Traveling Offline: How to NOT use an iPhone abroad

Posted in: technology


Paris McDonald's
Heading in for free Wi-Fi? Photo by Tom Meyers

One afternoon in Paris this past February, I exited the Metro at the Place de la Republique. I had been visiting hotels all morning and needed a coffee break. The French café ritual is one of my favorite aspects of working in Paris. You stand at the bar next to locals, order “un cafe,” and sip a delicious espresso before plunking down a euro.

However, I felt a slight pull coming from the iPhone in my backpack. It had been several hours since I “checked in.” There were undoubtedly e-mails waiting for me—not to mention a New York Times app that could be updated. While I was at it, I might as well check to see if anyone had commented on a photo of a recent meal that I uploaded to Facebook the night before…

I hadn’t purchased any of AT&T’s expensive international data plans, so I was reliant on Wi-Fi networks to use my device. I scanned the scene and spotted a McDonald’s across the street that advertised, with screaming gusto, “Wi-Fi gratuit!” I headed for it, past several cafés and brasseries (some of which also probably had a connection). McDonald’s was easy and cheap.

As I entered, I felt a pang of guilt, as I knew that I was sacrificing a “brasserie moment” for a coffee in a paper cup with a side of connectivity.

This wasn’t the only wired tug I experienced during my trip. It happened several times a day—often when I passed signs announcing a free Wi-Fi connection. Should I just stop for a minute? Should I hover around outside and try to poach a connection?

Had my iPhone changed my way of travel? Was there any going back? Was I overreacting?

iPhones abroad and at home

Following my trip, I wrote a post about how American travelers can use their iPhones in Europe without going broke. The post has proven to be one of our most popular, as many Americans heading abroad grapple with the same tech and billing issues that I encountered.

However, one issue that I didn’t address was how to limit the use of your phone in the first place. Talk about an uncool topic.

It’s not something I had even given much thought to until this month when I bought and read William Powers’ insightful new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.

iPhone at cafe

Table Tweets. Photo: Tarale

In the book, Powers argues that our ultra-wired lifestyle often distracts us from achieving a level of depth in our daily lives. For inspiration on how to deal with information overload, Powers looks back to Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau and other great thinkers who confronted, in their own times, technological shifts in the way humans communicated.

For many of us, we’re wired back home all day long. It’s a cliché, but remains true; we flip between e-mails, browser windows and instant messages during and after work. Many stay on top of Facebook and Twitter, as well.

Increasingly, we’re bringing our “wired” behavior with us while we travel. What’s wrong with this?

I’m afraid that we run the risk of becoming distracted travelers, losing out on the real experiences of our trips if our attention is hijacked by virtual activity. We might as well stay home.

Aware of the soapbox

Enter: the digital contrarian with full-throttled self-righteousness.

I’m sure that some, especially the most connected readers, will shake their heads (at least virtually) with exasperation. Digital devices have enhanced the travel experience in many ways, offering new ways to find out about destinations, make friends and share experiences. They also make travel Web sites (like this one, for example!) easier to produce and more timely.

Smart phones obviously make staying in touch easier and cheaper. Despite my philosophical grumblings, I returned to McDonald’s several times to use their Wi-Fi to call home for free using my iPhone’s Skype application. I found this feature incredibly helpful and liberating.

However, I would still like some help knowing how to more easily go “offline” while traveling.

Why? Because when checking my e-mails mid-day at the fast-food restaurant in Paris, I found nothing urgent in my inbox. Instead, I found something else: A strange sense that some aspect of my travel experience had changed for the worse. I was acting “busy,” but not by walking the streets, visiting Notre Dame, or buying a crepe. Rather, I was busying myself like I do back home, with finger on “refresh.” I wanted something back.

Limiting my iPhone use

How can I limit the use of my iPhone abroad? Is there a way to exercise greater control over my use of technology abroad than I seem to have at home?

Powers has come up with a few techniques, including a weekend-long “Internet sabbatical,” during which he unplugs his modem. I still want the option to connect when traveling. I just want to rid myself of the constant tug toward connecting.

I’ve come up with six suggestions that I’ll try out during my upcoming trip to Europe:

1. Start using (again!) a vacation message.

iPhone password

Set a password! Photo: Yun753

This is so basic it’s laughable. However, in the age of the iPhone, I stopped setting up a vacation message, as I assumed that I would always be connected. Setting up a message, with the email or phone number of an alternate contact in case of emergency, will set reasonable expectations for the sender. This should help you relax and feel comfortable checking e-mails less frequently.

2. Set a password on your iPhone.

We should all have passwords on our smart phones in the first place, as a lost phone can offer a treasure trove of e-mails, documents and other personal data. This security concern is only heightened when traveling.

However, a password can also serve as a hindrance to impulsive use, as it takes several seconds to manually enter it. Without a password, you can just slide and check mail. With a password, the brief commitment to typing it, no matter how fleeting, may help you overcome the pull—or at least remind me of why you set it in the first place.

3. Watches, maps, camera…  Go “old school.”

I don’t wear a watch any more, because I can always tell the time by glancing at my phone. This isn’t a good strategy when traveling “offline,” however, as every glance at the phone will be a potential tug to check in. Time for a watch.

The same can apply to the phone’s other features. Hardly anyone with a smart phone uses a map back home—but when traveling, carry one along. The phone’s camera? You know it’s not that good, anyhow. Bring along another camera if you have one.

4. Do the majority of your social media before you go.

Twitter and Facebook can be extremely helpful travel tools for meeting new people and getting tips on where to go for dinner, drinks and fun. If possible, do this work before you take off, so you’re not burdened with it on the road. Trying out a restaurant suggestion that you found before leaving, after all, is probably more satisfying than monitoring your Twitter responses from a hotel bedroom. (Just sayin’!)

5. Use your Facebook status to get off the digital hook.

If you don’t feel the need to change your Facebook status daily, try setting it to something self-explanatory that can buy you some time. A status like, “…is gallivanting around France and Italy for two weeks. Photos when I return!” could take care of updates for awhile. Also, rather than posting daily schedule updates, try posting a brief itinerary of dates and cities, so that your friends can track your trip in a single post.

6. Go offline. Talk to travelers. Talk to locals.

I’ll end my list with an obvious, but still relevant, suggestion. In an age when sharing stories and acquiring information happens increasingly through screens, we should push ourselves to “like” the experience of engaging in real conversation with the travelers and locals around us.

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, Powers notes that methods to reclaim some of your un-wired life will only succeed if you recognize that there are real benefits to not always being connected. One big benefit he mentions is deep, undistracted thought.

Hmmm. Deep undistracted thought. Isn’t that why I went to cafés in Paris in the first place? I have to first want it back.

Your thoughts? Your tips?

Do you share my concern that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to travel offline? Do you have any other suggestions for ways of making “unwired travel” easier to achieve? Do you think this is a non-issue and the paranoid rhetoric of a neurotic luddite? Share your thoughts in our comments section!

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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9 thoughts on “Traveling Offline: How to NOT use an iPhone abroad”

  1. International data costs are completely ridiculous. Somebody has to be pocketing the huge fees.

    I’m currently traveling for 5 months and I was able to figure out a way to use the maps app without incurring international data roaming charges. Before I head out for the day, I cache the maps I’ll need using a Wifi connection and then use the GPS functions of the phone to locate myself (which don’t require a data connection). I’ve posted all of the details here:

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Even having access *anywhere* to email while traveling can really suck the life out of the whole experience.

    And it’s not just when traveling, either. Our lives at home become much more constricted when attached at the hip to the electronic babysitters. I’m making it a new goal for the new year to disconnect a lot more.

  3. Bill in San Diego

    Map reading is a valuable skill that’s being lost by the GPS toting generation. When a solar storm crashes the system, everyone is gonna be dependent on people like me to find their way.

    The money I save each year by not having a “Pocket-size Facebook” (Smartphone) pays for my flight and the first night’s hotel room. Easily!

  4. Fantastic post with a lot of relevant comments.

    I need a reliable phone when I travel. We live in the UK but travel to Europe and my family situation means I have to be contactable by phone (and no, not in a so my mother and I can chat every night. I am apart from my husband, and he is in a situation where if there is an emergency, I have to know ASAP). And having an iPhone was cool as there were apps I could use (without wifi), I could email pretty regularly, take a photo and email it to someone straight away. But … I too found the tug of ‘just checking’ whenever there was wifi was hard to resist.

    So when we are in Germany in a couple of weeks, I am resolving to only have the phone on during the day, no internet. I wonder how long I will last however. I will have a laptop and hopefully an internet connection in the evenings, so maybe once I am off the streets, kid in bed, I can have a guilt free hour or two of cyber-time.

  5. :)
    Tom; you just confirmed ALL the reasons why I (still) haven’t got an iPhone….
    It saddens me beyond belief to see literally EVERYBODY glued to a phone, everywhere…. I live in the greater Paris region and just going out of the house means being surrounded by people on the phone; I have seen couples at the same dinner table, both using their phones, instead of talking to each other; in the trains & metros I am mostly the only one reading a book. When travelling, I want to be wide open to all things new, I want to discover, to talk to people, to learn, to be surprised, to be enchanted, to be connected with the there and then, NOT to be connected electronically…
    I admit, I already struggle with my Blackberry and I added a password long ago for exactly the same reasons you mentionned. Being Swiss, I DO wear a wristwatch, I also never think of taking (rubbish) phone-photos but schlep with me a magnificent camera of about 3kg…, and since I can’t read maps anyway, I ask people or even better, get driven or guided to where I need to go!
    It’s however very interesting to read the above and having said it all; it was ME who was mad at Hero Husband for NOT bringing the extra ‘mouse’ to our holiday place and it was ME who was complaining about not having a good connection every day…
    Going back in my corner and hanging my head in shame…. Kiki

  6. Totally and completely agree with you. I am heading to Europe for a year’s sabbatical. I am bringing my laptop, but will be leaving it behind at friends’ places, etc. while I take small sojourns all around (when I’m not based in once place for a while)… I’ve been worrying that I don’t have a smartphone with me — just have a plain oldschool handset… but you know what? After reading this, I don’t care. It’s all I need anyway, to cover emergencies. The rest? I’m looking forward to finding out on my own by just simply being in the moment, every moment. :)

  7. To me, the saddest thing about technology in respect to travel it how it’s dampened, if not completely destroyed, my favorite part of the travel experience: Discovery…real-time discovery. Turn off the phone, put down the map, leave the guidebook in the hostel. Hell, even take off the watch. Take a walk, open your eyes and tap into LIFE.

  8. Hungary for Budapest

    Love this! Inside a lobby in Budapest, I went to an online chat room to ask people where the hot ‘kerts’ in the city were. About a minute after I posted, I realized I was being ridiculous. I was in Budapest. I was already ‘tapped in,’ and ‘connected live.’ When I asked the manager of a youth hostel where the kerts were, (ten feet away from the computer terminals!), he handed me a map and crossed out the kerts that were closed before having a real time dialogue about kerts. Koszonom Magyar!

  9. jail break your phone (now legal)

    move to t-mobile and add the $20/mo unlimited international data plan … which they will even pro-rate based on travel days


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