It’s Not My Mother’s World Anymore: How apps and services have emerged to make international travel more simple, cost effective, and safe

When I initially had the idea to travel the world and ask people the same three questions everywhere I go, everyone I told had a positive reaction. I was expecting more than a few people to think I was crazy, but literally not one person did, or at least they didn’t tell me. Instead, people opened their international rolodexes, challenged the overall purpose in order to make sure the questions reflected it, and mainly people wished they could quit their job, adopt a mom who worked for the airlines, and come with me.

While nobody questioned the logistics of the travel or my ability to actually do it, there were many who cautioned me to be safe. Or several who asked outright, “Aren’t you scared to travel to all those places? Alone? In the world we live in?”

When my mom questioned me the other day on whether I really wanted to continue with Big Shared World, my immediate response was to be frustrated with her. I wished instead that she would ask me about my specific plans for Mexico City the next day. I’d have preferred to tell her about the friend I was grabbing dinner with, or the place I was staying, rather than defend my desire to continue the adventure. I grew up with the mentality that Diane (my mother) was always right, whether you liked it or not. In that moment when she questioned my desire to keep going, I transferred it as doubt in myself.

Immediately I elicited support from my friends to calm my nerves for what was ahead. I left a voicemail for my best friend and go to voice of reason, “Hey. Can you call me back and tell me that what I’m doing has value? And that I shouldn’t just give up? My mom just told me nobody would think less of me if I just stopped. I mean, I think I’m on to something really cool with this whole trip. I love what I’ve set out to do. But can you just tell me that it’s important I keep going, and that it really is a worthwhile journey and endeavor to undertake? Ok thanks, talk to you later.”

He called back and said, “I got your message. What year was your mom born?” I knew where this was going and was grateful for the reasonable response. “…Your mom couldn’t even dream of doing something like this when she grew up. Nobody in her time could. She’s just concerned about your safety because she’s your mom. But she supports you and this journey in a lot of other ways.”

He was right. And to be honest, I couldn’t even have fathomed this only a couple years ago.

The summer after my freshman year of college, a friend and I backpacked through Europe. While I had traveled to several international destinations before through choir trips and educational opportunities, this was my first unchaperoned, unguided trip abroad. My friend and I planned extensively. I had a mini purple binder with every detail of these plans, reservation codes, and the guidebook pages cut out from Lonely Planet so I didn’t have to lug around unnecessary weight of the pages of places we were not going to pass through. Even when my friend’s passport was stolen one unfortunate night, the passport copy I had printed in the binder, along with the addresses for U.S. Embassies everywhere we went, all made it rather easy to handle the situation and continue on our way with relative ease.

Our trip went amazingly until Barcelona when an airport worker strike had us miss our flight to London, and subsequently miss our flight back home. Long story short, I refer to the 36 hours we had to figure out an alternate plan as “The Amazing Race – and our team lost.” Defeated, we found ourselves at a London train station the night after we missed our flight back to Minneapolis. In attempts to figure out how we’d get home, we spent a lot of time on payphones calling home, calling the airlines, all trying to figure out our best options. We were out of cash and thanks to the fraud department putting a hold on our credit cards every five transactions due to all the random destinations and payphone charges in a short period of time, we were pretty much broke. My father who is about the most easy going man I know was so frustrated with the situation he actually swore over the phone. But in a way that only a man who doesn’t swear would say, “Well, then get your F-ing own self home if you think you know how to.” I waited a few minutes before I called him back to admit I needed his help.

Eventually, we decided the best case scenario for this situation was to have my mom fly and meet us in Amsterdam to fly me and my friend back as her companions (airline employee standby style). That’s right, after three weeks of newfound independence through our European adventure, my mother came to pick me up in Amsterdam. The irony was not lost. We asked special permission from the police to sleep under the escalator at the train station that night to take the first train to Amsterdam in the morning. With our passports tucked in our shirts, we snuggled our backpacks, and had what I’d say was one of the most awkward nights of sleep in my life. When I was in London again this past November, I swear I recognized the spot. It was like a magnet drew me to it as I thought, that spot of floor looks oddly familiar. I looked around and noticed the ticket booth, international departures, put it together, and smiled at the memory of our utter patheticness that night several years ago.

(Above: That time my mom picked me up in Amsterdam, summer 2006)

With this history, it’s a wonder my parents even let me leave the house again after that debacle. And it should be noted, the credit card bills from the payphone calls that day added to almost the same amount we had spent on our entire backpacking adventure. And when my parents once asked me to explain how exactly we missed our flight, even with my true and thorough story, they still believe it was because we were having fun with all the new friends we made. We have just agreed to not discuss it again.

But today, not even ten years later, the amount of tools and conveniences for travelers has increased exponentially, and I could never imagine a night full of payphone calls and stairwell sleeping arrangements. I believe this puts my parents at ease. It certainly makes me feel more comfortable traveling around the world.

Take for example my great experience with Mexico City, the past BSW destination. I have benefit completely from new apps and services that make global connections easier and traveling internationally a whole new experience. My Mexico City comfort started the day I messaged Ramses, a friend I had met at a conference just last year. While our interaction was brief, thanks to Facebook (founded 2004), we were able to keep in contact and after a quick message exchange about my upcoming time in his city, we arranged a time to Skype (founded 2003), a free video calling platform. After that conversation, I knew I was in good hands as we had arranged for dinner when I arrive. To be in touch, we exchanged phone numbers to become WhatsApp (founded 2009) contacts, a free app-based text messaging service.

As I was flying from Atlanta to Mexico City, I was able to access Gogo wireless internet while in flight (founded 2008). During this time I googled “must see attractions Mexico City” and came up with a short list of the places I thought would be good tourist activities. Instead of wasting time putzing around the city on my own, I found a website (founded 2008) and was able to email tour guides for last minute availability. Thankfully Heiki, a lovely woman with global roots and perspective was able to accommodate and arrange for a great day while I was in town.

Upon arrival in Mexico City, I turned on my phone and texted my family that I had landed. Thanks to T-Mobile’s new international data coverage (founded 2013), this cost no additional charge than the monthly service fee.

I took a taxi to the apartment I was renting a room in thanks to Airbnb (founded 2008), which has the mission to have customers “belong anywhere” and does so by serving travelers around the world who prefer to get a more realistic feel for life in a certain destination. And for hosts, it offers a great additional income for an apartment that likely sat semi-empty prior to their listing. (Note: For any solo female travelers to Mexico City, I highly recommend staying with Judith at her fantastic apartment in an awesome, trendy neighborhood.)

While getting around the city, I was constantly informed that even locals prefer to fetch a ride through the car sharing app Uber (founded 2009) for both ease and safety. Thankfully, Mexico City has a robust Uber contingency of drivers, and I barely waited more than three minutes for a car to pick me up at my exact location for a fair price.

And I cannot fail to mention the amazingness that is Google Translate (founded 2007), but just recently updated to include image capture. Or Currency Exchange mobile app (founded 2010) which instantly allows for understanding the price of an item. Or Weather Channel apps (founded 2000s) that help to prepare for the day. Or TripAdvisor (founded 2000), and a host of other travel sites that help a newcomer orient themselves with a foreign place, with trustworthy, user-generated content to ensure up to date reviews on all things travel.

This all reminds me of a moment during BSW Europe in Amsterdam where I was sitting on a city train from my hotel into the downtown area. I had struck a conversation with the guy sitting across me and we were going through the BSW questions. On his thoughts for the world in 50 years, he imagined a borderless one. I challenged if this was actually possible. He quipped back, “Aren’t we kind of there already? I mean, I was born in Iran, raised in Canada, here for pilot training in Amsterdam. You were raised in the United States and are traveling the world to talk to strangers…”

He was right. While it’s easy to focus on the societal divisions and the walls people build around the world, at the same time, there is connectivity and ease of movement for both information and people more than ever before. We as individuals can choose to resist the connectedness, or even fight it off for as long as possible. Or, we can choose to immerse ourselves in it by exploring and appreciating the connectivity of everything around us. I choose the latter, it certainly is more fun! 🙂

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