On my first overseas trip, aged 9, most people didn’t even yet have a computer, let alone even imagine such a thing as the internet could ever exist.
We were off to spend six months travelling around Europe in a campervan. My parents booked our initial accommodation in a budget London hotel by sending a physical letter months in advance and receiving a reply through the mail. We phoned home once a month if possible – it was tricky in foreign languages, and the public phone boxes didn’t always work for international calls – and spoke for a couple of expensive minutes only, just long enough to establish, quite frankly, that nobody had died.
Thirty years on, travel is so incredibly different, thanks to the internet. But should I really say thanks? There are quite a few ways that I think the internet has ruined the fun of travel, and I’m glad I got to explore the world without it.
It’s easy to stay in touch
It sounds like a good thing, right? But with the ease of staying in touch – email everywhere, Facebook updates, Skype or FaceTime calls – comes the expectation of staying in touch.
These days, I actually rather like being able to send pictures home to my mother when we travel, as I know she’s missing us and I know she’ll appreciate the antics of her grandson the way nobody else can.
But if I think back to my twenties, when I first lived abroad and relied on internet cafes to sporadically communicate with my family and friends, then I feel glad I was born when I was. My parents were always glad to hear from me, but they had no particular expectation about when or how often I would contact them, and in your twenties, I think that’s a good thing. I’ve heard young people say they make different decisions about their travels because they know their family is watching on Facebook. Granted, these might sometimes be good different decisions, but like the modern “safe” children’s playground, it might be a shame that they’re missing out on doing something riskier.
It’s easy to research and book ahead
Between online bookings and review sites and Airbnb apps and goodness knows what else, we now have all the accommodation possibilities in our next destination at our fingertips and we know everything it’s possible to know without actually having arrived.
Which is kind of good, but takes the spontaneity and the surprise out of travel. I know we don’t have to use this information, but it’s almost difficult to justify the “risk” of turning up in a new place without at least having figured out the neighbourhood you want to stay in in advance.
I always say that I book ahead now because I’m travelling with my son – and he’s still only five so it’s probably still a legitimate reason, because you don’t want to be traipsing around a city in a “no room at the inn” situation late at night with a preschooler – but I hope that in the future I can remember how much fun it used to be to turn up somewhere with no bookings and very little research and just blunder our way through.
You feel the need to document your trip online
Even if you’re not a blogger, there’s a kind of social pressure these days to Instagram or Facebook your trip as you go. Sure, not everyone succumbs to it, but I do see a lot of my friends doing it and I have to admit that I actually love following their trips from the comfort of my laptop or phone.
But it takes you out of the moment and it sets up a kind of competition, and neither of those things can be good.
(The good thing to come out of this development, though, is you’re much less likely to be asked to sit through a slideshow of holiday photos. You can choose for yourself whether you look at them or not on Facebook. Phew.)
You don’t get lost so often
I was amazed in Iceland to discover that even without having a data plan for my smartphone, and without paying extra for a GPS in our rental car, I could still use my phone as a GPS application and find my way around.
I’d kind of been hoping to wing it, figuring that there aren’t that many roads in Iceland. We probably would have been fine, and got lost a couple of times which usually leads to interesting and serendipitous discoveries.
Being lost in the “olden days” often meant I got to meet some interesting locals who would help me find someplace I was looking for; these days that’s much rarer and I’m more likely just to stare into my phone.
The language barrier is ever lower
Ah, translation apps. Still not perfect but often so good that you can ask pretty much anything, and translate pretty much everything on a menu, which is a bit sad – gone are the days of mystery food. And having good miming and charades skills are less and less required.
I must admit this is one of the better disadvantages of the internet age though – I can think back to a number of conversations in foreign countries where I could have got to know someone better if we’d been able to translate a few more phrases.
You can’t switch off
You’d think that someone like me would have rejoiced when they started putting WiFi on planes but in fact I was devastated. For the last few years, the occasional solo plane trips I’ve got to take have been my moments of blissful writing and reading sessions, without that annoying internet to interrupt. I know, I know, I don’t have to connect, but knowing it’s there and I could just quickly look up that one thing while I’m writing (and various other excuses) makes it hard to ignore. As it becomes more widespread I will lose that little sanctuary of internet-less space.
So, is travel ruined forever?
Oh dear, it probably is. The internet sure better not go away any time soon, or my blog would disappear!
The internet would have made quite a difference to that first London hotel stay thirty years ago – my mother would have been able to check the reviews and discover that it was a horrid, tiny place with floors so dirty we weren’t allowed to step on them – although then again, it might not have been added to our family folklore then.
Yep, I guess the internet means that the fun of travel is now much harder to find.