Smartphones are essential travel companions; they can be used to book hotels, manage finances, and can even pull you out of a tight spot if things go wrong. However, there are times when you should switch the phone off and have an adventure.
Smartphones have many benefits, but they can make us forget some of the things we’ve lost along the way. And although a phone is probably the one thing you would choose to have in an emergency, there is the danger of becoming overly reliant on a single bit of tech that could easily be lost, stolen, or break when push comes to shove.
So, here are a few reasons why you should occasionally turn off your phone and wing it while traveling—along with a few examples from my adventures.
Yelp and Tripadvisor are wonderful websites, and I’ve had many great meals and experiences based on their recommendations. Their reviewers do seem to be fans of the phrase “hidden gem,” though—and I’m not sure how you could describe something with a few thousand positive reviews on the world’s most popular review site as “hidden.”
If you do want to find an actual hidden gem and subsequently impress all of your friends at your next cheese and wine thing, then you really need to get lost. Forget Google Maps, forget review sites, just go about your day, wait until you get hungry or need a beer, look for somewhere that seems nice, and that’s your spot. It could be the worst meal you’ve ever had, but positive Yelp reviews aren’t a guarantee either. Nowhere has a perfect score; reviews can be faked or paid for, sometimes people will fall in with the crowd and just hype up a place they’ve never even been to.
This technique worked for me in northern France and rural Italy. I stumbled across a few tremendous little cafes and experienced some authentic rustic cuisine at a fraction of the price I’d have paid at a tourist hot spot.
It also led me to my favorite bar in Munich, which I discovered on my way back from a museum. It was sunny, the beer was €2 a pint, and the staff was friendly. I also enjoyed the place so much I nearly missed the night train I was supposed to catch and ended up sprinting from my hostel to the station with three bags and half a crate of beer. Good times.
A nice part of traveling is meeting new people and getting a first-hand account of other customs and cultures. You might even get a good restaurant recommendation if you want to avoid Yelp but don’t want to wander into somewhere totally blind.
It’s easy to see how a phone can be a barrier to that. If you’re in a bar or a cafe and fixated on your phone, you will seem less approachable. Killing time on your phone also means you’re less likely to try and find other ways to alleviate boredom, so you’re less likely to engage someone else in conversation.
Some of my best afternoons and evenings have developed from conversations I’ve had in bars. There was one pretty wild night in Berlin that sprung from a chat on a patio. A group of Germans had traveled across the country on a sort of 24-hour binge drinking marathon, my group of friends and I ended up talking to them. Next thing, we’re all crammed into a car with one of the Germans lodged in the trunk and handing out warm beer via the parcel shelf.
Remember that bar in Munich I mentioned earlier? A Scottish chap and his Dutch friend were on the table next to me. I already really liked the city, and now I had a bit of insight from another Brit who lived there for over ten years.
There are too many of these stories to list, but try it yourself. You might end up with a network of close friends across the globe. Just make sure they add you on Facebook because your phone is off-limits, remember!
You also have the benefit of not talking to people. As impressive as being able to contact anyone with a phone, anywhere in the world, at any time of day sounds—it’s can also be equally annoying.
People go on vacation to escape everyday life. So, the worst-case scenario is your boss calls you and suddenly has a list of work-related issues you both need to deal with right that second. This isn’t even a rare scenario; it’s happened to plenty of people I’ve talked to.
I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Gdańsk, sipping on an Americano and staring out at the morning sun, gradually pushing back the shade as it scaled the buildings behind the street only to have the moment ruined by a call from a photo editor that wanted to discuss captions. Had I turned my phone off, this whole thing could have been done a bit later or via email.
A smartphone is multi-functional, and one of the main features is a camera or five. While being able to take a high-quality photo can be useful, it has led to more and more people experiencing the real world through their phone screens instead of just looking at it and imprinting that image on their brains.
This is a common rant, but it’s still happening, so obviously, it needs to be said more. You don’t need to take a smartphone picture of everything you see. If it’s something like the Colosseum or the Grand Canyon, the chances are a few hundred professional photographers have already taken a brilliant shot of it. If you don’t believe me, try googling it. Some places, like the Vatican, will even throw you out if you try and snap a photo of something like the Sistine Chapel.
I believe selfies are also a tremendous waste of time. We live in an age where you can fly from any major airport to pretty much any other major airport for around $500 max. You don’t need proof you visited Cape Cod; if you tell me you did, I’ll just believe you. If someone isn’t going to believe you, I doubt a photo will help anyway. Look at how some folks view the moon landings.
You’re also not going to fool your friends and family into thinking you live some perfect, polished Instagram lifestyle. They’re your friends and family. They either know exactly how you live or just don’t care.
Beyond that, souvenirs that will remind you of a trip or moment are widely available. And a fun souvenir might be a more interesting talking point than a snap that will probably be gathering dust in your digital Facebook gallery until the social media site decides to remind you of it a few years later. Usually, when you’re doing something less exciting, like not traveling due to a global pandemic.
You can argue that selfies and holiday pictures are unique and remind you of special moments shared with friends and family or that they preserve a fleeting moment you alone have experienced. That’s fine; I’m not out to ban selfies; by all means, take the phone out for the occasional picture. But just limiting yourself slightly may mean your gallery ends up packed with truly meaningful images instead of every breakfast you’ve eaten in the past ten years.
Of course not! Please don’t just leave your phone at home if you choose to do any of this. As mentioned, if it really hits the fan, few things will be more valuable than a smartphone. Smartphones are handy across a whole trip, even if you do want to limit their use severely. You’ll still need train times, hotel bookings, and a way to tell everyone back home you’re not dead.
However, there are various things you can do to stop your phone from interfering with your vacation. IOS and Android phones all offer a “do not disturb” mode, which keeps your phone functioning as usual but cuts down on the number of times it will bother you. Most notifications are disabled, but you can tailor the setting to notify you about calls and texts from certain people. This can range from absolutely no one to a single trusted contact who will call you in case of an emergency to one or more designated “groups” of contacts. Just find the level you’re comfortable with.
Another idea is using parental controls on yourself. Both Apple and Android allow you to limit screen time on certain apps. So, if you’re spending time when you should be socializing in real life browsing Facebook or Twitter—you can lock those apps for the evening. You can even limit yourself to so many minutes of social media a day.
But whatever you do, you haven’t ditched the phone—just your reliance on it. Your phone is there if things go wrong, someone needs to get in touch, or if you do need to grab a picture. You have nothing to lose, and you can see a few things you may have otherwise missed out on.
The passive skills you learn by winging it, like navigating a city the old-fashioned way, will also come in handy if anything happens to your phone. Even if it just serves to relax you a bit in a challenging situation.
So don’t abandon your devices completely, but maybe take a vacation from them every once in a while.