How people travel has been evolving for years, but the advent of one thing in particular seems to have changed the face of travel forever: The smartphone. Before, it was all guidebooks, turning up unannounced and going with the flow. Hostel social areas were inhabited by clusters of newly formed friendships, the next destination decided on the advice of a complete stranger over a beer at the bar. Not that this doesn’t still happen; on the contrary, as an owner of a new hostel with a small online following, I’m well aware of the power of word of mouth.
When I first backpacked in Mexico in 2008, the last thing I would have dreamed of carting around with me was what is essentially an expensive piece of fragile glass; even my camera barely made the cut. My Nokia mobile phone was left on my bedside table back home. We relied on an out-of-date copy of Lonely Planet and bits of advice from other like-minded wanderers. As a group of five, we almost never booked anything in advance, deciding our route upon arrival in Mexico City.
At the risk of sounding like a boring old fart, these days it’s vastly different. There are arguments to both sides of the smartphone coin. Those against argue that social areas are now full of zombies, posting instead of chatting, swiping instead of making friends. On the flip side, you have those saying the Lonely Planet ‘gringo trail’ is a thing of the past; the grassroots approach of researching your trip online through blogs and articles offering up a wider variety of options for those wanting adventure. Most guidebooks only come out once every 2-4 years, whereas a blog post can often be posted straight after visiting the destination, quickly rendering the advice of the guidebook obsolete.
The first question people ask upon arrival at almost any hostel is no longer, “where’s the bar?” or “what would you recommend we do tonight?” but “what’s the wifi code?”. This is undeniably a little sad, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that this can often be down to worried relatives at home needing to be informed that their darling has arrived safely. This does beg the question though: Would they be so worried if this constant contact wasn’t so readily available, if all they had to rely on was the odd email?
Some people even go to the lengths of buying a sim in every country, some so that they can get local numbers, make friends and organise themselves better. Others just want to see what the local Tinder landscape looks like.
Travelling with a smartphone can make keeping in contact with fellow travellers much easier. I remember being angry at losing the contact information of five French guys I’d spent a week with in Indonesia, as their information had been hastily scribbled on a cigarette packet, which quickly got thrown away. Had I a phone on hand, this potentially wouldn’t have happened. However, would the magic of that carefree week spent hanging out together in our early twenties, now committed to the furthest confines of my memory, remain as special if I could see their happy family photos on my newsfeed every day?
Written by Ben Davies, Co-owner of El Rio Hostel