Savvy Travelling with a Stupid Phone

Is the use of telephones which are smarter than us hampering the travel experience?

Feature by Jonny Sweet | 09 Nov 2016
  • Savvy Travelling with a Stupid Phone

There was a time when travelling the world involved nothing more than knotting up your worldly belongings into a bundle and trotting off into the sunset. Back in the good old days, it would have been enough to explore the four corners of this vast and vibrant planet merely for the pleasure of it; for the excitement of meeting like-minded wanderlusters and diversely different locals, for seeing new marvels and hearing new stories, for tasting exotic and sometimes squeamish delicacies in far-flung lands, and for maybe, just maybe, “finding yourself”.

With the arrival of the digital age, however, today’s whipper-snapper travel addicts have no time for such quaint, antiquated clichés. Why eat a beautifully-prepared Middle Eastern dish when you can slap a garish Instagram filter on it? Why talk to your fellow travellers – or bother learning the native lingo, for that matter – when you can Snapchat yourself silly? Why bother taking in the sights, smells and sounds that this brave new world has to offer when you can bask in the reflected glow of your smartphone’s display in darkened hostel rooms? And as for finding yourself… well, no one actually gave a fuck about that apart from you and maybe your mum in the first place, come to think of it.

Expletives and acerbity aside, the inception of telephones more intelligent than ourselves is threatening to ruin all aspects of human interaction and travel is no exception. Whereas hostel staff used to be a fount for all sorts of local info and titbits, nowadays they merely need to point to the Wi-Fi password and go back to their Clash of Clans or Angry Birds or whatever shiny thing is distracting the technophiles these days. The smartphone has made a mockery of the freedom that globetrotting once embodied… but it doesn’t have to be like this.

For the last six years, I’ve visited every continent on the Earth bar one, navigated all manner of travel hiccups and unforeseen obstacles, conversed with countless natives in tongues both foreign and familiar and seen more sunsets than the number of hot dinners that Dave Lamb has ridiculed… and I’ve done it all without the help of Siri, Cortana or any other AI jiggery-pokery.

Armed only with a battered Nokia 3210 (or whatever other antique I could get my hands on), I’ve ignored the inexorable creep of cyber-centricism with dogged perseverance, all the while swanning around this planet like I had a vague idea of what I was doing. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of ditching your smartphone in favour of a stupid one, so that you too can become a savvy traveller just like the nomadic knights errant of yesteryear.

The Good

While the queues which materialise annually outside of Apple shops across the globe might have you believe that iPhones and their ilk are the best thing since sliced bloomers, I genuinely think there’s much to be said for the humble Nokia. Not only does its battery last longer than most of my relationships (no fretting about where to get your next fix of electricity on the road), it also comes equipped with an alarm, calendar and flashlight function. What more could you need?

Plus, it’s pretty much indestructible. At this year’s Fringe festival, one outspoken comic professed to feel more pain when his smartphone died than when his granny did. Of course, it’s to be hoped that the assertion was hyperbole, but the underlying point remains – people are far too attached to their phones these days. For travel junkies who are supposedly living the free-as-a-bird lifestyle, dispensing with their fifth limb (not that one, you pervert) in favour of a cheap, durable model can be unspeakably refreshing.

Meanwhile, with the hipster revolution in full swing, your retro device will be the envy of all and sundry in the hostel. Nothing screams edgy trendsetter like the ability to play Snake at any hour of the day – they’ll be queuing up to befriend you in next to no time.

The Bad

Okay, okay, so I’m well aware that the advantages outlined above might seem piffling in the extreme when set against the boundless capabilities of a smartphone. While having the world at your fingertips certainly does smooth over certain aspects of the travelling experience, it also distorts many of them horribly.

Google Maps is undoubtedly an ingenious tool for preventing you from ever becoming lost again – but it also discourages the age-old practice of asking directions. People are generally more than happy to help disorientated tourists on their way and such an ice-breaker has been the beginning of more than one enduring friendship during my worldly exploits. What’s more, surviving without a smartphone helps to sharpen your sense of direction and street smarts, both of which are at risk of falling into disrepair while a map app is in play.

The internet is also adept at answering all manner of local questions, from recommending a good place to chow down to the best exchange rate you can expect at a bureau de change. Sure, this information is indispensable on the road… but again, it can normally be gotten from your hotel, hostel or a well-meaning passer-by. Smartphones certainly make things easier… but this is travelling. It’s not supposed to be easy! If you wanted that, you would have been as well staying in the pampered comfort of your mother’s basement.

Finally, translation apps are an admitted godsend in those regions of the world where English is not widely spoken. In particular, those incredible pieces of witchcraft which can translate text simply by focusing on it with the camera are outrageously impressive tools, and you’ll hear little in the way of a rebuttal regarding them from me. On the other hand, smiling, pointing and nodding enthusiastically will get you out of nine out of ten scrapes, and invariably make for good stories after the event.

The Ugly

Intrepid explorers will inevitably find themselves in more impoverished areas than the one from whence they sprang, and though nefarious ne’er-do-wells are found in all walks of life, social inequality is a tried and tested breeding ground for thieves, bandits and ragamuffins. What better way to discourage such opportunistic crime than by brandishing a relic their grandparents wouldn’t be seen dead with?

What’s more, if disaster strikes and you are robbed of your precious communication device, I can promise you that the grief felt in the loss of a 3210 pales in comparison to that referred by the Aussie Fringe comic above. Having one less thing of value means you have one less thing to worry about losing, and if you’re really intent on living the wanderlust lifestyle to its limits, downgrading your phone is a sure-fire way to do that.

Finding the Middle Ground

So am I advocating a full-throttle abandonment of modern technology in all its forms while on the road? Good God, no. The only way I managed to fund my extravagant exploits over the last six years is through freelance writing, which requires an internet connection and a laptop. However, a device as cumbersome as my current model is a bit trickier to use outdoors, meaning you’ll spend more time actually watching sunsets, whale breaches and turtle births than recording them on your smartphone.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with invoking a little social media jealousy via photos of your improbably amazing lifestyle now and again – but everything in moderation. Not only does an actual camera take better photos than the one on your device, it’s also a damn sight harder to take selfies with, which can only be a good thing for all of us. Even the name makes me want to have a shower.

By all means, combine your travels with your latest gadgets and gizmos… just remember to sit back and smell the roses once in a while. Freeing yourself from the shackles of a smartphone is an excellent way to do so; why not try it on your next adventure? You might be surprised how liberating a stupid phone can really be.