The Nitty-Gritty Details You Need to Think About Before You Unplug

Detaching from your device while traveling is one of the healthiest things you can do—but it can come with some pitfalls. Here’s how to avoid them.

The Nitty-Gritty Details You Need to Think About Before You Unplug

Photo by Brian Adams

Taking an unplugged trip sounds easy, right? You just power down your phone, drive or walk around aimlessly, and talk to people. But returning to an analog life is surprisingly challenging, as I discovered on a recent tech-free road trip through Sweden. For most of us, our brains are so hardwired to our devices that traveling without them can lead to some interesting and potentially uncomfortable hiccups. Here’s how to avoid them.

Make a Device Pact Before You Leave

It might sound silly, but before you arrive at your final destination, decide exactly when you’ll shut everything down—and where you’ll store your devices. Otherwise, it’s easy to slide into oh I’ll just check my email one last time. On this most recent trip, I couldn’t bear to leave my phone at home—it felt like a safety net—and I had to bring my computer for a work trip the week prior. Before I left, I decided that I was OK with using my devices on the plane, but I would turn them off and stow them at the bottom of my bag the moment we landed.

Write Stuff Down (or Print It Out)

If you book your trip details online, make sure you have what you need before you power down. It sounds so obvious, I know. But think about how many confirmation emails you have for a single trip: hotels, Airbnbs, restaurants, flight info. (Let’s not get into the irony of planning an unplugged trip online.) You’ll need addresses, phone numbers, directions, flight details, and confirmation numbers for everything you booked in advance, either printed and gathered into a folder or written down.

Decide How You Want to Capture Your Trip

A notebook is an excellent catchall for both trip details and journaling. (And we have a journal for every type of traveler. Don’t forget to bring a pen!) But most of us want to bring home some visual evidence of our trip, too. On previous trips, I’ve captured memories with a 35 mm camera. For this more recent road trip, I purchased a Fujifilm Instax Mini camera and a few packets of film to give my memories a more vintage feel. Note that if you go the instant camera route, it’s worth taking some practice shots at home; instant film is a different beast and requires some finessing. Why bother, you ask? Philosophically speaking, I’ve found that using a real camera changes the way I capture and even remember a trip. When I have a limited number of shots, I take fewer random photos, I’m more thoughtful about the ones I do take, and I take more mental pictures of a place.

Think About How You’ll Make a Call

The only downside to unplugging and using Airbnb: You’ll need to figure out how to contact your host. So either determine a meeting time and place before you leave on your trip or do a little research to determine how you’ll contact your person once you’re on the ground (finding and using a public phone isn’t as easy as it used to be). Always have small bills and change on hand.

Find the Right Map

If your trip involves substantial movement throughout a country, make sure you have a map that will work for your purposes. I discovered that it’s very difficult to find an international map that’s detailed enough to use on a road trip. AAA offers excellent domestic road maps, of course. If you’re going farther afield, try cartography company Freytag & Berndt, which offers a wide selection of international road and city maps. Once you get into a town or a city and need more detail, pick up an area map at the local tourism office.

Don’t Forget to Tell People at Home

Set an OOO that explains that you’re off the grid. Share on social media that you’re shutting down. Your community—and your mom—will thank you.

Do a Quick Mental Scan of the Phone Tools You Use the Most

I say quick, because if you overthink what your phone can do, you may abandon the whole unplugged notion. Kidding—kind of. But seriously, if you rely heavily on your phone for, say, money conversions, you might want to bring a calculator. Or if you really can’t live without the flashlight app, bring a real one. Definitely, bring a watch. And if you’re doing a road trip, consider how you’ll deal with (or without) music. As I discovered when driving across Sweden without my music library, local radio stations are only entertaining for so long.

Embrace an Analog Connection With Folks Back Home

One of my favorite parts of traveling unplugged is figuring out how to share my travels with people at home. You can never go wrong with a postcard. (If you like vintage stuff, look for a used bookstore. Often, they’ll have a box of unused vintage postcards, which add a cool twist to a note home.) Stop by a post office and buy stamps for your favorite people. Write a letter. Sketch a picture on the back of a coaster.

Map Out Your First Day

I’ve discovered that, even if I’m winging it for most of an unplugged trip, I like to know exactly what I’m doing and where I’m going on the first day. Usually, I’m landing tired and disoriented—and being phone-less adds to that confusion. Suggestion: Print out or write down directions to your first destination so you don’t have to deal with a map the moment you land.

Bring a Guidebook and a Phrase Book if You Don’t Want to Wing it

One of the beauties of traveling unplugged is that it both encourages and forces you to interact more with people. Challenge yourself to ask locals about their favorite places to play outside or eat. Make friends with the hotel concierge, the bartender, the people sitting on the bar stool next to you. If you want to have some ability to “google” on a trip, bring a guidebook. At the very least, bring a phrase book if you don’t speak the language. It’ll make those interactions so much more fun.

>>Next: Mindful Travel Is Easier Than You Think. An Expert Shares Her Tips.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at Afar, where she produces the Unpacked by Afar podcast and hosts Afar’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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