Technology and tourism have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, smartphones make independent travel possible. You can plan and book as you go without a travel agent, and you can find your way without a group or a guide.
On the other hand, the same devices that make this possible can distract you from the places and experiences on your trip. You might check email and social media without even thinking about it, even if you're in the most amazing place you've ever seen.
More and more travelers seem to want to unplug. Terms like slow tourism, off-the-grid trips and unplugged travel are popping up on tourism-related sites. Travel firms have even started offering trips that require clients to leave their phones at home (or at least tucked away in their suitcases).
How unplugged do you want to be?
Off the Grid is a travel company that specializes in device-free excursions. They currently take groups to Europe and Latin America.
The company's guides provide each traveler with a "dumb phone" (without data capabilities) for emergencies, and they offer different levels of unplugging. On some trips, travelers can check their device at designated times only, while other adventures are completely phone- and internet-free.
Ironically, resorts that once used Wi-Fi access as a selling point are now touting features that allow guests to unplug. For example, the Four Seasons Costa Rica lets guests log off by offering a 24-hour tech detox program. The luxury resort locks your device in their safe, and they provide tech-free activities such as dancing classes and boating trips.
Intrepid Travel takes phone-free tourism further afield. They offer Digital Detox Tours to destinations such as Mongolia, Antarctica and Patagonia. Cellphones aren't allowed on these expeditions.
Another option is to get so far off the beaten path that phones simply don't work. Jacanda Travel organizes detox safaris where guests don't have to give up their phones because there's no cell service or internet connection whatsoever.
Travelers don't have to go so far away to get out of cellphone range. Ranch Malibu, in the Santa Monica Mountains of California, doesn’t have Wi-Fi or cellphone service either.
What about independent travel?
The unplugged travel group trend is growing, but for some tourists, connectivity means being able to travel on their own.
Technology has empowered a generation of what the travel industry calls "fully independent travelers" or FITs. FITs book their trips and plan their itineraries by themselves. Data connections allow them to buy tickets as they go. Major cell companies provide data access overseas, or savvy travelers purchase SIM cards for their phones when they arrive in their destination country.
Though they're far from unplugged, this independence allows FITs to engage in other similar travel trends like "slow travel" or "experiential travel." These terms describe travelers who take the time to experience a place rather than simply dropping in and hitting all the tourist sites.
Then there are "digital nomads" who run their businesses or freelance while traveling. These people need data connections and Wi-Fi access. They're willing to endure this connected lifestyle for the chance to be tourists indefinitely.
Don't forget about paper guidebooks
Until the last decade or two, people traveled with hard copies of guidebooks, paper maps and information gleaned from word of mouth. This information-sharing was an excuse for past generations of FITs to socialize with fellow travelers.
Of course, the travel industry doesn't move at the speed of paper guidebooks anymore, but if you're going off the grid, they're a smart tool to have!