Walk into most hostels today and you’ll find yourself surrounded by travelers with smartphones, netbooks, Macs, iPods, and large SLR cameras. Head to the computer room and you’ll find everyone on Facebook. In the TV room, most people are on their laptop. People are buried in their computer or messaging their friends while listening to music, oblivious to their surroundings.
When I started traveling years ago, however, I rarely encountered people hooked on technology. Few people had cell phones and even fewer had computers. No one had Facebook, and Twitter didn’t exist.
Just recently, I had a chat with famed writer Rolf Potts about how technology has changed so much over the last few years. He’s been traveling a lot longer than I have, and as an advocate of traveling without a lot of gear, Rolf was amazed at how much he had to learn to keep up with new travelers. “They are always online!” he said to me. After that conversation, I began to wonder if maybe we have become too wired in our travels.
That sounds ironic coming from a tech-loving traveler who spends most of his days blogging. And don’t get me wrong — technology has made traveling easier in many ways. Smartphones and GPS have made finding your way much simpler — no more giant maps. When I arrive in a new city, it’s easy for me to find my hostel: I simply turn on my iPhone and use Google Maps to find it. When I need to book reservations, I do it from my phone or over the Internet. Travel apps make information accessible from your phone. Twitter brings you the latest news. Blogging allows you to get in touch with other travelers. Need to stay in touch with friends or family? Simply call them. Or Facebook them; if they are like 99.9% of the population, they probably check Facebook quite often. If it weren’t for Facebook, I probably would have lost touch with a lot of the people I’ve met on the road.
And, as a budget traveler, the rise of the sharing economy has allowed me to save money, connect with locals easier, get off the well-worn tourist track, and see the local pace of life better. There are so many sites and services that make travel more attainable and connecting with others easier.
But despite these conveniences of modern technology, I still believe we spend too much time online. We spend more time on Facebook in our hostel than exploring the destination.
I also think that travelers depend a bit too much on technology. Instead of using technology as an aid and then going out to explore the world on our own, we become reliant on Google Maps, flight apps, and more. (I am guilty of this too.)
Running a website takes a lot of work, so obviously I spend a lot of time on the Internet. I usually take time out and spend a day or two in a hostel online. While there, I watch the Internet patterns of my fellow travelers. I’ve seen people waste their days away on Facebook simply because they lose track of time. I’ve seen people play “pass the smartphone” so they could all get a chance online instead of just sightseeing. We become so hooked on technology in our regular lives that when we travel we have a hard time letting go.
Because I work so much online, I make it a point to get offline as often as possible. If I am not doing work, my computer is off. I also limit the number of hours that I work so I can spend more time traveling. I know firsthand how easy it is to get sucked into the net.
Sometimes I wish I could shake the travelers around me and say, “Get off Facebook! You’re in Italy!” Technology is helpful but we need to learn to turn it off, especially when we are in a place we may never get a chance to visit again.