Can you recall how archaic life was a mere 20 years ago, before you could keep ‘surfing the net’ without any wires? How did we ever manage travel research, transportation, reservations, and communication? But we’re here to tell you that you can still explore this beautiful world without an iPhone, Android, or any other signal dependent data center in your pocket. How do we know? We did it during our 2018 year of global travel. And truth be told, many of our best memories and cultural experiences came as a direct result of our limited access to the internet. Could you handle disconnected globe trotting? We're here to answer your most burning questions.
“Why no phone?” By virtue of having lived on a remote tropical island in the Pacific for the previous five years, we started our 2018 travels having never owned smart phones. We did consider purchasing one before leaving, but decided to save some money by making reservations using the wifi available along the way. In case of emergencies, we bought a flip phone with extensive worldwide coverage through T-mobile for $20/month.
"What if you got separated?” We knew that we would rarely be apart during our year abroad (good thing we like each other), but the risk of getting separated is something to consider. Our solution: we agreed beforehand on a rendezvous point should we somehow lose one another, just like when you went to the amusement park as a kid. Remember when you used to agree to meet someone at a certain time and a certain place and you couldn’t be late because you had no way of contacting them? That still works if you apply a little personal responsibility.
“Didn’t you get lost?” Absolutely. In fact, we got lost a lot. Driving without a digital voice in my ear was definitely frustrating at times (especially in the Balkans), but it also led to some of our most unforgettable memories. In Bulgaria, we ended up on an abandoned highway that was more potholes than road. It took us about an hour of dodging craters at 15 kph before we linked up with the new road again. It was stressful, but we managed. We purchased a regional map that was not detailed enough to show many of the unmarked one-way streets in the cities, but the other drivers were always quick to point us in the right direction. Asking for directions actually became one of our favorite cultural experiences. Minus the occasional eye roll, most everyone is excited to host visitors in their town and love trying their English on a real cowboy. In back country Serbia, we were unable to find signs pointing toward the next main city on the map. Two local sheriffs took a look and cobbled together as much English as they could, “Your document is flawed”. Turns out the town had switched names more than a decade before. My 15 year old map had us looking for a city that no longer existed. Overall, no GPS made us more engaged in the adventurous exploration of the drive, not just headed to the best reviewed location on Trip Advisor. We even stumbled upon some gorgeous places by accident. The key is to allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy finding your own way.
“Could you translate languages?” No, but we quickly learned how much can be understood using non-verbal communication. Of course, it’s good to learn some basic words in the local language. “Hello”, “Thank You”, “How much”, and “Bathroom” are all worth having at your disposal. Just like getting lost, we simply consider communication barriers as part of the experience and embrace it. Without Google translate to help us order lunch in a Serbian village, my entree arrived as a heaping plate of sliced tomatoes (my least favorite veggie). It was hilarious and remains one of my favorite memories. Generally, the further you get away from cities, the less English is spoken. Since we love national parks, we found ourselves with an above average number of pantomimed encounters that only enhanced our adventure.
“How did you book accommodations and activities?” We were not completely without modern technology during our trip. Typically, we would take a day or two with our computer in a location with good wifi to book excursions and Airbnb’s for the next few weeks. The anticipation for upcoming activities is something that we really appreciate as it extends the enjoyment of an excursion. Articulating to Airbnb hosts our limited connectivity and establishing clearly defined arrival times was definitely the most difficult part. The reality today is that even if you don’t mind living without the convenience of smart phones, many companies now assume that customers have access to those devices.
“How did you take pictures and video?” Smart phones are the peak of efficiency when it come to capturing, storing and sharing memories. We traveled with a DSLR camera, GoPro and an external hard drive for backing up everything. It is definitely more laborious than automatically saving files to the cloud, but reviewing and downloading allowed us to discard subpar shots and to relive the adventures one more time. There is also something to be said for delaying the distribution of your memories. Eagerly sharing your life on social media the moment it happens can really take away from being fully present in the moment. With so many unique and different things happening when you travel abroad, it’s easy to miss numerous contextual moments if you have you head in your phone.
By the end of our travels, we were convinced that not having smart phones allowed us to be fully present in each moment, embrace exploration, and engage in more cultural experiences. This far outweighed the drawbacks. As a bonus, the accumulated savings of not having data plans and SIM cards allowed us to book well over $800 worth of extra activities! This can go a very long way in certain parts of the world. Does this mean you should ditch the phones that you already have and ignore the conveniences? Not at all. But we hope that you might be encouraged to put your phones down more and more as you travel. Discover for yourself that international travel shouldn’t be a spectator sport. Interacting with other cultures breaks down misunderstanding and opens up your mind in ways that no book, blog, or video can. Don’t be afraid to get a little lost in the name of adventure and create unique memories that you’ll have for a lifetime.