A Case for Offline Travel

Should you unplug during your next trip?
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We drove into Guerneville, a charming town in the Russian River Valley of California, around dinner time. Hungry and tired, we dropped our bags at a rented cabin, then headed to a restaurant a friend had recommended. But when we arrived, it was closed. Immediately, my husband and I whipped out our phones to search through Yelp. “Best for dinner close to me” I typed, waiting as the spinning wheel targeted the best restaurants in the area. Then I looked up.

Guerneville isn’t a big place. In fact, there’s only one main street, and on that main street there were only three restaurants open on that spring night. All of them were within steps of where we were standing, waiting for our phones to recommend the best possible food choice.

“What are we doing?!” I asked my husband incredulously. He looked up at me and seemed to realize how silly we looked, too. And so I threw my phone into my purse and marched over to the nearest option, a bustling coffee shop bathed in warm light and full of chattering people. The owner ran over to us. He grabbed our hands and invited us into his shop. Within moments, we found ourselves sitting at a bistro table, bathed in warm evening air, nursing glasses of crisp white wine.

There was only one item on the menu for the restaurant’s “family night” so there were no choices to be made. Several moments later, we were presented with big bowls of lentil stew and homemade biscuits. We spent the evening in lovely conversation with the shop owner, who kept calling the restaurant his home and eventually recommended dozens of adventures we could take through wine country the next day. We left gloriously happy and overwhelmed by the serendipity of it all—no Yelp search required.

The author hiking through Olympic National Park, no cell phones involved.

The author hiking through Olympic National Park, no cell phones involved. (Photo Credit: Jenni Gritters)

Why is Offline Travel so Important?

In general, I’m a very online person. As a journalist, my lifestyle revolves around using social media and the internet: I scroll through Instagram studiously before bed, flip through Twitter when I’m bored, and research menu options online before I go out to eat. I text constantly, from my phone and my computer, and spend hours on the phone every week catching up with long-distance friends and sources for stories. As far as human beings go, I am connected.

But that night in Guerneville inspired me to change the way I use the internet when I travel.

Gone are my days of searching extensively for the best place to go to dinner in each town I visit. Now, my phone is on airplane mode more often than not. And on each successive trip, I become more and more convinced that offline travel is the best possible way to get out of your own head and into the world.

Before I leave for a trip, I post an out-of-office message on my email that explains what I’m doing: I’m leaving, I will not be able to respond to calls, texts or emails until I return, and it’ll all be OK.

I delete all social media apps off of my phone (including email!) and put my phone, for the most part (except navigational emergencies, podcasts and music) in airplane mode.

And I keep my phone mostly hidden for the extent of my travels, leaving it behind in hotel rooms and backpacks, tucking it into the glove compartment of the car, and for the most part hoping to forget about it. I’ve left my phone behind during a road trip along the California coast, on trips to the San Juan Islands, Hawaii and Bermuda, and for long weekend camping escapes throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Mental Health

I’m a fairly anxious, plan-oriented person, but I’ve found that turning off my phone helps me slow down my go-go-go mindset. Social media, especially, can be a trigger for people with anxiety: Research shows that the more we use social media platforms, the more we experience lowered levels of psychological well being and heightened levels of anxiety, depression and social comparison. For me, stepping away from social media platforms for a few days often makes me feel better psychologically.

It definitely takes a few days for my fingers to stop twitching. (I’m often shocked by how much I reach for my phone without really thinking about it during those first 24 hours.) But once I get used to a reduced information drip, I actually calm down. I sleep better. My worries about what might happen (at work, at home) slowly drift away. My heart rate slows. My thoughts become more rational. The less I use my phone, the more mindful and connected I feel.

Being in the Moment

Before I started traveling offline, I’d find myself in the most beautiful places in the world, like the Cinque Terre or islands of Thailand —and I’d be looking at those views through the eye of my iPhone camera. I was so worried about capturing the moment in a shareable way with a perfect caption, that I wasn’t actually enjoying the moment at all.

Now, I still take photos of my travels, but I know I won’t be posting the photos right away, so they’re more about saving memories than trying to get the perfect angle. Sometimes, I don’t take photos of epic experiences at all, and there’s a sneaky joy in knowing that the experience will always be all mine, in my own head. No one else will see it the way I did. Maybe I won’t even tell anyone else that I went!

I’ve also found that I’m better able to enjoy the people around me when I put my phone away. I can carry on a conversation that’s uninterrupted by texts, calls or mindless scrolling. My husband and I feel like our vacations and our relationship have improved since we’ve started to put our phones away more often.

Serendipity

I grew up with parents who planned out every part of our vacations. My dad always carried a green folder of agenda items, plans, plane tickets and reservations, so I learned to travel this way too. But after years spent backpacking through Europe and Asia, and after many road trips across America, I can attest to one simple truth: Being surprised while traveling is always better than successfully completing a plan you made.

Millennials especially often make extreme efforts to digitally optimize experiences. In Anne Helen Petersen’s recent viral story for Buzzfeed, she writes about how this desire to optimize every experience can cause people to feel burned out. We read dozens of reviews and blogs to make sure we stay in the best places, see the best views and eat the best food on our trips. We plan out the top 10 places we must go, pin a zillion pictures of that place onto our Pinterest boards (#inspo) and then post tons of photos of our travels (#humblebrag) on social media once we get to the location in question, all for the sake of putting on a stellar online performance that enhances our personal brand.

“Being surprised while traveling is always better than successfully completing a plan you made.”

But in my experience, what’s missing for many of us in the optimization generation is the joy of spontaneity, of human kindness, of following a trail recommended to you by the guy you chatted up at the bar last night, of happening across an epic sushi restaurant on the side of the road in a town you didn’t mean to drive through at all. All of my favorite travel moments have been entirely unplanned. These days, I book our flights and most of our hotels or campsites in advance, but I tend to leave the rest up to chance, no cell phone research included.

Do You Miss Anything?

Yes and no. When I first started turning off social media for one- or two-week increments, I was very worried that I’d be missing out on news, people’s birthdays, work happenings and other, imagined emergencies. As it turns out, I rarely miss much of major importance. Often, I’ll come home to 60 Facebook notifications, but most of them are completely irrelevant. I’ve yet to miss an important event or birthday, either. If someone really needs me, they’ll call!

When I travel offline, I try to read real newspapers to keep up on the news, and we often listen to the radio. I find it useful to consume the news this way, without the odd filter bubble of my social media accounts. Simply looking at the front page of the newspaper gives me a true look at what’s happening in the world and my town, without everyone else’s opinions about those issues muddying the waters.

Offline Travel is (Mostly) Mindful Travel

The biggest reason that I travel offline is simpler than all of the above, though: After a week on the road (or in my tent or on a boat) without my cellphone, I return home feeling clear headed, like I’ve achieved the sort of disconnected freedom the 21st century rarely allows. I’m clear on my priorities, ready to dive back into interesting projects, and aware of what I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy.

When I travel offline, it increases my awareness of the present moment and allows my stress levels to reduce. This, above all else, is why I keep turning my phone to airplane mode before checking out the world’s most epic views. I want to be there—really there—for these experiences, rather than trying to record them with an audience in mind. And I want to come home awake, alive and rejuvenated—not drained—ready to dream up my next adventure.

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