The Traveler’s Guide to a Digital Detox

The unplugged vacation is a dream, but actually making it happen can be a nightmare. Try this 10-step digital detox.

The Traveler’s Guide to a Digital Detox

Skip the smartphone: Swiss upstart Punkt’s MP 01 feature phone offers style, build quality, and battery life.

Courtesy of Punkt Tronics AG

Seventy-seven percent of Americans now own smartphones, and we seem to be using them all damn day. Social media and other smartphone apps—even the operating systems themselves—are addictive and changing not only our brains but our posture. Always-on technology is killing you, and you know it.

Smartphones also a real boon to the traveler. We can work remotely, even from beach or trailhead, and no longer have to chain ourselves to desks while we wait for “important” emails. And yet, when we do get away, we never seem to actually be away. We need ways to get the benefits of unplugging, with none of the detriment.

Here are some tried-and-true methods for breaking a digital addiction, from the silly to the ascetically serious.

Level One: Passive

Buy a watch.

You’ve done it: You reach for your phone to check the time, and muscle memory has you checking email, the Washington Post, and the vacation pictures of all your exes. Yet somehow, you still don’t know what time it is. So buy a watch that has hands, and when you check the time, you’ll actually know the time.

Hide your reading glasses.

This only works for people in the 40-plus range, but once you’ve graduated to bifocals, you’ve also graduated to smartphone-free serenity. Presbyopia won’t let you focus on the tiny text of your smartphone, instead forcing you to focus on herons at the lakeside, the pink of sunset in a gathering thunderstorm, and the chef’s daily specials (since you can’t read the menu, either).

Go on a data diet.

You have approximately 7,000,000 rollover minutes on your mobile account at the moment and unlimited text and data. But buy a cheaper plan, and you’ll be constantly worried about using too much data (cough, Facebook Video, cough) and will never log into high-bandwidth apps and sites. You’ll also put an extra 30 bucks a month into your travel savings fund.

Level Two: Structural

Log out.

When you leave a site or an app, log out (yes, it’s harder with some sites than others, although some phones have settings that will do so automatically). The PITA that is logging back in will make your check-ins less frequent. Likewise, requiring an unlock code (not a fingerprint or face scan) every time you pick up your phone will knock you out of the unconscious addiction mode, and force you to question why you are picking up the phone in the first place.

Move it.

Get one charging cable and plug it in a place you don’t go very often—in a place away from the dining table, away from the bedroom, and away from temptation. And then develop a mania about always needing your phone to be fully charged. If that’s a stretch, turn off your Bluetooth, so that the only way to listen to your tunes is by physically plugging your phone into your speakers. Use a short cord for best results.

Change settings.

Most phones have a low-power mode to preserve the battery for necessary functions when the charge runs low. But you can turn that setting on even when the phone is fully charged, and that means it won’t go searching for new email and social media alerts. You’ll still get texts and calls, but at least the non-direct communication will be shut down.

Level Three: Passive-Aggressive

Change your format.

“But I need to post! If my followers don’t get constant social media updates, they’ll abandon me!” Perhaps, or maybe you just need the constant validation of animated heart emoji. So ditch the ’Gram, and move to a blog, or a weekly newsletter, or maybe a monthly ’zine photocopied on your employer’s dime. You’ll soon find who your true fans are.

Go dumb.

That same burner phone that you have for emergencies overseas—the one with the local SIM card and some unknown number of minutes left on it—will work just as well for a walk in the park or a night on the town. It will work for texts and phone calls, and it’s also small enough to fit into your tiniest dress. You can also be high-concept about low-tech, and join a waiting list for the Light Phone.


Unplugging isn’t always about disconnecting; sometimes it’s about focusing. If you want to concentrate, do your deep work offline on a real computer, with your phone in another room. Download your docs from the cloud, then shut down the Wi-Fi and work without distraction.

Level Four: Conscious Uncoupling

Cold turkey.

This is a travel magazine, so of course, this is our recommendation. Go somewhere where there’s no connection, or where your phone doesn’t work. Buy a guidebook (or better yet, just a phrasebook), and learn to read a paper map. Tell your friends to send messages to the consulate or to the American Express office. Document your trip with a pencil and an SLR camera. OK, maybe a DSLR; technology isn’t always evil.

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