Travelling without Technology – The University Times


We left Leipzig separately. My train to Bratislava was directly from Dresden through Czechia, whereas Fiona, my best friend, was arriving from a three-hour stopover in Vienna. They were due to arrive in Bratislava several hours after me, which was the first of many incidents which made it obvious to me that I hadn’t planned for the trip far enough ahead. Upon arrival, I realised that my only guide was the awkwardly sketched map I had scribbled in a notebook, allegedly representing the route from the train station to our hostel. The drawing was, shockingly, ineffective. After some time wandering around the building the squiggle had led me to – hoping that, if I circled it once more, it would magically turn into my intended address – it occurred to me to ask in a pub. After a €3 pint and the directions from a very kind girl behind the bar, I eventually arrived and settled down with a book to await Fiona’s arrival.

I was travelling for eight days in total: three nights in Bratislava, three nights in Vienna, and then an overnight bus journey to Halle, where I had been living all summer. Fiona was leaving after their second night in Vienna to join friends in Budapest. That gave me two days total of navigating the world alone without access to a smartphone, having left mine behind in favour of a dodgy Nokia 8210. My attempt to navigate the eight minute walk from the train station to the hostel was only my first taste of the challenges I would be facing – there were many more of these to come. It was not until I travelled without a smartphone that I realised how difficult it is to access money without one, how stressful it can be navigating public transport in an unfamiliar city and how much I would miss being able to quickly and effortlessly text my friends and family when I saw something that reminded me of them. 

But it also felt like a necessary decision, albeit one that bemused my mother. How was I going to send her pictures? How was I going to let her know if I’d been kidnapped? Could I not be normal (for once, she muttered) and, if I felt like I was spending too much time on my phone, turn off my notifications? She was right – the benefits of having a smartphone with me vastly outweigh the depressing amount of time I spend scrolling without noticing. But my decision wasn’t based on how frequently I found myself staring at a screen for one, two, three hours – it was more so the sense of unease I had developed about my reliance on the phone. Living in Germany all summer, it had become indispensable. I used it to plan trips to new cities, as a ticket on trains, to pay rent, to catch up with friends at home, to easily zone out of group conversations in German that I felt embarrassed about being unable to understand, to translate menus and to check verbs. It had become too close to a social crutch for my comfort, and I was beginning to wonder if it was possible to live without the constant reassurance it provided.


That technology and travel go hand-in-hand nowadays will be of no surprise to anyone who has spent time in an airport. The impact social media has had on tourism and the travel industry is also vastly apparent to those of us who have felt sick with envy as we watch Instagram feeds fill with friends interrailing or on Erasmus. Yet travel without technology is hardly a groundbreaking concept; people have been moving around and settling in new places for as long as we have existed. In the early 2000s, travellers were still relying on guidebooks when they visited new cities, and technology usage often was limited to stopping in Internet cafes to email loved ones. Despite this, it’s difficult to even comprehend travelling abroad without a phone nowadays. How did anyone find somewhere to stay without Hostelworld and Airbnb? How did they frantically check in for a Ryanair flight with three hours to spare without an iPhone at hand? How in God’s name did people know what trains to get without the Deutsche Bahn app giving them a (usually inaccurate) time, and how did they get on the train in the first place without their digital ticket? 

The answer is, it’s easier than you think, provided you come prepared. You print the tickets. You check the bus timetable and commit tram stop names to memory, because you no longer have instant knowledge of the shortest potential journey to your destination. With that comes added stress for nights out – if you don’t know where you’re going when you head out for a night, you also have no idea how you’re going to get home. The phone you have brought has essentially no function beyond calling Irish numbers (shoutout to Vodafone) because even the simple act of texting is agonising with a button phone. You stop responding to messages unless they are urgent, and you call your friends on the walk home from the pub to rave about the Guinness you just had instead of sending them a picture. You learn to ask waiters about their recommendations for the night, and you follow their advice to small clubs and wine bars. You realise the things that make travel without a smartphone difficult are just as difficult at home if you don’t have access to technology, with actions as simple as checking your bank balance becoming impossible. Two factor authentication that relies on apps is out of the question, so you can say goodbye to PayPal. In fact, you’re better off bringing cash than anything else. And even despite developing a mild Tetris addiction to fill the void of those moments where you have nothing to do (“I thought you wanted to stop spending time on your phone,” Fiona said snarkily, when they came back from the bathroom and found me engrossed in a game), you feel the absence of the phone keenly. You feel a little bit more untethered, and a little more alien to the space you are in.

Travelling without my smartphone, I realised how easy I had used it as a shield – a shield against the inherent otherness of being in another country. The smartphone is a digital passport like no other. Not only does it provide material access to a country, allowing you to easily arrange transport to and from your destination – alongside a bed in which to sleep – it removes every boundary to understanding your destination. Suddenly, everything is knowable. The signs on the street are a Google search away from comprehension and, when you look for a place to eat, you can find them neatly ranked and reviewed in a matter of seconds. You learn the right places to be through TikToks (“Let’s go to Kreuzberg,” a friend told me confidently this summer when we visited Berlin, “that’s where all the cool people are.”) and when you check Google Maps, you’re just one of a million people in a city checking their phones. If you pull out a map, you may as well have taken out a sign to let the people around you understand that you are not at home here. You are, in fact, a tourist. You are unsure on these streets, and it has left you feeling as flimsy as the paper map in your hand. With a smartphone, you are disguised by the knowledge you can obtain. When you walk confidently to the bar that someone recommended on r/vienna, you may as well be Viennese by birth. Why do we claim that we travel to escape, and why do we mutter about the effects of globalisation, if we are doing our best to break down that which makes a foreign country unknown? Why do we try to affect intimacy with another way of life through easily found information and an Instagram reel we saw once?

I’m not attempting to romanticise a bygone age when travel was a lot more dangerous and a lot less accessible. There were a lot of downsides to my decision – plans couldn’t suddenly be rearranged, and if something had gone wrong regarding accommodation, a situation could easily have become disastrous. I don’t know how I would have gotten a taxi had I needed to, or even if I could have paid for one because my finances were so uncertain. I also found I missed out on a lot by travelling without a smartphone for the same reason I’ve indicated – I didn’t know anything. Because social media is used for everything, it can be difficult to find out what’s going on in an area without it. It’s unlikely that you’ll get lucky and wander into a flea market somewhere, or somehow find the best bar in town. I was essentially excluded from attending any event that required a digital ticket, meaning I couldn’t make the most out of my time there. I hadn’t brought a camera, so I have no photos of the beautiful buildings I found myself awed by, nor of the paintings in galleries I paid an extortionate amount to enter. I missed being able to listen to music as I fell asleep, and cursed myself for not bringing my iPod Shuffle.

Ultimately, my time spent travelling without a smartphone was much like any other trip I’ve taken. I ate good food and I drank cheap beer. I danced around a fountain in a courtyard under an enormous yellow moon with my best friend. I lay out on the grass in the Museum Quarter and read a novel while they sketched me. Rationally, I know that the presence of a smartphone shouldn’t affect my capacity to enjoy moments like these. But somehow, these images seem starker in my mind in comparison to previous trips, loaded with the knowledge that they were only ever there to be there once, remaining unwitnessed by a camera, never to be revisited when I swiped through photos. I wasn’t alerted to my incrementally decreasing funds by Revolut every time I bought a coffee, leaving me less aware of my spending and more conscious of the enjoyment I got from it. The news did not bother me, because there was no way I would know the news if I did not seek it out. You are not tuned into everything the entire time – not to yourself, not to your friends, not to your finances, not to what is going on in the world around you. And, honestly? There is an enormous sense of relief that comes with that.

Would I travel with the Nokia 8210 again? The answer is a resounding no. It is a terrible phone for all intents and purposes. I would, however, travel without a smartphone again, despite all the difficulties it entailed. Yes, it removed a certain amount of flexibility regarding travel, but it was worth it. My tourist status firmly asserted, and left much the wiser as to what well-travelled life before the digital age looked like, I’ve already begun planning my next trip… though this time, I’ll be bringing a map.


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