Does taking time away from your devices when traveling open you up to more authentic experiences? Will a digital detox trip change your habits after you’ve returned home? Or is the whole thing a waste of time? We take a look.
When I arrived in Istanbul in 2013, the second thing I did was buy a SIM card and chuck it into my phone. I didn’t think twice about it. (The first thing I did was get a kebab).
With all the knowledge in the world at my fingertips, I kept up with where I was as I traveled around Turkey. I researched things to do, eat and see; sent and replied to work emails; and posted photos to Facebook and Instagram. Having access to all that information kept me well and truly connected, but it also, possibly, meant I wasn’t fully engaging with the people and places I encountered along the way. After all, who needs to ask a local for directions when you have Google Maps?
When it comes to just how much of our waking lives is now spent staring into some form of device, it could be argued that we’re starting to resemble the beginnings of some kind of Orwellian-themed dystopian horror flick that doesn’t end particularly well. But that alone doesn’t seem enough for us to commit to cutting down.
According to a study conducted by IAB Australia, mobile usage is continuing its rapid upward trajectory. And it’s not just Australians—the same report found that the average American spends 2.8 hours a day on a mobile device. Being ‘connected’, whether we like it or not, has become the norm. But should it be the norm when we’re traveling?
There was a time, remembered now through rose-tinted glasses, when traveling went hand-in-hand with the idea of ‘getting away from it all’. Agreeing to a prohibitively expensive mobile roaming plan used to be one of the only ways to keep in regular contact with home. Go back a little further in time, and you had calling cards, postcards, smoke signals and carrier pigeons.
But thanks to ultra-portable technology, the excess of hyper-fast internet, cheap overseas SIM cards, and increased and improved Wi-Fi coverage in most hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants, it’s now easier to stay in touch than it is to not stay in touch. Whereas once we would travel to escape everyday life, we’ve unwittingly started smuggling our everyday lives across international borders. We’re missing the marvel of travel because we can’t bear to miss the monotony of home–the thing we paid a big wad of cash to escape in the first place.
These tours promised the hyper-connected globetrotter ‘travel like it used to be’.
In late 2015, a few entrepreneurial folks noticed we might need a bit of help when it comes to managing our relationships with our devices and getting the most out of our trips. And so the idea of ‘digital detox’ travel was born. Magazines and online publishers began compiling lists detailing ‘the best destinations to visit for a digital detox’, but Intrepid Travel—the global small group tour operator—went one further and released a range of full-blown digital detox itineraries.
Based on the strength of the findings of a research project involving 1,500 American travelers, these tours promised the hyper-connected globetrotter ‘travel like it used to be’. Where resorts, hotels and lodges had started offering ‘unplugged retreats’, Intrepid realized that nobody had created anything for the tour space. “We’re trying to offer an opportunity to those travelers who have lost their way when it comes to balancing technology and travel,” says Leigh Barnes, director of Intrepid Travel North America. “It’s the opportunity to reconnect with the world and their love of travel.”
The trips, which originally launched in India, Thailand, Ecuador and Morocco, involved travelers signing a pledge in which they promise not to use their devices (including cameras and laptops). “We can’t force people to not use their gadgets,” comments Barnes, “but by creating a tour on which everyone is disconnecting together, it really fosters a positive digital detox environment which can lead to conversations and connections with not only local people, but also fellow travelers.”
Over the past few years, many companies offering short, technology-free itineraries (such as UK-based Unplugged Weekend) have come into existence, and there’s been a boom in hotels and resorts offering their own digital detox packages. But Intrepid’s range of detox trips has shrunk since launch. The company now only lists departures in Morocco and India on its website.
“Regardless of what kind of trip they’re on, we hope people keep in mind the importance of staying present.”
Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel
Have people given up on the idea of digital detox travel? Or have they just decided they can probably do it themselves? “I think people love the idea of disconnecting while they travel,” explains Barnes. “But when it comes to actually making that commitment, it’s a bit more challenging. What we’re hoping these trips do is spark conversation and allow people to reassess how much they rely on technology while they travel. Regardless of what kind of trip they’re on, we hope people keep in mind the importance of staying present.”
Becky Madsen, a travel agent at Flight Centre, took a digital detox trip in late 2016. She lived in Indonesia for a year, where Wi-FI wasn’t readily available much of the time, and realized that traveling without being connected 24/7 helped her have a ‘more authentic experience’. She was able to replicate that experience on her digital detox trip and, overall, found the whole experience to be worthwhile. “The whole group was far more ‘there’ and more sociable than normal,” she explains. “I think just being in the moment and able to experience everything fully, without thinking about showing my friends or family back home, was the most positive outcome.”
There are two debates to be had here. The first pertains to whether or not traveling without technology helps you have a more genuine experience. The second is whether or not these trips can help us change our habits when it comes to our device usage.
Perhaps most qualified to help travelers unlock the potential of digital detox trips is Dr. Kylie Brownfield, clinical psychologist and director of The Mindful Clinic, an Australian clinic specializing in mindfulness-based approaches to coping with mental health issues. Brownfield explains that it’s unreasonable to expect a change in our habits unless we can become more conscious of what we’re doing and why, but she acknowledges that taking time out could be a good way to help us gain some perspective.
“We often first need a period of abstention in order to change our habits,” she says. “Taking a break allows the mind an opportunity to reset and refresh. It may give you a different perspective, a sense of mastery and control, then you can create appropriate boundaries and use technology more deliberately, rather than mindlessly, when you return. I’m not at all surprised at the rise of [digital detox tourism]. I think it’s a brilliant idea.”
I made up for my experience in Turkey (which I should mention, was still an incredible trip) by vowing never to buy a SIM card when I travel again. When I traveled to Vietnam late last year, I had no access to the internet while out and about, and tried my best to limit it to when I was at my hotel. It wasn’t a ‘detox’ as such, but I was certainly using my device far less than I would at home. But when I did get back home, I found my unconscious habits when it came to checking my phone were unchanged. I was in the same boat as Madsen.
Madsen certainly recognized and enjoyed the benefits that came with distraction-free travel, but the jury’s still out on whether it has done her any lasting good. “It’s kind of hard to use it less when I’ve got a constant flow of people contacting me,” she says. “How do you just ignore them? I’ll have to figure out the balance somehow.”
Oliver is the Australia editor of Adventure.com. Originally from the UK, he's lived in Melbourne since 2011 and writes for a range of international travel and music publications.