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7 Ways to Stop Wasting Travel Time on your Phone and Be More Present

Sarah Lempa

Chicago, IL, USA

Like. Comment. Share. We’re inundated with notifications and virtual interactions around the clock — and ‘round the globe, too. A heavy emphasis is placed on capturing memories, but what if that very focus is detracting from the actual act of creating them? Without proper engagement in the present, our memories cease to embody the true depth of our senses and surroundings. What’s left behind other than a social stamp of approval from glittery beach shots and filter-induced FOMO? Not much. And that’s not right.

You miss a lot when you’re checked out in virtual la la land.

A study by Expedia revealed that American travelers spend an average of three hours per day on social media during vacation. That’s a lot of missed time that could have been spent talking to new people, wading through blue waters, or feeling the sand between your toes. You can certainly check in online, but don’t completely check out from reality.

While you were busy scrolling through your feed in that coffee shop, you might have missed the opportunity to talk to the local man who knows all of the town’s best-kept secrets — or at least the off-grid bakery that doesn’t show up on Google maps. It’s easy to get wrapped up in crafting a killer caption or getting the right saturation balance on your photo, and there’s nothing wrong with spending some time doing this, but alas, balance is key. So let’s find it.

To get the most out of travel, we need to slow it down a little. Especially in the craziness of technology-laden 2019. Engaging in the stillness of observation allows us to zoom into the finer details: nuances in other lifestyles, sensory details, and every little sound that crosses your eardrum.

Here’s how to lessen the magnetized pull of your devices and engage in the present:

1. Practice stillness on public transportation (or anywhere)

Public transportation should be a study of the human race. Here we are, crammed into an underground tube or a musty city bus with nothing but each other and whatever scenery might cross our view. It’s incredibly fascinating. Where’s that guy going? What’s that woman’s day like? Did she grow up here? The questions to be asked are endless.

I used to spend my planes, trains, and busses with my head down focused on my phone, until I realized how entertaining and rewarding observation could be. There’s nothing better than watching a landscape unfurl from the window of a train car or around a fast curve in the road. Practice observing your surroundings and see what pops up. Pro tip: Add some quality tunes for a truly introspective experience.

2. Just leave your phone behind sometimes

During travels in Brazil, I began leaving my phone behind in my hostel lockers. I’d spend full days at the beach without a single care or worry about having valuables on me. It was unadulterated bliss. You can forget about time and the rest of the world for a while and fully take in what’s right in front of you. Taking a walk with nothing to keep track of can be incredibly liberating, making you realize how seldom we walk around completely empty handed. Who needs to tell the time anyway? Just try it: you’d be surprised at how much you end up loving it.

3. Get an observation journal

Contrary to modern day belief, not every meal has to be documented via social media. If I get the urge to grab my phone to snap a shot that probably doesn’t need to be taken, I’ll channel that energy into recording the moment with my handwriting instead. Getting a small journal to record observations is a formidable way to stay present and record all of the little things, like the warm smell of a restaurant or transforming sherbet shades of the sunset. Having tangible ink on paper is rewarding, and will help you recall the vibrant details for years to come.

4. Send some postcards instead of only text messages

Phones make it mega easy to check in with friends and family, and it’s a fabulous ability that we have, but there’s something undeniably special about a handwritten postcard. Pick up a cheap one, sit somewhere in public, and write about exactly what’s going on in that very moment. It definitely means more than a quick hey I’m still alive over here text, and will certainly be appreciated by whoever receives it. There’s nothing wrong with keeping one for yourself, too!

Pro tip: parents love them. Send Mom & Dad a postcard.

5. Engage in more conversations with strangers

When did this become seemingly taboo? Take a cue from children: they’ll ask anyone practically anything out of pure and undying curiosity. As we grow older, we become less likely to ask questions in the spur of the moment, holding back in many situations. Next time you have a curious thought, try reaching out about it. I’ve made a handful of friends from spur of the moment conversations that started in less common places (talking about you, Ecuadorian pizza shop) and many of them have become my close friends.

6. Rely on people more often, not just apps

Between Google Maps, translators, currency exchange, and Yelp, all of the information we could ever need (and so much more) can be found on our phones. Instead of asking for directions from a local, our worldwide data tells us where to go. Instead of wandering the streets to see where the most people are grabbing coffee, we open up Yelp and look for the highest ratings. It’s great to have these conveniences, but try shaking it up sometime by relying on your earth neighbors for a little bit of help. All of the true hidden gems that I’ve found on my travels have come from aimless wandering or word of mouth, whether from locals or other travelers. After all, they’re hidden, right? No Google Maps, no problem.

7. Recognize that not everything needs to be photographed

Ever since we evolved from limited shots on a disposable camera to bottomless iPhone camera rolls, the value of a single shot has diminished. And it makes sense: add more availability, more storage, and usage volume will dramatically increase. If you pretended that your iPhone was a disposable camera with only 30 shots, would you take photos differently? I’d hazard to guess yes, because that glittery snap of a random café smoothie bowl isn’t going to matter so much in 30 years. Perhaps you would save them for the shots you really want instead of taking numerous photos just because you can.

Immerse yourself in the moment, not the thought of how it could be posted online

Technology is an incredible asset, benefitting us in so many ways. So much so, it’s easy to get a little wrapped up in it — especially if you’re traveling alone. The practice of being present is undeniably hard sometimes, but it increases mental clarity and enables a deeper understanding of cultures. That’s way more than your Twitter feed is popping out at 2 pm.

As human beings with many thoughts and emotions, we often make the mistake of getting tripped up in ideas of the future instead of taking in what’s right in front of us (hello, speaking from experience). This can extend far beyond just your screen time, but taking a few steps toward mindful usage will transform the quality of your travel, heightening awareness and connection in the process. Travel on, my friends.