Six years ago, my three best friends and I went on an epic road trip through Central America. One afternoon, as we were driving down one of Costa Rica’s notoriously winding roads, a freak tropical thunderstorm hit, and we decided we’d be better off pulling over for the night than trucking on through the rain.
We didn’t travel with our phones back then, so using the internet to help us find a room was out of the question. Instead, we pulled over at the next spot that looked vaguely like a hotel. Risking understatement, what we found was a disaster. Two incredibly sinky queen beds were barely lit by a lone, flickering overhead lightbulb that looked like it could explode at any given moment. The tiny bathroom had zero toilet paper, and what appeared to be a giant cockroach chilling in the bathtub. Best of all, it was insanely humid outside, and this probably goes without saying, but it was definitely not an AC type of establishment.
“Fuck. What should we do now?” my friend said as she flopped onto — or, rather, into — the bed.
We were staying in a garbage hotel room on the side of a random dirt road somewhere in the middle of Costa Rica, with no phones to help us find a plan B. And so we did the only thing four 25-year-old travelers should do in that scenario: We started cracking up, and then busted out our cheap wine and toasted to many more years of adventures together.
That night remains one of my favorite travel memories of all time, due in no small part to the fact that it simply wouldn’t happen that way today. Because today, we’d have our phones. A recent study from the group tour company Intrepid Travel found that 74% of people say their phones are never more than three feet away from them on vacation — and I believe it.
Phones change things. Had we had them back in Costa Rica, they would’ve bailed us out in some way. We would have had all sorts of apps and websites to help us find a (nicer, much less memorable) place to stay, and we probably would've live-documented the process along the way.
Most of the time, that’s a really good thing. The internet can help us find our way, snag better deals, discover amazing places and events we wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and keep in touch with our family and friends back home.
But all that information comes at a price.
Fueled by an underlying fear of missing out on both the best possible experience and the opportunity to broadcast it to our friends, we often end up diminishing our ability to have true experiences at all.
One of the first and most obvious pieces of the technology + travel puzzle is the rise of reviews. According to 2016 statistics from TripAdvisor, there are more than 350 million reviews on their site. And in previous surveys, they found that 93% of travelers worldwide say online reviews have an impact on their booking, and 80% of travelers read 6 to 12 reviews before booking a hotel. We’ve become a generation of optimizers, unwilling to settle for anything less than a 10, and travel has become a commodity — a thing you buy, not a thing you experience.
Last winter, for example, my boyfriend and I wanted to make a cozy weekend getaway somewhere in upstate New York or Pennsylvania. We found a cute and affordable Airbnb, but we decided to keep looking to find the ~perfect~ one, just in case. Pretty soon, we were lost in an inescapable online review vortex, texting and Gchatting each other links and quotes from reviews. In the end, we got so overwhelmed we decided to save the decision for another day — but that day never came. We just didn’t get to it, ever. In our quest for the best possible weekend, we’d let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
But so it goes in the era of option overload. Not only can review madness cause decision paralysis, it can also bring on disappointment once you finally get to the place you were obsessively researching. When I went snorkeling in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef last year, I’d read so much about the tour I took, and seen so many photos of the fish and the corals on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Instagram, that by the time I actually saw them in person, I felt underwhelmed, like I’d already seen them. Sure, I was pumped to be there — of course! — but I also started to wonder if I’d have been more excited had I not done an Instagram deep dive before my trip.
Perhaps the biggest problem with all this pre-trip research, though, is that when we rely on it, we end up denying ourselves the chance to discover new places on our own. Often, the best places aren’t the ones we read about it in guidebooks and online — they’re the ones we stumble upon by chance, the ones we find precisely because we hadn’t been looking, the ones that meet a need we didn’t even know we had.
That’s a truth Eli N. knows all too well. The 29-year-old program coordinator, who is withholding her last name for privacy, says she had “the best stranger sex of [her] life” precisely because she didn’t do her research before she went out one night when she was backpacking through Europe.
“I went to a pub night with my hostel, which I probably wouldn’t have done had I actually researched things to do. I would have read the reviews and seen that there were far better bars to go to,” she admits. But because she wasn’t aware of the better options — and didn’t have a phone to look them up on the go — she made do with what she had, and ended up meeting a hot British man.
“When you use your phone to guide you, it’s a very individual experience,” she says. “But when you have to rely on actual people, you need to have conversations, and pay more attention to possibilities and coincidences and luck and all of that,” she reasons. And those coincidences and possibilities could end up leading to a situation that produces a far better memory than a five-star review ever would.
But if review culture and its resulting option overload have irreversibly changed the way we travel, the bigger shift may be coming from social media.
On the one hand, displaying our adventures in our newsfeeds is a great way to inspire people who don’t necessarily consider themselves travelers to, well, travel.
“It can be really good in that way,” confirms Ben Lidbury, a chief experience officer for the tour guide company G Adventures, who’s led 29 different tours throughout the United States. “I’ve noticed that more people see their friends doing all this cool stuff on social media, and they want to get out there and see it for themselves.” Social media can also be a simple, accessible way to discover new places. Cruising through various destination hashtags and following city accounts and travel bloggers makes it easier than ever to explore the world.
But our quest for likes is actually influencing the destinations we’re choosing in the first place. No joke: That survey from Intrepid Travel that I mentioned above also found that 41% of travelers choose trip locations based on what will look good on social media — a concept tour guides are now calling “the Instagram effect.”
“People just want to do things that will look great in their social feeds,” explains Andy Gowler, who runs Saigon Buddy Tours, a bike tour company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The TripAdvisor reviews for his company are 99.9% five stars, but even so, his competitors always outsell his tours quite heavily — which he believes could be partially due to the fact that they lead their tours on retro vintage Vespa bikes. “Their bikes look great on Instagram, and their reviews are always about the bikes, whereas ours are about our awesome guides,” he says.
Anil Rotha, an Intrepid Travel tour guide in India, can also vouch for the Instagram effect. She estimates that 6 out of every 10 of her customers ask her to show them a place they’ve seen on Instagram or Facebook, so they can take a photo there themselves.
But planning your travel around ’gram-worthy sights may make you less likely to see the real, more authentic, less photogenic side of a place. “While guiding, I’ve noticed that people are often more interested in getting a fantastic photo for social media than staying and listening to historical stories at the less photogenic parts of the tour,” confirms Kelsey Tonner, an international tour guide and founder of Be a Better Guide, a company that teaches tour guides how to improve their game.
In fact, the tour guide landscape has changed so much, many guides now offer “Instagram-friendly” tours so they don’t lose customers. “Many guided tours are now designed so that travelers are spending more time at the Instagram-worthy photo ops, rather than taking in historical sites that are not as shareable on social media,” Tonner says. “I’ll often say, ‘I’m going to lead you to the perfect Instagram spot.’ Because as a tour guide, being aware of that desire to upload can actually be seen as a deliverable.”
Tonner has even started using props to adapt to the growing phone culture, and teaching other tour guides to do the same thing. “When I give tours at Angkor Wat, the temples in Cambodia, I make these little models of the temples — and I start building them on the ground as I speak. That causes people to look up from their phones, because it’s like, ‘Oooh, look!’” says Tonner. “There’s no question that in the past 6 to 10 years or so, my customers have gotten much more distracted. That means that, as a tour guide, the bar has been raised — we have to work much harder to keep people’s attention.”
Aside from changing the way we travel, social media has also changed the effect travel has on our brains. “Live-documenting your trip can change the experience by turning it into a performance,” explains Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a social media expert, psychology professor, and author of Generation Me. “When it’s a performance, there’s all this pressure to get likes, for other people to enjoy what you’re doing. So what will happen is if you think something is cool but most people don’t, they may not like your stuff — so you subconsciously start to doubt your own experience,” she says.
And, Twenge says, by paying so much attention to your followers, you could end up negating many of the positive mental benefits of travel entirely. “When you’re live documenting your trip, you’re essentially focusing on the people who aren’t there, rather than the people who are — and that can take away the benefit of your personal experience,” explains Twenge. After all, it’s a lot harder to feel like you’re “away from it all” when “it all” is still right there at your fingertips.
“I’m definitely affected by my like count when I travel, unfortunately,” admits a friend of mine, Malia Griggs, 26. She recently went to the Catskills, but spent part of her trip agonizing about her Instagram account. “When my count is low, I end up wondering: Was it me? Was it the time of day? Are people annoyed by me? Even though it’s like, yeah, who the fuck cares? If it’s a photo I like, I should be able to post it, and if you don’t like it, unfollow me. But then I get self-conscious when my follower count goes down. It’s not very healthy.”
Of course, technology has helped make the logistics of travel easier than ever before. BuzzFeed’s tech and products editor, Nicole Nguyen, says she feels comforted by the fact that, with only her phone and a Wi-Fi connection, she’s able to look things up on the go and hold off on planning her trip until she actually arrives at her destination. And it’s true: “It’s so easy these days to talk to other travelers about their recommendations, and then book everything yourself, online, while you’re there,” she continues.
But it’s easy to get so carried away by all the tools available that you may not even realize you’re missing the opportunity to let chance do its thing. Many companies and hotels have caught on to, and are explicitly marketing toward, this phenomenon: Intrepid Travel just launched a new line of Digital Detox tours, where travelers can’t bring their phones, computers, or cameras. A San Francisco–based company called Orange Sky Adventures purposefully brings travelers to no-signal spots to “show people there’s more to life than just a phone.” There are also countless “digital detox” camps and retreats, and many hotels even offer detox options, where you pay them to simply leave your phone at the desk.
So what’s the answer to all this? Probably not just putting down our phones and finally, magically, suddenly living in the moment. Whether or not the merging of technology and travel is a good thing or a bad thing, the point is, it’s happening. I’m going on a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in two weeks, and I’ve done basically zero advance planning, knowing I’ll be able to rely on my phone along the way.
But maybe I’ll try to use it just a little bit less, or at least be more intentional about the times I do. Maybe I’ll limit myself to dropping one ’gram a day (follow me here to see if I can, lol). Maybe I won’t read about all the things I ~need~ to see on Route 1. Maybe I’ll just pull over whenever anything looks cool, and talk to random people in gas stations and not give a shit about any sort of prescribed itinerary. And maybe in doing so, I’ll create an epic travel memory right up there with my Costa Rica moment — but hopefully this one won’t involve cockroaches in the bathtub.