On the first Tuesday of each month, Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters gives us great tips and advice on travel tech and gear. He is our resident expert, trying out new products and seeing what works so you end up with gear that doesn’t break and a laptop not filled with viruses! This month’s column is about the change technology has brought to travel.
If you’ve ever read the comments on an article about travel technology, you’ll likely have found someone insisting that gadgets cheapen the travel experience. It’s just “a weak excuse to stay connected to your old 9-to-5 consumer self, terrified by the enlightenment of travel,” according to one reader of this site. This is an easy argument to make when you see travelers sitting around a table glued to their smartphones or MacBook. No one seems very social.
By keeping us tethered to life back home, does technology rob us of the chance to make real connections on the road? With phones in our faces, are we now less likely to have those exciting, unexpected moments we craved before setting off on our adventure?
As a tech writer I clearly love technology, but I think this is an issue worth examining.
Poking your head into a hostel common room in 2015, you’d barely recognize it from 20 years ago. Gone are the small groups of backpackers playing cards, reading books, and swapping stories. Instead, Facebook’s blue logo shines from a dozen smartphones as statuses and photo albums are updated to let everyone at home know about the wonderful time being had. I used to consider it a failure if I spent an hour in a hostel and hadn’t made a new friend. It’s still not impossible to make that happen — but it’s much easier when the Wi-Fi goes down.
I miss being able to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler without needing to drag them away from their Instagram feed. Despite hundreds of apps promising to combine “travel” and “social,” smartphones and tablets are largely responsible for making us less social when we travel, by keeping us distracted by our devices.
It’s even worse when we go outside. If we’ve got cellular data, checking a stream of notifications means we’re not immersed in the moment. If we don’t, the temptation to check for a Wi-Fi signal does much the same thing. Long journeys become a question of how much battery life is left and how many TV shows have been downloaded, rather than the people and places around us.
With a map of the entire world in our pockets and a little blue dot to tell us where we are, it’s easy to lose our spontaneity. Getting lost while traveling can be terrifying, fascinating, and eye-opening — often all at the same time — and by using technology to stop that from happening, we miss out on all the good and bad that goes with it.
So, with all of these downsides, it’s obvious that technology and travel don’t mix, right? Shouldn’t we all leave our gadgets at home and hit the road with just a guidebook and an open mind, casting off the shackles of our iPads and laptops for a more enlightened experience?
Not so much.
I traveled without technology for years in the late ’90s, and even though I sometimes miss those simpler times, I wouldn’t return to them. As much as I like to tell the story of the day I got separated from my girlfriend on an Italian train and spent the next eight hours unable to find her, it ruined our limited time in Venice. A quick call or Facebook message would have given us our day back.
Being able to fire up the Hostelworld app to book accommodations at the last minute, then plug the address into Google Maps to find it, makes arriving in a new city late at night far less daunting. There was nothing glamorous about walking 20 minutes in the rain searching for a working public telephone to call home, or paying more for flights because I had to go through a travel agent to book them — give me Skype and Skyscanner any day.
I love that my phone has replaced everything from my alarm clock to my flashlight, and I no longer need to carry round a Walkman and half a dozen mix tapes to listen to my favorite songs on the road. I’m pretty damn happy I can check my bank balance without making an international phone call. While I once stood in the sun for an hour near the Zambian border waiting to cash a traveler’s check, I’m now able to get money out of the nearest ATM in under a minute, almost anywhere in the world.
When I moved to London 15 years ago, I went everywhere armed with only a paper map. Returning last month, I was amazed how much more of central London I saw on foot. With phone in hand, I didn’t think twice about using my feet. I knew how long the trip would take and which routes would get me to my destination. I doubt I would have done the same in 1999. It’s not that I couldn’t have — but I wouldn’t have. The fear of losing my way or not arriving on time held me back. Technology has made it easier to not only get lost but also find your way.
Even though rose-tinted memories sometimes have me pining for those technology-free travel days, I wouldn’t go back to them. I can still get as much challenge as I like with a smartphone in my pocket, just by turning it off. The path less traveled is often the better one, but sometimes all I want is to grab a decent meal without a three-hour adventure beforehand.
As with most other things in life, balance is key. It’s fine to have half an hour on your phone checking email or chatting with your mum, but put it away afterward to talk to the people around you. Buy your flights while lying in bed, but don’t be afraid to turn up somewhere without any plans. By all means take a few photos of the Taj Mahal to show your friends, but don’t spend 20 minutes composing the perfect selfie in front of it. Keep yourself safe in unfamiliar cities, but let yourself surrender to the unexpected when your gut tells you to.
Technology hasn’t ruined travel completely — it’s just made it easier, more accessible, and safer than ever before. What it can do, though, is lessen the experience if you let it.
So don’t let it.
The gadgets are just a tool to help you travel, like a backpack or a decent pair of shoes. They’re not a necessity, and they won’t always improve your trip — in fact, they’ll make it far less interesting if you become too attached to them.
There are always incredible moments waiting to be discovered on the road, and you’re not going to find them on Facebook. They are hidden in plain sight among the people, places, food, and culture of wherever you’re visiting. No matter how much technology you’ve got in your backpack, that hasn’t changed.
Use your laptop, smartphone, tablet, and camera when they’ll make your time on the road easier, then turn them all off to immerse yourself in the moment.
What do you think? Does technology make our travels better or rob us of a deeper experience?
Dave runs Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers. A geek for as long as he can remember, he worked in IT for 15 years. Now based out of a backpack long term, Dave writes about travel and tech from anywhere with half-decent Internet and a great view. You can also find him talking about the life of a long-term traveler at What’s Dave Doing?