Seeing the World Without a Smart Phone: How Technology Has Changed Solo Travel

Solo travel is easier than ever. But have gadgets stolen the charm of discovery?

Tourist taking picture of Notre Dame cathedral with smart phone, personal perspective view

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

We're dedicating our April features to all things solo travel. Whether it’s a soul-searching hike, a decompressing beach trip, or an invigorating urban getaway, tackling the world as a solo traveler has become safer, easier, and more empowering. Dive into this month's features to learn strategies for making friends while solo and the ways technology has changed the solo travel experience, then get lost in inspiring stories of bus journeys through Africa, a voyage to Mount Fuji, a social experiment in South Korea, and a solo bikepacking birthday celebration.

In May 2005, fresh out of college, I hopped on a plane to London for my first solo trip, a two-week tour of the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France. There I was, out on my own, feeling mature and worldly—and seriously jetlagged.

This is probably why, when I exited the London Underground and realized I had gotten off a stop early, I did not do the intelligent thing and get back on the train. Instead, I peered at my map (ripped from the pages of a guidebook) and the street signs, desperately trying to figure out where I was and how to get to my hostel, very aware that I was alone and lost in a foreign country.

If only I had access to Google Maps.

Even though it was less than twenty years ago, how I navigated and communicated on that trip sounds like it came straight out of the Stone Age. Cell phones were rare. Digital cameras were bulky and expensive. Internet cafes were still a thing.

Those of a certain age who have traveled solo have undoubtedly had experiences like mine, where lack of technology has left them feeling lost, vulnerable, or just disappointed. But today's solo travelers are experiencing the world in a completely different way. Rapid technological advances in the last few decades have changed every aspect of our lives, but they have particularly impacted the way travelers can navigate the world alone.


How I navigated and communicated on that trip sounds like it came straight out of the Stone Age. Cell phones were rare. Digital cameras were bulky and expensive. Internet cafes were still a thing.

Today, maps are interactive and have real-time GPS. Restaurant and sightseeing recommendations are just a few keyboard taps away. You can pretend to text on your phone, so that weirdo who keeps hitting on you gets the hint. When you're ready to unwind, you can listen to music or fire up Netflix.

Keeping in touch with people back home is easier than ever. I can video chat with my husband across an ocean, a fact that still blows my mind when I think back to that 2005 trip when I used internet cafes and a prepaid phone card to keep in touch with my parents and assure them that, no, their only child had not met an untimely end. And on a business trip to London in February 2020, I felt safe wandering around the city by myself knowing that, should I stop communicating, my husband could use location tracking across the ocean to find out where I was.

Many solo travelers agree. Kaeshi Chai, a Gen X visual artist who’s been solo traveling for thirty years, said technology provides the peace of mind that comes with knowing she can easily use her phone to source directions or call someone. "Help is just a phone call away,” says Chai, who notes that smartphones remove the hassle of having to deal with getting foreign coins for the nearest payphone.

The advances have also been enormously helpful in making female solo travelers find comfort in exploring alone. “A huge part of solo travel as a woman is safety," said Gabby Beckford, a 26-year-old content creator at Packs Light. “Feeling safe and feeling not alone is important to women especially.” Beckford says that the proliferation of blogs and articles about solo traveling have also contributed to women feeling more confident taking trips by themselves.

But for all the good that comes with the ubiquity and ease of our gadgets, there are downsides. While travelers could once forget about their regular lives and be unreachable when they went on vacation, today's constant connection makes it harder than ever to leave concerns about home or even work behind.

This is especially true when solo travel is part of your job. Kevin Garcia, a 43-year-old full-time musician, says he likes being able to respond to work emails during downtime at the airport, but that constant contact is a double-edged sword. “It is sometimes a little bit hard to power down and leave the phone for however long you want to turn off,” he said. “If you don’t set boundaries for yourself, it can add to that stress level.”

Likewise, Lisa Martens, a millennial freelance writer and digital nomad, says setting parameters when you’re working as you travel is essential. "I definitely have to draw clear boundaries, but I have gotten better at that,” she said. “I am not always reachable, and I do this on purpose. The downsides of constant contact on the internet have actually caused me to be more assertive and more protective of my time, so I'm not mad about it."

While travelers could once forget about their regular lives and be unreachable when they went on vacation, today's constant connection makes it harder than ever to leave concerns about home or even work behind.

Social media has also exploded in popularity over the last two decades, changing the way we learn about travel and experience the destinations we’re at. Where vacation photos were once relegated to slideshows and photo albums days or weeks after the trip ended, now people can instantaneously upload their pics to followers around the world with the click of a button. Social media also makes it easier to find and keep up with fellow travelers you meet on your journeys, maybe just out of politeness or curiosity, or maybe to build a lifelong friendship.

But while social media is a great medium for discovering new places and people, it’s easy to slip into seeing a destination through your camera. How much can you really enjoy a museum or restaurant when you’re constantly thinking of what angle to take a picture from to post on the 'gram? How many “secret” beaches or special restaurants have been overrun with tourists once people started posting jealousy-inspiring shots of them?

“Because of the desire to post on social media, I see people traveling to see things rather than experience things,” says Janice Waugh, a Baby Boomer travel writer and publisher of Solo Traveler. “It's important to forget about reporting on a trip and live the trip fully.”

Ever since smartphones became commonplace, my solo trips have been meticulously planned out, complete with pins on Google Maps, restaurant recommendations from the internet, and places other people have posted about on social media. But sometimes part of the fun of a trip is taking a wrong turn and stumbling on a cute little bistro or tiny shop off the beaten path, or feeling a sense of triumph overcoming a language barrier.

What do we lose when we become tethered to our technology when we travel alone? What discoveries do we miss out on when our phones dictate our itineraries, or because we’re too busy rushing to the next picturesque spot to take photos? How many times have we missed making connections with people because all of our questions are answered on the internet?

“Technology has taken a little of the charm away from discovery and figuring stuff out,” says Garcia. “There’s no sense of that kind of accomplishment when you can figure it out on your phone.”

Technology is here to stay, in travel and everywhere else, but on my next solo trip, I’m going to make an effort to keep my phone in my purse, let myself wander off the beaten path, and embrace discovering the unknown.

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