Have Smartphones Hijacked the Travel Experience?


Let’s face it. Technology has certainly helped improve the travel experience: we can book and cancel flights with just a few taps, check out reviews of destinations and even connect with fellow travellers worldwide. And when a flight is abruptly cancelled that device in your hands allows you to skip the chaos at the airline counter and (hopefully) rebook with just a few clicks.

But have a close look at the photo above. I snapped it early Saturday morning at the Turkish Airlines lounge at Istanbul Airport. Except for one chap, all of these travellers in this group are glued to their devices - and in what I and many others consider to be one of the best airline lounges in the world!

Just a few hours earlier I was discussing with a small group of American journalists how, as I travel the globe and wander through airports, more and more travellers seem to be missing out on the wonder of travel. Instead of taking in the action around them, they are glued to their screens.

I can’t remember the last time someone declared that they’ve met that special ‘someone’ while travelling through an airport or while in the air. Now, with inflight wifi and the multichannel universe at our seats, there’s even more reason to avoid speaking to your seat mate.

Well, I find that sad. How many people have missed out on making a new friend, even meeting a potential life mate, because they were staring at their smartphone? And as we get hooked on that dopamine hit that comes with every smartphone interaction, are we diminishing our capability to interact spontaneously with fellow human beings? That was a discussion topic that came up the other night in Istanbul.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up my theory that digital devices are intruding on the travel experience. Just last week a friend tweeted from his vacation that he was struggling to adhere to his ‘digital detox’ - even with the strong lure of the beautiful beaches and sunsets in Miami. Not even these plentiful distractions could keep him off his devices, it seems. He’s not alone. It’s a phenomenon I hear about from friends and contacts around the world. Little wonder people who are hosting digital detox boot camps are struggling to meet demand.

So what to do? In airport lounges, I have honed the practice of putting my devices away after a short social media hit. Take in the world around you, engage with fellow travellers. Or just try to guess who’s going where and for what purpose. 

Engaging more with fellow travellers, you’ll be amazed at what can happen! As for me there’s plenty of examples I love sharing. There’s the time, famously reprinted by The New York Times, when I met Air Canada’s lone Afghan flight attendant on a Toronto to Edmonton flight. Mid-flight she tapped me on the shoulder and offered to read the palm of my hand as well as my soul! Or the flight from Paris to Toronto where the chap next to me spontaneously turned to me before takeoff, held up our champagne glasses and said “cheers.” We ended up chatting the entire trip and he later invited me to visit his chalet in the Swiss Alps!

At 30,000 feet I’ve met a wide host of fascinating travellers - ranging from bankers and cabin crew to diplomats and aid workers. Many have become good friends!

So next time you stroll into an airport lounge or board an airplane, take the time to look around you, make eye contact with other travellers and chat with your seat mates. You never know what might happen!