I was sitting in a hostel in Munich two years ago, laptop open and writing emails to a long list of neglected family members, when I paused to peer over the lid of my battered machine; I’d been in Europe for several months by that stage in early August, and the once pristine, silver facade of my Toshiba was now showing signs of serious neglect.
Milling around reception was a group of increasingly frustrated travellers waiting for a computer to become available. I didn’t envy them. Most hostels only have a handful of machines, most of which usually pre-date Windows 98. To a younger generation who don’t remember 33.6k, writing an email on a hostel computer feels like you’ve been teleported back to the Stone Age. Frustrating doesn’t come close.
But if you had your own machine, you’re on easy street. Back in 2009, bandwidth was bountiful; few travellers brought their own laptops for fear of them being stolen or destroyed. Smart phones were not the ubiquitous devices they now are. I could write an email, chat on Skype and download 300 on Bit Torrent all at the same time.
Two years later, the explosion in smart phones, and the number of people using them, has completely revolutionised how travellers keep in touch.
Common areas in hostels are now full with people cradling an iPhone in one hand and a beer in the other. Few need directions to the nearest internet cafe, unless they are printing plane tickets. The short, simple emails that smart phones are best equipped to handle are perfect for backpackers. Skype for iPhone and Android makes the mandatory call home quick, easy and cheap. Maps can be downloaded from the hostel and carried around as you explore. You don’t even need a chunky Lonely Planet guidebook; simply download the appropriate city or country app.
Having trouble with the local language? Just download a Spanish/English phrase book. There are even apps now that translate signs in real time using the iPhone’s built-in camera.
Some of the more well-heeled backpackers are now packing iPads. There has been much discussion about whether tablets will carve a profitable niche in the personal device market, but after travelling for four months, I’m convinced that, if nothing else, they are perfect for international travel. iPads aren’t quite there, yet, with a lack of removable memory and decent photo editing software the main pitfalls for most travellers. But they are close.
After two years away, I’m back in Munchen for what my friend Cal once described as Disneyland for Adults, the annual celebration of beer and sitting down for hours drinking it known as Oktoberfest.
There will be three certainties: the weather will be cold, the beer colder and, with every second person owning an iPhone, the wifi intolerably slow.
Ben Oliver is a freelance journalist and former tour guide taking an extended holiday, or mini retirement if you will, across Europe until the money runs out or his girlfriend gets sick of him. Whichever comes first. He also blogs at Five Travel Rules.