We’ve all lusted over other people’s travel pictures on social media. But have we really entered a new age in virtual travel?

By Steven Kurutz
December 17, 2015
Credit: Marcos Chin

Not long ago, I had only the vaguest knowledge of Santorini. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, right? One of those islands off the coast of Spain where beautiful, underemployed people go to dance to deep house?

Now, I am a mine of information about Santorini, and want desperately to go. What changed? I’ve been enticed by that digital-age travel agent: Instagram.

You know how five people on your feed will all post from the same Napa winery within a week and you’re like, Is this a conspiracy? Well, it was that way for me with Santorini. Everyone was vacationing on the island, which I learned from a brief Google search is Greek, and in the Aegean Sea.

For weeks I was smacked in the face with high-contrast shots of brilliant white houses against cobalt water. The place looked otherworldly, and ridiculously beautiful. I started imagining a Greek sojourn, checking flight costs. I already knew where I’d stay: Atrina Traditional Houses, the same cliff-side hotel in the village of Oia where one of the Instagrammers stayed. She’d posted a twilight ’gram from the balcony, with the caption, “I guess you don’t need filters in Greece.” Twist the knife!

Once the sun had finally set on Santorini, it was Cuba’s turn to start blowing up my feed. After that came Morocco, then Iceland. All dramatic, picturesque, highly ’grammable destinations. Not a coincidence.

Instagram colors so much of how we travel. I can’t be the only one who spent his honeymoon seeking out ’gram-worthy moments. Now, anytime my wife and I go someplace, it’s like we’re producing our own personal ad campaign. Even while home I’m traveling virtually, tracking my friends’ feeds and asking aloud, and with envy, “How can he be in Stockholm one week, L.A. the next and Mykonos two weeks later? Doesn’t he have a job?!”

This echo-chamber effect has made Instagram into an unintended trip-planning tool. Users are following the digital trail blazed by the people they follow—going to the same cities, booking the same hotels, eating the same mahimahi tacos at the same photogenic surf shacks.

Christi Cahill, who works for a Manhattan-based public relations firm, spent a week in March lounging at the Eden Roc at Cap Cana resort, in the Dominican Republic. She chose it after a woman she follows on Instagram posted from there. “The photo looked gorgeous. I told my boyfriend, ‘Let’s check it out.’ Instagram is what took us there.”

Of course the Eden Roc lived up to its image. The members of our Instagram network, with whom we share so many staged life moments, somehow seem like friends. They share our interests—or at least have an aesthetic we find inspiring. So their travel itineraries come preapproved. As Cahill said of the woman whose vacation she cribbed: “I knew she had good taste.”

Instagram has gotten wise to its growing influence on travelers and their habits. The company recently added a “Shop Now” button to ads, so that users can act immediately on their travel fantasies. And its updated search feature, launched last summer, offers for the first time the ability to hunt for places by geo-tag, widening the image trove far beyond hashtags and users to create a huge, minable database.

Blake Barnes, product manager of Search, said that the geo-tag tool was designed in part to solve common travel problems. Like, for example, the weather. “If I want to go skiing right now, I can look up Tahoe or Squaw Valley and see pictures of the conditions before I jump in the car,” Barnes said. “Search is a way to transport yourself anywhere in the world,” in real time.

I wonder if I’ve inspired my followers to go on a journey. Did anyone dash off to Minot, North Dakota, after I posted a photo from there of a cowboy taking a smoke break in the cool morning sun? I hope not. Minot was drab, and the photo was taken on a quick stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder long-distance train. I confess, my real “inspiration” was the opportunity to humble-brag that I was traveling coast-to-coast over a seldom-seen part of the country.

Which raises a potential problem with taking a trip based on an Instagram picture, no matter how alluring it appears on your smartphone screen. We all know, deep down, those images of tanned bodies on the beach and sunsets seen from a mountaintop are probably posed, heavily edited, and posted for a variety of sociocultural reasons that go far beyond wanting to share a personal moment. They may represent the truth, but it’s almost certainly not the whole truth.

Is Santorini a beautiful place to vacation? Very possibly. But more to the point, it looks beautiful on Instagram. Its cash-strapped government should rebrand itself: “Greece is for Instagrammers.” Because in the photos I saw, there were no bank runs, no crowds of angry pensioners, no desperate immigrants. Only radiant white houses, adorable domed churches, and inviting, deep blue seas. I can’t wait to ’gram from there someday— #nofilter.