The benefits of “Old School Travel” (i.e. without a smartphone)

by Amy Knauff

I’m going to start this off by saying that I’m not as much of a Luddite as it might seem. I have so far successfully resisted getting a smartphone and that might just make me one of the last thirty-somethings to NOT have one. Not only do I not have a smartphone, but the cell phone I do have is pretty outdated, even for non-internet-having phones.

circa 2005

Yes, one of the reasons is a resistance to technologizing every aspect of my life: I do find it depressing when I see a group of friends or a family sitting together and everyone’s checking email on their phones instead of talking. And it’s sad to lose the spontaneity, say, when you’re traveling, because every question mark can be eliminated in a second (train times? hotel in the city you’re about to get to? shady neighborhoods to stay away from? best or worst restaurants? which route is faster?). Right after graduating from college, I took a cross-country road trip from Atlanta to Eugene, Oregon, with my best friend and neither of us had a smartphone or any phone at all. We had a stack of CDs, a map book of the US, and a few pages of hastily printed-out info we’d found online the night before about some places we thought we might want to visit. To this day, that was one of the best trips I’ve taken, and not because everything went smoothly, but because it didn’t, which made it an adventure.

We found the Badlands without a GPS or a phone!

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the other reason for not getting a smartphone is that I know I’ll be hooked on it, just like everyone else. Considering my current computer habits, if I break down and get a smartphone, it may be the end of productivity and human interaction as I know it. Being a freelancer who works mainly from home is a very dangerous thing. The hours seem to just slip away as I sit in front of the computer, and it’s scarily easy to go back and forth from being productive to completely wasting time (I’m looking at you, facebook). Physically stepping away from the computer is the one thing that currently forces me to, well, do other stuff – and if I have the internet in my pocket, I’ll never be able to detox.

I made a trip to Barcelona last May for Cross-pollinate to find some more properties for our website, and after halfheartedly digging up Steve’s old iphone before the trip (which turned out to be more broken than not), I just went with my own cell phone. I’ll admit it: being a work trip where I was out and about all day long every day, there were some times when it would have been really, really useful for me to have the internet at my fingertips. To get maps so I didn’t get frustratingly lost on the way somewhere; to get days and hours of tourist attractions so I knew if there was time to see something fun in the downtime before my next appointment; to check metro timetables or how long it would take for the next bus to come. Most notably, a woman my mother’s age who I had an appointment with reprimanded me for not having a smartphone – because she had sent me an email a few hours earlier changing the address of our appointment and assumed I would receive it (because who goes on a work trip without a smartphone?), but of course I hadn’t because I’d been out all day. That one cost me an international phone call on my cell, the price of a taxi across town, and a bunch of sweaty, heart-racing moments as I rushed from one place to another.

On the other hand, I think most of the interaction I had with locals happened as a direct result of not having a smartphone on me. Since I was on a two-week work trip, I was spending most of my time alone except for when I was in appointments.  When you’re eating in a restaurant or sitting at a bar alone, it’s tempting to start busily doing stuff on your phone to avoid the boredom and awkwardness of sitting there alone staring into space. But I couldn’t do that, so I ended up chatting with the servers or nearby diners much more than I would have if I’d had my nose in a phone.

Twice I got lost on the way to appointments and stopped to ask somebody on the street for directions, only to have somebody else standing nearby pull out an iphone and offer to look up the address for me and patiently explain exactly how to get there (and yes, the irony of me refusing to get a smartphone and then relying on other people’s is not lost on me). I’d always heard that Barcelonians aren’t particularly friendly or helpful to tourists, but my experience proved otherwise – something I would never have known if I’d been able to googlemap my own directions in the middle of the street.

My most memorable no-phone encounter happened when I was dragging my suitcase along the street in a residential area called Camp de l’Arpa (not far from the Sagrada Familia), looking for the B&B I was moving to that morning. I couldn’t figure out if I was heading in the right direction or not, so I stopped an elderly lady pulling one of those little personal shopping carts on wheels doing her morning compras. Instead of just explaining where I had to go, she said, “I’ll take you there. But first I have to buy some bread in this bakery right here – wait outside for me and I’ll be right back.” And without waiting for a reply, she went in the bakery, stepping out a couple minutes later with some freshly baked bread – the best in the neighborhood, she assured me – and insisted on giving me some to try (it was delicious). She then walked with me all the way to the street I was looking for (a 5-10-minute walk) and chatted pleasantly the whole way, asking me lots of questions about where I was from, why I was in Barcelona, if I’d been before, what I thought about the city, etc. She deposited me on the corner and waved off my profuse thank-yous as she continued on her way, pulling the shopping cart behind her.

So, let’s summarize:

•  With a smartphone, you can find all the information you need on your trip, so that you keep your misadventures to a minimum and things go smoothly.

•  Without a smartphone, you can get totally lost, end up in a neighborhood you never meant to go to, chat with locals, practice your Spanish (or whatever language it is), find out some insider tips on the area (ie, place that sells the best bread), accidentally end up in a sleazy hotel or a crappy restaurant, and have some great stories to tell about things that didn’t go exactly how you planned.

I won’t suggest that anybody travels without their smartphone – that’s practically blasphemous, and yes, impractical if you already have one anyway. It would be silly to leave it in your hotel room just to purposely make your life more difficult. But I will suggest relying on it less while traveling than you normally do at home. You don’t have errands to run and deadlines to meet: you’re on vacation. So act like it’s a vacation. Don’t stop to look up every little detail that pops into your mind – leave some things up to chance. If you need directions, try asking a local first; you might make a little mini-connection that will change your whole view of the place. If you’re curious about a breathtaking building or church you’re looking at, don’t google it that second while standing there so you can immediately find out everything the human brain knows about it; just stand there, take it in, enjoy the beauty of it without having to know everything, ponder it for the rest of the day or debate about it with your travel partner(s), and eventually look it up later that night in your hotel room, or even after your trip is over – like in the olden days.

Someday, probably very soon, I’ll end up buying a smartphone. It’s getting to the point where it’s so prevalent that not having one is actually becoming a competitive disadvantage in the workplace, and often makes everyday life more complicated than it needs to be. Besides, resistance is futile. But in the meantime I’ll happily enjoy my smartphone-free, inconvenient, somewhat more spontaneous existence, especially when I travel.

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