The choice is yours. You’re gearing up for another thrilling trip abroad to a place you’ve never been, and you’ve just sent your obligatory “see you in a few weeks!” or “have fun going to your job every day like you always do!” texts as your plane lines up to leave America. You switch on airplane mode to save yourself from the unknown and terrifying territory that is your cell phone’s roaming charges plan, and before you know it, you’re off the ground once again.
For many backpackers, this is the last time they’ll see their phone until they’ve touched back down on the very same runway they left from. For a growing number, however, it’s just the beginning. The question of whether or not to remain socially connected to friends and family back home while abroad is one I’ve dealt with plenty of times in a lot of different ways. Allowing yourself to be immersed in the people and cultures that you’re visiting is the best way to travel, in my opinion, and keeping your phone out of the equation is arguably the best way to do it… usually.
A month ago I landed on a chilly, cloud-covered runway in Keflavik, Iceland with the non-use of my cell phone a top priority. Everything came crashing down, however, when I arrived in Reykjavik’s city center and learned that huge pockets of the city were hosting the resident temptress… free wi-fi. The endless possibilities of life on wi-fi came racing to the front of my mind… envy-inducing Facebook and Twitter updates about where I was (disguised in an “I landed safely!” message, of course), foreign Foursquare check-ins to make even the most prominent NYC mayors jealous, Instagram photos of alien landscapes, and countless more.
It didn’t take long to give in. Two hours into my humble, technology-less trip to Iceland, I was as social as I’d ever been. I was sharing updates, photos, and stories at breakneck speed, delighted in the immediately positive response from my social graph. Now, I know what you’re thinking… I spoiled my chances at an immersive cultural experience by bowing to the pleasures of social media, ruining my trip. Well, you couldn’t be any more wrong.
Only a day into my forays in foreign social media, I had already gained a legion of new Instagram followers who were keen on seeing Iceland through the unique lenses the program offers. Good friends of mine that I’d been trying to convince to travel here and strangers alike were planning trips just minutes after they’d gotten their first dose of Iceland’s incredible landscapes. For anyone who knows me, one of my biggest goals in traveling abroad is to inspire others to do the same, and I couldn’t have been happier by the result.
Arriving with no plans in terms of lodgings, my friend Mary (who had joined me in Iceland from Dublin) and I happened to meet a duo of travelers from Spokane, Washington. After a quick chat about their impressive digs (a modern condo on Reykjavik’s most popular street), it was agreed that we would stay with them in exchange for taxi service around the country, as we had rented a car. Using Facebook to keep in touch with them and let each other know where we were and when we would be back, we couldn’t have been any more thankful for the ability to use social media abroad.
A lucky combination of twitter updates, foursquare check-ins and couchsurfing.com visits allowed me to meet and network with people from all over the world during our sun-splashed nights out on the town (the sun set for a mere 2 hours a night, Iceland being in the Arctic). Reykjavik is a small city, and I found the people I had talked with on travel sites before I arrived in Iceland, people I would have never otherwise met, were easy to find thanks to social media connectivity.
In one instance, an Icelandic soccer player on his way home at 4 in the morning spotted my twitter handle on the back of my Big Fuel softball tee, and struck up a conversation with Mary and I about twitter. By the end of it, we had of course agreed to follow each other, and he recommended a day trip from Reykjavik to a place a lot of foreigners don’t know about called Glymur. Mary and I took the recommendation and made the trip the next day, a long hike that ended in the single most beautiful piece of scenery I’d ever seen in the form of Iceland’s tallest waterfall.
All in all, it’s impossible to imagine what our trip would have been like without social media. We wouldn’t have met any of the people we did, wouldn’t have had an incredibly nice place to stay, wouldn’t have found the hidden gems we found, and wouldn’t have expanded our network as much as we did through its use. I’m not telling you to rely on social media when traveling abroad, but I do think our minds should remain open to its use. You never know where it’ll take you.