Why your travels need a digital detox
Author: Emma Higgins // June 16th 2016
Travel has never been easier than it is today. New flight paths are opened up every week, authors have written guidebooks on just about every corner of the globe, and there are tour operators that can hold your hand across even the most treacherous of voyages.
On top of that, one palm-sized device can do everything else for you: navigate, translate, recommend, warn, and connect you to loved ones back home. Travel is a breeze because of these gadgets, but have we come to rely on them to a detrimental extent?
Most of us have done it at least once – arrived at work only to realise you’ve left your phone at home. It’s frightening how lost we’ve come to feel without it, even though (aside from emergencies) any phone call, email, or tweet can happily wait for eight hours. It’s strange to think how unnerved we feel by being out of touch with the world, a sensation that’s only really come into our lives in the last 30 years. It’s a unique, brand-new emotion that no could have predicted existing a century ago.
When travelling we cling on to our devices even more, mainly because of convenience. It’s great that we have a dictionary, map, and guidebook all in one place, but in that same space we also have our calendars, inboxes, and social media accounts. We don’t need to check these while we’re away but let’s be honest – that morning scan through Facebook is a ritual that very few of us kick, even when we’re abroad.
Being on the road and continuing that habitual scrolling is the equivalent of talking to someone at a party but not looking them in the eye. You’re kind of hearing what they’re saying, but a large part of your attention is darting its way around the room, checking out who else is there and catching snippets of other people’s conversations.
This distraction is stopping us from being present in the moment – something that’s important in life but even more important when we’re away. We have a limited amount of time to explore the world, so spending part of that precious time with our attention focused on someone’s birthday photos, trending topics on Twitter, or the latest person to Instagram their breakfast is counter-productive.
This sentiment applies not only to reducing social media time, but also taking a step back when it comes to navigation and getting recommendations. We presume that the wealth of information on the internet is the best way to get around a new place, but we forget that everything we need is right there in front of us – beyond the screen we’re fixated on.
We only have to head a few steps from a hotel room to find a receptionist who’s full of recommendations for things to see and do, plus a map to help us get around. There are friendly people in all corners of the globe who love their hometown and are happy to shout about it – we need to talk to them.
Turning to these methods instead of an online feed is a way of interacting with a destination. It forces you to be resourceful and make the unfamiliar, familiar – without technology. Everyone knows how to do a quick Google search, but not everyone can get chatting to a local at coffee shop and ask for tips, or even effectively navigate with a paper map (you know, one without that little blue dot telling you exactly where you are). Taking a digital detox on your travels teaches you these life skills.
// Related post: How to be a mindful traveller //
Don’t get me wrong. As the owner of this travel website I have to keep in touch on social media more than most, so I understand the addiction to scrolling all too well. I’m on Facebook – private and public – plus Twitter and Instagram. I update regularly, and find guilty pleasure in watching the likes roll in on a good post or picture. I’ve also turned to TripAdvisor once or twice if I need to find somewhere for a bite to eat.
But I’ve come to recognise a limit. That’s why in the last couple of years I’ve downgraded my mobile phone. I now trundle around with an old Nokia that is barely capable of sending a picture message let alone browsing the web. I love it dearly, and not only because the battery lasts for two weeks but also because it allows me to step outside my front door and be disconnected.
When I’m out, I’m out. A couple of people have my phone number so I’m contactable for emergencies, but I hear it ring so infrequently that when it does I often don’t recognise the sound. I have a tablet that I use for all my social media uploading and catching up with friends on Whatsapp, but that’s all done when I’m relaxing back in a hotel room.
For the last couple of years I’ve driven without a GPS whenever possible, and have noticed my navigational skills improving. For food recommendations I try to push myself to ask someone (that aforementioned hotel receptionist, or AirBnB host, is always the easiest), and these conversations have opened up doors to nearly all the stories I write about on this website. I’d say at least three quarters of the ideas for places to visit for my book, A Year in the UK & Ireland, came from exchanges with locals.
Yes, I still find myself scrolling through Facebook in the mornings. Yes, I admit a slight addiction to Instagram. But at least when I’m out – exploring and discovering – those online worlds are left behind.
It’s time to go back to basics. Travel is all about igniting the senses, about exposing and delighting our bodies and minds to new sights, sounds, and smells. For as long as we put a screen between us and these sensations, we’re limiting the depth of our travel experiences. For as long as we spend time scrolling instead of connecting with the people right before our eyes, we’re holding ourselves back from the personal development travel provides.
Next time you’re abroad and head out for the day, think twice about keeping your phone on. Let go and allow yourself to be lost in a destination, and have faith that, whatever happens, the good people around you will be there to help. Wander freely, without distraction, keeping your attention in the here and now.
What do you think about taking a digital detox while travelling?