Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Is it goodbye to guidebooks, getting lost and grotty youth hostels?

As the decade draws to a close, I asked whether the Internet and mobile phones are robbing travellers of adventure for a new article for MSN Travel.

Thanks to a new generation of sophisticated technologies, some of travel's greatest traditions are under threat. When was the last time you kept a hand-written journal on your travels, received a dog-eared postcard with someone's excited scrawl on the back or arranged your holiday snaps neatly in a photo album? Before they disappear from the scene forever, here are a few travelling traditions that I'll sadly miss:

1. The photo album
The digital revolution has certainly made holiday photography much cheaper and simpler, but it's also leading to the decline of one of travel's greatest traditions - the photo album. With sites such as Flickr and Picasa fast becoming the most popular way of sharing our happy snaps, fewer and fewer people take the time to print their holiday photographs and transfer them into albums. Yet it's still hard to think of a better way to reminisce about your travels than flipping through the pages of a time-worn photo album.

2. The postcard
They were once as much as part of the holiday experience as sunbathing or tasting the local cuisine. But thanks to the mobile phone, email, Facebook and Twitter, the humble postcard is facing extinction. Research quoted in Coast magazine shows that postcard mail has dropped by 75% in the past decade alone. While they are not instantaneous, like a text message - there's no guarantee they'll even arrive home before you do - nothing says "wish you were here" quite like the postcard.

3. The unplanned road trip
Remember when half the point of a road trip was to get lost down some interesting byway? Thanks to GPS, however directionless meandering down hidden roads has lost much of the thrill it once had. If it looks as though you've stumbled into a dangerous Hicksville somewhere or conveniently ended up in a city's most crime-ridden neighbourhood, you need merely fiddle with your GPS and that familiar tinned voice will tell you, more or less reliably, how to get out. GPS might be invaluable when you're truly lost, but it also takes the adventure out of travel and shortchanges you of stories to tell when you get home.

4. The total disconnect
Before mobile phones and Skype, many travellers were faced with making an expensive long distance trunk call from a roadside phone booth if they wanted to speak to friends and families back home. These days, staying in touch has never been cheaper and easier. On the plus side, travel has become safer: you face less chance of getting stranded somewhere if you can get out your mobile and call for help. On the downside, one of the greatest lures of travel has always been how out of touch you can be. But between instant messaging and texting home, to updating Facebook and tweeting, many of today's travellers don't know how to untie the apron strings and take in the new environment they find themselves in.

5. The travel journal
With more 200 million travel-related blogs out there, the once personal travel journal appears to be moving overwhelmingly online. Internet diaries are a great way to keep your friends and family up-to-date with how your holiday is going. They can track your movements and see photographs and videos of where you have been. Sophisticated as e-journals - to coin a term - might be, they are pretty clinical compared with a hand-written diary, whose very scuffs, stains and faint smells bear witness to where you've been. Hand-written journals are also less self-conscious and more personal than any travel blog will ever be. Moreover, they probably encourage more intrepid travel: as long as you remember your trusty pen, you can update your journal anywhere. No need to hunt down an internet cafe or restrict yourself to places where such technology can be found.

6. The guidebook
Long before the internet and web-connected phones, the travel guidebook was the way we navigated our way around the world. If you wanted to know when the train to Bucharest departed or where to find a bed in Berlin at 2am - you'd reach for your Lonely Planet. With up-to-date information now just a click away, however, the once-beloved traveller's bible is slowly waning in popularity. In the past year the guidebook giant Lonely Planet reported a sharp drop in sales, from £142m in 2008 to £128m in 2009. While it and other guidebook companies are now offering sections of their guides as PDFs and iPhone applications, the tactile heft of the guidebook - its very bulk suggesting endless exciting possibilities - is decidedly lacking. Besides, you can't swat a fly or prop up a table leg with a mobile phone or netbook!

7. The foreign language phrasebook
You've just arrived in Rio and jumped into a taxi but you don't speak a word of Portuguese and your driver doesn't speak English. No need to flip through a phrasebook these days and fumble with impossible pronunciations: simply whip out your portable electronic translator and let it do the work for you. Many of these pocket-size translators, available in hundreds of languages, provide both verbal and written translation. And no doubt they're very handy - but they might encourage you to become even more linguistically lazy. If you really want to learn the language, you have to immerse yourself in the culture.

8. The unencumbered backpacker
Once upon a time, backpacking was about exploring the world with as few possessions as possible. But today's techno-savvy generation of independent travellers, with their trolley bags, laptops, web-phones and MP3 players, are more encumbered than ever. According to AA Travel Insurance, all the backpackers trotting the globe at any one time are lugging around flashy gadgets worth more than £1 billion. Weighed down with all those gizmos, think how much time you'll spend worrying about losing them.

9. The old school hostel
Keeping pace with the new, web-connected traveller, the backpacker hostel has undergone an extreme makeover of its own. Sporting espresso cafes, tour desks and free Wi-Fi, many of today's hostels resemble bland international airport lounges. Don't be surprised to find your fellow travellers are too busy tapping away on their laptops to play a round of pool. While it's certainly good riddance to bedbugs, the old school hostels with their laidback attitude and great social vibe had much more personality.

Bookmark and Share

No comments: