So far, I’ve lived abroad twice. Both times, I used only wifi as my main means of communication, first for 4 months and then for 9. It’s totally possible and easier than trying to deal with pesky foreign regulations.
If you decided to ditch the data and travel cellularly bare, here are a few tips and tricks to living without your everyday smartphone.
Book accommodation with wifi in mind
If the reviews say the wifi sucks, it probably does. Always read the reviews.
There’s nothing more irritating than spending hours trying to log in, only to be rejected or bumped off within five minutes. Accommodation with bad wifi is never worth it, especially if you’re traveling alone.
Scope out those American chains
There’s nothing wrong with hijacking an American business for a few hours while you’re trying to find your way around a strange city. Most European mom & pop cafes won’t offer connectable internet. It’s always nice to know where a few of these places are, just in case you’re in dire need to upload that photo to Instagram. No judgement. We’ve all done it.
Places with reliable public wifi: Starbucks, McDonalds, Pret A Manger (they’re everywhere in Britain). Cities like London and Edinburgh have city wifi in certain places with iCloud. Once, I got a FaceTime call from my mother while walking down Fleet Street and was very confused, yet excited, that my phone was actually working while I was on the move. Until it dropped the call. City wifi is there, but not always very reliable.
Screenshot directions before you leave
Aside from Instagram photos, my camera roll is a jumble of saved Snapchats and pictures upon pictures of internet maps. I like to have an idea of where I’m going, so I’m not nose-to-phone the entire time. I was lucky enough to never have been pick pocketed, but it happens everywhere, especially on crowded public transit, so it’s always good to be aware of your surroundings. Plus, you don’t look too much like a lost, confused tourist and it’s easier than pulling out crumpled up paper.
Abuse the star feature on Google Maps
Download Google Maps. You will absolutely need Google Maps. Even if you’re not connected to wifi, it will still point you in the right direction with GPS. It’s every backpacker’s saving grace.
Save places like your hostel, a cool restaurant you want to scope out, or your top must-see attractions. With the offline GPS, you’ll be able to make your way around the city solely on airplane mode. Super simple. Super convenient. And such a life saver.
There are many tricks to match your phone to your nomadic lifestyles and I learned to enjoy it for the long term. By the end, I was focusing on the perks rather than disadvantages.
You’re more “in the moment”
Take all the pictures you want, but there’s nothing much you can do with them until you make it back to wifi. I’m very guilty of having one eye on life, the other on my phone. But the first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting it, right? I’m just as connected on social media as anyone else, but there’s something nice about just being able to put your phone away and focus on what’s in front of you. Plus, it gives you more opportunities to people watch.
It’s actually kind of freeing to live off the grid for a while
My work didn’t have any wireless internet, so I was otherwise completely unavailable for 5 to 7 hours a day. I could log onto a school computer, check emails and cruise the internet, but my phone was just a glorified clock. No buzzing, no ringing, nothing. Of course I was more productive and would end up finishing my work completely undistracted. I found myself doing other things with my time, like writing and reading. It made exploring interesting too. It’s always going to be an adventure if you don’t really know where you’re going.
You learn to depend less on technology and more on problem solving
At first I wanted to get a cheap burner phone with a replaceable SIM card because I thought that would be the easiest – I was wrong. It took forever to compose a text, I never had to call anyone, and I preferred email or Whatsapp anyway. Soon enough, it was second nature to anticipate problems while I was on the go. I became great at planning out my trips, where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there, all without ever having to need the help of the trusty old internet while I was on my own. Sure, I couldn’t plan everything, but that’s how you meet some pretty interesting people. Life gets creative again when it’s easier to make your own choices.
My French phone didn’t work in any other European countries (unless I wanted to pay a fee, of course) and it wasn’t worth getting a SIM card every time I crossed the boarder, which I did often. France is smaller than Texas, even though none of my students ever believed me. Living without a phone ended up being easier than living with one.
Traveling without data can be scary. I was nervous the first time I traveled solo; how would I connect to my family? What if I get lost and can’t find my hostel? What if something bad happened?
Wifi made it super easy to talk to my family. The huge jump in time was my only obstacle – I would be ready for bed while they were having lunch! If I got lost, I figured it out. I asked for directions, I read maps, I found the help desk. I’m lucky in that I already have a very good sense of direction, so I wasn’t really anxious about getting lost more than I was about finding myself in some sort of emergency. However, I never came across an emergency I couldn’t fix on my own. It’s always good to prepare for the worst, but I can tell you now, the only thing you’ll discover is that you don’t need your phone as much as you think.
I met many other backpackers who were living the no-phone style, some for even longer than I had been. Why take a tech-free camping trip when you can pack your bags and head to Europe instead?
What do you think? How long could you live on just wifi? I’d love to hear travel stories where you ended up ditching your phone – willingly or not!