Instead of standing in awe in front of natural wonders, I’ve lately been distracted by the sheer number of selfies going on (and by the inadvertent poke of a selfie stick). Tourists show up to a historical monument that has deep meaning, take one photo and immediately take off — without pausing to absorb the significance of the spot.
This is what it means to travel the world in the age of social media, where it’s more about sharing a stunning virtual postcard and less about the wonder and adventure of the journey.
According to survey data shared this year from Booking.com, many people admit to choosing a travel destination based on how it will be perceived on social media. They are on a quest to earn points among in-real-life and virtual friends by “discovering” the newest, coolest, most off-the-beaten-trail-est kind of place.
Once they get there, they often experience it through a cellphone lens instead of with their own senses.
This depressing fact deeply resonates with me. As an on-again, off-again travel blogger, my travel plans over the last 10 years have been heavily influenced by what I discover and what I can share on Instagram. I’ve taken the requisite shots in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower and in Tokyo at Shibuya Crossing, and I’ve relished comments from friends and strangers who traveled to Slovenia or the island of Curaçao after seeing my posts.
At its best, social media as travel guide exposes you to places you might never have considered while showcasing the beauty of countries, cities, or corners often overlooked. But it also limits the way we experience the world, contributing to overtourism (and its very real implications for climate change and carbon emissions) while eroding the sense of wonder and human connection that result from immersion in an unfamiliar place.
What do we lose when we travel for the 'gram? A genuine connection to those around us, the people who live and work and serve us in a place that we’ve traveled hundreds of miles to experience. You can’t experience it if you’re constantly logging on, and you can’t stumble over an unexpected gem if you’re sticking to your Google Maps route.
The pervasive nature of social media has forced me to take a deeper look at why and how I travel — especially as I struggle with whether to keep travel blogging. I’m not immune to the powerful dopamine release of gathering likes, and I’m definitely guilty of booking trips to align with my Instagram aesthetic, which leans toward blue skies, turquoise seas, and colorful buildings.
But if I’m mainly viewing my travels through a screen — and constantly trying to shape my trip’s narrative in real time — am I taking the time to truly appreciate where I am?
Being loosely connected to the world of travel blogging means my social media feeds are full of people who travel full time and make money from presenting their destinations to look as enticing as possible. I’ve been on the other side of that lens all too often and know that the experience is rarely as picture-perfect as it seems. For every brilliantly filtered, captioned, and hashtagged photo, there are uncomfortable situations the never get mentioned — delayed flights, lumpy hotel beds, food poisonings.
The best, most memorable moments in travel are often the ones that can’t be captured in a filtered frame or summarized in a pithy caption. But when we only share the highlights, we also create a false ideal: When people follow the social media guide to travel, it’s easy to be disappointed by the chaos and imperfection that awaits in real life. In reality, the disasters are as much a part of the travel experience as the highlights.
This isn’t a plea for a mass digital detox, but rather a reminder of the joy that can come from the unexpected. Instead of packing the selfie stick, ask a stranger to take your photo. Take out your earbuds and say hello (maybe even in the local language). Put down Yelp and ask your taxi driver the best place to get a cheap and authentic dinner.
The constant search for the perfect and the photogenic, and the planning of a vacation around what will play on Instagram, won’t deliver on the promise of what travel does best: expose you to the good, the bad, and the beautiful of an unfamiliar place.
Christine Amorose Merrill is a travel and lifestyle blogger based in San Diego. She can be found on Instagram at @cestchristine. A version of this piece first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.