5 Ways Technology Is Ruining Travel

Although technology is so integrated with how I travel, I realize that that is not always a good thing. While making life easier and more efficient, applying the same logic to travel can often have unusually negative results.

Travel should be about exploring and finding the answers to questions you never thought to ask. If the goal of technology is to provide all the answers, then you’ll miss out on a key element of what makes travel so special – experiencing the unknown.

Since 2009 I’ve traveled with a glorious unlimited cellular data plan which has been a blessing in countless situations. But what have I missed out by having so much access to information? Below I outline five of my most memorable pre-2009 travel experiences that simply never would have happened if I had had access to the travel tools I use today.

#1: All Alone in Prague, Czech Republic

My first time traveling abroad by myself I went to Prague … in the middle of winter. It was the first time in my life I was truly on my own without a way to easily call friends and family back home.

I remember the first night was really rough. Feeling alone and sad as if I had made a huge mistake. As the days progressed, this feeling waned and I learned one of the most valuable life skills – how to be by myself.

That trip gave me self-confidence and the ability to find my own way. It laid the groundwork for a lifetime of independent travel that I could never have imagined being prepared for otherwise.

Church of Our Lady before Týn, Prague
Church of Our Lady before Týn, Prague © David DiGregorio

If I had access to Skype, I’d have solved my loneliness by simply calling home and comforting myself with long conversations. Skype would have kept me inside, thus depriving me of exploring a beautiful city and discovering true independence within myself.

#2: Hungry in Seoul, South Korea

It was my first time exploring Seoul and since I had no idea where to go or what to do, I found everything by simply wandering around. At the end of my first day, I needed dinner near the hostel and since I was flying solo, I made friends with a random dude from the Netherlands. My new Dutch friend and I wandered the city until we found a hybrid food cart/cafe patronized exclusively by Koreans. The place had no name, no menu and we ordered simply by pointing to foods that we couldn’t possibly identify.

Street Food, Korea
Street Food, Korea © David DiGregorio

It’ still one of the most memorable, authentic meals I’ve ever had. Although I still have no idea what we ate, the experience was as delicious as it was hilarious.

There’s no doubt that Yelp or TripAdvisor would have viciously robbed me of this culinary memory. Just a quick look at online restaurant listings in Seoul include the likes of Paris Baguette, Brick Oven New York Pizzeria and Gusto Taco.

#3: Uninformed in Cairo, Egypt

I was in Cairo visiting some of the lesser known sites missed on previous trips. Outside Al Azhar Mosque, we struck up a conversation with an Egyptian man named Ebrahim. Suddenly we’re following him through labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City past vendors selling cow heads before arriving at the Madrassa of Al-Nasir Muhammad. Ebrahim didn’t just walk us to the Madrassa, he explained every facet of it, what the art meant, the construction, how old it was, what it was used for. He got permission to take us on the roof, then excitedly pointed out the sites of Cairo before taking us for tea and shisha nearby.

Madrasa al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun
Madrasa al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, Cairo © David DiGregorio

Ebrahim was just a normal citizen, but he played the role of tour guide and encyclopedia far better than the likes of Wikipedia. Although we could have read about the Madrassa online, Ebrahim brought the history of the 1,000 year old building to life in a way that the Internet could never have achieved.

#4: Breaking the Law in Havana, Cuba

While in Cuba, a friend and I set out to procure authentic Cuban cigars. With no internet access we didn’t know where to begin and the prices in every tobacco shop seemed outrageous. We ended up meeting Carlos on the street and going back to a residential apartment building where we made a deal to buy some deeply discounted Montecristos.

Cuban Cigar Tubes, Cuba
Cuban Cigar Tubes, Cuba © David DiGregorio

Although legally questionable, our interaction with Carlos was the most authentic moment of the trip. While we waited for his associate to fetch the cigars, he told us about life in Cuba, the government, working in the cigar factories and Cuba’s unusual two-currency system.

If you search for how to buy Cuban cigars in Cuba on Google, you’ll get hundreds of pages that insist your only option is the government shops and guys on the street are a big mistake. But ignorantly seeking out “off-market” cigars led us to a glimpse of Cuban reality we never could have had on our own.

#5: Totally Lost Near Sarajevo, Bosnia

I embarked on an overly ambitious road trip with a group of friends that, among other things, had us traveling from Belgrade, Serbia to Kotor, Montenegro (a 500+ mile journey through four countries) in a single day. Leaving Sarajevo, we were immediately lost with nothing but a paper map on the snowy, twisty, unmarked roads of the Balkan Mountains. This five hour comedy of errors could have been avoided entirely if we had had access to Google Maps.

Flagging Down Help, Bosnia
Flagging Down Help © David DiGregorio

But Google Maps would have also avoided our countless interactions with random Bosnians, dramatic flagging down of trucks, and scraping the ice from road signs only to find unintelligible cyrillic characters underneath. My most memorable day bonding with friends in a car ever would have been reduced to a boring few hours of on-and-off nothingness.

So What About You?

Can you attribute some of your best travel experiences to a lack of technology? Do you find travel a lot less exciting now-a-days? Or do you totally disagree with everything I’ve said here?

I’d love to hear your comments below!

9 Responses

  1. kimba

    I don’t blame technology so much as I wonder about people’s dependence on it – people giving over their own power to it. Scheduling their lives – something I really don’t understand how to do when I’m in the place I consider to be home.

    I haven’t traveled in a good while, but my pet peeve during my last trip to Europe (France, Germany, Czechlandia, Switzerland) was the reservation system, even down to the hostel level.

    When I first started traveling abroad in the mid-80s, there was no reservation system in the hostels. It was first come first served – as it should be, and if there were no beds left, I was left to wandering around from budget hotel to budget hotel until I found one – which is a travel experience in and of itself. It meant that if I wanted to stay longer somewhere, or even head in a different direction, I didn’t have to worry about that reservation I made at the next destination.

    On my last trip to The Yucatan I tried reserving a hostel room in Merida and arrived two days later than expected. The woman at the desk said “We had to give your bed away.” And I replied, “So?” and she said, “It’s ok, we have plenty more today.”

    Technology has definitely changed the way people travel – to the point that a lot of people under 35 or so don’t even know that there is any other way to travel.

    Reply
    • Sam

      I completely agree! While I fall into the “under 35” camp, I have never traveled with a phone or device, and have never booked ahead (save on my very first trip!) The joy of travel IS getting lost, making yourself uncomfortable, and pushing yourself outside of your boundaries. Yes, technology makes it easier to go places, and see sites, and plan your trip… but if you ask any backpacker that’s gone long-term, these are tiny parts of travel that they barely remember. The parts that they’ll tell in stories for years to come are about the nice Moroccan family that invited them to sleep in their home for the night when the hostel was full-up, or the crazy sunset that they saw whilst completely lost on a lonely Sri Lankan street.

      Thankfully, other peoples’ reliance on technology just made the trips of people who avoid it that much more rich. While everyone else is flocking to the restaurant recommended on Yelp, or the hostel that’s rated highly on Hostelworld, or the Bus line that’s got mobile check-in, those who eschew technology in favor of figuring things out for themselves will be munching on mystery street delicacies, staying in little old ladies’ homes, and hitchhiking on a truck with groups of laughing schoolchildren. Technology may have ruined it for some, but in my opinion, it just made everything better for the rest of us.

      Reply
  2. Adventures Wtih Pedro

    Thoroughly agree, the more connected I get, the more annoyed I am at how much I rely on it.

    I make a point in most places to leave all my electronics (camera included) in the hostel and wander around to get to know the city, its layout, and get a feel for it. That has lead to some truly memorably interactions.

    It’s nice not to be able to hide in the corner using a phone and force yourself to make a friend.

    Reply
  3. Diana

    Agreed. I purposely have opted out of international data plans on my trips to allow myself to disconnect. There is something about navigating foreign countries, their transportation systems and cultures without the help of technology that creates this magical experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had random strangers come up to me and help in Germany or Russia for example. They offered me unsolicited help because they could tell I was either lost or going to get lost. Some of the most humbling experiences in my life.

    I’m a big fan of technology – and I’m not saying I don’t use it when I travel, but it is in the back of my mind not the forefront. It serves a great purpose, but it can get in the way of discovering yourself and what this beautiful world has to offer.

    Reply
  4. sheryl del gigante

    So one of my most memorable/really interesting experiences sort of occurred as a result of lesser technology and/or automation that was not available back in 1990.

    This did not necessarily make me enjoy my travels more, but what happened as a result, subsequently was very memorable.

    I was traveling in London by myself, with virtually no way at all to be in touch with any one at home, so as a result, I too was a little lonely and made it my business to try to meet people and I did, in fact meet someone while touring Westminster Abbey. He was also traveling alone and we ended up spending the next 3-4 days site seeing together.

    He was from Australia and we developed a very nice friendship.

    When it was time for me to leave, he stayed a few extra days, then was meeting up with a group to continue his travels around Europe.

    Unbeknownst to me, shortly after I left, he mailed me a package with a note. The note was dated January 17, 1991, the exact date the US entered the war against Iraq,- Operation Dessert Storm.

    He referenced the US involvement/bombings in his letter and was concerned and hoped things went well

    Well back in 1991, there was no Express Mail, Priority- International mail, sophisticated automation, etc. and after quite some time, that package and note finally appeared at my door.

    So the really interesting, memorable and noteworthy part of this story is this: Operation Dessert Storm ended, and the war was won on February 28th.

    The package arrived on March 2.

    So by the time I got this package and read the note referring to the beginning of the war, we had fought and one an entire war – all while a little package to me was in transit.

    By the way, in the package was a crystal koala bear, something for me to remember my Aussie friend.

    I couldn’t even tell you his name (maybe John?), but I will never forget the package,that took longer to get to me than it took General Schwarzkopf to kick Saddam Hussein’s butt and force his army out of Kuwait

    Reply
  5. Todd Gardiner

    Seems to me that every single instance here is not “technology”. They are all instances in which the internet would have informed you in a way that you would have avoided the random encounters.

    You could lay the same blame on a comprehensive tour book, or even travelling as part of a tour. This seems to be an informational problem, not a “technology” problem.

    There seems to be some line that you are drawing here, but I’m not sure what it is. You took a map with you, but if you had Google Maps you would have avoided problems? (I think you really mean a GPS so you knew where you were. You just happen to access your phone’s GPS with Google Maps most of the time I’ll bet.) You knew about sites you had missed in Egypt, presumably from a tour book. But got an opportunity to talk to a local who did not have word count constraints.

    There is some line of immediacy that you are suggesting exists with information technology, but you are a little vague on how this works.

    Reply
  6. fred

    interesting observations, but as a seasoned traveler, I’d never follow a local into the alleyways of Cairo… been there and if the tourist police hadn’t intervened.. who knows.

    As for getting cigars in Cuba… I seriously doubt you got authentic Monte Cristos…. but at least you did get a Cuban cigar.

    otherwise…. article is well written and on point… my solo winter experience was in Riga, Latvia shortly after “independence”… talk about gloomy… flashbacks to scenes in Dr. Zhivago.

    Reply
  7. crisflitz

    I frequently thank my eGod and marvel at how easy it is to make all my travel arrangements without needing a third (or even 2nd) party, and that in just moments I’m ready to head off again with hotel, train/plane booked easily. It’s really not that long ago we were totally reliant on travel agents. The only thing I need to keep nudging myself to remember is to ensure I have the right visa and/or documents to enter some countries as it all seems so easy to just go anywhere, and as I tend to travel where the whim or wind blows me, I’m inclined to forget there are some rules!
    I’m also someone who doesn’t like to know too much about a place before I get there – this includes a movie or play – as I like to form my own opinion as our personal histories influence everything we do and experience. Having said that I always check out TripAdvisor before booking accommodation. So I still have many surprises – even accommodation!! And I have to agree, that it is these surprises which tend to be my favourite experiences.
    Years ago when studying Italian in Siena I took two fellow students to visit Florence as they’d not been before. One of my favourite places there is the Church of Santa Maria Novella and the murals behind the altar. They are painted by Ghirlandaio who was Michelangelo’s teacher, and one of the women reminds me of my mother. So I took my new friends to show them these beautiful paintings. Unfortunately there was going to be a wedding so the area behind the altar was off limits. But the delight of this misfortune was that there was a woman rehearsing the Ave Maria….a heavenly divine delight. Chance is a wonderful thing, and no e-tech can deliver this.

    Reply
  8. crisflitz

    I’m also very interested to know about your
    “glorious unlimited cellular data plan”

    Reply

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