This is the phone I traveled Europe with – an Alcatel 10.10. No internet, no camera. Not even snake – no games, no distractions. Costing 99 pence when I bought it a year ago, it is the most basic of phones, and the only form of communication I carried with me on a six-week inter-railing technology-free travel.
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Before I left, I decided I wanted to try a personal experiment – technology-free travel.
I’ve always been weirdly old-fashioned and suspicious of rising technology. However much people argue that it is making us more connected, I cannot help but see it pushing us apart. With the distractions of smartphones, we risk losing moments of reality – the immediate experience of the life in front of us. With this cynical mind, I decided to abandon my smartphone and replace it with a classic brick, with one single function – to phone people.
In ordinary life, this was all right. But could I wander around Europe and travel without a smartphone? Most people told me: no. Travelling is too different to daily life – the security and ease offered by smartphones are vital. But I had most of my route planned out, and I was staying with friends along the way. And, after all, most hostels have internet access if I needed it. So I put my Alcatel in my pocket and stepped forward to begin my technology-free travels.
Considering whether you can travel without a smartphone? Read ahead for the pros and cons to help you decide, based on the situations that make technology-free travel challenging.
Getting lost is an inevitable part of traveling – and the best way to discover a new place. But especially in a big city, it can be daunting. Without a smartphone, you wander aimlessly without even knowing the local language well enough to ask for a map. Some people thrive on this. Getting lost is all part of the experience, knowing you always find your way eventually.
To travel without smartphone forces you to speak to the locals – this can be funny, entertaining or just frustrating. Either way, at least you’re getting a feel for the place and the people.
A smartphone provides security and, with this, greater flexibility. You might be less inclined to arrive somewhere late at night knowing you won’t have Google maps to guide you. With technology-free travel, you often have to plan and be consequently restricted. Less security, less spontaneity.
Along with my small Alcatel phone, I did bring a big SLR camera. Without a smartphone, it was the only way to make pictures. An iPhone camera takes very decent pictures and, unless you’re super into photography, it’s an efficient way to record your travels.
I also brought my very old iPod Nano to listen to music. In the end, I wasted space and weight in my bag by separately carrying a phone, a camera, and an iPod. Traveling with a smartphone, I could have had these three things, all in one, in the palm of my hand.
With full dependence on texts and calls, technology-free travel risks becoming expensive. After all, Facebook and WhatsApp are free with access to Wi-Fi. But I found that on my pay as you go phone, roaming charges in Europe were cheaper than back home. Win.
I learned that my attempt to travel without a smartphone was not that extreme. I met a guy in Slovenia who had no phone at all – only a notebook of numbers. You’ll find lots of hippies doing the same thing. True, there are moments when technology-free travel seems purely positive – independent and liberating. But, after a while being so disconnected from friends and family starts to get to you. You’ll realize you haven’t talked to some of your favorite people in weeks, and this just feels a bit wrong. The catch of not being connected to others is that they are also not connected to you. This can inspire quite a bit of guilt.
One great thing about carrying around a 99p phone – no one is ever going to steal it. Left it on a table? Okay, no worries, it’s still there. You can throw it straight onto the ground, and it won’t break. You don’t have to waste your time worrying about looking after it.
I charged my phone about once a week. This is a nice difference to the weak batteries of smartphones. If you do find yourself in a sticky situation, you can guarantee that the Alcatel will be going strong – alive enough for an emergency phone call.
The lack of safety comes with your dependence on hostel computers. The reality is, sometimes you will need to access the internet. Especially if you don’t have a long-term plan. Booking trains and hostels and entering your card details into a shared-by-hundreds hostel computer is never a good idea. But sometimes it is just necessary, without a smartphone.
This is the purely positive thing about travel without a smartphone – no unproductive distractions. With technology-free trips, there is no diversion from immediate experience. You are immersed in reality and the exceptional moments around you. Whenever I was on a long journey, I was forced to entertain myself by reading and writing. This proved to be incredibly rewarding – any wasted time can be spent productively and creatively.
So, next time, would I travel without a smartphone?
I concluded that, while traveling, I am always going to need the internet. I just do. However much of a distant, lone traveler I might want to be, I want to be connected to my favorite people more. Once I accepted this, I knew I could either be dependent on slow and unreliable hostel computers or a free and flexible smartphone.
Like so many things, I decided it’s a balance. With the wrong balance, a smartphone can be restrictive, antisocial and distracting. But with the right one, it can offer liberation, spontaneity, and flexibility. We have the control. We can decide how addicted we want to be.
There are compromises:
- Leave your smartphone locked in your hostel on some days.
- Delete social media and game apps and replace them with exclusively travel based ones: couch surfing, hostel world, Google maps.
- Bring your phone out as a last resort rather than an immediate reaction.
Technology-free travel is very rewarding. It pushes you even more outside your comfort zone and empowers you and your abilities to live without a smartphone. Most significantly, travel without a smartphone teaches a very straightforward and essential lesson: technology is a luxury, not a necessity.
For now, while I am home, my loyal Alcatel is still sitting in my pocket.