Save the photos for after your trip. Photo: El Nariz/Shutterstock

How to Say Goodbye to Social Media FOMO and Travel for Real

Wellness Technology + Gear
by Katherine Parker-Magyar Jun 16, 2023

“To post, or not to post, that is the question,” is probably what Hamlet would have said in 2023. And it’s one that I’ve grappled with as a travel writer moving across the world, from the icebergs of western Antarctica to the islands of the South Pacific.

Instagram is a motivating force for travel, influencing our decisions on where to vacation next and helping us decide between the Blue Lagoon of Iceland or sandy beaches of Bali. But the same tantalizing social media posts that draw us to certain locations can be a deterrent when you’re actually there. Instagram can be credited with much of the blame for hundreds of tourists lined up to capture the “perfect” panoramic sunset in Santorini, and for the delusional trend of taking wildlife selfies in national parks, where “doing it for the ‘gram” becomes a safety hazard.

I’m certainly not immune to the allure of Instagram likes, social media FOMO, and online validation; I am, after all, only human. But after taking multiple trips where I didn’t post to social media, I’m more aware of the impact it has on how much I enjoy those trips — revelations that I had to sail to the heart of the Amazon Rainforest and climb to the peaks of the Himalayas to uncover.

It’s one of the easiest ways to connect with the present

social media fomo - sunset in the amazon

Photo: Adalbert Dragon/Shutterstock

The first time I took a trip without posting to Instagram wasn’t by choice; the Amazon Rainforest isn’t exactly known for its abundant cell phone towers. Before that trip, whether driven by social media FOMO or a desire to stay connected, I had been fairly obsessed with documenting my adventure exploits on social media. It was to the extent that friends had told me they felt like they were with me as I walked the Great Wall of China or embarked on a safari through the East African savannah.

I’d never realized how second nature it was for me to post every moment of wonder or inspiration (and some not-so-wondrous moments, too, let’s be honest) to my Instagram story until I was in the presence of the truly sublime without the ability to share it with anyone.

The sun was setting on the Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon, and just beyond the deck of my expedition ship, the river and sky were aglow in otherworldly hues of orange and pink. I felt a pang that I couldn’t document it for others to see at that moment. So there was nothing to do but watch the changing sky and the setting sun and appreciate their beauty. I sat with the stillness. There was no Wi-Fi on my ship or cell reception in the jungle, and there wouldn’t be for seven more days.

As the sky darkened, a glittering patchwork of thousands of stars began to illuminate the forest. I’d never seen a night sky like this, entirely devoid of light pollution with only a tiny gray cloud in the distance – the city of Manaus, where I’d started my journey.

As we canoed on the black water that evening, the river reflected the Southern Cross, the most well-known constellation in the southern hemisphere. I was entirely disconnected from my world back home and my identity beyond this rainforest, and I felt moments of pure freedom for the first time through years of travel to 75 countries. This, I thought to myself, is what they mean when they say to “be present.”

Social media FOMO is a two-way street

social media fomo - KPM in peru

The author in Peru. Photo: Katherine Parker-Magyar

My next Instagram-free trip was a lodge-to-lodge trek through Peru later that summer. It demanded 10 days without roads, electricity, or much cell phone service. Early in the trip, as our altitude increased while ascending Rainbow Mountain, I dreaded the impending complete loss of connectivity. And the first few days, I did feel adrift without my mindless scrolling and incessant posting.

But after a day or two, I enjoyed my social media-free adventure and didn’t feel the social media FOMO I anticipated. It made me more social and helped create better connections with my hosts and fellow travelers.

I realized that Instagram is a two-way street, like a portal to the past. You can share dispatches from where you are, but it also pulls you back to where you were, switching your focus to people you already know rather than the new experiences and people around you. You could be physically surrounded by Patagonian glaciers and alpacas in colorful sweaters, but mentally, you’re focused on events you’re missing back home, like parties, engagements, births, graduations, and more.

It makes you less self-conscious

social media fomo - enjoying the moment in nepal

Photo: Daniel Prudek/Shutterstock

Being Instagram-free takes away the expectations and the judgment of others, but also helps free yourself from the prison of your own mind and its often-warped self-perceptions. Who cares if you don’t get the perfect selfie, or if you look as disheveled as you feel?

You’re not traveling to build your brand, and you’re not on vacation to obsess over your looks or worry about what someone back home may think. And needless to say, if you’re going on trips just to take photos, you are really, really missing the point. One of the greatest reasons to board a flight is to experience the world beyond your day-to-day life, and to see a perspective beyond your own. To connect with other people and places. And the best way to do that is by giving all your time and mental energy to those new and unknown experiences.

During another social media-free adventure in Nepal, I felt a humbling gratitude for my life and the planet. I’d summited Pikey Peak on a Himalayan trek and watched the prayer flags blowing in the wind, with the snow-capped peak of Mount Everest at eye level in the mountains beyond. I played Bruce Springsteen on my phone and enjoyed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a mountain summit halfway across the world. In this moment of pure joy, I was bringing the best reminders of home while living fully in the moment — and I didn’t yearn to post to Instagram once. And as we all know, some sights are so majestic that it hardly feels right to try to capture their beauty on a phone screen.

The science behind social media FOMO

social media fomo - woman with follow me hand

The world doesn’t need more cliche, staged travel photos. Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

As it turns out, the feeling I had in the Himalayas of being truly connected to my surroundings has a psychological basis. “Traveling can help us zoom out from the minutiae of our lives to refocus on the bigger picture,” says Rivia Mind co-founder and psychologist Dana Wang. “Social media distracts you by living virtually rather than in reality. You might miss insights that would otherwise come to you.”

As she says, the less digitally connected you are, the more IRL connections you’ll likely notice. And to better notice those connections, you have to rewire your mind. Wang advises approaching travel as a singular, in-the-moment experience rather than something with an audience for later. “Millennials and Gen-Z have gotten used to living life from both a first-person perspective and a third-person perspective of having others watch us live as it happens,” Wang says. “We curate a self-image of our branded life through social media.”

bali rope swing cliche

Believe it or not, it actually is possible to visit Bali *without* riding on a rope swing. Photo: JomNicha/Shutterstock

But stepping away from the Instagram rat race of thirst traps and humble brags isn’t easy. “It is human nature to both compare ourselves to others and to want to show the very best parts of our lives. If you see someone else posting an incredible trip to Croatia or Bali, you might think, ‘I can’t wait to show my pictures the next time I travel.’ It is a way of making people believe your life is exciting, successful, or worthy of envy,” says LA-based psychologist Dr. Patrice Le Goy.

The cycle of social media posting and validation (and desperation) affects the dopamine levels in your brain (a chemical that creates feelings of happiness). Those boosts and drops build insecurity and force you constantly be self-aware and conscious of how your travel compares to other peoples’ similar vacations. Le Goy thinks travel should instead be a time to shed the ego. “Social media breaks are necessary to ground ourselves and reduce comparisons,” she adds.

More and more people are switching their posting mindsets

Vacation is a great time to take a vacation from your usual habits. “You can be on your phone anywhere at any time. If you’re taking the time and spending the money to travel, you might be better off taking a break,” says psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner Helen Watson. “When we share on social media, at least a small part of us considers how our content will be received, and our ability to be present in the experience diminishes.”

Sometimes less is more, particularly post-pandemic, when traveling became a hot-button issue for friends and politicians alike. “The first time I actively chose not to post to Instagram was when I went to the North Shore in Hawaii for a month,” says journalist Claire Hardwick. “After all that lockdown exhaustion, I wanted to fully feel like I was away from everyone, which meant online as well.”

Apparently, Claire and I aren’t the only travel professionals who rejoice in the glory of social media-free travel. “I’ve been on many trips where I don’t post at all,” says Netflix and Discovery+ host and expert traveler Leon Logothetis. “The freedom I feel when I don’t have to keep checking my phone far outweighs the likes I might get live-streaming everything I do. When I don’t go in with a social media mindset, I feel lighter.”

Breaking social media habits can be hard, and if you slip up, practice self-forgiveness. Remind yourself that content isn’t the point of the vacation, and try to use it less and less each day.

And remember: the fakeness of social media is over, and apps like Instagram and TikTok are starting to skew toward being more real, with no-makeup selfies and less curated content taking center stage. So you’ll be on-trend.

“Unlike when I first started on Instagram, I’m not necessarily hyper-focused on getting the perfect Instagramable shot,” says my fellow travel writer Chelsea Davis. “My videos are not perfectly curated — I’m not an actress and don’t have a film crew.”

“Latergramming” can be safer

social media fomo - phone turning off

Photo: Mdisk/Shutterstock

Using Instagram stories incessantly can also have unwanted consequences regarding safety. “Never post in real-time,” says travel writer Patrice J. Williams. “This sounds like common sense, and it is, but sometimes you can truly get caught up in the moment, and this can create a safety issue.” While traveling in Mexico, a stranger approached Williams at her hotel. She had no idea who he was or how he found her – until she remembered she had tagged the hotel in her Instagram story. Since then, Williams has been cautious: “I never tag locations in real-time, and sometimes I won’t even post on Instagram until days or weeks later.”

By not geotagging in real-time, you’re protecting your privacy and the sanctity of your surroundings. “Don’t tag places that seem overcrowded already. Keep the gems hidden,” advises Tara Cappel, CEO of both FTLO Travel (group travel for individuals in their 20s and 30s) and Sojrn, a modern study abroad program for adults.

Cappel encourages travelers to try to go phone-free on her trips. “We do have a ‘no phones at the table rule,’ and we’re pretty strict about it, which our travelers appreciate,” she says. “Actively posting on social media in real-time is definitely going to pull you out of the moment, and you’re likely to miss some magic.”

For me, the best way to enjoy a trip while it’s happening is to save my social media posting for when it should occur: while I’m bored at home. “I’m a big fan of the #latergram, and I think we should all embrace that approach. Have fun wherever you are, and let them know later,” Hardwick says.

Logothetis agrees with the “experience first, post later” strategy. “I wait until after my trip to post. The videos and photos I post are a way to relive all these wonderful moments I’ve shared while on the road. If I’m having a bad day, I can look back and feel grateful. It’s a quick morale booster.”

Waiting to post may lead to better content, anyway

venice boats photo

Save the photos for after your trip. Photo: El Nariz/Shutterstock

Instagram isn’t all bad, and sharing your travel experiences on social media can be positive, too. “I don’t believe using social media when traveling is wholly negative,” Watson says. “When we share things about different places and cultures, we build a connection with others.” And documenting a trip when you get back can be like a modern-day scrapbook, highlighting the best parts of your trip.

Sharing later lets you mentally crystallize the trip, as Campspot CMO Erin Stender notes. “Some time between the trip and posting can help you gain perspective on what you want to share on social media and why. Creating a little space between the trip and the post helps bring into focus what you really want to share with others.” So when you do post, you’re likely to end up creating better content (but don’t let that make you start chasing likes and comments again).

And, of course, the coolest thing about saying farewell to social media FOMO is the ability to seem just a tad mysterious: “We have such a tendency to live for the pictures instead of being in the moment, that we lose the secrecy of it all,” Hardwick says of her Hawaii trip. “It was a powerful move to come back with a major tan, and no one knew where it came from.”

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