How to Travel Without a Smartphone

With a new season of The Amazing Race now underway, Edward Hasbrouck is back with his episode-by-episode commentary. For episode one he focuses on the difficulty that racers, not allowed to use smartphones, have with seemingly simple navigation tasks:

Travellers today aren’t likely to need to fall back on their ability to handle horses. It’s still common, however, to find yourself in a spot where your smartphone is broken, lost, stolen, or has no signal. It’s still worthwhile, I would argue, to learn and to maintain your ability to function without a smartphone, even if you carry one and use it as your primary tool for many tasks. The more you rely on your smartphone, the more you should have a “Plan B”. 

Before you leave home, make a list of all the things for which you use your phone. Think about each of them, and how you would accomplish the same task without your phone, or whether you would be willing and able to do without it. 

What are those functions for which you have come to rely on your phone, especially when you are away from home? Or for which, if you are younger, you have never used any tool other than a cellphone? (What’s a “phone booth”? What’s a “cybercafe”?) What’s your “Plan B” for travel without your phone? 

I once prided myself on my ability to, using only the lay of the land, find a muffler shop in any city I landed in (this was of necessity: my cars of yore were always in need of muffler work when I traveled cross-country). These days, though, as the urban landscape has changed, and my navigation skills have atrophied in the age of Google Maps, I’m not so sure.

Indeed, when we were in Tokyo in 2013, we were cemented to our smartphone and its Google Maps-powering GPS for almost everything. We didn’t have a plan B (other than “a spare battery”), and had the phone failed us we would have had an interesting time getting back to our hotel via celestial navigation.

It amazes me to think back to my time in Seoul, in the late 1990s, when I lost my travellers cheques and got them replaced with benefit of neither mobile phone nor the ability to speak Korean. As I pointed out when I wrote about that episode earlier, the real question to ask yourself not is now “what do I do without my phone,” but rather “what do I do if I lose my debit card?”

The ability to stick a card into an ATM anywhere from Rochester to Riga and withdraw local cash is something we take for granted, at least when traveling in the north. In many situations losing my debit card would sink me far deeper than not being able to use Google Maps (it’s for this reason that we have the “carry an emergency $50 somewhere” rule when traveling).


Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on April 15, 2017 - 12:35 Permalink

Well, it may turn out that as part of traveling 'data naked' across borders, traveling without a smart phone, or at least a stripped down one, becomes more usual again.

Cory Wilson's picture
Cory Wilson on July 19, 2022 - 09:13 Permalink

I dont have a cell phone and I certainly won't take my computer on a trip so how do I deal with Canada customs who want you to use an app to get thru customs.