The Tech / Travel Relationship

The Tech / Travel RelationshipEvery time I board an airplane, I bring along a big stack of magazines that have been collecting dust sitting on my dresser. On a recent trip to Mexico, I spent some time picking through the January-February 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler, which I love to read but never seem to find the time to absorb while I’m at home.

One article that caught my attention was the piece by Christopher Elliott called “Savor the Trip, Don’t Tweet It.” In it, he talks about a time not so very long ago when vacations were void of social networking, DVD players, MP3 players and iPhones. I’m talking about a time when we could wander down the streets of Cusco or hike the hills of Switzerland without announcing our every move or scrolling through an app that leads us to some genuine experience down the street.

According to Elliott’s article, nearly one in five American carries a smart phone, and I’d be willing to bet that a good portion of those who travel frequently use them abroad as well. I have avoided this urge, choosing instead to turn my phone off before my plane lifts off for an international destination. It stays off until I touch American soil again. This means I spend several weeks throughout every year without any phone-based connection with the world.

It’s worth noting that I was on that plane to Mexico for a press trip, which means that I was working. As a result, my laptop was tucked into my backpack (which is almost always the case when I travel now). During the trip, I logged on at night to check my email, update Twitter and upload pictures to Facebook. I traveled with two cameras (my good one and a back-up one), and I have a video camera and voice recorder that I take on these trips as well. Despite the fact that I’m smart phone free when I travel, I’m still weighed down with technology.

When I travel for myself, though, such as on a road trip with my husband, I really try to keep my tech-obsessive tendencies in check. I’ll be the first to admit that I check my email constantly and use the games on my phone for diversion so I don’t have to watch traffic that makes me feel squeamish. Knowing this, a few particular parts of Elliott’s piece really struck a chord with me:

“Vacation meant leaving the world you knew for a world you didn’t.” — Have we lost that sense of discovery in the age of tech-heavy travel?

A recent poll by Harris Interactive found that one in ten men don’t think they should have to switch off their mobile devices during their own weddings. - Where do our priorities lie? In the present that we can touch and feel, or in the virtual present where we can share the experience with those who weren’t invited to be intimately involved with the experience in person in the first place?

“Technology short-circuits some of the delights of discovery.” — I would agree that the “wow” factor may be diminished if you know what you’re going to encounter before you get there, but I’ve also been relieved to learn about some things in advance (how to cross a road in Vietnam, for example).

I’m constantly at odds when I consider that so few people take advantage of vacation time given to them at work … and then, when they do go on vacation, they’re glued to their email while sitting on the beach because there’s some sort of expectation that they’ll always be available. Travel is about leaving all that stress behind; when we combine technology with travel and never unplug, it’s like we never left home.

Since reading Elliott’s article, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to cut back on technology even more when I travel. In the piece, he recommends doing the following to keep technology in check:

1. Set boundaries with technology.

2. If you have to check in for work, limit yourself when you do so each day, and only respond to urgent issues.

3. Don’t obsessively check in with Facebook and Twitter.

4. Use technology as a diversion (such as on a flight), but then put it away when you arrive at your destination. — NOTE: I actually think it’s a better idea to use flight time to truly unplug. Read a book, write in a journal or have a conversation with your traveling partner instead.

Unless I get a new job, I don’t see myself leaving my laptop at home when I travel in the near future. But I do think it’s worth checking in with myself every once in awhile to make sure I’m actually experiencing the moment, not living it through my technology.

How about you? How do you manage the technology / travel relationship? I’d especially love to hear from those who don’t make a freelance living on their laptops.

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The Tech / Travel Relationship
JoAnna is a globe-trotting, idea-inventing, culture-collecting creativity connoisseur with big dreams and a desire to touch all seven continents. You can also find JoAnna at and at The 52 Letters Project.

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26 Responses

  1. Abbie says:

    I don’t use my cell phone when I’m abroad either, and I try to keep myself busy so that I only check my email at night (if at all). It’s nice to get away from technology for awhile :)

  2. One thing I did when I started traveling fairly full-time in late 2008 was to give up my cell phone. I not only don’t have a smart phone, I just don’t have any phone at all. Now, I love living that way. Now that is not to say that I don’t spend way, way too much time on the internet, home and abroad. I do. And need to find a way to lessen that soon. Thanks — good post.

  3. I think it depends on the type of job you have. If you’re a travel blogger with an emphasis on social media, then having the phone is going to help you do your job (if your trip is actually for work). Otherwise, I say ditch it all and enjoy the experience.

  4. Candice says:

    It’s definitely important to take those trips which actually ARE vacations, and now just means of cranking out a story or doing the latest social media updates. I guess some of the lines get blurred when you’re in the industry, but damn, unplugging is so essential.

  5. I’m pretty much on board with the author. I check in online in the morning or at night but I leave it behind during the day while traveling. I don’t have an iphone yet, but I imagine the negatives of having one would outweigh the positives (at least when it comes to traveling.)

  6. Nancie says:

    My Korean cellphone will not work anywhere but Korea, so that leaves that eliminates that phone. It’s also not a smartphone. I have a cheapie that I purchased in Thailand last year. I can change the SIM card from country to country, and it is strictly for emergencies. Again, it is not a smartphone. It has come in handy on several times. When I fell in Chiang Mai last year, and split my head open, comes to mind.

    I have a travel computer, so I am online. I tweet very little when I’m traveling. Mostly I’m trying to keep the blog going and post photos. I’m too busy doing things to stay connected more than a few hours late in the evening or very early in the morning.

  7. Lola says:

    This is precisely the reason why I refuse to get a Smartphone/iPhone. Yes, I know the benefits but I’m not disciplined enough to not constantly check it so I don’t have one.

    And boy, has that freed up a lot of time and sharpened those observational skills travel writers need on the road. Right now, I’m still working towards 1 internet free day (possibly Sundays) each week.

  8. For me, I’ve chosen a lifestyle where travel and vacation are two entirely different things. I travel full time, and to do so — I work from amazing places. I look at is as bringing my mobile office with me, and having a new place to explore when I’m not working.

    As a result, I feel little need for a break or vacation. I never really have. Instead, I’ve found my right balance. Technology is what enables me to travel full time and work from wherever I’m at (software developer).

    That said, I am taking a 30-day Facebook fast right now.. and it feels great!

  9. Tim L. says:

    Brooke, even if you’re a blogger, keeping the social media noise going is probably not nearly as important as you think. Try an experiment sometime where you don’t go on Facebook or Twitter for a week and I bet your traffic will decline by less than 5%. If you have a mature blog, tweets shouldn’t have much impact in the grand scheme. Most people can’t stop tweeting and posting status updates because they’re addicted, not because it affects their livelihood.

    It’s a sad state of affairs when you go into a guesthouse or hosted at night halfway around the world and everyone is tending the umbilical cord to home instead of communicating face to face with the people around them.

  10. Vacation? Hmmm.…I vaguely remember that concept.…sigh…like most people these days, it seems like most of my travel is work related so I can’t leave the technology at home, but like you I enjoy using some of the downtime to catch up on all those magazines I love but don’t have time to read.….my piles get quite high between trips! But I really do believe in the idea of limiting one’s “availability” while on vacation — there’s very little that can’t be handled by someone else while you’re gone, and if there is, well then maybe it’s time to hire some new people!

  11. JoAnna says:

    No phone at all? Wow! That’s brave, Michael! Quite honestly, though, with all the other ways to stay in touch with people while traveling or not, I can definitely see how it’s possible.

    Thanks for the comment!

  12. JoAnna says:

    Otherwise, I say ditch it all and enjoy the experience.” — I like your way of thinking, Brooke!

  13. JoAnna says:

    I try to make a very distinct point of separating my vacations from my work travel. If I didn’t, I’d be at work all the time, wherever I was. I agree, unplugging at least occasionally is essential.

  14. JoAnna says:

    Once you get that smartphone, you may get sucked in. If you can stay away, I suggest you avoid the purchase.

  15. JoAnna says:

    Technology for emergencies — now that I can agree with. It’s a good thing you had your phone in Chiang Mai!

  16. JoAnna says:

    You bring up a good point regarding sharpening and appreciating observational skills by avoiding technology. I’m curious to hear how you, as a photographer, ensure that you’re living in the moment instead of just viewing it from behind a camera — yet another piece of technology.

  17. JoAnna says:

    I’m curious to hear how your Facebook fast goes. Please report back!

  18. JoAnna says:

    I love the fact that there are other people who still read print-on-paper magazines. :)

  19. Great piece JoAnna. I have an iPhone and have actually thought about ditching it. The main thing I use it now for now is taking photos and I’ve recently gotten a DSLR. I just don’t want to be tied to it. I work a lot on the road, but I’ve realized while spending time in Costa Rica, that it’s really not necessary to always be connected 24/7.

  20. Lola says:

    Good question!

    It’s something I consciously do. Many professional photographers say they take up to 1,000 photos per day. While traveling, I think I average roughly 100 – 150 per day, each snap a consciously composed one, not just randomly firing away.

    Sometimes looking through a camera also helps you isolate scenes and observe situations.

    A different kind of beast, photographing is. :)

  21. Tim L. says:

    Most people don’t need to be connected nearly as much as they think they do. Brooke — do an experiment sometime where you don’t tweet or do FB updates for a week when you’re on the move. I bet the difference in your traffic stats will be minuscule. Unless your blog is very new, you’re doing something wrong if Twitter is a major traffic source.

    Most people just can’t stand letting go of the umbilical cord to everyone back home, but then why travel if you can’t disconnect from all that noise?

    Like Spencer, I’ve found that when I go off the grid in a place where I have to, I don’t really miss much that matters. I future post a few things before, then soak in everything instead of broadcasting what I’m doing. I’m 100% positive that makes me a better writer – and traveler.

  22. Akila says:

    Great article, Joanna! Lately, we’ve been playing poker with some friends and one thing that irritates the heck out of me is that all of us will be sitting at the table playing and these people can’t put down their phones — usually they’re playing online games, too! Technology has become obsessive.

    When we started traveling, we gave up our iPhone and just have a very basic and cheap cell phone to make calls. I LOVE not having a fancy phone and, when we’re traveling, we often don’t have a phone at all. I have to say that I would hate traveling without my laptop but, in the last year, we have become much better at enjoying the experience without the gadgets in our face. In fact, we’re considering taking a vacation in June and not bringing our camera equipment —- now, that would be a first.

  23. Akila says:

    Lola, This is such an interesting comment because we often wonder whether we spend too much time behind our lens (and we’re obviously not professionals). We tend to average around 300 to 500 photos per day and, at times, it’s exhausting to drag around the camera, take pictures, then go through and cull and edit. For a couple of weeks in South Africa, we didn’t take any pictures at all and it was almost a little freeing. Of course, when we got home, we wished we had taken more of those pictures but I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.

  24. JoAnna says:

    Great points, Lola. I’m really surprised to hear that you only take 100 – 150 photos a day when you travel. For some reason, I assumed photographers were constantly taking pictures.

    Thanks for the insight!

  25. JoAnna says:

    Prior to traveling, I schedule all of my tweets and then back away from the social media. It can work for me while I enjoy my trip. Sure, I’ve got some catching up to do when I come back online, but I think unplugging is not only a healthy practice for my sanity but, like you, it probably makes me a better writer as well.

  26. JoAnna says:

    A trip without a camera. I honestly don’t think I could do that. Check back and let me know how it goes!

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