Travelling: Always On Vs Switching Off

Cat Mac

So our beloved Internet is 25 years old and it’s got me thinking, could I have ever done this epic journey without the web at my disposal. Social media, the Internet and should we be connected to the ‘real world’ is a standard conversation amongst the travelling community. Has the web like totally ruined the travelling experience or has it enhanced it?

Nearly everyone I meet has had similar experiences of training their mums in the mystical new world of Whatsapp, Skype, Viber and FaceTime. Most have amusing anecdotes about their grandparents, pets, nephews seeing their face for the first time on that screen back home. My mum’s just taken it up a level by buying a Smart TV so she can see my face on a 40” screen. Is there any need? I mean, anyone who’s used video calling of whatever variety knows it makes you look terrible. Vanity aside, video calling and whatsapp have meant I have had no homesickness. If I miss someone I can speak to them, it’s that easy. The world really has become much smaller and more manageable and I can’t imagine travelling in the days before even email was possible. Obviously smartphones have made this even more accessible, we carry the web in our pockets so no running around in search of Internet cafes down back alleys in unknown towns.

But is being online just generally a distraction from the whole travelling experience? Or does it mean you don’t waste your time by traipsing to towns and cities that have no accommodation. There are arguments for both.. and of course you can’t always get connected so you often find yourself winging it. It’s true these moments of recklessness sometimes bring the most exciting rewards. You can find yourself being taken in by a local family or you can find yourself on a park bench. I’m all for having the option!

Sites like Couchsurfing and BlaBlaCar give budget backpackers opportunities that would have been next to impossible before the Internet. Sleeping on random people’s couches and hitching lifts were once limited to the area you were in, completely spontaneous. Now you can plan ahead and check out your couch owner or driver’s credentials.

I reckon review sites like tripadvisor are multipurpose sites of fabulousness. Not only do they help you plan but they’ve meant that businesses have upped their game. It’s pretty common to get reminded to write a review of a tour or hostel when they think they’ve given you a good experience and it’s a nice way to thank them publicly. Even businesses in the most remote corners of the world are oh so aware of the power of a positive or negative review online and when you’ve had a really shocking experience, dropping in that magic ‘tripadvisor’ word can miraculously mean that things get better.

Wifi in Asia is plentiful and good and free – not so much when you hit Australia, Fiji and I’ll let you know when I cover a few more continents. I chose to get an international SIM before I left but it’s been completely pointless. It is only good if you are likely to be receiving voice calls from your home country as this tends to be free. I also took my Three UK SIM (amazing in Indonesia, Australia and the US as costs are equal to UK prices even when roaming). I’ve bought local pre-pay SIMs in the countries where wifi isn’t so accessible and so far this has been hassle free and handy for making cheap local calls.

Keeping in touch with fellow travellers, their journeys and making plans to hook up is just so easy. Back in pre-internet times one veteran traveller told me he shared his rough route with people he wanted to stay connected with, then when he reached a new town or city he’d go straight to the local post office to see if anyone had left any messages for him. Apparently this was a viable way of hooking up with people again. The post office acted as a messaging service and exchanged notes for people. Just wow! How on earth did this ever work? But on the occasion it did, this dude said the feeling of picking up a note was incredible – probably beats a Facebook message, just.

I think it’s safe to say I’d rather have the option of using the internet. I may be a teensy bit biased as I’m a social media person by trade and I love writing about my adventures and sharing my photos. But it’s only ever enhanced my experience and has given me a tool to access reviews and research the places that I’m at or heading to. As a solo traveller I like to have a room booked in advance for a night in each new country/city/town I land in. Sites like hostelbookers, hostelworld, lonely planet and tripadvisor are a godsend. However, every now and again I need a break. On the odd occasion I’ve found myself holed up waiting for the next leg of my travels with an abundance of free wifi I’ve found myself incessantly checking the social channels and it’s hateful. I then give myself a week or so off and it’s bliss.

Others I’ve met have completely switched off, or so they say and then as soon as we hop on a boat/bus with wifi you’ll see a swarm of faces disguised by iPhones – make of that what you will!

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