Ever since the advent of the smartphone age, we have agonized over how to take vacations that allow us to get away from "the monster that is consuming us." But we need our smartphones on vacation; they have replaced our guidebooks and our cameras. They provide directions in strange places. They give us Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews to steer us away from tourist traps and terrible restaurants. Crucially, they let us send digital postcards about our vacations via Instagram.
So how can we keep our phones from sucking us back into our life at home when we're trying to escape?
I recently returned from a vacation to Italy, during which I felt like I actually tamed the smartphone monster. Here is my advice for how to escape the technology leash without actually traveling to an off-the-grid spot where you can't connect at all (because that's rehab, not vacation):
- Delete the apps that stress you out. Goodbye Twitter, Facebook and Slack. Vacation means taking a break from the digital places I associate with work. If any of these apps are on my phone, I'll get notifications about them and then will check them — it's Pavlovian, and I can't help it. So before I left on my trip, I deleted them. I'd also recommend deleting other, non-work apps that stress you out, including Facebook, and re-downloading them when the vacation is over.
- Don't stop checking your email. Many travel guides advise you to set up an out-of-office reply and stop checking your email while on vacation. But I disagree. It's stressful to be totally unaware of what's happening online, and who's trying to get in touch with you. Unless you're like digital anthropologist danah boyd and you're going to automatically delete all the email that comes in while you're on vacation, keep checking your inbox to avoid a digital pile-up. But don't let it consume you — check it just once a day, delete junk mail and unimportant threads, and resist the temptation to respond unless it's a true emergency. When you get back, you'll have an inbox filled only with things you actually need to see — you won't have to spend your first few days at home playing catch-up and clearing out clutter.
- Download podcasts before you go. Before I left, I downloaded dozens of episodes of Criminal, Reply All, New Tech City, Song Exploder and 99% Invisible. Podcasts are a way to consume information and entertainment in an environment without links and tabs — an environment where no response or reaction is required. They free us from the tyranny of the screen. You can listen to podcasts while on a hike between Italian fishing villages or while lying on a beach in Oahu. You can be out in the world, your hands and eyes free, but still be connected to the digital stream. They're like an Internet methadone clinic, and they're perfect for tech addicts on vacation.
- Turn off notifications. Notifications make us slaves to our smartphones by telling us when we have new messages, pokes, favorites, RTs, and game moves to make. Having them on while on vacation is a disaster. So before you go through customs, go to "Notifications" in your phone's settings menu and just turn it all off — disable everything, except maybe the notifications from a travel app like TripIt (which could come in handy if your flight's delayed). Disabling notifications lets you check your phone when you want to, not when someone else thinks you should.
- Download a VPN. If you're vacationing outside of the U.S. and are like me, you're still going to want to relax at night the same way you do at home — by watching Netflix or the video provider of your choice. But depending on the country you're in, you may find that some of your favorite sites are blocked or unavailable. If you have a Virtual Private Network provider though, you can circumvent those restrictions and binge-watch in peace. Vacations are supposed to be about doing what you want to do when you want to do it, so make sure you still have the freedom to travel the Internet of your choice while abroad.
- Don't feel so guilty about Internet use. Technology while traveling is a to-each-her-own situation. If you're the kind of person who gets pleasure out of leaving your smartphone behind completely, great! Do it! But don't shame those around you who want to look at their smartphone on the bus between historic monuments or while drinking a mojito on the beach. It's okay to be online, even when you're supposed to be checked out.