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Photos via Travelfish

Travelfish is a hugely popular online travel guide to Southeast Asia.

The success of Travelfish, Matador and other travel websites begs a questions – are travelers spending too much time online these days?

Here’s an open letter from Stuart MacDonald, the co-founder of Travelfish:

Despite the dour economic scene worldwide, it seems barely a week passes without a press release landing in my in-tray proclaiming yet another internet travel site destined to be the best thing since padded moneybelts.

The higher-tech sites promise things like localizing content depending on where you are (via your laptop or mobile phone) and telling you how far down the road the guesthouse is — but if you pass another guesthouse while walking down Khao San Road in Bangkok you might get a text from them telling you they are offering a 50% off deal if you check-in during the next hour.

Is that really as absurd as it sounds?

Obviously running a website like Travelfish, we hope to help travelers plan and enjoy their trip, but has travel become too wired?

It’s a sign of the times that it is considered normal to walk into a guesthouse and see it full of travelers gazing into their laptops, checking their Facebook page, updating their travel blog, uploading their photos, Twittering, ranting on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree or, yes, cruising Travelfish.

Just a few years ago, walking into a scene like that would have been decidedly odd.

How is this changing travel?

People’s sources of travel intelligence are morphing.

Largely gone are the days of guesthouse comment books, once immensely valuable tomes full of snippets and travel advice. Instead people search travel websites for up-to-date info.

Why ask a stranger in the common room where a good cafe is when you can simultaneously ask a million people through Twitter on your laptop?

Why use a guidebook when a savvy website will localize content to your iPhone and recommend the best guesthouse within 100 metres of where you are standing based on your past reservation preferences?

Why swap addresses when you can just swap phone numbers or email addresses on your Blackberry? When was the last time on the road you actually exchanged postal addresses with another traveler?

What happens when you leave your laptop, iPhone and Blackberry at home? Remember Poste Restante?

All these new ways of collecting travel intelligence can be great, but when it comes to up-to-date information they are rarely a substitute for sitting down with a complete stranger and swapping notes.

So try it: Switch off your laptop, walk across the room and introduce yourself to another traveler — you’ll be surprised just how much untapped information is sitting right there in the guesthouse common room with you.

And, of course, once you’re done chatting, be sure to get the laptop back on and post the information on Travelfish quicksmart — or at least throw in your two cents about wired travel on the Travelfish forum.

What Do You Think?

Hey there, wired traveler. What do you think about the profusion of online travel guides? Please leave a comment below.

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Tim Patterson

Tim Patterson is a long-time contributor and former contributing editor at Matador Network.

  • Gregory Hubbs

    Amen for getting offline.

    I cannot fathom what I would have missed all those days and years spent wandering the streets of Paris, Rome, Madrid, hitching, riding donkeys, horses, camels, taking trains, buses, and driving through country towns around the globe, meeting the locals and discovering great local restaurants or typical cafes, occasionally meeting a fellow traveler or a fascinating Brit expat…

    The advice from locals or wizened expats is almost always more interesting than any guidebook can offer and much more spontaneous than any online connection can and could provide.

    Those are treasured times which I would not trade. I still refuse to travel connected, and having traveled 40 years since childhood , I know that connectivity would have minimized the sense of adventure. Travel is about spontaneity to me–immersion in the moment with the natives in strange lands. It is not about posing, competition, or the compilation of stories to tell at future parties.

    Henry Miller had it right as far as I am concerned: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

    I am all for going Green when on the road. No need to waste the electricity. You can always share, though should all experience be shared?

    • Tim Patterson

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Gregory!

  • Eva

    I do take his point, and it’s a good one, but the source of the message — and the medium, reading it here on Matador — sort of reminds me of Dave Eggers’ mass email reminding everyone that print isn’t really dead. ;)

  • Hal

    And what about the poor creators of those online travel sites? ;)

    Finding the right balance is a challenge, to be sure.

  • Ryukyu Mike

    Reminds me, not too long ago I was out with my camera in the boondocks 12 hours a day and spent 6 hours on the laptop. Its exactly the opposite, now.
    There’s got to be a balance point somewhere!

  • Turner

    I think the best thing to do would be to take it in stages – swear off your laptop and phone for the majority of your traveling time, then cram it all in the last 1-2 days. Or a week on, week off, I don’t know. All I know is we shouldn’t feel like we have to get online.

  • Jacob Bielanski

    I think the last line makes the whole letter seem like cynical joke. I hope that was the intention.

    I mean, honestly, where’s the line? Everyone seems to lament the person that checks Facebook while in Prague, but what about sending an email to mom to say “I’m ok”? And if “technology” is screwing up our travel experiences, then let’s throw out the camera too–after all, can you imagine the “experience” you’re missing by wasting you time “lining up the shot”? Ditch the video camera, stop blogging…hell, be a real purist and avoid any locals who try and help by using these means. Oh, but when you’re done being a purist, be sure to let all of your TravelFish friends know.

    Here’s another thing: Who the hell is this guy targeting? He keeps making reference to blackberry’s and iPhones as if everyone in the world has them. Who the hell can afford international data rates without a care in the world? I had an AT&T data connection card so that we could work while driving up the East Coast; I spent the next year and a half paying off the charges I accumulated through 3 hours of data use in New Brunswick. I can’t imagine the cost of booking my hotel rooms on-th-fly via f&%king iPhone apps.

    Saying “get offline” is just a pretentious and divisive statement.

    • Tim Patterson

      I feel like it’s more of a call for balance, not one or the other, us against them.

  • Scribetrotter

    It wasn’t that long ago that laptops were a novelty… In 1996 I set off to travel with a Digital laptop and to file stories (I was a correspondent then) I had to use a bulky modem to which I strapped the phone receiver. I remember crowds gathering a the Harare Post Office to watch this strange woman and her contraption.

    I also carried around a heavy woven basked filled with files – the World Health Report, the Human Development Report, and anything else with statistics – I had no other way to get facts then.

    So in hindsight, I was thrilled to have the laptop, if only to work and to tell my family I was safe. But without a functional web, I still had to research the old-fashioned way, by talking to people – and I miss that.

    Those of us who work on the road tend to need some connectivity – but I’ve seen travelers glued to their screens, more in tune with what’s going on back home than what they’re discovering through travel, and that’s a shame…

  • Stuart @ Travelfish

    Jacob – No cynical joke, I was, ahhh trying to be funny. My apologies. I don’t own a iPhone so can’t comment on the cost of use — but I did think most used them via WiFi to avoid the onerous charges.

    As Ryukyu Mike says, it’s all about balance. I’m not suggested for a moment that the laptops, cameras, smart phones etc get tossed on a pyre but rather that, as with most things, a bit of balance is good.

    Sure use Twitter to canvas for good after hours suggestions in Bangkok, but don’t forget to ask the barman — or another traveller — as well.

    When I travelled before the internet “took off” I wrote a lot more long (ok, rambling) letters, looked forward to Poste Restante (well perhaps not the queues) and talked to a lot more travellers than when I travel today. And while I’ll be the first one to say all this new technology has brought with it an incredible level of convenience (as pointed out by Scribetrotter) — mobile phones certainly made my Mum happy — with it I think a slither of “the travel experience” has been obscured.

    Luckily, that experience can be easily recreated, by, as I said in the letter above, turning off the laptop, switching off the phone and crossing the room to chat to a few travellers.

    Cheers & thanks for the feedback

  • Mark @ mapvivo

    Yep, balance would seem to be the thing. But one hopes that exactly what modern technology brings is the ability to share those precious tips not just with people nearby, but with everybody.

    But agreed, we are all getting pretty overloaded with it.

  • Jacob Bielanski

    I appreciate your response Stuart and sortof understand where you’re coming from.

    I have to note again, though: who is being “targeted” by this open letter and what is the definition of “technology”? When it comes to denigrating a travel experience through “technology”, it seem like everyone “knows it when they see it”.

    To me, without understanding A) specifically what technology and B) exactly what experiences are being denigrated by it, then it still stand as an “Us against Them” statement. It’s like saying “The only way to be a good American is to hate terrorists and love freedom”–we all have our own definitions of “good American”, “terrorists” and “freedom”, and calling for it merely fans those flames of division.

    So, yes, we’re all going to “balance” it, but we’re going to balance it according to the definition we’ve had in our heads all along, which will change nothing. As a lover of technology (and, believe me, I use VERY LITTLE of it on the road), I see no need to demonize the medium simply because one day, one person gets a bug up their tookus about how things have changed. That’s a job for organized religions and Governments.

    I think a better call would be for all TravelFish/Matador users to attempt to understand the workings of what it means to be “online”. Understanding is a great starting point for intelligent usage.

    • Tim Patterson

      “I think a better call would be for all TravelFish/Matador users to attempt to understand the workings of what it means to be “online”. Understanding is a great starting point for intelligent usage. ”

      Hey Jacob – if you write it, I’ll publish it!

      • Jacob Bielanski

        Didn’t I do that already? ;)

        “While technology hastens the dispersal of information, it does not improve its ability to be processed by the end user. Travel has entirely to do with what we bring with us; our wits, our hopes, our preconceptions and–most importantly–our failings.”

        • Tim Patterson

          Ha! You sure did!

  • Shreya

    I think its important to remember that there’s the actual physical experience of traveling to be done beyond all the guides and stories. Seems basic, but I think its significant

    • Stuart

      Agree 100% — getting out there and experiencing travel is what it is all about. Sometimes it is the most basic points that can do with a bit of reinforcement.

  • shakester

    I haven’t yet ravelled with my ipod or laptop and take my phone along only to use it as an alarm. I often make ‘number’ lists when I return from trips, and mostly the category “number of times accessed net” or “number of phone calls made” or even, often, “number of hours spent watching tv” is about 1 or1 or half or nada.

    Admittedly, I haven’t travelled longer than about 3 weeks at a time (heading off for a 24 day trip which is going to be my longest!), and so that doesnt compare the same with people who are away for much longer. But for me the point of beign away is precisely that- being away. I don’t condemn or look down upon people who use laptops to write instead of journals or postcards, but I still value those enough to hang on to them. Also, i think much of technology is a symbol of life and normalcy and routine and what I know; while I travel to getaway from life and routine and what is familiar and known.

    Oh, well.

  • ian

    I gladly use LP guidebooks but your use of the word ‘rant’ to describe some of what goes on in the LP Thorn Tree forums is so true! Whether back at home or online, it can be hard to find someone to have a passionate chat about travelling.

    I find most travel websites surprisingly thin on details (most of which is cut and pasted from one site to another), and crammed with adverts which rarely are relevant. Yes, we can plan as much of the straightforward stuff like a route, accom and things you want to see and do, but you cannot plan the real exciting stuff, the unplanned unexpected stuff and the people you meet on the road, in a hostel or in the village or town.

    I look forward to my first trip with a laptop but see it as a tool to fill in the gaps between the really good stuff!


  • Eva

    I don’t mean this to sound like a shot at anyone, but the more I think about this, the more it has that vibe of “In my day, I walked 8 miles to school in a snowstorm, uphill, both ways…” For someone who never traveled pre-internet, has only the vaguest concept of “poste restante” and recently learned the word “Aerogram” for the first time, it has that ring to it, you know?

    I had an email address for several years before I got my first passport. Hell, I was checking email daily for a year before I had my learner’s permit. I learned to type on a computer when I was 7. This is how I’ve grown up, and to change things that feel so basic to me and my life, in an attempt to conform to someone else’s expectations of the “correct” way to travel, feels… well, artificial, you know?

    I dunno. I guess I just think the genie is out of the bottle. My prom didn’t feel any less “authentic” because my dress had a zipper, even though back in the day they only had hooks and buttons. In the same way, I don’t really see a huge difference between writing a letter and an email.

  • Stuart

    For some, travel can/does involve getting out of ones comfort zone — I guess some of what I wrote about touches on that for some.

    Its kinda off topic, but if you’ve only just learned about an aerogramme then it’s not really a surprise you don’t see a huge difference between the two — they are quite different mediums. Unfortunately they’ve been discontinued — at least in the US anyway.

    Ian, yeah I agree — some of the best travel is that that is totally unplanned — absolutely.


    • Eva

      Re: aerograms, I’m going to assume you didn’t mean that quite as condescendingly as it sounds. ;)

      Look, I just don’t see how writing a letter to my mom instead of writing an email to my mom means I am getting out of my “comfort zone”? I mean, either way, I am communicating with my family and home. It changes how she receives information FROM me, but does it substantially change MY experience? Really?

      From what I understand, you aren’t proposing that we cut ourselves off entirely – merely that we use old-fashioned methods of communication instead. Hence my references to zippers vs. buttons – same end result, no?

      • Tim Patterson

        I think Stuart’s point is a lot simpler and less controversial than this discussion would suggest.

        Basically, he’s pointing out that it’s kind of weird to walk into a hostel in Luang Prabang and see a whole room of people staring into their laptops.

        I agree. Even though I am one of those people.

        • Eva

          I dunno, Tim. I don’t want to speak for Stuart, but this reads like more of a call to action than a “hey, isn’t that weird” type observation – certainly that’s what’s implied by your headline. And I just don’t get why it’s somehow better to swap postal addresses with a hostel-goer than email addresses. Like I said, same end result. Make friend, keep in contact. Heck, I don’t even have a postal address, really.

          I’m sorry if I sound cranky, I’m just so tired of the “Remember when travel was REAL?” theme, because, well, I don’t. Or rather, I do – I feel like all my travels have gone just fine, thanks, Facebook or no. Besides which, having this conversation with a website founder, on the web, makes the whole thing seem kind of hypocritical.

  • Tim Patterson

    Yeah, I hear your point, Eva.

    We should note that the (provocative?) headline was all mine, not Stuart’s.

    If his post is a call to action, it’s as simple and innocent as “hey, online travel info. is great, but remember to unplug yourself once in a while!”

    And I don’t see how that’s controversial or offensive.

  • ian

    Maybe we are all right from our different viewpoints?

    I’m a bit of an old timer now and only have travelled once with a digital camera and being able to go into libraries to do some emailing. I loved it and when I do a sort trip later this year I will use technology heaps. But I will go online when I need to not so much because I want to, I get bored quickly in front of a computer which is good.

    I’m be sending postcards to my dear old mum but definitely swapping email addresses with new friends.

    It is too easy to misunderstand what others actually mean in forums/threads like this, I think we are all on the same team and all share a common interest. I think of travel as a very personal act to the point of being very selfish, it’s so important to acheive what you want to acheive, to go where you want to go and other noble crap like that. Learn from others and share but don’t compete.

    And I think the main point of the original post is that yes it is fine to go online to keep in touch with where you are from and to research where you are going but as much as possible immerse yourself in where you are right now.

    Excuse me, I don’t normally preach like this!

  • Chris

    Last time I went traveling, I wasted a lot of time on the internet. I ended up surfing the net when I should have been wandering the streets.

    Next time I will really question why I need to use the internet before using.

    Yes, technology is useful. I took lots of photos for a project and needed to upload them regular to my computer. I also kept diary of my experience. I used skype to keep in touch with friends and family. It was invaluable in some ways but a hinderance in others.

    I took, a laptop and a digital camera. I found that I was much more conservative in my travels as I was worried about the stuff getting stolen. I missed some great experience because of this. I was also less trustful of people and was never keen to share a room with other people, y’know, just incase. In that way it was a big nuisance.

    I’ll be looking at, wait for it, more technology, to see how I can overcome this. I’ve heard of something called ‘gotomypc’ where you can access stuff from your home computer to see whether this is a viable alternative to taking a laptop.

  • Stuart @ Travelfish

    Just came across a great slideshow at WorldHum that touches on this topic — well worth a look — you can see the show here:

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