Photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Does the Internet Cheapen Your Travel Experience?

by Jacob Bielanski Mar 10, 2008

Take a look at this website. The text, the picture above, the pictures below, the logo – all of them represent a separate request by your computer to a server hosted somewhere else on the planet.

With each request, a packet was generated that had to find a path through a myriad of trails. It is very likely that each one of these requests took a different path. And it will be a whole new set of paths and destinations when you click away from here.

In a way, technology embodies the spirit of adaptation so prevalent in travelers.

Throughout history, technology has found a home only when it can be taken for granted.

What seems like a simple act today (reading the seemingly benign musings of a short, unshaven, American writer) represents the culmination of over 60 years of communications theory, practice, business, revision and exploitation.

Millions of minds, with millions of hours of training devoting millions of hours of sweat, have developed a multi-homed, self-rectifying infrastructure that can link editors, photographers, writers, and readers who may as well all be 10,000 miles from each other.

In the flood of information known as “the Internet” do we lose the sense of adventure that comes from discovering a destination?

We can book our plane, hotel, car, hostel, hotel, itinerary, museum, tour guide, bus and restaurant reservation before we even take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone.

A plethora of sites offering pictures, reviews and personal testimonies ensure that we know exactly what’s going to happen long before we even attempt to do it.

Yet, in the cataclysmic-yet-searchable flood of information that has become known as “the Internet” do we lose the sense of adventure that comes from discovering a destination?

Any Trip, At A Price

I have a confession to make: I’ve watched “Legends of the Fall” approximately five times.

I’m always enamored with Brad Pitt’s character, Tristan, and his mysterious travels. Riding off into the sunset on a horse, he somehow finds himself on a ship at sea. The scenes flash between those anxiously awaiting his return, and his exploits as a hunter/fisherman in exotic island nations.

Googling “Pacific rim sailing boar hunting” shows me that I can have Tristan’s adventures, sans Frontier-style heartbreak, for only $3,170.

Wherever there is a desire to “do something”, there is a business waiting to capitalize on that desire. (And they always seem to have a website).

Reservations At An Instant

all airline reservations.

The Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment (SABRE) made it easier for Airlines to manage reservations internally. It used punch cards.

In 1976, a similar system developed by United Airlines was first offered directly to travel agents, in order to extend the grasp of efficient airline reservations. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that reservations would leave the ticketing agents and fall into the hands of the common Joe.

Thank you, “Internet.”

Why does this break down an economic barrier? Prior to Computerized Reservation Systems (CRS), Airline reservations were taken care of using a series of cards and 8 people.

The “shopping” process of locating and securing a reservation on a flight took-at best-90 minutes. Even after the advent of reservation systems, a traveler wasn’t home free. If you weren’t at the mercy of an apathetic Airline employee, you were still leaving your itinerary in the hands of a travel agent’s competency.

You don’t know what Galileo and SABRE are, but they radically changed our travel experiences.

One was either ridiculously dedicated to travel or saved a ridiculous amount of money to cover the travel agent’s surcharge.

When I was a small lad, a ticket from Houston to Chicago cost almost $300. In 2005 my wife put together a flight to Germany. By sliding dates around and checking with multiple travel sites, we came to an excellent itinerary. Chicago to Dublin, Dublin to Frankfurt. It was less than $400 a person.

The economic impact of traveling to Texas a few years ago is almost equivalent to that of crossing the Atlantic today.

Been There, Done That

What I hate most about planning any trip is the ultimate deflation that occurs upon ‘Googling’.

Having pointed at a map and said “That’s where we’re going!” I get a rush, a feeling like I’ll be stepping into uncharted territory – until I type it into Google and discover that tours run there daily, between 10 and 5 in the summer.

Apparently a lot of people–and developers–have been to Ocracoke since Blackbeard’s death in 1718.

This doesn’t mean that people didn’t go to these places prior to the Internet age, but it does make the process of reading about it much simpler.

While thousands of travelogues published daily help 9-to-5 prisoners transcend their bounds and become mentally transported to exotic locales, they also serve to destroy the nomad’s private fantasy of trailblazing.

That’s Going On The Blog

The watering of the over-consumed, all-inclusive travel liquor doesn’t end once the flight takes off.

In the bygone era of a pre-imperialist United States (Canada and the War of 1812 doesn’t count, sorry), American author Mark Twain documented a journey on the first Trans-Atlantic pleasure cruise in the book “The Innocents Abroad“.

The book was based on letters dispatched to his sponsors. Hand-carved lithographs (I made some in high school Art…they’re not easy) provided a crude, grainy representations of the sites that Twain–in his infinite literary abilities–could only begin to describe.

It took two years from the time the letters were written, to the book’s publication in 1869.

Perhaps it’s unfair to place a Travelpod user’s recollection of a dingy cafe in Mexico City side-by-side to a classic work of American non-fiction. Yet the reality remains that a drunken night in Sydney can be recollected, edited, and posted to a “universal” audience faster than it takes to fully recover from the hangover.

A well-meaning writer’s analysis of a culture can be misguided at best, or downright inaccurate at worst. We’ve all felt the sting of misinformation that that breeds rapidly in a democratic pool of blogs.

Information must now be tagged, indexed and amalgamated by sites such as the venerable Brave New Traveler if it is to hold any merit. The market value of travel information has dropped significantly.

A Long Story Short

The first noble truth on Buddha’s path to enlightenment is that suffering is a part of life.

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.

Here is an example of the marvelous power of modern techno-travel:

I booked an itinerary from Barcelona, Spain to Krakow, Poland while camping along the Mediterranean Sea. The reservation was made for me vicariously via an email to a relative.

I also arranged for a money transfer to greet me upon arrival. All I had to do was make it to the Barcelona-Girona Airport at the right time and money would be waiting for me in Krakow.

Barcelona has two airports. There will be no prize for guessing which one we were at, penniless, an hour before takeoff.

The experience following is a long story, but involved cheating a cab with a bad credit card (and failing), almost having luggage confiscated by an angry non-English speaking cab driver, a mad race through Barcelona, some well deserved beers at a nearby bar, and a night sleeping outside of the train station.

It changed me forever. It was the time of my life. Funny enough, the actual experience had little to do with the technology that set the wheels in motion.

Capturing The Dimensions

The road less traveled is still there, reminding us that the universe continues to operate with or without our consent.

My technology peers and I used to giggle at people’s claims that computers “did things” by themselves. Technology only does what we request of it.

A web server cannot coerce you into reconsidering your destination. A MySQL database cannot catalog how we feel during a given experience nor capture the extent to which it changes our life. Even YouTube can’t capture the smell of a crowded market if its viewer lacks the frame of reference.

As a result, technology is a reflection of only what we’ve put into it. It’s an organic system, so complex-and yet so robust-that it has begun to evolve alongside us.

Don’t believe me? Since you’re sitting at a computer, try this (Windows users only, sorry)

  • 1. Go to Start->run
  • 2. Type “cmd” (no quotes) in the box that appears
  • 3. Press enter
  • 4. Type “tracert” (no quotes) into the box that appears
  • 5. Press “enter”
  • 6. Watch as the request tells you the path it took to get to Google
  • 7. Wait a minute, then repeat

Think of each of those entries as a “turn” in a list of directions. Watch as the request to Google finds a new path, determined by speed, reliability and congestion.

Though it is not impossible for two packets to take the same path, they have been designed to react in the same way as humans. Just as in the real world, the two journeys to the same destination don’t necessarily take the same route.

The line between what the Internet can and cannot do for us can seem fuzzy. There are many skeptics in the realm of technology-I should know, I’m one of them.

It’s hard to remember that in this forest of bits and electrons, two roads can still diverge. The road less traveled is still there, reminding us that the universe continues to operate with or without our consent.

Do we allow the Internet to take us down that road that many have traveled or do we, like the data, follow the best opportunities?

Technology won’t cheapen our travel experience. Only we will.

What do you think about the Internet’s impact on travel? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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