From homes getting burgled after people show their whereabouts on social media to unnecessary intrusion by hotel staff, privacy is a complicated matter when travelling, says The National's travel editor
On the move: is privacy the ultimate luxury?
Unveiled for the first time at Dubai Airshow last month, Emirates’ new 777-300ER First Class cabin was launched into service this week on a flight between Dubai and Brussels. The key feature of the cabin is its new fully-enclosed private suites, which mean that once the sliding door is closed, it feels like a private room, with up to 40 square feet of space embellished by leather seating, high-tech control panels, mood lighting and lots of other treats.
There’s no looking-over-the-top by staff or other guests, though presumably they can still enter. It’s certainly a big improvement on some business class seating arrangements, where, bizarrely, a gain in comfort can result in a loss of privacy as you walk through the cabin at night in your pyjamas before bedding down next to a complete stranger, separated by only a thin barrier between two flat beds. I normally opt to 'hide' beside the window, hoping that the next-door seat will be unoccupied. Worst is to be wedged between two other people in the middle row.
Privacy and travel is a complicated matter, especially in the age of digital advance and social media, where we may want to both use technology and retain a semblance of anonymity. Concerns range from data privacy and security to the protection of one’s own private time from unnecessary intrusion.
One of the great joys of travel is to be able to lose yourself in a completely new destination, even switching off your smartphone to the prying eyes of the world. Sometimes this is a doubly good idea, since some people have had their homes burgled when they tell the world through social media that they’re on holiday. Open Wi-Fi networks at cafes and other locations around the world has led to travellers’ phones being hacked, and the global crackdown on terrorism means less and less privacy for the traveller.
When you opt and indeed pay to both get to and be somewhere else, some would say any expectation of privacy, at least en-route, is unrealistic. But as someone who values my privacy in all circumstances, it’s often the basic face-to-face hotel experience that leaves me feeling let down. I hate being effectively stalked by staff who know my name, who I’m with or what I had for breakfast. The best service makes a judgement call based on one’s mood, but I think the default setting should be discreet, valuing people’s private time to relax and move around without constant monitoring or requests for “feedback”. Too many staff seem to just stand around doing nothing except watching and waiting, as if waiting for guests to entertain them.
On a trip to north India, one friend was mortified after having to call down to reception for Imodium after a bout of stomach trouble. “They didn’t have any, but when I ordered a spicy breakfast option, they asked me whether I should rethink my choice based on my ‘condition’.”
At a hotel in Ajman, the same friend said she wasn’t a fan of the creepy new trend in which hotels look you up on social media and present you with their findings when you check in. “I didn’t like that they’d been on my Facebook page and printed off pictures of me to welcome me to the room. Maybe some people like this?”
Not that all outside or random interaction is bad. I was once working out in the gym of a new hotel in Dubai when a travel blogger who had spotted me on Instagram sent me a message. “I’m here!” she said. “I’m at your hotel. Wanna meet?” Normally I would shrink from such approaches, but on this occasion the blogger turned out to be great fun - and extremely well connected.