How and Why to Unplug While Travelling

  • Cynthia Ord
  • 25 June 2012

Do you have a small computer that fits in your pocket or purse? Does it spend most of its time in your hand? Have you outsourced most of your mind’s responsibilities to it, such as basic memory and navigation?

If you answered ‘yes’ to the questions above, then you may be stuck in a technology loop. One way out of it: try experiential travel. Unplug, sign off, power down, get out of town and open yourself to the analog sensations around you. Here are some tips for cutting down on screen time once you lock your door behind you.

Away Messages

For constant tweeters, regular status updaters, power emailers and unrelenting uploaders, unplugging takes effort. I can’t just disappear, think loyal citizens of the Internet. My people will wonder what happened.

how to unplug while travelling - phone hand

Photo courtesy of The Hedgehog from Hell

Especially while travelling – a heightened state of exploration and adventure – it’s tempting to broadcast in real time. Don’t. Share with the people around you or savour things yourself; your online life can wait. To make sure you don’t leave anyone hanging, though, leave an ‘away’ message on your email and social media accounts.

Ditch the Headphones and Listen

No audio technology? For an entire trip? That may be a lot to ask, especially when long hours of transport are involved. So do bring your iPod (or equivalent), but don’t depend on it.

Once you’re off the plane, pack the headphones away. Listen for the local soundtrack of your destination. Eavesdrop on the pure tone of banter in foreign languages. Note the cacophony of urban traffic or the silence of uninhabited nature. Tune in to local radio. Find one local musician and buy his work. Find new songs and local sounds, and then tie them to your memories of this place.

Play ‘Cell Phone Roulette’ at Restaurants

If your smartphone has followed you on your travels, or you’ve opted for a local cell phone with a local number, give it a rest. Often. Try leaving it on silent mode as much as possible.

Need an incentive? Propose a game with your travel mates called ‘cell phone roulette.’ At a restaurant, for example, everyone puts their cell phones on the table. The first one to grab their cell phone and start using it has to pay the whole tip. The same rules can apply for a guided tour.

Leave the Laptop at Home

When deciding which electronics to bring, less is more. Aim for just one device that can serve as wifi receiver, music player, e-reader, navigator and maybe even camera. Then use it as little as possible.

Smaller is better. Do not bring a full-sized laptop, especially on a leisure vacation. If you take it with you, you’ll be more tempted to sit down to long sessions of comfortable typing and visiting your comfortable hangouts online. So you just travelled how far to do exactly what you do at home?

how to unplug while travelling - physical map

Can you do this to a digital map? Photo courtesy of Flickr/Aaron Harmon

Use a Physical Map

When was the last time you spun a real globe? There’s nothing quite like a globe to give you a sense of the planet’s scale. A globe reminds you of the sheer mass of the Pacific Ocean, that the United States isn’t on the left and Asia on the right, and how close Alaska and Russia really are.

If flat paper maps are a compromise compared to globes, then digital maps are even farther removed from a true sense of scale. Computerised mapping lets you zoom in, zoom out, add layers, turn on a robotic voice to guide your navigation. The tradeoff: it takes away from the big picture. You might even go home without really knowing where you were.

Save GPS technology for emergencies only and find at least one good paper map. Mark it up along the way. This will become priceless memorabilia.

how to unplug while travelling - paperback books

Travel is a unique chance to pick up local print newspapers and street magazines. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Max Lakner

Bring at Least One Paperback Book

For downtime entertainment, always have a paperback book handy. How is this better than a tablet?

• It’s less flashy and makes you less of a target to thieves.
• No need to worry about battery life or recharging.
• You can write marginalia and use your ticket stubs as bookmarks.
• You can fall asleep with it in your hands.
• Best of all, you can gift it or trade it when you’re done.

The right paperback in the right place is a worth gold while travelling. Before you hit the road, look for something about your destination. Or look for something written by a local author. Caught empty-handed? Pick up a local newspaper or street magazine. People will notice. They will smile, comment and connect.

how to unplug while travelling- postcards

A postcard speaks a thousand texts. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dr John2005

Send Postcards

Travel pushes us to express more to each other. It prompts us to say things we might not otherwise say, or to write things we might not otherwise write. It makes us think differently about people back home. When the urge strikes to send out a simple message, like I love you or Wish you were here, opt for a postcard rather than a screen.

Maybe you don’t have the recipient’s address with you on the trip. Don’t worry – you’ll find it eventually. Yes, there will be some lag time, just like there has been for most of human history of long-distance communication. It’s worth the wait. One real postcard is worth a thousand texts.

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Cynthia Ord

Cynthia Ord discovered the WHL Group while interning with the local partner Outdoor Albania for a summer. She is currently based in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, helping out with The Travel Word newsletter, and planning her next trip. On the side, she writes about the impacts of tourism for her blog, tourism, people and the earth.
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6 Responses to “How and Why to Unplug While Travelling”

  1. Holidays in Malaysia says:

    Great post.

  2. Joe says:

    Cel phone roulette sounds like a great idea – I know a few people I can organise a game with that will pretty much guarantee me free food anytime I want…

  3. I so agree! I wrote a post on the same subject recently – http://www.soultravelers3.com/2012/06/unplugged-todays-best-luxury-.html

    I think being unplugged IS the best luxury today and we don’t even own a smart phone on purpose. We travel as a family lifestyle ( non-stop for the last 7 years to 44 countries on 5 continents on $23/day) so we can’t totally unplug …but the longer we travel, the more we unplug!

  4. cynthia says:

    Glad you guys found the advice useful. I was just reading some travel market research by American Express about the use of technology in the travel process:

    “More than half of summer travelers (56%) are going online to book their travel, but 29% admit they feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information the internet provides.

    Once at their destination, 83% plan to stay connected and nearly two thirds (64%) of those expect to check their work email daily over their vacations. When it comes to the cost of staying connected, fewer consumers (65% vs 72% in 2011) are unwilling to pay for internet service. Nearly 40% use their Smartphone for navigation, local deals, and planning experiences during their trips, while 50% are referencing the internet to do the same.”

    64% checking their work email daily while traveling! I’ll make it point to be in that other 36% on my next vacay.

  5. OutMaturity says:

    I found your site using LinkedIn and this is the first article that I came upon.

    Really great insites to what makes us tick these days and how we need to take control of our lives and “disconnect” just a bit!

    Thanks for sharing!


  6. John says:

    I can’t ditch the headphones I have to listen to the ‘breathe in, breathe out’ soundtrack or something nasty will happen. 😉
    There are numerous digital possibilities out there. Sure it is possible to update people in real time with messages, photos, podcasts and videos, but do they really care? I can only speak for myself here, but the real joy of travel for me is to experience it for myself. Time spent following someone else drinking a latte in Lisbon is time I could be working towards visiting there myself. I prefer to read, watch, listen to the researched information that will enable me to visit Lisbon.
    Can’t agree more on your analysis Cynthia. Why would I want to travel to do the same thing I’m doing right now (typing onto a laptop)?

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