How Facebook is Ruining Solo Travel

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t done in years: I stayed in a youth hostel.

My wife was away on a student trip with her school. I was traveling solo. I thought staying in a hostel would be a cool place to meet other travelers.

Hue BungalowAlso, this “hostel,” on the outskirts of Hue (pronounced “Hway”) in central Vietnam, offered private bungalows on the beach for 30 US dollars, so I wasn’t exactly slumming it.

I spent a couple of days snoozing on the beach, which was idyllic and all, but once the sun went down, I found myself thinking, “Hmmm, I should go have scintillating conversations with scintillating travelers.”

See… back in the 20th century, when I was a young, solo-traveling whippersnapper, travelers would talk to each other. It might have been in a hostel bar or kitchen. Or we might have found people loitering in the lobby and go hang out. We’d trade travel tales and work our way toward next-day hangovers. Most of these fast-formed friendships would last only a couple of days, though I still keep in touch with a few friends I met decades ago.

But on this trip to Hue, I discovered one does not do that anymore. One of the great joys of solo travel has ended – and it’s Facebook’s fault.

On my first night, I went to the bar and ordered a beer. Then I ordered another. I hung out for a couple of hours. All night, I spoke with no one other than a waitress. I didn’t even make eye contact with anyone.

This happened again on the second night.

Both nights, there were six or eight other travelers in the bar, but nobody was speaking to anyone. Even people traveling with other people were not talking to each other. Instead, everyone was fixated on their phone screens – for hours.

This is what Facebook, and an infinite tangle of other “social media” apps, have done to travel. They have made us anti-social.

Dude! Put away your phone! You're missing out on beach time!

Dude! Put away your phone! You’re missing out on beach time!

Updating our statuses has become an obsessive need. We must show our friends how cool our life is in the moment. We must brag about where we are and what we are eating. We must then wait for our friends at home, who are suffering at work, to “like” our statuses. Then, we must remain online so we can respond to their envious swoons and snarky retorts.

If we do not do this, our travels do not feel validated. Our trips do not seem worthwhile. If we are not on Facebook, boasting about our amazing adventures, it feels as if our adventures aren’t happening.

What’s happening instead, however, is we’re not really having adventures. We are seeing the world through backward reflections in our selfie-driven phone screens. We’re trading real experiences for social media validation. We are losing time, on trips we’ve spent a lot of money to go on, looking at the latest pics of our friends, our friends’ kids, or our friends’ ferrets; reading the latest pro- or anti-Trump rant; watching cat videos; looking at snapshots of our friends’ vacations – when we could be having real, in-person conversations with real people, interesting people, people we are almost guaranteed to bond with because we are having parallel adventures.

By blathering for hours on Facebook about how cool our travel experiences are, we are missing out on cool travel experiences.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just a curmudgeon. Maybe I should stop waning nostalgic about the good old days. I’m 47 now. Who the hell do I think I am suggesting the millennial generation should travel the same way I did?

But people! And not just millennials! All of you! You know what? Your cool travel adventures would be cooler if you’d put your phone away and talk to people. Our planet is full of fascinating characters with fascinating stories. Bury yourself in hours of social media, and you’re missing out on real, potentially life-altering social experiences. You are watering down your travels, turning them into obsessive quests to show your friends online how much fun you’re having.

Instead, have some actual fun!

My third night in Hue, I finally connected with someone. Alex was a backpacker from Paris. My French was at about the same level as his English so we traded beer-fueled language lessons for a couple of hours.

Two days later, checking out of a different hostel in Danang, I met Carolyn, an American who had lived in intriguing places like Romania and Kyrgyzstan. With a couple of hours to kill before afternoon flights, we wandered around Danang and had fascinating conversations.

I met new real-world friends because I didn’t spend my evenings taking photographs of my passion-fruit mojitos.

Back home in Saigon a week later, I caught up with Alex and Carolyn as they were passing through. I introduced them to my Vietnamese friends, and to things most tourists don’t experience. We’re in touch now – yes, on Facebook. We’ll stay in touch, and likely cross paths again, somewhere in the world.

So I’m not entirely anti-Facebook. Yeah, it’s a useful tool for keeping in touch, and when we post interesting things on Facebook about our travels, things that go beyond the sneery “Look how cool my life is today! You are jealous!” sputterings that have become socially acceptible on social media, it can be a useful tool for recording and sharing our journeys.

But tell a quick story; then put your phone away. Scope out a local resident or another traveler who isn’t lost in the Internet. Smile. Say hello. Ask them what their story is. You’ll stay more present in your travel experiences.

Your Facebook friends might not have as many opportunities to “like” your journey. But you’ll like it better yourself.

Published on Sunday, December 6, 2015

3 Responses to “How Facebook is Ruining Solo Travel”

  1. December 9, 2015 at 8:48 PM

    My husband and I have also noticed this trend. I make a point not to take my phone with me when we go out to dinner, and we reach out to other travelers. But maybe it’s a generational thing. More and more, people are totally absorbed in their phones, and I think it is changing the fabric of social interaction in a not-so-positive way. Being conscious of the issue is the first step in changing behaviors. Thanks for writing about this.

  2. Joan Lindsay Kerr
    December 10, 2015 at 6:33 AM

    Will you believe that I completely agree with you after seeing my daily updates from Thailand these past few days? I have actually worried a lot about this trend, and have made a pledge to put the tablet away when I am with people. It comes out early in the morning or at night when we return to the hotel… but it also serves as my own reminder of what we did each day, as this trip has left very little time for taking notes during the day. (I DID have my trusty little notepad, though, and it has illegible notes about foods, smells, crowds, and fun!).

  3. KC
    March 23, 2016 at 11:39 AM

    Not just facebook, but include high-tech cell phones in this. Between the ease of accessing social media AND taking pictures of everything, people are missing out on actually experiencing life. Recently went to the Art Institute in Chicago to see the Van Gogh’s Bedroom exhibit, and could hardly get close enough to look at the paintings without people jumping in to take a photo on their phone and posting it. There were very few people who were actually there to simply enjoy the presentation, most seemed to be focused on ‘sharing’ the exhibit without really seeing it!

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