Editor’s Note: This article is a revised version of an article that appears in the June 2012 issue of The Social Media Monthly. If you like it, you might want to download The Social Media Monthly iPad app or iPhone app and subscribe, or order a print subscription.
“This is a rare, deadly scorpion. We looked it up online.”
In my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a fellow backpacker placed a plastic jar on the receptionist’s desk, with a dark-colored mass on the bottom. He suspected that the creature had hitched a ride on his backpack all the way from Thailand.
“I put air holes in the top,” he said – and then proceeded to check out, leaving the scorpion behind.
I was sitting across the room; my eyes bugged out, my mind raced, and my first thought was: “MUST. POST. ON. FACEBOOK.”
What’s wrong with this story? Every year, Americans take millions of trips abroad, and these days they’re bringing along their laptops, smartphones, and a desire to spice up their Facebook timelines. They also have access to hundreds of new travel apps and websites to make the experience cheaper, cooler, and less lonely. But with all these tools of social connection comes the traveler’s dilemma: how to find a balance between online life and offline sightseeing so your travels are both efficient and spontaneous, plugged in yet immersive.
To tackle that dilemma, travelers need to find the right tools before setting off. Whether you know your destination or just want some inspiration, you’ll love the gorgeous photos, cute icons, and general chic-ness of Fathom, which looks a lot like a travel magazine. Once you’re inspired, Fathom helps you drill down to the practical stuff with travel guides and itineraries; hotel, restaurant, and activity recommendations for various budgets; and basic info on taxis and tipping. Wanderfly can also offer personalized recommendations of places to visit.
For more of those practicalities, click on over to Hipmunk: a cute, highly visual way to find the best flights and avoid “agony” – long trips with tons of layovers. OnTheFly’s mobile app, though slightly harder to use, sometimes beats Hipmunk’s fares. Once you book, TripIt and Traxo can store those flight and hotel confirmations and let you share itineraries with friends. Traxo also helps you keep track of where you’ve been (on my recent Asia trip, I hit 8 countries and 19 cities). Procrastinators can search Hotel Tonight’s mobile app for up to 70 percent discounts on hotel rooms for that same day.
Now that you’ve got the logistics down, it’s time to sightsee. The travelers’ go-to guide, Lonely Planet, is now available on mobile for about $6 per city. These apps are comprehensive, so find a cozy corner at a local cafe and spend some time reading. Same for the WikiTravel app, WikiSherpa. Gogobot can also recommend things to do, where to stay, and what to eat – and if you’re still stumped, submit questions to its travel-savvy community.
For business travelers – or anyone who wants to make a good impression – Dean Foster Culture Guides help you understand cultural customs and etiquette to avoid offending the locals with your speech, gestures, or clothing. If you’re sticking to the familiar culture of the United States, try Thrillist – a site that aims to “unearth greatness” by recommending local food and drinks, events, and entertainment. Or check out Urbandig for “off the beaten path” experiences chosen by local curators, from dive bars to vintage clothing shops. Lazy or time-strapped travelers, no matter what country, can use Unanchor for full-day itineraries that include how to get from one stop to the next and (often) what to order at restaurants. If you’re traveling alone and don’t want to be, Tripl is the place to find friends-of-friends and people with similar interests to meet up with.
And finally, stay safe. WikiTravel has city-specific tips on how to avoid scams, pickpocketing, and local diseases. You can also download the Smart Traveler app from the US Department of State, which includes alerts, travel warnings, and US embassy locations.
So that’s over a dozen apps and websites – enough to have you staring at your phone or laptop for the duration of your trip. But that’s not the best way to spend your precious getaway time. Use all these great tools to find maybe one or two sights to see per day, then explore. If you notice an inviting little wine bar, check it out – even if it’s not in Lonely Planet. You might stumble into some shady joints, but you’ll also discover gems. Going off the books in Asia, I managed to find a stellar sushi chain with $1 salmon hand rolls in Hong Kong, an affordable hostel (with daily karaoke) down a back alley in China, and one-of-a-kind flowery blouses at a night market in Bangkok.
As for documenting these adventures, stick with the staples and check in on Foursquare and Facebook. And snap those photos, but don’t go overboard. For example, a friend of mine recently posted some pictures from his vacation in Vietnam. “Why aren’t people commenting?” he complained to me, as I rolled my eyes. I understand that experiences are meant to be shared, but the point of traveling is not to generate “oohs” and “aahs” from your friends. Not that I’m immune from that attitude. On the few vacation days when I forgot my camera at the hostel, sightseeing seemed almost pointless – I wouldn’t have any photos to post. But some of my most memorable experiences happened then – from eating steaming hot pho at a street stall in rainy Vietnam to dining with a Korean movie star.
So use social media to store your memories, but don’t interrupt those fireworks by trying to take the perfect photo. Don’t waste time searching for a Starbucks just so you can tweet about that tongue-igniting curry you ate. As you’re traveling, enjoy the present and live in the moment – and don’t worry if you don’t rack up “likes” later.
I never found out what happened to that scorpion. Someone told me the hostel owner just threw it in the garbage – so, for days, I imagined being stung as I tiptoed across the dark dorm room. Though rushing to post on Facebook can detract from some travel moments, perhaps I made the right choice. After all, I was alone and almost 10,000 miles away from home, and my fears were quelled by the witty comments by everyone from my brother to my boss to someone I hadn’t spoken with for years. It’s up to you to make those choices – just remember that you do have a choice to log off, power down, and dive in.