Ditching Digital: Traveling Without Technology

By Doug McPherson 

My daughter, Caitlin, and I recently biked about 10 miles before I realized my mistake. Or was it a mistake?

We were riding along the High Line Canal, an urban nature trail south of Denver, when we veered off the path to rest at Stella’s Coffee House, literally a small house converted into a quaint bakery-café. We got our drinks, sat down on the front porch, and I suddenly started feeling around. The sharp, disorienting pang hit my stomach as my hands darted into all my pockets. “Dang it, I’ve lost my phone!”

Caitlin calmly says, “You left it at home, I remember seeing it on the couch.”

“Whew,” I said. “Thanks.” Then, not sure why, I asked her what time it was. “Don’t know, I left my phone at home,” she says.

Whoa, I didn’t expect that. Two thoughts hit me. First, panic: What if we have an accident? We won’t be able to call for help. Second thought: Caitlin, with no phone? That’s like Caitlin with no head. She’s a typical 20-year-old college student, phones are an appendage. So many times I’ve walked by her bedroom, peeked in, and saw the phone’s soft, white glow spread across the rapt look on her face.

“You don’t have your phone?” I ask this like I’m asking if she’s missing a lung.

“No, I’m leaving it at home more when I do stuff. It helps me notice things more,” she says, sounding like a rational adult.

Hmm. Notice things more. This was a learning moment for me—a daughter teaching her old dad a new version of stop and smell the roses.

We stayed at Stella’s for close to an hour, talking, laughing, eating, and drinking. Getting caught up, without ever looking down to see what’s up. Face time instead of Facebook. It felt good.

Liberation Vacation
I guess that’s why I wasn’t surprised when I read about a new study that found travelers who take digital-free vacations (no mobile phones, laptops, tablets, internet, and social media) reported feelings of “enjoyment and liberation.”

Sure, at first they were a bit nervous—dare I say they felt naked without their tech “clothes”—but eventually most accepted their digital nudity.

Researchers say one big source of people’s joy came from simply engaging more with humans—their fellow vacationers, other travelers, and locals. Some said the advice from locals became highlights of their trips, and helped them learn more about their settings—information that websites often lacked.

Others said without the chirps of messages or alerts, they felt more attentive and focused on their surroundings. That sounds a lot like Caitlin’s “I notice things more” edict.

Still, after reading the study, I couldn’t imagine travelers without their personal technology. No man so engrossed in Twitter that he walks face-first into Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and no mom yelling at her children to get off Instagram to see the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. I know, sad. Right?

Trending Travel
Yet, I still wondered if a trend of digital-free travel was afoot. If not, carry on. If so, how do you do it well?

I asked Phil Bryant, a veteran travel advisor in Centennial. He sees no such trend and says all of his clients travel with phones and laptops. But then he surprised me by saying he leaves his phone behind on trips. “I feel more relaxed without it, knowing my vacation can’t be interrupted, and it’s one less thing to lose. You become more social without a phone, see more around you, engage more in the feel of a new destination.” Again, Caitlin’s “notice things more” ringing true, and ringing in my head.

That’s the whole point of leisure travel, “to notice and enjoy the new views, to step out of the work-a-day world, shake up routines,” says Randi Smith, LCSW, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

But the problem, she says, is mobile devices are now so tightly woven into our daily lives that it’s hard to leave them behind. The same device with work e-mail is also an alarm clock, camera, wallet, and so on. “That device also connects us to our work and our stress,” Smith says. 

So, what to do? Don’t worry, all isn’t lost. After all, Caitlin and I made it back home safe and sound, sans phones.

First, there are useful and free tools beyond the digital realm for AAA members, such as maps and TourBook guides with travel information about AAA-approved hotels and restaurants, as well as attractions and points-of-interest in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. 

There are also the beloved TripTiks, customized routings with directions that include points of interest, road construction, rest areas, and more. So be sure to stop by a AAA store and grab some before you go.

Another to-do item before heading out on vacation is the simple step of just leaving a voice message that you’re traveling, and that you’ll return calls when you’re back. The same for your e-mail. Add an auto-respond-away message and disable all notifications on your phone. What’s more, removing social media apps from your phone temporarily to lessen temptations. “Removal doesn’t disable your accounts, it just makes accessing them cumbersome because you have to download the app again,” offers Smith.

A final tip is to have a go-to alternative if the urge for social media or e-mail hits, like a book (a real one, with paper), a journal to record your journey, and travel-sized games. Beware though after your trip. Some participants in that study said they were a bit overwhelmed by the waiting flood of messages. Still, many said they enjoyed the journey enough that they’d travel digital-free again.

I’d do it again, too: Go on a phone-free bike ride with Caitlin! She taught me a good lesson that sometimes mistakes are triumphs. And she’s right. Anytime you get face time with a loved one—well, that beats Facebook any day.

Doug McPherson is celebrating his 20th year as a freelance writer in Centennial. He writes for organizations, helping them connect with their audiences in more meaningful ways. Learn more at thewordpub.com.

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