Do We Really Need Technology to Travel?

Sometimes it amazes me how much we rely on technology. The amount of travellers I meet who can't escape the clutches of their smartphones or laptops in the common rooms of hostels; the amount of people who don't get lost in new cities anymore because they've already downloaded the right map.

In 2007, I went InterRailing around Europe. I was 18 and on my gap year, eager to meet new people who shared the same passion for travelling that I did. I slept exclusively in the bunkbed-filled dorm rooms of hostels, hung out in communal kitchens and eventually discovered how easy it was to chat to other guests – while chopping garlic, or on comfy sofas.

Every couple of weeks, I'd sit down at the hostel's one computer, a bulky affair with a chunky, slightly greying keyboard, and do one particular thing: email my parents.

Do we really need technology to travel?

Public computers at Angeles de Medellin

The internet didn't have any other meaning for me at that time. I didn't have Facebook or Instagram or Twitter; I didn't even travel with anything that had a wifi connection. My sole technological requirements were for something that played music and something that took photos. As a result, my most valuable possessions on that trip were an iPod mini, a cheap digital camera, my diary and my passport.

Technology-obsessed travelling

Fast forward seven years, and my valuables have increased somewhat. For the last year in South America, I've been carrying an iPad, a Kindle, an iPod, a digital camera, and a cheap phone that's welcomed a number of foreign SIM cards.

The crazy thing is that this collection is me being minimal. I've never had a smart phone; I don't use an SLR camera when I travel; and I chose not to bring a laptop because I was worried it might break or get stolen and I wanted to minimise that damage. But after seventeen months attempting to run a website solely on an iPad (NB: it can be done, but it's an absolute nightmare), I'm ridiculously excited to get my hands on a laptop. And an iPhone. And a better Kindle.

Do we really need technology to travel?

Bloggers are tech-obsessed - even in the middle of a river!

Occasionally, I'll use this site to explain away why I feel so beholden to the internet. Working online does require a certain amount of technology to keep things going – particularly a camera and a computer, at the very least. And the blogging world has long maintained that social media is an integral part of creating an audience, so I consistently publicise my travels by means of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

But there's no escaping the fact that I'm addicted to social media, and to the internet in general. Whatever way I try to sugarcoat it by saying these various social media accounts are more for work than pleasure, the fact remains that checking them is the first thing I do before I go to sleep, and the first thing I do when I wake up.

The downsides of so much technology

Technology and the internet has irrevocably changed the way we travel. A direct result of keeping in touch with our extensive online networks means simultaneously losing touch with where we are; with our current surroundings, with local people, and with fellow travellers.

And now, more than ever, striking up a conversation with those travellers means you run the risk of 'interrupting' their internet time: Skyping with a friend back home, researching their next destination – or writing their travel blog.

Such a reliance on technology allows us to retreat from the real world – something which can be soothing on occasion, but not advisable in the long term. It's like a comfort blanket that says you don't have to fully engage if you don't want to: if things are getting too much, just scroll through your newsfeed and blank everything else out.

Do we really need technology to travel?

Using computers in the middle of the Brazilian jungle.

Using the internet has its major benefits, of course. For a start I wouldn't have an ability to share my experiences in the way I do, nor would I have the audience to read it. Then there's sites like CouchSurfing, HelpXchange, WOOFing – all of which foster networks of like-minded people – and I've been able to stay in touch with dozens of people I've met in countries all over the world, thanks to Facebook.

But it often gets to be too much. With the amount of traveller-orientated sites eagerly throwing suggestions our way, many travellers rely on reviews to tell us whether or not to sleep in that hostel, eat in that cafe, go to that site. We can book beds and tables and transport options; even discover detailed directions on how to reach that 'secret beach' which nobody knows about – except every person reading the same TripAdvisor post.

Though it feels wonderful to be so connected all the time, using this much technology when you're travelling seems fundamentally against the concept of travel in general. Whereas friends and family used to know nothing about your travels except for the occasional “I'm alive!” postcard/phonecall/email, now people are inundated with real-time updates of what's happening in your trip: the food, the sights, the “Hey, I finally made it to Machu Picchu/the Taj Mahal/the Great Barrier Reef – in fact I'm there right now!” statuses.

Do we really need technology to travel?

This photo didn't make it online until months after I visited the Taj Mahal. Did I care?

There's a worry that you're not fully interacting with your surroundings as well. That by taking photos of everything, you relinquish the ability to retain details and memories because you expect the camera to do it for you. I've had nightmarish moments when I've realised that I can't think of any details of a place other than those I caught on camera …

We seem to have reached a point where the act of travelling itself is only verified when it can be recorded or broadcast to other people; when an incredible travel experience feels bittersweet if you don't happen to have your camera.

Do we really need technology to travel?

Taking photos of an egg in Iceland. In the photo's defence, we'd just boiled an egg in an Icelandic hot spring - but still.

More technology = more risk

Technology itself seems particularly important to a lot of travellers now. Everyone's carrying the latest GoPro camera or an expensive SLR; most people have some sort of smart phone; and there are more iPods and Mac laptops charging in hostels than there are people.

We've all been made to think that we need this stuff to be abroad – that without it, our travels aren't going to be complete. Checking your email on the hostel computer doesn't cut it anymore; in fact, a hostel that doesn't offer wifi is often condemned by reviews on HostelWorld and TripAdvisor to a point that people won't even stay there.

But carrying so much technology makes me supremely uncomfortable. Maybe I overthink these things more than most, but I'm overtly aware of being a walking target when I heave my various backpacks on and leave a bus station in a strange new city. I am consistently worried about being mugged, and I take as many precautions as I can to try and minimise any possible damage.

Do we really need technology to travel?

Excessive charging: a standard sight in most hostels nowadays.

Particularly when I listen to the stories of fellow travellers – like the girl who left her daybag padlocked on a dorm room bed and came back to find it gone, along with her passport, camera, laptop, wallet, credit cards and hard drive inside. Like the woman on a bus with her two backpacks, one with $6000 worth of camera equipment inside, and happily allowed a stranger to put that bag on the overhead rack so he could sit down beside her.

And when all these things go missing, there are two main outcomes. You can make the effort to claim on insurance and replace everything, but that usually happens once you've gone back home. While you're still travelling, it means you have to deal with a 12 hour bus ride without musical distraction, to rely on internet cafes to book hostels in advance, to ask strangers to take photos of you and maybe email them at a later date.

Even without the possibility of theft, there's a myriad of technology-related problems. Since being in South America I've had two cameras break and am significantly worried about my current third, which keeps sporadically deciding it simply doesn't want to turn on. When I briefly flew back to London I picked up a portable charger – and then promptly managed to forget to pack the charging cable for it. So I'm now carrying a useless piece of equipment in my bag.

Help! I'm addicted to technology!

For the last three months I've been living in Medellin and working at a newspaper. From day 1 it was assumed that I'd be travelling with a computer that I could use at work; every day I've carted my iPad and its charger on the commute to the office, along with the myriad of other people who I worked alongside.

In a way, this job in Colombia has been the pinnacle of my internet and technology usage. When my friends and readers think I'm “travelling in Colombia”, I'm barely ever offline. And when I finally shut the iPad and try to sleep, my brain flickers with the virtual images I've gorged on all day.

It's simply not the way to travel.

Do we really need technology to travel?

Stop signs even appear in the Galapagos, would you believe?

Sometimes you need someone with a different mindset to pull you out of the tech-obsessed bubble. After six months of travelling with my boyfriend – someone who still adheres to the mode of travel I practiced at 18, with no computer and barely any online presence, and is all the happier for it – I've been making a concerted effort to spend less time preoccupied with my techonological toys, and more time actually exploring South America. Off the grid.

Cutting out my technology focus in Cuba

To test myself properly though, I need an outside force that prevents me from using technology. Something a month in Cuba could very well achieve.

As a country with almost zero internet access, I'll be forced to go cold turkey from my electronics and actually talk to people face-to-face (shock horror!) instead. And write. So much writing.

While I'm offline for the next month, I thought I'd invite you guys to try out an internet-free life too. Because when you think about it, how often do you spend offline? It shocked me to realise that I could actively remember the times I've been completely disconnected for more than a few days – a week on the Colombian coast, two weeks without internet in Brazil…

So how about a day away from the internet a week? Or switching off your wifi for the entire weekend? Even just for an evening out with your friends? Because it's really worth going off-grid for a little while. If only to prove to yourself that you can shrug off your technology addictions.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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30 Responses to Do We Really Need Technology to Travel?

  1. Marek Indietraveller June 12, 2014 at 12:53 am #

    Great post. I feel similarly conflicted about technology while travelling. I have come to terms that I really do need the internet from time to time, and having travelled almost continuously 1,5 years now I do actually like having a laptop so I can do work or watch a movie sometimes.

    BUT… I have also loved the times that I was away from the internet — like a little technology holiday. Laos comes to mind: its internet is so awful you shouldn’t even try to load a page. Cuba was another cleansing experience for me. I got technology out of my head for a while and it felt good. Hope it will do the same for you.

    I recently stayed in a hostel that provided WiFi until 6pm, after which it was shut to basically force people to talk to each other. The atmosphere was pretty great.

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:33 am #

      That should be a worldwide hostel ruling, Marek! Or at least make it so the common areas are without internet. Otherwise it’s so creepy looking around a room filled with sofas and silent people staring at little oblongs in their hands..!

  2. Lauren June 12, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Yes, I’m definitely technology-addicted…always with my smartphone, always on the laptop…always in search of wifi! It’s true, I think that most of us are like that these days. However, I think it is good to get away from technology sometimes, especially while traveling when you can. I know that most people’s travel style is to be away from home for long periods of time to work, blog while they travel, etc. and in that case, perhaps it is a bit unavoidable.

    On our last cruise, we didn’t use the wifi at all anywhere because it was so expensive on board the cruise ship! It was great to have a technology break for 10 days. No smartphones, no internet. We did use our camera a lot though to document our travels. Then, we blogged all about it when we returned. It was really nice to re-live our trip, and be in the moment while we were there. I think that is my perfect travel style.

    When we were in New York State this past week, I admit that I did use technology a bit more than I should have. Whenever we found wifi at a restaurant or place, I would jump into “let me check my email! my facebook! my instagram! let me post to instagram!” and it took me a bit out of the “I’m on vacation” moment. The place where we stayed had no wifi, so it was great to just be absorbed fully in the travel experience. And I can write all about it now that I’ve returned home.

    Have fun in Cuba! Can’t wait to hear about it!

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:35 am #

      Clearly we need a bit of a push to get disconnected. It seems like as soon as we understand there’s no point even trying – like on your cruise ship – we settle back and actually relax! I’m hearing of more and more places with ‘wifi-free’ rules though, so hopefully we’re on some kind of recovery road..?!

  3. Zoe @ Tales from over the Horizon June 12, 2014 at 5:34 am #

    Have fun in Cuba. I’ve heard great things about the country. 🙂
    I won’t join you in your fight against internet addiction, but I hope it goes well for you.
    I’m already fighting China’s firewall while trying to start my blog. They’ve now blocked google as well. I’ll take all the internet I can get. 🙂

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:35 am #

      Ohh I hear China’s a nightmare! Definitely not a blogger’s best friend – although serious congrats if you manage to do ok with it all 🙂

  4. Megan June 12, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    It’s a coincidence I found your post today. Just this morning I was thinking how often I’m online – even if it’s just for a minute – and was thinking of using an upcoming trip to remote parts of Far North Queensland as a chance to switch off for a few weeks. Some of the points you raised in your article convinced me that it’s something I definitely should try.

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:36 am #

      The remoter the better for switching off, I think! My recent month in Cuba was amazing – I actually spent all my evenings talking to people instead of getting locked onto a screen!

  5. Veena June 12, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Yes Yes Yes. I couldn’t agree more. I have the same misgivings when traveling with so much technology, and I love being able to explore a place without all the trappings of “I can’t wait to Instagram this! I have to post about this on Twitter! The 12 people who read my blog are going to eat this up!” I often find myself getting caught up in that way of thinking, and I try my best to make a concerted effort to turn off. I love technology, I love that it allows me to keep in touch with friends all over the world and to follow the adventures of bloggers like you, but I often hate how it has taken over our lives. Often when I am at dinners with friends, I find myself getting annoyed when they are constantly checking their phones — that personal connection is becoming lost, and honestly, it makes me sad. I try the whole “disconnecting for a day” thing every now and then, but after reading your post, I am going to make more of a concerted effort to actually do it once a week. To read more, to engage those around me in meaningful conversation, and generally to soak up my surroundings.

    I know you are already in Cuba and will likely not be able to read this until you’ve returned, but I wish you all the best on your journey and hope that your time there is wonderful. I look forward to reading your thoughts once you’ve returned.

    Safe journey!
    Veena xx

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:39 am #

      “I love that it allows me to keep in touch with friends all over the world, but I hate how it’s taken over our lives” <-- EXACTLY. There's a really weird situation in place now that we're so eager to 'keep up' with what a friend in Australia is doing that we don't pay attention to the friends sitting in the same room.. And the craziest thing is you really aren't going to be missing anything by not checking your various networks for a day! After Cuba I was expecting to come back to way more life changing info online than I actually did. Great to hear you're going to cut internet each week Veena - I think I might well do the same thing 🙂

  6. Rose June 13, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    Why a kindle and an ipad? You can get a kindle app for the ipad and ditch the extra weight. Or do you need the kindle while the ipad is charging?

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:42 am #

      Aha, good noticing Rose! Sadly enough it’s because if I read on my iPad I get distracted by the internet, editing photos, writing.. Whereas my kindle is so old school that it’s literally just the e-reader, no internet, nothing. So once I whip that out I’m dedicated to writing and I’m not going to get distracted. Terrible, huh?! (Although the battery is also incredible on the kindle whereas the iPad bleeds its charge like anything…)

  7. Kerry June 13, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    Enjoy Cuba! I just got back from a two week backpacking trip. It’s a brilliant country, but be prepared for the prices if you don’t want to just eat rice and beans! And always ask if they have a menu in moneda nacional, you can save a lot of money that way.

    I am on my third phone of my seven month trip and my Asus tablet broke last week, so technology is very much on the brain! I leave my phone locked up in the evenings so I can talk to people, wish more travellers would do the same!

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:43 am #

      Arghh the food prices were ridiculous!! I only managed to eat street pizzas and fruit for moneda nacional sadly. If I go back to Cuba I’m taking snack food!

  8. Alexis Kensey June 15, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    I love this post! This can be SO SO true sometimes. I think the trick is to start out technology free in one place and stay that way so that you can avoid making a habit of it! Cheers and enjoy your technology free time!

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:46 am #

      Great idea Alexis! Now just to make everyone follow suit…

  9. Katie @ The World on my Necklace June 16, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    It’s definitely a hard one. When you have a travel blog (or any blog) you really do need to spend a lot of time online, you can’t really avoid it. I guess you just need to make sure there is a balance and that you have time off from technology when possible. It sounds like you are burnt out and I’m sure the break in Cuba will be good for you – enjoy!

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 12:47 am #

      Yep, if you’re trying to travel and also keep up an online presence then of course you need a significant amount of online time. But seriously, a month out felt incredible – and I really didn’t feel the absence like I thought I would! Dear lord, it really is like an addiction…

  10. Tahlei June 25, 2014 at 3:20 am #

    So true. Recently I traveled in the USA with a smartphone for the first time. It felt like cheating being able to use google maps and directions. When I got to Mexico and had to use an actual map again and deal with getting lost like old times it was almost nice to challenge myself!

    I am also traveling with a laptop for the first time, and I love it, but it can definitely suck you into an internet black hole if you’re not careful. Then you spend a few days of forced internet downtime – like 4 days in Chacahua with just a beach and a hammock and a blessed lack of technology – and get back to “civilisation” desperate to check Facebook only to realise that really, you didn’t miss anything. Those moments really bring home the reality – we don’t need to be constantly connected, we really don’t.

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 1:24 am #

      I’m still to use Google maps on any kind of phone or when travelling.. Despite the amount of times I get lost (which is a LOT) in a new place, I still love that sense of success/sweaty relief when you finally see something you recognise.

      Yep, you’re totally right though. We absolutely don’t need so much information about everyone bombarding us all the time. Imagine if we had all our social network friends in the same place at the same time? We probably wouldn’t have anything to say to the majority of them! It’s so weird…

  11. Andreas Moser June 25, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    I don’t use any of this stuff, except a camera. When I am gone, I am gone. I’ll write about it when I get back. On a trip, I’ll rather pack a few books or write some stories (on paper).

    I pity the people who carry that much around and who freak out if the train doesn’t have a power socket. If you can’t entertain yourself without an electronic gadget, you have an empty life.

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 1:26 am #

      I see your point, Andreas, but a lot of bloggers/people who run online businesses while they’re on the move do find it difficult to just be ‘gone’ as it means an abrupt halt to how they earn their living!

      I think I’m more focusing on the over-obsession of it all in this article. That we can use the internet and technology for the things we need to do, but then no more. Put it away each evening and actually communicate with real people instead!

  12. Claire June 30, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

    Such a great post, and so much food for thought! Last year we did Route 66 without satnav (not just ‘one big road’ as so many think), and it was SO LIBERATING. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

    • Flora July 11, 2014 at 1:38 am #

      That’s an awesome challenge to undertake Claire! Maybe go for a different route, same kind of idea next time? OR the Mongol Rally..?!

  13. John December 7, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    A very interesting and thoughtful post. No doubt many who have read this, then look at what electricals they are carrying with them. And then the guilt hits! haha.

    I feel like initially we have a device so friends and family can be contacted, after a while you realise being connected 24/7 probably isn’t the best. At the end of the day, if someone needs to reach you, they’ll always find a way.

    We met a great couple in Albania, who had been travelling in Europe for 3 months without any devices (including phones!). At first I thought it was crazy, but then you see how stress free they are, especially on travel days. Nothing worth stealing! It was also funny watching them use a computer in hostels, I think the owners had to plug it back in again after months, if not years of sitting gathering dust in the corner.

    • Flora December 8, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

      I can’t remember the last time I used a hostel computer! Good to know that people still keep them around though :p

  14. myanmar tour guide December 22, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

    Very interesting Flora !
    When I started a trek years ago I thought it was good without any modern tech yet now it helps very much and I got more fun with my co-adventurers too

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