What the iPhone really means for travelers

Unless you’re traveling somewhere pretty remote, you probably know that Apple announced a brand new iPhone yesterday.

Like most people in western nations, I’m not immune to advertising and possess a certain amount of technolust. Yesterday I found myself thinking, “huh, an iPhone would be handy for traveling… it has a camera, it’s an iPod, it can even hold guidebooks and translation apps, and…”

In fact the SFGate was quick to produce an article on “what the iPhone means for travelers.” Sadly that article really just recounts features and doesn’t have much to say about anything the iPhone might offer travelers.

Since vagabonds are a distinctive subset of traveler I thought I’d offer an overview of what the iPhone means for vagabonds.

It means there’s yet another temptation in the world to spend some of your hard earned money on something you don’t need instead of the trip you’ve been dreaming about.

I’m going to make a couple of assumptions here: a) you are not independently wealthy b) you want to travel for as long as your (limited) budget will allow.

The iPhone costs $200 or $300 depending on how much storage space you want. That means you can either buy an iPhone to keep in touch with everyone back home, or you could spend roughly an extra month in Asia, roughly an extra three weeks in Africa or South America, roughly an extra week in Europe or possibly the better part of an extra afternoon in London.

Which would you prefer?

Alright, confession time. I brought a phone when I went traveling. It sat at the bottom of my bag. I thought I needed it. I was wrong. The only reason I didn’t get rid of it is because I just knew I would need it when I got home. When I got home I got rid of it.

Like most of us I generally think that I need the things I own and that that’s why I bought them. Of course, the truth is, beyond food and shelter, I don’t need anything material. As many psychological studies have shown, we all use this logic to rationalize our past choices and in doing so protect our sense of self.

No one wants to feel like an idiot for buying a new iPhone, but if you go by logic alone, well, there really isn’t any. So you feel silly. Hence you invent the reasons you “need” it. (If you enjoy reading about how you manipulate yourself without realizing it, check out the site Youarenotsosmart.com, which has several articles on the subject).

It isn’t just advertising that convinces you to manipulate yourself like this. Sometimes it seems like every traveler out their is toting an iPhone and a laptop and, thus, so should you.

But part of the reason it seems like everyone on the road has the latest fancy gadgets is because the most prominent voices — travel bloggers and writers — have them. And those folks have them because they (think they) need them.

The truth is none of us need gadgets. We might want them, but we don’t need them. In fact, one of the best things I learned traveling was to need less. Or rather, that my needs were really just wants.

Since that time I’ve found, as so many others have already said, that the less you want, the freer you feel. And of course the freer you feel, the more you will enjoy your travels and the rest of your life.

It’s not easy to do, freeing yourself from wants. In fact, if you rearrange that sentence a little bit, you end up with one of the central goals of Buddhism: freedom from desire.

You can bet if one of the world’s largest religions preaches something it isn’t easy to do (if it were there would be no need to preach it).

But there’s hard and there’s impossible. Cutting down on your wants is not impossible.

You can start to change the way you see your wants simply by changing the way you think about them.

For example, every time you see a traveler with an iPhone or a laptop think, “wow, that person traded at least a month or two of travel for a gadget they have to lug around.” Don’t judge people for their decisions, just learn to see them from a different perspective. And then apply that perspective to your own wants.

If you really want a new iPhone, by all means buy it. But instead of rationalizing it by arguing you need it, step back and consider the trade offs such a purchase will incur.

Are you willing to trade your limited time on earth for an iPhone?

Posted by | Comments (13)  | June 8, 2010
Category: General

13 Responses to “What the iPhone really means for travelers”

  1. Briana Says:

    Oh no! You have completely called me out. I have been waiting for the new iphone in hopes of a price drop on the older version.

    One thing I have learned while traveling long term on a fixed budget is the exceptional ability to rationalize spending or not spending money on any given thing. Have another beer? “No, save the money, that’s the price of a whole meal.” “Sure, go ahead, life is for living!”

    It remains to be seen if wanting or reason will win out in the end.

  2. Cherie @ Technomadia Says:

    For me.. as a full time nomad/vagabond who is doing remote technical work (that I enjoy) as I roam, an iPhone (or similar smartphone type device) is actually the very freedom that funds my travels. With my smarts enabled device, I’m able to answer and respond to e-mails while hiking, sign and return PDF documents, VPN into my servers to do routine maintenance and more. Without such a device, I’d be more tied to my laptop/computer and a traditional office during he day… and less able to get out there and combine fulfilling work with adventure and travel.

    So next time you see a digital vagabond out there with an iPhone, don’t just assume she traded a month of travel for a silly gadget. Perhaps she traded an few hours of income for a life of vastly increased freedom and balance.

  3. Shannon Says:

    Great article Scott! I wrote about this a few months ago how we really don’t need all the things we think we need and if we spend less money on things like iPhones, we’ll have more money to travel.

    I agree with Cherie though, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I’ve drastically cut down on my wants, put I can’t live without my MacBook. It’s what allows me to travel.

    I think the whole point that we can agree on is less is more. For some people it might be avoiding the temptation of a shiny new car, others might be daily Starbucks and for some it might be a shiny new car.

    There is no right or wrong way. As long as you’re happy and living.

  4. Derek Falk, Falk Custom Adventures Says:

    Ha! This is awesome! I purchased the iphone to keep in touch with everyone when I’m traveling on my own or touring with our groups internationally.
    My plan was to use all the cool apps, stay in contact with our followers on Twitter and Facebook and have a reliable phone service to call home while I’m abroad.

    None of that has happened. I’m lucky if I even know where the thing is while I’m traveling. My first search for it is when I get to my first domestic airport during my journey home.

    While traveling, this phone doesn’t do much for me. While I’m at home, it’s just a fun phone to have.

    Falk Custom Adventures

  5. Russell T. Says:

    I didn’t buy into Apple’s hype either. I did, however, decide to get a smart phone that I could rattle off quick blog entries from, and that phone turned out to be T-Mobile’s G1, backed by Google’s operating system Android. I love it. It’s got a hard keyboard and get’s signal almost everywhere I’ve been, from Orlando, Florida to Ketchikan, Alaska, where I’m now living in my van and commenting at this very moment from it. I can even plug it in to my laptop and use it to write more in-depth articles for my own blog. I don’t think I could do this with an iPhone as the “soft” keyboard would throw me off.

    That’s my two cents. Excellent blog! Keep writing!

  6. Rebecca Says:

    Like Shannon said “there’s no right or wrong answer.” It’s a matter of perception. You may think you need an iPhone but want one because your friends have them. You may think you need an iPhone to stay in touch with family and friends while you travel but isn’t the point of travel to get away from it all. Unless you’re a freelance writer on a travel assignment or want to stay in touch with clients when you travel (what’s the point of traveling then) by all means purchase the iPhone. If not, you may want to reconsider it.

  7. What the iPhone really means for travelers « Slinking Toward Retirement Says:

    […] What the iPhone really means for travelers. […]

  8. Jeff Pruett Says:

    Unless you need to keep in contact for work (which, alas, I do) you don’t need most of this stuff.

  9. P Riehl Says:

    When foreigners flash their fancy phones and cameras, it makes me feel a little better somehow…less chance MY shit’s going to get ripped off, I guess, with such richer pickings to be had….

  10. james Says:

    i appreciate your perspective, but i also think a smartphone can enhance the travelling experience in a lot of ways. ever been lost somewhere and wish you had a map? ever been tired of carrying around a heavy travel book? ever been stuck at the airport alone and wish you could watch a movie or play a game? you have a point about managing desires but i also think smartphones have the potential to allow for light travel – they combine so much into one (dvd player, e-reader, web browser, camera). the downside might be that it takes the spontaneity out of travel, i.e. you look something up on a map rather than ask a local, or creates new anxieties (battery life, getting stolen, finding wi-fi). i may be wrong as i have yet to buy my first smartphone but i am looking forward to finding out! ps. there are also more and more alternatives to the iphone out such as a used android device that is unlocked and just used for wi-fi

  11. Jeanette K. Says:

    That’s a really interesting way to look at it — trading time on earth for an iPhone. However, I already have a 3G and just learned I can trade it in for the new one for only $100 :). But I need to start saving for a RTW trip!