The art of unplugging for a trip

A jumble of wires, headphones, mobile phones, and gadgets

A tangled web of gadgets. Photo: Peter Kaminski / Flickr

In my last couple of blog posts, I waxed poetic about the life of a digital nomad. As a counterpoint, here’s a fine article that appeared in the Orange-County Register: Digital detox for a trip to Italy. Gary Warner, the newspaper’s travel editor, decided to cut off the electronic umbilical cord for an entire vacation. With today’s gadgets and social networks, many of us have become used to (addicted to?) instant feedback from our friends. Going cold turkey can be tough.

Warner is no Luddite and tech-basher. He does acknowledge how technology can enrich travel and make it more convenient. However, he does point out a big danger: technology can bring home on the trip with you, with all its attendant baggage and stress. In his words:

I found the computer and phone gave me an agitated feeling. My body might be on the road, but my head was at my desk thousands of miles away. Even GPS had stripped away the serendipity of getting wonderfully lost. Did I really need–did I really want–the “least time” route from Skye to Inverness?

Warner’s observations are similar to the ethos our own Rolf Potts trumpeted in his book Vagabonding.  An over-reliance on things like the Internet might blind us to the exotic locale we came all this long way to discover.

Here are some things I do to moderate my dose of technology:

–Leave your devices at home.  This is the most drastic step–but also the most effective.  It’s easy to resist temptation when it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”  I’ve done all my trips without carrying a laptop.  Internet cafes are everywhere, even in some of the least developed countries I’ve been, like Burma.  You can get online when you need to.

–Get online early in the morning.  People are asleep, businesses are closed, so you’re not missing out on anything.  If you check e-mail sometime later in the day or evening, you risk losing your chance to meet cool new people or have an unforgettable experience.

–Batch your Internet time.  Compress all your activity into one hour or two, and then log off once your time is up.  When you start racking your brain for websites to look up, it means you’ve finished your necessary business and should get offline.

–Read, but don’t reply.  I’ve easily wasted hours by writing blow-by-blow accounts in e-mails to friends.  Unless it’s really urgent, it’s better to postpone replying to every message you get.

–Don’t get caught up in documenting every aspect of your trip.  With blogging and social networks, it’s easy to get sidetracked by “recording” your travels with photos, video, and text updates.  Rather than living our travels.  This is why I always write posts on my travel blog after I’ve returned from a place, not while I’m there. While I do keep a travel journal, I strictly write bullet-point lists of key events and details, not full-length stories.  I save that heavy-duty writing for my blog (Marcus Goes Global).  Your record-keeping style may vary, though.

Have you ever been cut off from the Internet for an extended length of time?  Were you excited to get online and see all the messages from your friends?  But have you ever been disappointed by what was in your inbox?  Warner sure was:

Of course, I re-toxed as soon as I got home. Though it was past midnight when we finally came in the door from the airport, I pulled my devices from the drawer and fired them up.  More than 1,200 emails, more than 1,000 tweets from feeds . . . When I scrolled and clicked through it all, I found I had missed absolutely nothing that mattered.

In a way, this reinforces that we can live without technology.  Warner’s home life didn’t collapse while he was unplugged.  For more, please check out Rolf Potts’ interview with Gary Warner.

Have you met people who couldn’t seem to get offline?  How do you keep from over-using technology?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (9)  | May 20, 2011
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Tech

9 Responses to “The art of unplugging for a trip”

  1. Wanderlester Says:

    Once per year I take a 3+ week vacation. I have 3 different email addresses: work, personal and a “vacation only” email address. I give the “vacation only” email address to family and a small number of friends and co-workers. On the road I check my “vacation only” email every few days and don’t have to read through hundreds of work and personal emails. For me, part of the pleasure of being on holiday means dropping off the grid. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

  2. RenegadePilgrim Says:

    When I walked the Camino de Santiago last year, I unplugged as much as I could. My mother worried if I didn’t check in every few days, so I made sure to send an “I’m alive, I’m in such and such city, heading to such and such city” email whenever I had the opportunity. I carried an unlocked Blackberry with no cell service that served as my alarm clock and wi-fi finder. I didn’t even have a watch! I used a moleskine notebook and a pen to write down my thoughts. Every few days, I would update my blog….unplugging was good for me. I realized how little I really needed to be connected. I made some positive changes in my life as a result of those 5 weeks on the Camino.

  3. cynthia in the french alps Says:

    Since I have a video blog that chronicles my travels in France and elsewhere, even if I unplug everything else for my trips, I still have the issue of seeing the world through my video lens during my travels. Now I think ‘how do I get the best shot’, ‘is the lighting right’, ‘am I missing anything for the story of the location’, instead of ‘isn’t that a lovely landscape,’ ‘look at those interesting people’, and just enjoying the moment. I haven’t really figured out how to balance this yet and don’t know if I ever will. And of course, then I have many hours of editing once I get home. I’m over 50 yrs old so I joined the tech revolution late in life and have mixed feelings about it but also appreciate the conveniences and how much easier it is to stay in contact with my family and friends in the US because of it.

    Nice blog. Looking forward to following you.

  4. Jasmine Says:

    I long for a day when I can travel for a while without worrying about wifi. Relying on the internet for income while on the road doesn’t exactly allow that though. One day…

  5. Alessio / Asia blog Says:

    My room is worse…

  6. Adriano Says:

    I’ve just been back from a short holiday without internet… But even nearly without phone! It had been turned off all the time, except for 5 minutes, to check text messages.
    Getting used to unplug is only half of the work – and the easiest one. Getting your colleagues-friends-relatives into that idea is the more frustrating part.
    But it is feasible…

  7. Joya Says:

    I just got back from a two week trip in Scandinavia and my intention while I was away was to unplug. This meant not taking my smartphone and only a standard voice/text phone because I have the habit of checking my phone multiple times a day and I didn’t bring a laptop and would only check emails at a hostel once a day if at all. It was so nice to take a break from it all and I didn’t really miss anything. I wanted to be present on my trip and enjoy what was in front of me rather than think about everything else at home all the time.

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