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Plugged in, charged up, and ready to relax

Forget about the bathing suit. If we don’t have all our devices, it’s not a vacation.

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / June 14, 2011

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Pressed for time before her North Carolina beach vacation, Brittany Wallace, 22, shopped only for what mattered. No, not a cute bathing suit — an iPhone.

“I know it sounds bad,’’ said Wallace, of Roslindale, as she worked on her laptop at Panera in Brookline, “but seeing if I had an e-mail was more exciting than looking at the sunset.’’

Summer vacation season is here, but forget about relaxing. A new holiday stress has been added to traditional concerns about over-crowded beaches, black flies, and lousy weather. Think of it as Anxiety 4G: Is the bed-and-breakfast’s wireless working, and where can I charge my phone, my laptop, my iPad, and my Kindle?

“Connectivity has to be part of the travel experience now,’’ said Eric Stumberg, president of TengoInternet, a Texas-based company that provides wireless Internet service to RV parks and marinas nationwide and in Mexico and Canada. “People want to share their experiences on Facebook immediately. When they want entertainment, they are not watching cable TV, they’re downloading Netflix. They’re getting maps and directions from Google. They’re gaming.’’

When Stumberg cofounded his company in 2002, about 10 campgrounds in the United States offered Wi-Fi, he said. Now about 5,000 of the country’s approximately 13,000 campgrounds do. “If you do not have this amenity, people will not stay with you.’’

And if they do decide to camp, they don’t want to be too far from the Wi-Fi source. At the Boston Minuteman Campground in Littleton, some guests are more concerned with being able to pick up the campground’s wireless Internet than with scoring a secluded spot.

“I’m spending more time on IT matters than outdoors,’’ said Maureen Nussdorfer, the owner and manager. She recently added a second Wi-Fi modem to ensure coverage throughout the campground.

“We’ve been here since 1973, and all you needed at the time was a picnic table and a fireplace,’’ Nussdorfer recalled. “Then you needed water on the site, and electricity, and now you need wireless.’’

That’s need, as in nonnegotiable. One innkeeper likened arriving guests who instantly ask for the wireless code to smokers desperate for a nicotine fix. Their charging needs come next. Annette Hazzard, an owner of the Blue Harbor House, in Camden, Maine, had to buy electric outlet strips for all the rooms simply to make things easier for the inn staff.

“Before we did, we’d come into the room and find everything unplugged, the TV, the lamps. It was easier for us [to add outlets] than to crawl under the bed to replug everything in,’’ she said.

But what’s a traveler to do? The great outdoors requires a lot of equipment these days, and we’re not just talking tents or hiking boots. What better way to enjoy a Vermont night sky than to enhance it with an iPad app that labels the constellations? How else to learn what time the Pilgrims are doing their hearth cooking at the 17th-century Plimoth Plantation than with your smartphone? If the kids build a sandcastle on the beach and mom doesn’t update her Facebook status, did it happen?

Americans’ growing love affair with wireless devices can be seen in numbers from a recent Nielsen Company survey of households that own at least one mobile connected device (smartphones, tablets, e-readers, netbooks, portable media players, and so on). Smartphone owners have about four other “mobile connected devices’’ in their households, Nielsen found, and tablet and e-reader owners have about five.

The number of wireless subscription connections hit 302.9 million in 2010, up from 285 million in 2009, according to the Washington-based CTIA-The Wireless Association (“subscription connections’’ differs from “subscribers’’ in that one subscriber can have several connections, one for each device).

Never mind who’s hogging the hot water, the new argument centers on sharing the outlets.

Adam Sperling, general manager of Hotel Commonwealth, sees the anxiety from vacationers who forgot their chargers. They used to show up at the front desk, desperate. But about six months ago, he added IDAPT universal chargers to every one of the property’s 150 rooms.

“No one can function without them,’’ Sperling said. “We get lots of [positive] comments on TripAdvisor.’’

The hospitality industry isn’t the only one concerned with mobile angst. Psychologists are, too.

“It’s been well documented that when people leave their technology at home, they experience a sense of withdrawal,’’ said David Greenfield, a psychologist who directs the West Hartford, Conn.-based Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

“People are uncomfortable if they feel like they are going to miss something. The idea is that the world just doesn’t go on in their [real] life, it goes on virtually, too, and if you are not hooked in virtually, you are missing your world. That illusion is how people live their lives now.’’

He likens checking e-mail, texting, or reading news online, to playing a slot machine.

“One out of every 100 times you are going to see something you like or find interesting or important, and because you cannot predict when that one photo or e-mail or news story is going to come through, that’s a variable reinforcement schedule and it’s the most resistant to extinction.’’

People who don’t take a technology break can put themselves at risk for stress-related illnesses, he said. Disconnecting also causes stress, of course, but after several days people get used to it.

It’s not just the Internet-starved vacationers who experience angst. Their friends, do, too, when texts go unanswered, Facebook status updates go un-liked. When Fatima Sammy, 24, a grad student and a research technician at Massachusetts General Hospital, returned from limited Internet access on a trip to Puerto Rico, she had multiple “what’s up??’’ and “where were you????’’ missives.

“It’s stressful,’’ she said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at teitell@globe.com.

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