Now is an amazing time to travel, even better than before. I took my first “solo” travel to Kenya almost 25 years ago. I put that in quotes because I put myself in the hands of NOLS instructors a few days after I got there. A couple years later I took 3 months to back through Europe and a few more months studying Italian in Florence, Italy. I did all of that with a guide book or two, some maps I picked up along the way, and the kindness of strangers. At 23 years old I had an amazing experience. I’m not single, 23, and willing to spend a few hours looking for a place to sleep anymore. Well, I’m ok with doing that but my kids would lose their minds, followed soon thereafter by me.
Last year my wife (TravelingMel) and I decided to sell just about everything and take the boys to Europe for a year. We’ve traveled a bit since the kids came along but mostly in the US. I can assure you that travel has CHANGED dramatically since 1996, and for the better! Can you guess how and why? That’s right, you guessed it: the internet and smartphones, so I’m going to just dive right in here.
Smart phones, especially cheap smartphones, especially cheap unlocked smartphones with an international SIM card, are a swearwording miracle. While the tech can prove a bit frustrating sometimes, they make overseas travel so much more accessible and give such a higher level of confidence and open up so many new areas with their ability to access the internet and just as importantly, people on the other side of the internet. Let me explain.
The Internet Provides Information for Travel
We’ve all used the internet for research. It’s probably how you got to this site if I used my keywords properly. If you want to know the main sites to see in Florence (Guide Book on Amazon) or the history of the Teutonic Knights, you can find that. You can also use Google Maps, perhaps the greatest miracle in travel ever, to find your way to the nearest grocery store in Tivat, Montenegro and their opening hours, and a photo of what it looks like, and a couple of reviews, and how long it will take to walk there or what bus to take, etc. ad nauseum. However, the internet also allows you research what the local customs on tipping are, how to say “hello” (Dobro dan), “Thank you” (Hvala), and “peanuts” (kiki riki), as well as the weather for the next few days. It allows you to make travel arrangements by air, train, taxi, etc.
The Internet Connects You to Other Travelers
Sometimes, there are pieces of information that can be hard to track down online, such as what time the train from Bar to Belgrade departs and does it have food service (7:10 a.m and it doesn’t). I found several different answers for this bit before I reached out to other travelers for the answer. There are many sites such as TripAdvisor.com‘s forums where fellow travelers and even locals happily answer your arcane travel questions amazingly quickly and usually politely, just be sure to search the forums first. I’ve gotten lots of great information through TripAdvisor, Youtube, and even Instagram.
The Internet Connects Travel Providers to a Market
Remember 20 years ago when you traveled around and slept at the hostels/hotels/city parks you could find in your guide book or that you were led to by a dodgy looking tout at the Venice train station? No longer necessary. There are thousands of options for travelers now, almost all reliably reviewed. Instead of a few hundred hotels in Europe, you now have access with photos to thousands. Using a variety of great travel apps, you can find privately rented vacation apartments, couches to crash on, pets to housesit for, and farms to work on in exchange for a place to stay. And not just that but you can now find more tour guides and activities to do and meals to eat and it’s not because these things were there before and you just didn’t know about them. The very fact that these people can use the internet to find customers means more of them can start their businesses and reach you. It’s opened up a market and competition that means travel is now not only more robust but cheaper b/c you don’t have to stay at a huge resort with huge overhead. You can stay with Vlado on Hvar Island and go for hikes up the mountain with his beagle Paco or take a private tour of the Louvre with an art professor from the Sorbonne. If this was possible twenty years ago, it was either hard to track down, expensive, or both.
The Internet is Everywhere You Travel (it seems)
And here is where smartphones and tablets come in. Wifi and cellular data means the internet is accessible almost everywhere you’d want to travel and have internet (white/western privilege questions aside). Yes, you can get wifi in just about any cafe in Florence or pub in London, but you can also get a wifi signal at the Tara Rafting center in the remote wilds of Bosnia and use Google Maps to find which trail to take up the mountain in Bavaria or where to take a photo of some hairy coos in Scotland. We’ve done it.
You can part the Red Sea all you want, I’m happy with my iPhone 6
Smart phones are miraculous inventions and on our travels through Europe we’ve used them extensively to find our way and document our journey. You can even pay for your groceries with them (But not at the Slavic grocer outside Tivat. Cash only and NO SMILES!). The cameras on them are great, they have browsers, you can text with them using Viber or WhatsApp, video conference with grandparents, and even use them as a telephone for international calling if you are feeling retro. They just speed things up. 20 years ago we would have spent an inordinate amount of time reading through guide books, tracking down maps, finding train schedules and ticket offices, and hotel rooms. We would have had to build our schedule around where to meet and when. Now we text each other our location and where to meet. We hail a ride. We email the hotel or book the apartment online. We reroute after a missed train and catch a ferry to Croatia. We know where we are because we follow the blue dot on the map or the path it marks out for us. We can see where the taxi driver is taking us, or the bus. Not sure how the train ticket system in Italy works? Watch a video (this one for example)
But the Downsides to Internet and Travel….
Yep, there are downsides to all this accessibility. Now more people have the ability to go to those hidden gems that were so much fun to find on our own or by happenstance and they ARE going. The world is getting crowded, but having those places to ourselves meant less business for the locals. Yes, it’s a little bit less adventurous when Google tells you how to get there but you GET there. Yes the farmers in Romania and the Austrian guy in Lederhausen are a little less quaint with there cell phones but who are we to keep them stuck in history. If you want to travel, it is now cheaper, easier, and more enjoyable than ever before and I think that’s a good thing. Mark Twain said travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. I’m not sure that’s always the case (https://goo.gl/NkiHbW), but it sure helps when people see the universality of the human condition and I think we need that more than ever in these days of fury and vitriol.