October 17, 2011 | Travel
True story. I sat in a hotel lobby in Rome recently, enjoying my caffe macchiato, waiting for my friend to come down for breakfast to start our day. A small group had congregated in the lobby, getting ready to head out for a day of touring, and one of the couples started debating the weather forecast for the day. The woman confidently shoved her iPhone in her husband’s face. “Weather.com says it’s going to be a high of 74 and sunny.” The husband immediately pulled his phone out of his pocket and began searching for his favorite weather feed, wondering out loud if it was sunny out today, and then insisted his internet weather feed was more accurate. As he did so, a third person pulled out his smart phone and did that odd thing we do when we can’t get service – he held it up higher and waved it around, a feeble attempt to become his own personal cell tower. As he walked toward the front door, I thought to myself, finally, someone is going to open the door and just check what the weather is by actually going outside. But no. He just held the phone right next to the door to get service and then read his version of the forecast for the group.While this story may sound funny – and a bit ridiculous – it highlights just how much travelers today have come to depend on technology while on the road. Cell phones, iPads, computers, digital cameras, and GPS devices – they all add enormously to our experiences, but can become crutches and detract from our trip as well. Here’s my take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of technology and travel.Let’s start with your cell phone. They can be a life saver – literally – in an emergency. And if you have a family at home – in particular, aging parents like I do – can make everyone feel better knowing you can be reached while on the road if the need arises. When you’re with a group in a large city, cell phones can help you track down the one last straggler who got lost returning from a shopping side trip. But having your cell phone can make it hard to separate from work and home. We all know that one traveler who accepts every incoming business call while “on vacation”. Or the person who is so enamored with their iPhone apps that they spend all day playing games on the phone. And I once traveled with someone who spent most of her waking hours texting someone back home. She barely lifted her head from the screen to enjoy the views and the food.Although computers have been around for a long time, most travelers didn’t want to lug that laptop around a foreign country, which meant email was self limited by the wi fi business center in a hotel. You might have felt compelled to check it every few days, maybe send an occasional update from your time on the road. Enter the iPad: it’s lightweight and easy to travel with, and with 3G support, you can be looking at your email 24×7. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my iPad and think it’s the best thing that’s happened for traveling. I have my own movies to watch on long flights, I load up with books, and playing sudoku can fill time while waiting to board a flight or train. I blog from the road easily with mine, something that took longer to do with my laptop. And it’s handy. Wonder what days that museum is closed? Or can’t recall the name of that fabulous restaurant you ate at 2 years ago? The iPad makes it easy to look things up when you’re stumped. But just like a cell phone, it can make it impossible to leave work behind. And you can find yourself spending more time looking at pictures online of the place you are visiting than actually picking up your head and looking at the beauty right in front of you.You might not agree with me that the humble point and shoot camera can be misused while traveling, but just think about it. In the days of film, long before inexpensive digital cameras, we limited the number of pictures we took on a trip. Film was expensive, and processing film even more so. We might have budgeted ourselves a couple of rolls for the trip, maybe 3 or 4 for some really special trip abroad. That’s all changed with digital. On my recent trip to Italy I took nearly 500 pictures. That’s like 20 rolls of film! You can find yourself viewing the entire trip from behind a lens, which isn’t the best way to take in a view. Some things can’t be captured in a picture. Some things shouldn’t be. Most importantly, our desire for pictures after the trip shouldn’t dictate how we enjoy the trip itself.And then there is the sheer complexity that technology can actually add to a trip. Packing becomes one long list of adapters, cables, cords, and cards. I had to replace not one, but two, adapter cables on my recent trip. My cell phone charger cable died and it cost me 35 euros for a single USB cable at the internet store near the hotel. Then my daughter left Rome earlier than I did with my iPad charger cable. I certainly wasn’t going to sit for 16 hours in coach without anything to watch, read, or do, so I went to 3 different stores over the course of 2 days to find an iPad cable – which then cost me 20 euros. If you’re going to travel with technology, keep it simple. The fewer devices, the better. If devices can share cables, great. Bring backup batteries, cards, cables so you don’t need to buy more on the road. Keep your technology organized and packed concisely. Most importantly, use it sparingly. Depend on your senses to enjoy your travels, not your technology.