The one thing that has changed travel forever

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 28/11/2013
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SMART PHONES: They basically do everything a traveller could want, including taking photos.

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There was a problem with my first email address. It wasn't that I couldn't figure out how to use it properly, or that I'd rashly registered for "bonghits69" or anything like that.

The problem with my email address was that, as an early adopter, I didn't have anyone to send an email to. I was pretty much the only one of my friends who had an address.

I'd registered with the internets when I was 17, not because I'm a forward-thinking tech genius but because I was going travelling and it seemed like the smart thing to do. I could send letters without stamps! They'd arrive at the click of a button (and the whir of a modem)!

This was back in 1997, which, for the purposes of this story, we'll refer to as "my day". As in, "back in my day". Because back in my day, travel was much, much different.

I started thinking about this the other day when I was asked to speak about how the internet had changed travel.

I had five minutes to talk, but probably could have banged on for a few hours. The impact is huge, obviously - but it's not just the omnipresence of the web that has massively altered travel since my day.

One of the most important changes is that now, everyone travels. Back in 1997 I was an anomaly, the weird kid taking a risk by jetting off for a year to see the world, going to places some of my friends hadn't even heard of.

Travel wasn't a part of people's lives.

Now everyone's taking a family trip to Bali, or going skiing in New Zealand, or playing golf in Thailand. Everyone travels.

But what about the actual experience of travel? It's unrecognisable, right from the moment the alarm on your smartphone goes off each morning (I had to carry a clock on my first trip).

You don't wake up in some far-flung place and ponder what the day ahead will hold. You wake up in some far-flung place and grab your phone, log into the hostel wifi and check your emails, maybe read the paper from back home, check instagram, update your status on Facebook, take a quick selfie, and then, if there's still time, ponder what the day ahead will hold.

That day will carry far less mystery than it did 15 years ago because you're now in possession of the single most useful travelling tool I've ever come across: the smartphone.

The smartphone has changed everything. It's put email in your pocket, making it more difficult than ever to "get away from it all". "It" is all sitting next to your hotel room key and spare change, buzzing as it connects to the local wifi network.

The smartphone is travel. It's the chunky maps I used to unfold on the street and attempt to decipher. Now you load up the Google map at your hostel, find where you want to go, and just follow the blue dot.

It's the calls I used to make to hostels, or the time I'd spend trudging around a city looking for decent accommodation. That's done on an app now.

It's the stumbling I used to do when attempting to speak local languages. Now there are translator apps, or you can take a photo of the foreign characters and have them deciphered by the power of the interwebs.

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It's the multiple copies of itineraries I used to carry around. It's my plane tickets. It's my boarding pass. It's the camera I used. It's the guidebooks I lugged. It's the letters and postcards to friends. It's the dream of video chats with my parents.

But the changes don't stop at the smartphone in my pocket. I booked that 1997 trip with the aid of a travel agent - I wouldn't have considered doing it any other way. But it must be at least eight or nine years since I've even walked through an agent's door.

I would have asked friends for advice on that trip, but I didn't have the opportunity to canvas the opinions of millions of travellers via the crowdsourcing and review websites.

I had a stack of travellers cheques, the serial numbers painstakingly copied to multiple places, the cheques themselves spread throughout my backpack. I bought phone cards from newsagents. I posted letters from the post office.

I wanted to go to Syria. I didn't want to go to Cambodia. I wanted to wear a Wallabies jersey. I wanted to go to the Walkabout. And I wanted to send an email home.

I just didn't have anyone to send it to.

What's changed in travel since "your day"? Do you think the changes are good? Or bad? Has travel become easier? Or has it become less of an adventure? Post your comments below.

- FFX Aus

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