I Went on Vacation Without My Phone. Here’s What Happened.

The good, bad, and unexpected from a week without screens.

Posted Aug 28, 2019

tonktiti/Adobe Stock
Source: tonktiti/Adobe Stock

A few weekends ago, I was driving in the car with my family when my wife said something startling: “I was thinking maybe we should leave our phones at home when we go on vacation this year.”

Say what? My stomach tightened.

I knew her suggestion was a good idea, as I’m often writing about ways to limit the intrusions of technology in our lives. What better time to break free from screens than on a family vacation? But I immediately thought of things that made it “impossible.” 

“What about navigation?” I asked. She pointed out that we used to travel all the time without real-time instructions from our phones. We could manage.

Hmm, okay.

“But what about a camera?” I responded. “You always like to capture photos from our vacation….”

“True,” she said. “What if we got a stand-alone DSLR camera like we’ve been wanting to, one that doesn’t require us to be on our phones and that takes really high-quality photos?”

So the camera wasn’t a deal-breaker.

What about music in the car? Especially for the kids? Oh, right—CDs or the radio.

As we eliminated each of my objections one by one, I realized my main hesitation was that I didn’t want to be without my phone, period. Like nearly everyone, I’m attached to it. It feels like a part of me.

I was especially reluctant to give it up for my early mornings. I’m generally out of bed by 4:00 AM or so, hours before anyone else in the house is awake. What if I needed a way to fill that time, beyond what reading or writing could offer? And speaking of writing, how could I write, assuming the plan would also mean leaving my laptop at home?

And then inexplicably I felt my resistance turn into excitement. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it. It’ll be a fun adventure.”

“Oh… really?” my wife said. “What if someone needs to reach you?”

I told her I could let people know I’d be without a phone. Now it was her turn to hesitate. But that was it. We had decided—how exciting!

[Record scratch sound effect]

But first, we learned that the rental house we were staying in had no landline. Of course—who needs one when everyone has a cell phone? With neighbors watching our guinea pig at home and the possibility of an emergency during the week, we decided we should bring a phone.

My wife graciously took one for the team and brought hers, which she checked briefly first thing in the morning and the last thing at night (and always in private).

Thank goodness it was she and not I who had the phone; I know from experience that I lack the self-control to avoid checking email and other apps when I open my phone for some other reason. During a trip to Cape May the summer before, I had limited my cell phone use during the day, but still found more “reasons” to be on it than I wanted to.

So here’s what happened.

The first thing we noticed when my wife turned off and stowed her phone as we pulled out of the driveway was a sense of relief. There would be no alerts, no calls, no impulse to check this or that. We could focus on each other and what was really happening.

“Can we listen to ‘Mary Poppins Returns’?” asked our 8-year-old a little while later. She and her 4-year-old sister have been addicted to that soundtrack ever since seeing the movie. 

“Sorry,” I replied, “we’re not using phones on this vacation.”

“I can’t wait till we’re back home,” she said to her sister. We’d been on the road for ten minutes.

Getting Around

It’s hard to miss a turn when using a navigation app, with the advance notice and detailed instructions (“Use the second from the left lane to turn right…”), and accompanying map.

I was reminded of what it was like to go on a road trip 15 years ago, with no assurance we wouldn’t miss a turn or that we were on course. There was something nice about the immediacy of it, and the need to collaborate with the navigation.

We followed directions I’d printed from Google Maps (how 2007!) and managed to find our rental house in Cape May without any wrong turns along the way.

I hadn’t printed directions to any of our favorite places in the area, like Beach Plum Farm, but figured there would be a local map in the rental house. Nope. But a clerk at the grocery store we stopped at kindly pointed us to the nearby Welcome Center, where we got a great map that included all of our favorite destinations.

It’s quite a different experience using a map and your memory to navigate rather than outsourcing navigation to an app. I found a much greater sense of connection to the surroundings when I wasn’t depending on a constantly guiding voice.

I also learned for the first time how everything is situated around Cape May, including where North, South, East, and West were. It was an empowering feeling to know where I was and to rely on my brain to find my way through space.

Downsides of Not Having a Phone

This is not a post about how going phoneless was all roses and sunshine. There were definitely some drawbacks:

Emergencies

Thankfully we didn’t have any true emergencies with our family or our home back in Pennsylvania. However, my wife did develop a pretty severe stomach bug the first morning we were there and was completely knocked out for a full day. I was grateful to have the phone on hand in case we needed to call the doctor.

Music

Besides listening to music in the car, I often enjoy streaming music from Amazon’s endless library while I’m making dinner. I missed having that at times, although it also made it easier to talk with people coming and going from the kitchen without my music blaring. And there are, of course, several ways to listen to music that don’t involve a phone. 

Seth J. Gillihan
Source: Seth J. Gillihan

Cooking

I do a lot of cooking and often look up recipes online. Interestingly, the card I drew from The CBT Deck on the first morning we were there was entitled, “A New Recipe.” It included the instructions, “Look online to find a recipe and watch how-to videos, if needed.” Easy for you to say, buddy.

I didn’t find any cookbooks in the rental house, but I did find old issues of Country Living and People magazine. The latter had a fun double cheeseburger recipe, which fit my dinner plans for that evening.

Plus I learned about “the secret life of Audrey Hepburn—with new details and exclusive photos”! Bringing a cookbook would be an easy solution for those who wanted to work from recipes. Like with many activities, our phones are one way to solve a problem, but not the only way.

Weather

It would have been helpful at times to be able to check the daily or hourly forecast to plan our activities. We had to rely on the old-fashioned method of looking outside and getting a feel for the temperature and threat of rain. Buying a newspaper would also work, or getting the forecast from the TV (though we were also foregoing television for the week).

The locals can also give clues about the weather, like when the captain of our marsh tour boat told us it looked like the rain was heading north, and we were in for a sunny afternoon. It ended up pouring rain for hours that afternoon, but at the time it felt like we were getting the inside scoop—and even the meteorologists get it wrong sometimes.

It’s also nice to know when the sun will rise and set, especially like one evening when we planned to drive to sunset beach to watch the (wait for it) sunset. Thankfully we timed it just right and caught a stunning display with scores of other people gathered on the beach. I wasn’t as accurate trying to get to the beach to see the sunrise the next morning, so just went out a little earlier the next morning.

I thought we might miss being able to look up the tide schedule, but then realized that we never base any decisions on the tide—it’s just a curiosity that we like to gratify. So no real loss there.

Planning Activities

It’s not such an easy thing to navigate our world now without a smartphone, or a phone at all. For instance, we couldn’t check the hours of the bike shop where we were going to rent a surrey or buy tickets online in advance.

On our surrey ride, we found the local library and were told that vacationers could indeed get a library card—if they showed the email confirmation for where they were staying. It wasn’t a huge problem, as we just came back the next day with the printout of our reservation confirmation.

Parking at the library was a bit of an issue, too, as it was all metered, and they only took quarters (we were down to nickels and dimes). If I’d had my phone, I could have added money to the meter through a parking app. So there was no question about it—not having a phone added a certain amount of inconvenience at times.

I should also mention that I managed to overdraw my checking account while on vacation, and discovered a $36 overdraft fee waiting for me when we got home. Apparently, I’d forgotten to make a transfer to cover an automatic payment that came out.

I could have made a similar mistake even if I’d had my phone with me—I seem to do it every three or four years—but it’s possible that I could have avoided the fee if I’d been more connected while on vacation.

Advantages of Being Phoneless

On the other hand, there were upsides to having no phones, not all of which we’d expected:

More Social Contact

When we were scraping together change at the parking meter for the library, a guy walking by cheerfully gave us all the change he had in his pockets. It was an unexpected and extremely uplifting gesture, and it wouldn’t have happened if we’d had the convenient option available.

We also had a nice discussion with the women at the library about our phone-free vacation, which came up as I explained why we didn’t have a local address confirmation with us. There were many other examples.

Greater Creativity

Most of us will do almost anything to avoid being bored, and technology is a common go-to. When I was 9 years old, I desperately wanted a Casio calculator watch that I saw in the JC Penney catalog (yes, this was 1985).

I remember waiting my turn at the barbershop in Clark’s Hill, Indiana, and imagining how I’d never be bored if I just had that watch. (I got the watch, but shockingly did still experience boredom at times.)

Now it’s our phones that promise us we’ll never be bored, but there’s a cost to being constantly entertained. In particular, some studies have found that being bored leads to greater creativity.

Parents are surely familiar with this idea, like when your bored kids make up elaborate games to pass the time in the car. Our girls ended up singing a lot of “Mary Poppins” tunes, since we didn’t have the soundtrack, in between episodes of screaming at each other (like I said, not all roses and sunshine).

More Engagement

It’s always more apparent to others when you’re on a screen than it is to you. You don’t notice the delay in your response, or how your responses don’t exactly match what the other person said. Not having a phone nearby as a ready go-to seems to facilitate not only more sustained connection with activities and people, but deeper connection.

Better Family Time

It’s hard to make a direct comparison between family time with and without a smartphone, but I know my attention is more often divided when my phone is close by. Divided attention is never a relationship builder.

I asked my 11-year-old son during our vacation what he thought of not having phones, and he said he preferred it. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what was better, but I’m guessing it was that our time together wasn’t punctuated by periods of screen time and that half-felt sense that the person using the screen is there, but not there.  

Greater Self-Awareness

Grabbing our phones is a common way to avoid being alone with ourselves and our thoughts. Isn’t that so much of what we love about technology? Being without the constant distraction of a phone can be an exercise in getting to know yourself.

You might start to notice, for example, the situations that trigger your urge to check your phone. Is it when you’re bored? Anxious? Uncomfortable with a conversation topic? Not being able to immediately satisfy an urge provides the time and space to understand better where it’s coming from.

Did I Miss My Phone?

The nearly universal response when I told people we were going on vacation without our phones was disbelief mixed with envy. Everyone seemed to want to take time off from their screens, but doubted they would be able to for one reason or another.

Implicit in their reaction seemed to be the assumption that they would miss having their phones. I expected the same for myself, that there would be moments when I truly regretted not having my cell phone or computer.

I unequivocally did not miss my phone. Not once, even in moments of inconvenience, did I think, “It would’ve been better if I’d brought my phone.” Even when I got the $36 overdraft fee, which set my teeth on edge, I knew I was willing to pay $36 for the experience of being phoneless for a week.

Takeaways

What I did discover was a more nuanced relationship with my phone. In the past, I seemed to have an addict’s relationship with it—compulsively using it though it seldom brought joy, and also hating it on some level.

The week highlighted for me that we use our phones in all kinds of ways, and some add value to our lives while others subtract value. The best we can do is to maximize the advantages technology can provide while minimizing the disadvantages, yielding the largest possible net benefit. My week away showed me that the following applications have a net positive value in my life, with minimal costs:

  • Messages
  • Phone, Skype, and other calling apps
  • Google Maps
  • Apple Podcasts and Amazon Music (for some reason these two are non-addictive for me)
  • Basic tools (Timer, Calendar, Calculator, Camera, Voice Memos, Notes)
  • Storage tools (Dropbox, Google Drive)
  • Online banking
  • Weather

What do these apps have in common? Each of them has a clear function, and when they’ve served that purpose, I’m not going to keep using them for entertainment.

None of these apps leads me to waste a lot of time on my phone or pull me to check them constantly, and they add value of various kinds (information, communication, convenience). I’m not going to compulsively check my bank balances, for example, or see if anyone has shared a Google Doc with me in the past three minutes.

These apps, on the other hand, turned out to be a net negative for me:

  • Social Media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn)
  • Email
  • YouTube
  • News
  • Internet

The marginal convenience and entertainment each of these apps offers is more than offset by the time I waste mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, watching videos, surfing the news out of boredom, checking email, etc.

As entertaining as they can be, I rarely feel like the time was well spent. Email is an especial waste of time because I not only check it several times an hour but take longer composing emails on my phone versus with a keyboard.

The first thing I did when I turned on my phone after vacation was to delete all of these apps. I’ll also be putting my phone on airplane mode when I’m doing other things, to minimize its intrusions.

Seth J. Gillihan
Source: Seth J. Gillihan

If you go through this exercise for yourself, make sure you consider both the pros and the cons of any application. We tend to focus on the pros of having an app (“I can watch videos while I’m riding the train!”) and ignore the cons (“I waste hours watching video after video”).

See the figure of the 2x2 box with pros and cons.

A Personal Decision

How and when you choose to use your phone is entirely up to you. I’m not on a crusade to make everyone copy my choices, with phones or anything else. Everyone should decide for themselves how best to use their time and energy.

Some people may get much more out of apps like Facebook or YouTube than I do, and staring for hours at a piece of glass and metal doesn’t feel like a waste of their life. (And yes, I mean that to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.)

I’m sure I’ll find ways at times to overindulge in screens, as I often have in the past. A few months ago, I buried Gmail in subfolders, thinking it would interrupt my frequent checks. It did for about a minute, and then I realized I could just double-tap my home button and quickly select it from among the open apps.

It’s like my relationship with alcohol—as long as drinking was an option, I would fall into unhealthy patterns of use. The rules I set only underscored the problem I had, like waiting till Friday to drink and then drinking too much every Friday. My only sustainable option was to give up alcohol completely.  

The apps I’m now allowing myself access to are more like water than wine—they have a clear (no pun intended) purpose, with little chance of addiction. I know there are many who are not prone to the same patterns of overuse with alcohol or technology or other things, which I always find amazing. They’ll probably make different choices about the role of different apps.  

If you’re considering making a change in your relationship with technology, I highly recommend a scheduled break for a few days, without the option to check if you get the urge. The separation might be illuminating and can help you to design a relationship with your phone and other screens that best works for you.

Oh, and that charge for overdrawing my checking account? I called PNC Bank and explained the situation to Johnny, and how I hadn’t taken my phone with me. He very kindly was able to reverse the charge, and we had a great chat about the experience of going screenless on vacation. He said he was excited to talk with his wife about doing the same thing on their next trip.