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Backpackers, Bucks and Techno Travel

By October 8, 2006

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I can't imagine traveling without my laptop these days any more than I could imagine it a few years ago, but for different reasons -- I'd have never looked for a wifi connection (in fact, although someone was doubtless clued in, I doubt we computer commoners knew what wifi was then) and the thing weighed a zillion pounds. Last night, though, as I hopped on the free wifi from a couch in my hostel's common area, I noted that out of seven of us loungers, five were tapping on laptops. And two of those folks were actually headed out, or they might very well have hauled forth their own laptops. Regardless, five out of seven is a lot of laptop luggers in one hostel living room.

San Francisco's Adelaide Hostel owner Gerard O'Boyle told me this weekend that he estimates a full 50% of his guests are packing laptops these days; a 2005 Hostelworld.com survey put the laptop haulers at 21%, and we all know that cell phones and iPods are as common as ramen among international backpack travelers today. Some are calling these gadget-packing travelers flashpackers, but a true flashpacker has some flash in the money belt, too; a good flashpacker description might be he who rides a chicken bus with a laptop in his backpack and a high-limit credit card in his money belt. We could amplify that by adding that he's on the way to a private hostel room or even some hoity hotel digs, but he'll be treading the backpacker trail right alongside the shoestring travelers.

If O'Boyle's estimate is correct, then the percentage of backpackers carrying flashpacker gear is higher than the slice of Americans who have passports (which happens to be 27%). That means that laptop-lugging backpackers will shortly be the rule rather than the exception, and hostels like O'Boyle's Adelaide are poised to serve 'em -- the charming downtown San Francisco digs boasts five broadband lines coming in, accessible from every bunk in the place. And as O'Boyle told me, it should be free -- if a hostel's got the wifi for the desk, the joint may as well let it fly.

That's not yet the case in my experience, though -- in my travels this spring, I sprinted through Western Europe, London, and the Eastern U.S. with nary a hostel-hosted airwave in sight. Part of the trip was spent with EF Tours, which chooses some lovely budget digs for its tour-takers, but the best wifi deal any of the hotels offered was $8/day. And the wifi was not to be found at any price in the London Piccadilly Circus hostel nor New York's Chelsea hostel I checked out, though the NYC neighbors' waves were free for the borrowing (things may have changed in the free hostel-wifi world since).

I'm on my way to Australia --the annual World Youth and Student Travel Conference followed by a tour of Oz's East coast -- and I'll be interested in a couple of things: whether the backpacker travel powers that be have a new marketing moniker for the young and young-at-heart backpackers without the bucks but with the gear, or whether that's just the profile of a long-term "budget" traveler these days. And I'll be interested in whether I can find the wifi in my travels -- in the few months' interim since I was last on the road, perhaps the new backpackers' cry ("Where's the free wifi?") has been heard, as is the case here on SF's Isadora Duncan Place. To be on the safe side, I've got my trusty keychain-sized wifi finder in my pocket. I'll keep you posted -- provided I don't have the wifi woes.

Related: EF Tours | Internet and Travel | All About Hostel Life | European Hostels With Free Wifi

Photos: Top and bottom (c) Kathleen Crislip
October 12, 2006 at 5:17 am
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