A Modern Traveler's Dilemma: stay connected or go off the grid?

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The popularity of social networking sites and the proliferation of wireless hotspots around the world have created the perfect storm of communications technology: it really is possible to stay connected no matter where your travels take you.

Traveling with a Smart Phone, Netbook, iPad or laptop allows you to plug into social media sites from your oceanfront cabana in Belize, a café in Perth, or hotel balcony in Bangkok. Before you’ve even returned from a vacation, friends and family can already see a virtual slideshow of your trip as it unfolds in real-time. Travel bloggers capitalize on the immediacy of the internet to post the freshest travel content they can; there’s little risk of a restaurant review being outdated if the author is still digesting their meal as they tweet about it.

And of course the flipside of sharing information as you travel is you can also find it, and fast. Sites like TripAdvisor, Chowhound, Yelp and Urban Spoon make it easy to make a split second decision about where to eat in an unfamiliar city, or what last minute hotel to book. Carrying around a smart phone means you’ll never be truly lost, as GPS is only a click away.

But just because we can remain connected at all times, does it mean we should?

The convenience factor is undeniable. So many transactions these days are carried out online – checking in for flights, buying train tickets, making a hotel reservation – the expediency of which leaves us more time for sightseeing. On a recent trip to New York City, my husband and I decided not to bring our laptops with us. In a city where few people leave the house without a computer or smart phone, internet cafes have become a relic of the very recent past, making it difficult for the computer-less traveler to find casual internet access to perform these simple online tasks. Using our laptops to capitalize on the free wireless offered in most cafés would have been far easier.

So staying connected on the road gets a definite “thumbs up” for expediting travel arrangements.

But do we lose or gain something when we rely on Google searches and online review sites to plan our day to day travel adventures? Before flying out to New York, I searched on Chowhound’s Manhattan discussion boards for a recommended place to enjoy brunch in TriBeCa. The online local experts seemed to favour a restaurant called Locanda Verde; they even told me what I should order. We went and enjoyed a good meal, as expected. Having access to these sorts of user reviews certainly mean there’s a lot more “hit” and less “miss” when we venture into a new culinary scene. But does it not also take a bit of the surprise and adventure out of the experience when we know we’re wandering into a safe bet? Arriving in a new city already armed with information on where we’re going to dine, there’s less chance we’ll wander up a beguiling street to try an unfamiliar trattoria, or strike up an impromptu conversation with a local to ask their opinion. And doesn’t much of the joy of traveling come from delighting in surprises, and meeting people in new places?

Of course, the internet isn’t always a barrier to in-person dialogue; it can also be a powerful tool to enable local meet-ups. Sites like EatWithALocal.com match up travelers with local hosts, and provide the opportunity for cultural exchange while enjoying a meal together. Long-term travelers often find camaraderie, and a last-minute place to stay through sites like Tripping and CouchSurfing.

In 2010, New York Times travel writer Matt Gross began a series of travel articles on “getting lost” in various cities around the world, beginning with Tangier. Gross decided to eschew the technology he usually uses when traveling and rely on his wits and interaction with locals to get him around a new place. Not really much different than we all had to do only a decade ago, yet the thought seems almost novel in today’s hyper-connected world. In Gross’s own words: I am, in short, trying to break free of the constraints of modern travel, of a culture in which every minute is rigorously planned, and we grade destinations based on how they live up to our expectations. I want to have no expectations. I plan to show up with neither hotel reservation nor guidebook; instead of devising my own itinerary, I will let the place itself guide me, and in doing so, I will, I hope, find myself caught up in moments I never could have imagined.

Most of us won’t throw ourselves into a Moroccan medina with no map and no plan. But like so much in life, perhaps moderation is the answer: we need to reap the benefits of technology without losing sight of the freedom travel affords us; to balance spontaneity with research, staying connected with getting lost.
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