While waiting for a friend in her hostel lobby, I noticed something a little bit unsettling… everyone was plastered in front of their laptops.  A hostel, of all places, is usually where travelers go to meet other backpackers, share travel itineraries, awkwardly join tours together, and the first place to look for a wild night of debauchery.  Mind you, it was early, but a hostel in almost complete silence?  I was getting uncomfortable, so fished out my Blackberry from its secret hiding compartment in my backpack to check Facebook…

Damn it!  I just joined this crowd of Wi-Fi lovers. I instead just “checked the time” and snuggled my Blackberry back into its nesting place and picked up a book about some bus tour I didn’t care about.  Thank goodness for Aussie backpackers, because after five minutes of pretend reading, an Australian guy ran into the lobby with a hand-full of beers for his friends. My friend and I had other plans, but I am going to hope the story ended well with the whole lobby shutting their computers and engaging in some sort of backpacker festivities.

Café in St. Kilda, Melbourne, Australia

I can not point my finger at “other travelers” because I indeed have a Blackberry with me in Colombia, Wi-Fi in my apartment, and put in a solid 30 minutes to an hour of Facebook time each day.  That being said,  I think I have a “safe” relationship with Wi-Fi. I still prefer books to Internet any day and leave my Blackberry at home often.  I am trying to embrace the Internet and use it as a travel tool (the cost was included with the apartment, so might as well take advantage!)  Obviously the Internet is an amazing source of nonstop (and free) travel information and tools, so how can we make sure our relationship with Wi-Fi while traveling is helping us and not hurting us?

Ways I Let Wi-Fi Help Me for Free…

1. Phone calls:  It’s a no-brainer if you haven’t tried it.  Download it.  Use it.  It’s helpful for calling friends and family obviously, but it’s also a good tool for job interviews while abroad.  Skype can be slightly addicting (did we REALLY just talk with each other for two hours while I cooked dinner and you watched Weeds?!), so I like to set a time limit on my Skype calls.  There really is no point in paying for an international phone call unless it’s an emergency.

2. Practice Spanish (or French, Arabic, Japanese…):  My Colombian roommate is a religious LiveMocha user (used it to learn beginner’s English) and introduced me to this amazing site.  I’m pretty skeptical of language learning online, but this site includes all of the standard vocabulary/basic grammar, plus speaking practice with native speakers and pronunciation correction.  I’m not using it now, since I’m in real class and have real native speakers surrounding me, but It’s a good way to practice if you’re gearing up for a trip or want to continue language learning after travels abroad!

3. Embrace Podcasts: I’ve discovered podcasts (yes, I’m not too tech-savvy) and am in love.  I listen to news in Spanish while getting ready in the morning, recommend NPR for my English students, do a yoga class in the morning, and listen to a meditation before bed!

4. Flight Prediction:  Getting a good flight deal is oftentimes sheer luck, but I do at least find flight predictions interesting.  Bing Travel claims to predict the best time to buy tickets.  Would I trust it wholly?  No.  Is it good to enter in the information for your dream destination and check it out?  Absolutely.  I always have a few destinations monitored.. just in case that BOG to EZE flight miraculously drops below $300…

Life, and travel, is all about balance, so don’t be afraid to embrace the internet at times.  Just don’t forget that usually the best travel travel information and tools can be found in the form of a taxi driver, a native, or a fellow traveler.