These days nearly everyone has a smart phone. They’re invaluable communication and information tools. At the same time, a number of studies show that reliance on our smart phones takes us out of the moment. It prevents us from embracing the present and seizing the joy of our environment and experiences.
You don’t have to go to an overpriced resort in a hipster city to unplug. Simply travel abroad…and don’t upgrade your data plan.
When I graduated from college, I was still rocking a flip phone. I went abroad after graduation, living in Poland. When there… I also had a flip phone. I traveled to at least eight different cities in Poland and about eight countries…all without the convenience or access of a smart phone.
For most of these amazing life experiences, I traveled solo as a woman, paying foremost attention to safety and to maximizing my experiences. Here are a few tried and true lessons from my disconnected solo travel experiences.
You don’t have to memorize the national anthem of every country you visit. But carry with yourself basic copies of the hours and addresses of anything you want to see. Know where you’re spending the night. Know if there are any major attractions you need to see or experiences you need to have. In Paris, I wanted to listen to Aux Champs-Elysees… on the Champs-Elysees. It’s a dorky experience, but I made sure my iPod was charged and with me that day.
There’s nothing worse than getting to an end of a weekend away and realizing you ran out of time to do the thing you most wanted to do. In Stockholm, I knew my priorities–the special exhibit at the art museum I wanted to see and the other historical and cultural spots that were top of my list. Knowing the schedules and open days, I did those things first to give myself low-stress flexibility for the rest of the trip and guarantee myself a great time. After arriving in Paris, I realized if I wanted to visit the Eiffel Tower, I was going to need far more than the limited time I had devoted to that attraction. My deep love for World’s Fairs meant that actually ascending the Eiffel Tower (a World’s Fair showstopper) was a priority for me. To accommodate that change, I had to quickly decide what other Parisian plans were taking a backseat. (I’m so sorry Rodin museum.)
3. Stay flexible.
“But, Amanda,” you may be saying “You just said to plan and prioritize.” Yes. Yes, I did. However, the benefit of solo travel is you never know where it will take you. You’ll never have a conversation with a stranger in the coffee shop about the best local place for dinner if you’re using Yelp reviews. And maybe that stranger in the coffee shop will recommend a weird chain restaurant that you’ve been to before, as happened to me in Gdansk, Poland.
However, it was a simple thing to stroll a few streets over and come across a pierogi restaurant where I tried amazing wild game pierogi. Sometimes the people you engage with aren’t the best. But, let’s be honest, your search results are determined through SEO formulas that mean you aren’t ALWAYS getting exactly what’s best for you either. In Sweden, I ended up walking past the Nobel Museum, a museum I’d been hoping to hit up, only to realize that it had a special exhibit on Marie Curie, one of my childhood heroes. My flexibility allowed me to stay there longer without stress.
4. Learn a little language.
In big tourist areas, it’s nice to learn a few phrases of the local language. With a simple greeting, I tricked a restaurant in Stockholm into thinking I spoke Swedish… which was super embarrassing when I realized they were trying to tell me that they were closed. But it is still a fun memory! If you’re going somewhere you don’t know the language and without access to google translate, pick up a small phrasebook. If you get absolutely desperate, you can point at the phrases.
The worst case scenario of learning some phrases in a foreign language is that you impress your friends at home. I don’t get much traction out of my ability to say “The man eats” in Swedish, but I do get some laughs from my story of the time I tried to borrow a scale from my Polish neighbor. There are a LOT of ways to use the word “scale”–fish scale, musical scale, scale up, etc. None of the Polish words I was trying to use actually meant a scale you weigh yourself on. Until I tried to explain, in pieced together, grammatically incorrect phrasing: I have luggage. I don’t know weight.
5. Bring some entertainment.
I’m not the most gregarious extrovert you’ll ever meet. (People who know me are rolling their eyes at that understatement.) So make sure you have disconnected downtime activities ready for when you’ve turned off Candy Crush. I tended to download a book to my kindle that took place in the location I was visiting. It makes for a fun but atmospheric evening alone in the hostel. I tended to go to bed earlier so I could get up early to see more of the city. However, reading alone in your room isn’t always the best option. I’ve also spent evenings at the local opera or at movie theaters. Tourist activities tend to shut down at a certain time. Unless you’re very comfortable in your total solitude, be ready with some plans. Plus, some of the most fun elements of travel are seeing how other people live their day-to-days, including discovering the joys of watching dubbed art house movies that you barely understand in the oldest movie theater in Europe.
If you are more social, look for a nearby hot spot. In Budapest I went to the ruinpubs, bars tucked away in what appear to be quiet apartment buildings, but are an eclectic, often multi-storied mashup of mismatched furniture and music and plum-flavored liquor nestled in the inner courtyard. If you are drinking alone as a disconnected traveler, be hyper aware of your surroundings, know if there are any curfews at your hostel, and maybe try to keep the buzz to a minimum.
6. Have a plan to communicate with back home.
You should register your trip with your local government consulate. You can memorize the local version of 911 and look up what it takes to use a pay phone. Plan with friends and family back home how you’ll let them know you arrived safely. Then you can relax and enjoy your time. Internet cafes are in decline, but a simple phone card for the pay phone will give you some comfort and security without having to take a break from your disconnected adventures.
Take a few minutes every night to write down just the tourist spots you saw, where you ate, and any major highlights. Some say that traveling solo is a lonely experience. I fully disagree. There’s no better way to connect with everyone than to force yourself into uncomfortable situations where you have to dismantle your walls. But when you fill your whole days with exciting experiences, they can blend together at times. Writing down the highlights is a five minute ritual that will help you recount your stories to your friends and family back home.
Have you traveled solo? Have you traveled without a phone or internet in this modern era? What tips and tricks do you have?