Twitter, Facebook, and other digital-age tools are changing the way we travel—but is it for the better?
Credit: Alice Cho

Funniest thing I’ve seen on the road lately? I was in Barcelona, in the lobby of the Hotel Arts. Everyone around me was on a laptop, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi: Google Mapping itineraries, consulting TripAdvisor for shopping recs, posting Flickr photos of lunch at Cal Pep. A couple from Chicago were using Skype to video chat with their children back home when, as if on cue, LL Cool J strode into the lobby. “Hey, LL Cool J!” the mother cried out, recognizing him instantly. “Come say hi to our kids!”

What else could a hip-hop icon do but squeeze in between Mom and Dad on the sofa, flash that killer smile, and offer a digital shout-out? “What’s up, kids? I’m here in Spain with your moms and pops! You two better behave while we’re away!” And just like that, he was gone.

That encounter would never have worked as a postcard.

As a journalist who writes about travel, I can’t begin to count the upsides to this earth-flattened age we’re in. I’m on the road every month, yet I rarely have to leave home, if “home” means the familiarity of RSS updates and NBA scores and Funny or Die clips, and having my entire social circle a mere button-touch away.

Nor is there much left unknown or unknowable, or at least un-Bing-able. With minimal effort, in the comfort of a hotel lobby, I can plot a route to a restaurant I’m considering, download tonight’s menu, translate it instantly from the Catalan, read 47 detailed customer reviews, call up TwitPics of the razor clams, even take some guy’s virtual tour of the dining room. When I started covering travel 15 years ago, we hadn’t imagined search engines, let alone Skype. (Also? We walked to the airport, knee-deep in snow.) Last summer I listened to a Red Sox game live on my iPhone while on a layover in Hong Kong.

So let’s be clear: I do not pine for the days of inscrutable foreign pay phones and the endless searches for postage stamps. I far prefer the current model; my job is certainly easier for it. That said. Any life-changing innovation has its attendant perils. Not to get all Andy Rooney on you, but in our rapture over ones and zeros, we tend to overlook the negatives.

Thirteen million Wikipedia articles. Twenty hours of YouTube videos updated every minute. Two hundred million blogs. What’s a person supposed to do in the face of all that? TripAdvisor alone has 25 million reviews of 450,000 hotels, from the Cathedral Hideaway in Sedona, Arizona (“We’re really going to miss the two-person shower!”), to the Abalonia B&B in Ogunquit, Maine (“The shared bathroom was disgusting!”). Clicking through the blurbs is like online poker; it’s impossible to stop, until suddenly you’re down the digital rabbit hole.

It’s not pretty there. Whenever I spelunk down the wells of TripAdvisor,, and VirtualTourist—when I find myself bookmarking Breakfast Recommendation #223 in Barcelona—my most vexing concern is, “How am I ever going to see/do/eat/enjoy all of this?” Sometimes I believe I’d have a better time showing up at my destination unprepared and unannounced, like an Outward Bound orienteer with some powdered milk and a compass.

Of course, getting advice from people you know and trust—that’s priceless, and Twitter was built for it. Depending on your followers, the tweet “Thirsty in Barca, any ideas?” might elicit a perfect suggestion in an instant. But what if your Twitter friends haven’t been to Barcelona? Then you wade into the broader morass of the Internet—and drive yourself crazy sifting through umpteen million reviews for a shred of reliable advice.

Some praise this decentralized, democratized, social-media-driven culture as a triumph of individualism; others see it as so much uninformed noise. Are we moving into a world, as so many tell us, wherein everyone’s an expert? Or a world without experts?

It’s increasingly hard to imagine those antediluvian days, back when information was static and scarce and costly besides; before the data flood swallowed us up. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it: my wife and I were just in Tokyo, where neither her BlackBerry nor my early-model iPhone worked on Japan’s 3G network. For the first time in recent memory, we were completely off the grid—in the most technologically advanced city on earth.

With our smart phones rendered dumb, we made do with a cheap rented mobile that did nothing except—get this—make phone calls. No SMS, no MMS, no GPS, no Web browser, no Google Maps, no currency converter, no translator app, no camera, no Scrabble. This might have felt vaguely liberating if we were, say, camping in Vermont. But we were in Tokyo, a city as bewildering as it is vast. Take away any connection to the information cloud, and we might as well have been on a raft in the Sea of Japan.

The more ways we devise to connect, inform, or amuse ourselves—the more tricks our gadgets learn—the more aggravated we become when they don’t work. Which is often. The digital world may be growing up fast, but at the moment it’s going through an ornery adolescence, that awkward beta-phase when expectations outpace capacity and the default setting is frustration.

Then again, this makes our wonky tech tools the perfect analogue to travel itself, which is inherently buggy. Even on the best trips, equipment breaks down, wheels fall off suitcases, passports are left in the safe. Things go wrong all the time, such that a savvy traveler comes to expect it. How strange it will be when our phones, our laptops, and our vacations all run as smoothly as we’d like them to.

Some things already work too well. For a few months last year I got addicted to Google Street View. I’d be on there right now if I could trust myself to stop. At the peak of my habit I was Street-Viewing around the clock, everywhere I went, from London to San Francisco: previewing my every move, scanning each fish-eyed storefront for clues, providing for all possible detours (“Look, there’s a bench outside that café. I’ll sit there”). Delirious fun, but after all that Street-Viewing, the real thing—the actual bench—was curiously disappointing.

Like anyone, I initially get a kick out of seeing exactly what color my hotel bedspread is going to be (thanks for the pics, RoomSleuth461!). But I kind of prefer not knowing. Part of the thrill of travel is in the mystery it entails, the buzz that comes from trying to imagine what this strange new place will even look like. The gap between our expectations and harsh reality is diminishing, but so, too, I can’t help but think, is our excitement.

It’s true that information-age tools enable us to have easier, safer, more reliable vacations. But sometimes we have better vacations in spite of them. The danger is in using these conveniences simply because we can. Especially when we travel—which, after all, is supposed to entail stepping outside of ourselves and our little mobile cubicles. Take a look around you right now and count the number of people on the phone; I’ll bet they outnumber those who aren’t. The more we connect with the world above and beyond us, the harder it is to be present wherever we actually are.

I keep thinking back to that lobby in Barcelona. A surreal scene, and not just for the LL Cool J cameo. It was the weird sensation of being with a bunch of strangers who had all come to this spot to connect—yet not with each other. Here we were, a roomful of fellow travelers: tweeting, IM’ing, video chatting, sharing slide shows, and virtually bonding with people in other rooms, some halfway around the globe.

In the real world, meanwhile, nobody seemed to notice anyone else, aside from LL Cool J. Though I overheard their entire conversation, I never even said hello to the couple from Chicago. In another era we might have exchanged addresses, or at least sightseeing tips. Instead, we kept our distance, like everyone else, clustered around the virtual hearth of the lobby Wi-Fi—together and apart, in our own huge worlds.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter: @peterjlindberg