Smartphones have made traveling a lot easier. But they have a downside too.
Story Faculty

Smartphones Have Made Travel a Lot Easier. But They Have a Downside, Too.

Jeanne Ricci

As we start planning our summer vacations, CSU Chico's Dr. Matthew Stone cautions us to use our devices wisely.

Smartphones have made traveling a lot easier. But they have a downside too.

​Your phone does an amazing job of capturing images of your vacation, but be sure not to spend too much time staring at a screen or you'll miss many of the sights, smells and sounds of a new place.


It's almost summer, when, according to AAA, one-third of Americans will strike out for the open road. As you pack your bags, you should feel quite a bit lighter than you did even a couple of decades ago, says Matthew J. Stone, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of recreation, hospitality, and parks management at California State University, Chico.

Consider all the things you don't need anymore, says Dr. Stone: Your mobile device has replaced your wallet, tickets, boarding passes, itinerary, maps, camera and film, books to read, guidebooks, a deck of cards and other games, address book, and music.

"When I teach tourism, I start with the history of travel, including what it was like to travel 30 years ago with a printed ticket," says Stone. "If you lost it, you were out of luck."

What We Expect From Travel Now

Technology has altered, too, our sense of connectedness when we travel. You can be backpacking in the Alps and text your mom a photo of the fondue you enjoyed for lunch, or instant message your spouse from thousands of miles away to remind her to feed the cat. 

Twenty-five years ago, you sent postcards or letters or went to a shop to make a costly phone call home. The sense of being truly disconnected from anything or anyone familiar could be both disconcerting and very exciting. Nowadays, disconnecting means shutting off your device, which, when it's your guidebook, map and camera, isn't always so easy.

Our basic expectations about the travel experience have shifted as a result. It's not enough to visit popular sights and stay at a Marriott — we want to embed in the community. Airbnb and VRBO allow us to live (for a time) among the locals, to feel part of the city or landscape we are visiting. Eatwith embraces this idea as well; the online service connects travelers seeking unique, immersive experiences with hosts ranging from home cooks to Michelin-starred chefs in more than 130 countries. 

Information overload is another potential pitfall of travel-related technology, warns Stone. Before the dawn of Expedia, we called a travel agent to find the cheapest airfare and book a hotel. Now we summon up thousands of flights, hundreds of rooms, scores of restaurant reviews, and umpteen car rental deals, all in seconds. The sheer volume of available choices makes travel planning overwhelming. 

With information so accessible, are travel agents even a thing anymore? Absolutely, says Stone. No longer simply booking agents, successful travel professionals today are destination experts who can create custom travel experiences you won't find in a guidebook. They can open doors to upgrades, VIP access, and travel credits, too.

While technology can bring us closer to authentic experiences, it is also a barrier. "I think we forget to see things when we travel," says Stone. "We look through the screen of our phones instead of seeing the views with our own eyes."

This summer, he suggests noticing how many tourists are not interacting with their surroundings, who are instead peering into a screen. "We can forget to smell the smells and feel the breeze, to just let the world go by," says Stone; we should not be content to hold up a phone, take a picture, then text it to our friends.

His best advice? "Put down the phone and enjoy where you are and who you are with, in the moment." 

​​​Dr. Matthew Stone's Top Travel Tips

  • Maps: "I ask for a map at the hotel. You can follow directions with Google Maps, but a fold-out map gives you the lay of the land, making it easier to explore and it doesn't drain your battery or use data."

  • Guidebooks: "If you spend $1,000 on a vacation, spend another $25 on a guidebook. It offers practical advice about getting around, buying a metro pass (and how to use it), the cheapest (or fastest) way to get in from the airport to the city center. Guidebooks share the history, neighborhoods and local culture, enriching your travel experience. Caveats: I don't use a guidebook to find hotels and I only use it sometimes for restaurants when I don't want to read through dozens of online reviews."

  • Places: Stone enjoys what he calls "secondary and tertiary cities where people live "regular lives." This may be St. Louis or Sacramento or Chattanooga. Abroad, it could be Gothenburg, Sweden, or Turin, Italy. 

  • Websites & Apps: Here are some of Stone's favorites:

    For the cheapest flights (if your travel dates are flexible): For flight-search apps, Stone uses Kayak and Momondo. "Momondo can find some ridiculously low fares from online travel agencies," says Stone," but you may not earn frequent flier miles on all tickets."

    For hotels: "I am loyal to I prefer its reviews over TripAdvisor. I also use Hotwire, which sells unsold rooms; it saves me money because I often don't care which property it is -- a 4-star hotel in downtown Denver? Sounds good to me."

    For itineraries: 
    "With Tripit, you email your hotel, car rentals, flights, trains, etc. and it puts them into organized itineraries ... Trails tracks how far I've walked and allows me to revisit my itineraries."

    For calling home from the road: "Whatsapp is my go-to to communicate back home when overseas (using wi-fi instead of cellular service) because I often don't add an international texting or phone plan." 

    For support: "Cranky Concierge help travelers with planning as well as with delayed and cancelled flights."

Hospitality Industry