Should we prize other services over wi-fi while on the road?

What do you really want to connect with?
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The Independent Travel

Travellers fiddle a lot these days. Mainly they fiddle with electronic devices: tablets, laptops, and smartphones, flashing screens that demand attention even when the view beyond them might be of Sydney Harbour, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the temples at Angkor.

For those of us who can just about recall the old days, when spending two hours in an airport departure lounge was an excuse to do nothing more than search for unusual aircraft tailfins, this can still come as a surprise. For the rest of the travelling world, entire journeys are indelibly linked by another quest: the search for wi-fi.

This search – often followed by more prolonged fiddling to get your devices to work – has come to be a big deal in hotels and hostels around the world. The smarter ones know that many travellers will prioritise a fast connection over many other amenities, especially if it's free. Wi-fi or hot tub? Most, I am sure, would take the invisible string to the internet over the bubble bath. You can almost smell the relief in hostel common rooms where, hooked up again to a connected world, backpackers can tweet, like, and share images and observations to green-eyed onlookers.

On the other hand, a poor or expensive internet connection at your lodging can induce such frustration and loathing that at times it can feel like the hotel has set out to wound you personally and never again will you stay there. Should you arrive in a free wi-fi zone it is tempting to feel you have arrived in Avalon – and that you must immediately tell the world.

Looking beyond getting online, for a moment, the condition we'll call "wi-fimania" may seem a questionable development. By buying into the cult of wi-fi you're also buying into, in many cases, carrying expensive and sometimes heavy devices around with you. They'll also require power. And your attention.

The charm of that street-side café in Paris is not best appreciated by giving your attention to something on the table rather than the to-and-fro of everyday life going on around it. Then again, once connected there are reasons to celebrate beyond being able to communicate constantly. Online maps, and a wealth of planning resources are at your disposal, and the use of cloud storage can remove the risk of losing photos or scribbles from on the road.

So, should we be prizing other services over wi-fi while on the road? I nominate punctual transport, exemplary tourist information, and early- and late-opening attractions as being of more use to travellers, and contributing more to the joy of visiting somewhere. But I expect I am in the minority. The buzz and beep of mobiles and tablets is everywhere, and the search for the thumbs-up on photos posted to the web moments after being taken seems to thrill more than anything else. Were I trying to woo more visitors to my hometown, I'd propose investing in a fast, free, public wi-fi network above pretty much anything else. Just imagine the retweets.