first starting planning the RTW I daydreamed about backpacking the old school way. Just me, a bag, a kinda crappy camera and the open road.

    What adventures would happen?
    What kind of journey would I have?
    Who would I meet?
    What would I see?

    I thought about this for years literally before I even started the actual planning phase of the trip. To be totally footloose and fancy free – the thought was exhilerating.

    Enter reality.

    I think somewhere along the way you realize that you need to bring some other things. Especially if you want to make a long term thing out of it. To go for one year and come back that is one thing but to try and change your lifestyle so that traveling becomes the focus you realize that you need to work somehow to keep money coming in, thus come the tools of the trade. Also for me as a photographer, in the beginning I just wanted to bring an older camera and one lens – no tripod, no flash. The gear is expensive and I didn’t want to worry about it on the road. Then the more I traveled I realized very quickly how stupid that was. I’m out to see and experience the world and also to photograph it. Of course I want my real gear. Duh! I look back on some older pictures and it pains me to see how much better they could’ve been with some different gear. Live and learn I guess. Now I pack everything else around the gear. The gear fits in the bag first and then the clothes, etc. It’s very different than how I first envisioned traveling but in all honesty, it’s me and traveling simply wouldn’t be the same without my camera and some accessories to make it that much better.

    But it’s so, so easy to get carried away and there is a fine line between having too many electronics and not enough. One thing is for sure – you know you’ve crossed it when you start waking up everyday pissed off that you have to carry all that crap on your back. On the flip side you know you don’t have enough when you spend days wandering around trying to buy one little freakin’ thing you left behind.

    I don’t think we’re all necessarily ‘flashpackers’ though. We’re just backpackers in the modern world. Flashpacker to me still seems like someone who only uses their backpack for weekend trips and not any long term travel. Maybe that’s just me though.

  20. You are right, everyone is a flashpacker. We have learned that we can’t even go to a place without phoning ahead to book a hotel. Gone are the days where we got off the bus and walked around to find the best place. All the best places have been booked ahead on the cell phone. We are slowly learning to call ahead now:) One thing, our backpacks are much heavier than when we travelled to Thailand for the first time in 2000. My how things have changed!

  21. Before, when I travel, I would have a pouch for my personal stuff, clothes, books, and that’s it. Now, I have another pouch with all my electronic gadgets – laptop, ipod, cellphone, camera, extra batteries, chargers (for each one of them!), external hard drive. It’s crazy but they seem to be part of my travels now. Some hostels also have internet rooms or corners.

  22. I just spent a month traveling around China (during break from my teaching year) and I kept joking with people that we were going “old school” without a laptop. It’s funny because my first few big backpacking trips in ’96 and ’00 having a laptop was pretty unheard of. Now, just a few years later, NOT having a laptop is unheard of. It is funny how fast things change.

    I should add that a few weeks into our trip my husband ended up buying a netbook he had his eye on. I could feel a real change in our trip after that in terms of both security “watch my bag!” “I need to carry this because the left luggage at the hostel isn’t secure” and also socializing time “Naaah, let’s not go out tonight I’d rather do some online stuff.” So I have mixed feelings on this as well.

    • NomadicMatt

      Well, having a computer certainly changes your ideas about security. But I always try to cut away from it when I am not doing work so I can socialize. It’s important to be offline!

  23. Could it also be that you’re seeing a self-selecting group? Not to say that the only travelers are rich but chances are they are more people of means than those who aren’t traveling. I do agree that the trend will only persistent and grow over time though.

  24. Ed

    IMO, there are good reasons to carry a laptop and an SRL. I’ve gone on trips without my SLR and the results have been disappointing. And you need a laptop to store pictures, or if you need to do work.

    But I have yet to find a good reason to carry a cellphone. I’ve gone for weeks without a cellphone or internet and nobody will convince me that tweeting and being on facebook is a necessary part of travel. Travel is all about emerging yourself into something new, and that is impossible with a cellphone in your pocket. Then again, I guess if you’re on a pre-packaged “backpacker tour” you don’t have anything to emerge into.

  25. This article is very true. When I first started travelling I’d see maybe one or two people with laptops and most hostels didn’t have wireless. On my most recent trip, it was absurd – everyone had laptops, iphones, cell phones, ipods, the works. I have succumbed to this style of travel in the past because it is convenient, but I ditched all the technology on my last trip (just had a cell phone which I left switched off – for emergencies only). It was such a liberating experience! I had the most fantastic time, I spent more time meeting and talking to fellow travellers and locals rather than being so focused on Facebook and what was going on back home. I spent more time out and about and less time chained to the computer. I didn’t feel the need to update my status every day with where and what I was doing. Apart from the occasional email to home to let them know I was alive, and checking the odd bus timetable, I simply didn’t have time to be using a computer! Not only that, I didn’t have to lug around kilos of plugs and chargers, I just had a daypack with a few outfits, my toothbrush and a camera and I was good to go. Best way to travel!

  26. Jasmine

    And I definitely think that travellers are much more lax with security now than in the past. I’ve had dorm-mates leave very expensive laptops and cameras just laying around the place. I think people are much less security-conscious because just about everyone has laptops and cell phones now anyway (so why would you want to lug around someone elses as well?)…

  27. James

    Oh! The most important item – well to save you hard cash daily – is the right cash card! Check out they run you through which one to travel with. My Santander Zero has saved us well over £1,000 in fees. Cash is king in the ‘3rd world’.

  28. working for a travel/mobile company I have seen a huge rise is flash packing and it seems this is stemming from obviously more disposable income but also the rise of services like HotelTonight in the US and Europe and CheckInTonight (who I work for) in Asia.

    Last minute hotel booking is taking off massively and hotels are cutting their prices a lot, people are now able to get cool hotel rooms for a fraction of the costs just by waiting till last minute and mostly they are very happy with what they get. the more competition in the market the better off for travellers it seems.

  29. It is so true that the traveller now has all the gadgets required to travel with. Love or hate facebook it has been great whilst on the road to reconnect with old friends – even got free use of a car for a week in France from an old friend in Paris -after I posted a message on Facebook… awesome!
    In terms of extra luggage to cart all the gizmos around, real annoyance – try packing for 2 kids with their ipods touches/ DS/Ipads – headphones, chargers etc…need a mini suitcase for sure!
    Australia however lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to Free Wifi access hope they keep up with the flash packers….

  30. The days when we use to refer notebooks in the hostel for the places of interest are all gone after the internet.Many old hostels still preserve these notebooks.It is really interesting to read the personal experiences from these note books.Even now I find some info available only in those notebooks and not in internet.When connectivity is low in crowded hostels still you can take notes from these books.I find some old travellers still write down their travel tales in the notes provided .

    Another thing is interaction among backpackers is coming down.All are busy with their electronics.

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