Trains, Planes, and Free Wi-Fi: A Digital Native’s Travel Guide

Jul 02, 2015

In early June, I went on vacation-a real vacation. I have to clarify this because for anyone who knows me, my "vacations" usually consist of visiting a family member or friend a few states away, not jetting down to the Caribbean for a week at a beachfront hotel. I'm boring that way. This time, I decided to break the pattern and fly to Europe for ten days of relaxation. I hadn't been overseas since 2008, and I was itching for some culture. While I found plenty of culture on my journey (as well as overpriced souvenirs), I also found that in the seven years since my last international flight, traveling has changed quite a bit... for the better.

Now before you stop reading, I'm not claiming that traveling has become a breeze since 2008. Security lines haven't gotten faster and airplane seats haven't gotten any more spacious. But technology has come a long way since 2008, and its progression has directly influenced the ease with which I travel, and the amount of enjoyment I get out of it. And I'm not the only one. Here are a few things I learned during my most recent trip abroad.

First, Millenials love free Wi-Fi. Like, really love free Wi-Fi, to the point where many younger travelers will not stay at a certain hotel or hostel if it doesn't have free Wi-Fi. Years ago, a continental breakfast included with your stay was the key to a perfect European vacation. Now, if a Millenials's phone, tablet, camera, and laptop don't all hook up to Wi-Fi and perform well while they stream, tweet, click, and post, young travelers aren't going to fork over their credit card for a room key.

Yes, being connected is that important.

For example, during my stay in Amsterdam, I had more than one conversation over watery tea and toast with Nutella about my hotel's terribly slow Wi-Fi connection. I'm usually relatively patient with that stuff, but this was just painful. I wasn't alone. It didn't matter if the person sitting next to me was Swedish, Italian, French, or Chinese--we all knew how to say "bad Wi-Fi."

But the great Wi-Fi hunt didn't end with my hotel. While sightseeing throughout the day, at pretty much every major landmark I visited-from Westminster Abbey to the Van Gogh museum-there were signs for "free Wi-Fi." Restaurants along major tourist routes advertised their free internet with signs in the windows. For foreign travelers like me, this was a huge draw. After all, was I really going to wait until I was back at my hotel to post pictures from my day? Absolutely not.

The second major revelation I had during my travels was that some apps are more important than others when you are 3,000 miles from home. Case in point: Viber, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. Sure these apps are popular with Millenials who want to avoid texting fees from their phone carrier while at home, but once you are faced with the realization that you have to cough up $40+ for text messaging and calling service while overseas, these apps become your lifeline.

Remember the days of buying a phone card when you are traveling? What about calling collect? Gone. Now you just "snap" someone on Snapchat or give them a call for free on Viber. I met multiple travelerss, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands, who solely communicated with their friends and family through Snapchat or WhatsApp. And why shouldn't they? It's free, right? Almost. You need to be connected to Wi-Fi or you'll be charged for data use. Still, it's better than signing up for an international plan with your phone carrier.

I also learned that Disney was right to ban selfie sticks, and I now hope that every other major tourist destination around the world will consider doing the same. Have you ever been poked in the eye by one selfie stick, only to be jabbed in the rib by another? I have. No picture of you at Big Ben is worth that pain.

Here's the thing: I spend a good amount of time thinking about advancing digital media. It seems that even when I'm on vacation I can't escape it. And what I've realized is, traveling brings out our most core needs as digital consumers. Electric plug to charge our device of choice at the airport? Check. Free Wi-Fi at the hotel bar? Check. A quick and inexpensive way to connect with people even while we leap frog from one country to the next? Check and check.

Innovation is a wonderful thing, but these basic consumer needs are what drive us. After all, what's the point of having an Apple Watch if it doesn't meet our basic needs? In order to get to the next big digital revelation, we have to reexamine the core needs of our customers. Only then can we build up and out, and catch our customer's attention along the way. Also, it doesn't hurt to offer free Wi-Fi.