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Should We Put Away Our Phones When We Travel?

By Kelly Dawson

May 18, 2022

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The societal pressure to travel “correctly” has existed in various forms for as long as people have had the privilege to get away.

Illustration by Pete Ryan

The societal pressure to travel “correctly” has existed in various forms for as long as people have had the privilege to get away.

Phones are meant to help us connect, but they can also get in the way. One writer on traveling and allowing her phone to pick up the slack—as long as it’s to a point.

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Editor’s note: Unpacked columns appear in every print issue and monthly online, where they tackle some of travel’s biggest questions.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized something specific about honesty: There’s no point in asking it from others if I have a problem being upfront with myself. 

I’ve learned to admit the truth of my temper, which is that I have one, and own up to the fact that I tend to be a perfectionist. It’s equally apparent that I’m terrible with directions, and while I like to be adventurous, I draw the line at choosing to sleep outside. 

So putting away my phone on vacation would be like living a lie, since taking it with me is as beneficial as packing a toothbrush. 

A lot of time-wasting discussion can be cleared up by a quick search, like, “Well, what time are we supposed to leave for the airport?,” just as image filters can really bring out the layers in a marbled pastrami sandwich. There’s no, “Hmm, I think we have to take the next right, if I remember correctly,” when Siri’s voice is saying that it’s actually an immediate left. And it’s remarkable how quickly I can see results that showcase the soft, white sheets of hotel beds—one of life’s greatest pleasures—within any distance and budget I choose. 

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I’ve had my smartphone for more than a decade, so I’m as familiar with its shortcomings as it is with mine. I know that it will encourage me to send a text message, refresh a feed, or take yet another picture of the same sandwich when none of it is necessary. It’s demanding, and always eager to showcase how its type-A personality can succeed at any task. As it tagged along on a family trip to New York City last summer, for instance, it told us where to go and what to eat and what time our plans were all supposed to take place, and preferred that I carry an extra battery just in case it got tired. It was constantly buzzing and ringing, pinging and alerting, prodding for more attention whether we were on Ellis Island or en route to my uncle’s Long Island backyard. Sometimes it tells me things about myself I don’t want to know, like how many hours I spend with it a week. 

Nevertheless, the thing I love about honesty is that it provides a benchmark. Since I know what my smartphone can and can’t do, I have the opportunity to meet it where it is. In doing so, I can meet myself where I am, too. 

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After it led me and my family to Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side, and following a few styled shots of my classic lunch order, I put my phone away. It wasn’t front and center when my dad expertly called a taxi in Midtown to see the sunset over Little Island, saying, “That’s how it’s done!” to our shared laughter. It stayed silent when my mom danced to a DJ later that night, yelling, “I love this song!” as her kids watched in amusement. And even though it played a major role in directing my brother to Bleecker Street Pizza and provided the soundtrack in the car he was driving, it wasn’t also singing to the music. Most importantly, my phone was widely absent from reuniting with our relatives, letting us relish in up-close smiles and the beauty of blossoming white hydrangeas under a blue sky.

There’s a lot of societal pressure to travel “correctly,” and that pressure has existed in various forms for as long as people have had the privilege to get away. It tells me that I need to move like a local yet witness landmarks like a tourist, or master the art of packing efficiently yet dressing impeccably. It draws a line between knowing whether to spend or save, practice caution or throw that to the wind. In the case of moving about with a smartphone, even when it can likely answer many of these particularities, there’s plenty of pressure to explore without it—either as a respite from digital distractions or a way to recall experiences more vividly.

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Most of the time, traveling is murky and always doing the right thing is hard. I think it’s best to be kind to myself, wherever I happen to be. There are some moments when it’s better to have my phone around, and others when it’s more worthwhile to store it. As long as I’m being honest with myself, it’s clear when to follow suit.

The truth is, I’m never going to leave my phone at home. It’s too helpful with logistics, too trustworthy with directions, too great about indulging me with image filters. That’s what makes it such a reliable on-the-go companion. But as soon as it’s picked up my slack or accommodated my quirks, I’m confident that I can handle everything else from here. 

Kelly Dawson is a writer, editor, and media consultant based in Los Angeles. Visit her consulting agency At the Crosswalk, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter

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