I’m old enough to remember the chokehold Lonely Planet guides had over holidays. If you were visiting a country you’d never been to before, you hightailed it to the local second-hand bookstore and picked up The Bible – a tattered copy of the Lonely Planet for that region. Written by a handful of travel writers, each edition gave you the bones of your itineraries – where to stay, what to see. We figured the rest out as we went.
These days, Lonely Planet still has its place (I love a hefty travel guide, and I won’t deny it) but the tomes have been eclipsed by social media. Not just travel influencers, but location hashtags. 30 second TikTok guides. Review Reels. We mindlessly scroll through suggestion after suggestion for months, sometimes years prior to travelling – saving Instagram-worthy spot after Instagram-worthy spot, bucket list meal after bucket list meal.
Planning a holiday has gone from choosing between a careful edit of accom options to sifting through the overwhelming coverage online of cheap-chic motels through to luxury Airbnbs.
Instead of stumbling on that quintessentially New York pizza joint around the corner from our stay, we’ve got an arms-length list of restaurants that celebrities frequent, spots that hotshot chefs choose to dine at, dive bars where you must go to the bathroom with the clear door that's all over TikTok, you have to get the margarita, it’s the best in the world according to [insert popular foodie site here], you must sit in the hot pink booth, it's perfect for your next Hinge photo.
Once we get to wherever we're going, the stress multiplies. We hit up the tourist spots and all these must-do's, taking not one, but 123 shots to ensure we get The One. Then, we sit over meals sifting through and editing these photos mid-trip. We make a casual photo dump. We act like we barely gave it thought.
I’m not judging, this is literally me. I realised it on my recent trip to Thailand – my first since the pandemic.
It started from the minute I’d booked flights. I was trawling #Samui and #Phuket. I didn't want good beaches and good shopping strips, I wanted the BEST beaches and the BEST shopping strips. I wanted turquoise beaches but ones void of tourists, not the obvious but also ones I’d pre-vetted via other adventurous tourists and their content. I formed the perfect list like my holiday would be awful if I didn't do everything just right.
Once there, I felt tied to my phone as I Googled and TripAdvisored and hashtag-searched every day, anxious about missing a must-see or must-do. Sure, I had my list – but what if I'd missed something? If I turned up to a place and it was a letdown, the anxiety just increased. If I turned up to a place and it wasn't a letdown, the anxiety just manifested in needing to get great photos of it.
This was most obvious when we were cruising Phi Phi Island on a longboat. The sun was shining after days of overcast drizzle, the water as turquoise blue, and we were stopping just off the beach to dive in. But could I relax and enjoy the moment? Hell no. "This is incredible," I thought to myself. "I'd be crazy not to take heaps of content."
We’ve all become more aware of how we use and consume social media when travelling, because for two years we barely went anywhere. Now, that slow creep of social documenting that formed its grip on us over the last few years is way more apparent.
“I never realised just how anxious people are to capture The Moment on social media until I visited Auschwitz a few years ago,” Jana* tells Refinery29. “At the site of one of the world’s most horrific atrocities, I was in tears, but there were people all around me taking selfies, posing in front of the gas chambers and throwing up peace signs to the camera. It wasn't just disrespectful – it was really upsetting."
Just searching #auschwitz will bring up photo after photo like this. It’s obviously the most extreme version of documenting our travels in a problematic way, but this kind of “look, I was HERE” social coverage, regardless of the mood of the place, is replicated for every major historical site. It’s far more concerning when the site in question is one that elicits deep sorrow and reflects a horror we hope to never see again. But this hashtag and how we use it is reflective of what's wrong with all of this.
We can’t even experience a place like Auschwitz without feeling the need to prove we were there.
I am more than guilty of this, although I can at least say I’ve never tried to look cute or hot at a place of mourning. Still, I’ve definitely disengaged from the beauty or history of a tourist spot and focused instead on getting my social content. I remember visiting this incredible cliff-drop that stood above a stunning beach on the Greek island of Zakynthos. My sister and I hiked up and glanced at it before joining the cluster of other phone-wielding tourists waiting to get the money shot.
I made her take 50 photos of me in various positions – sitting, laughing “candidly”, posing in an ironically cheesy way. The stress peaked – would she get The Shot? I checked the 20 my sister had taken. More, my chin looked weird. Another 20. More – I wanted them to look more natural. Eventually, I was satisfied. One quick glance at the beach, and we were hiking back down.
Alicia knows this experience all too well. “My holiday in Cambodia came off the back of a period of time where I was obsessed with the aesthetic of travel bloggers and influencers' photos,” she tells Refinery29. “Taking notes of their attention to detail, I even wore a bright yellow dress on the day we were visiting the Golden Temple in Phnom Penh.”
Alicia got The Shot, but she wonders if it was worth it.
“I felt really good at the time,” she says, but says that the weight of getting The Shot kind of affected her whole tour of the Golden Temple. “I got the photo at the end of the tour, so it was constantly on my mind that I needed to get this photo at the end, and therefore I probably didn't immerse myself in the sightseeing experience as much.”
What is a travel moment if you spend most of the time documenting it these days? It’s a question we ask about most life experiences now. What is being engaged if you set up four family members with cameras around you, and take the perfect “ring shot” for the ‘Gram? Our intentions are often pure, at least to start with. We want to share our best times with those we love. But somewhere along the line, it turned into the best version of our best time.
Is this urgent need for social media perfection fine, given we live in such a digital age? Or is it toxic and gross?
I strongly believe it’s the latter, while also absolutely being a total hypocrite. I deeply feel the need to document it all. I also hate that I am this person. I fantasise about holidays I’ll take where I won’t bring my phone everywhere and will delete Insta and TikTok until I’m home. It never happens. Even when I have left my phone at our accommodation, I’ll snatch my boyfriend’s off of him so I can get some snaps.
So yeah, my relationship with social media before, during and after a holiday is revolting. But will I ever change? We’re documenting more and more of our lives online – TikTok and BeReal are encouraging us to literally film the most mundane aspects, so I hardly think we’ll move away from chronicling the more exciting parts.
Still, I wish I would. I’m old enough to remember those pre-smartphone, pre-social media halcyon days where there were no online distractions, at least not every hour. I miss that time, and I know it’s fuelled by nostalgia and a myriad of other bullshit but I get glimpses of it when my phone dies halfway through a day of travelling, and I have nothing else to do but to engage in my surroundings.
This happened once on my Thailand trip. We ended up at a ramshackle riverside restaurant with £2 beers, just people-watching. It was a highlight of my trip and so freeing, to be in the moment.
I wish I could find that without needing my phone to die first.