Going back to basics on the road – when high tech becomes high burden

In the past two decades, the high tech arsenal of the frequent traveler has gone through some major upgrades. What started with the brick phone, has evolved into a package of smartphone-digital-camera-socialmedia-netbook -3G equipment. On any given day, even the most amateur of travelers may be carrying over $1000 in high-tech gear. During one of my recent trips, I came to the realization that all this technology has stopped me enjoying travel as much as I should.

On the road, too many of us are more focused on making sure we keep our Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare account up to date, than actually looking out the window to enjoy the scenery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a return to complete non-tech, but there are ways we can stay connected and entertained without technology becoming a major part of our trips.
Social media

If I had to pull some kind of numbers out of my ass, I’d say that 50% of travelers are engaged in some form of social media when they travel. Some may keep this limited to a daily Tweet, others spend half their time making sure everyone in the world knows they just checked into the local coffee shop, museum, restaurant and attraction park on Foursquare. If you spend more than one hour a day updating your social media life, take a break. For starters, you need to determine just who you are doing this for.

I’m sure many of you social media aces think all your followers are constantly waiting for your next update, but you need to remember who you are traveling for – you don’t take trips for your followers, you take trips for your own enjoyment. If you fail to see just one amazing landmark because you were glued to your PDA or smartphone, then social media has failed you.

This doesn’t mean social media has no place in travel – I think there are plenty of things your online friends can help with. Especially when it comes to recommendations or other tips, the world of social media can be a great help. But don’t let online tools replace the old fashioned “ask a local” – remember when we used to do that?

Digital photography

Look, unless you are on a paid assignment from Newsweek, there is no real reason to be traveling with a $4000 camera and a bag full of lenses. Don’t get me wrong – I’d never recommend traveling without a camera, and I am jealous of great photographers, but just like with social media, spending too much time with your camera is going to divert your attention away from the reason you are on vacation.

The current generation point and shoot cameras are great for travel – you turn them on, take a photo and move on. There is no fiddling with the lens, no switching out the lens to something better, and no setting up tripods to get “the perfect shot”. At the end of the day, all your want to achieve is a collection of memories of the sights and sounds you saw, and perfect photos are really not required to bring back memories. In fact, the best way to record the feeling of your destination may be with something as simple as a $100 HD camcorder.

When shopping for a good point and shoot camera, you’ll want something that can last all day on a battery, can record HD video (with good audio), and something with good build quality. With a compact camera, you just pop it in your shirt pocket, without having to worry about dragging your massive camera bag around all day.

[Image from: Flickr / Claudio Matsuoka]

Ditch the laptop

In recent years, bulky laptop computers have become lighter and more powerful – making perfect travel companions. But at the end of the day, they still won’t last more than ten hours on a battery, and you always run the risk of breaking them or having them stolen. Yes – the iPad is a great alternative, but that hardly fits in the challenge of switching to a low-tech world, does it?.

For the first time in almost 15 years, I traveled with a notepad last week. And it was fantastic. Not a battery powered touch screen notepad – just a classic Moleskine and pen. Going back to how we kept notes back in school was weirdly satisfying, and I was able to put thoughts on paper much quicker than with any of my digital tools. Best of all, if you can’t completely break free from technology, you can scan notes or digitize them for use back home.

A perfect hybrid of old and new comes from Livescribe, who sell a pen that can record what you write, along with your voice. Simply jot your thoughts on paper, and when you get back home (or your hotel room) you transfer them to your computer.

Mobile phone simplicity

I’ve become so accustomed to my smartphone that I don’t ever foresee making the switch back to a “dumbphone.” Still, there are some advantages of a basic phone over a fancy smartphone:

  • Battery life – do you remember when your phone lasted 4 or 5 days? I’m betting that wasn’t with a smartphone. Today’s basic mobile phones have battery life in the 100′s of hours, some even last more than a week.
  • Price – I’m sure most of you spend well over $60 a month for the luxury of a smartphone, a switch to basic will save a fortune.
  • Risk – Walk down the street of some cities with your iPhone or Android phone, and you are an immediate target for a quick theft. Very few muggers will even consider the hassle of trying to steal your $20 Nokia from you.
  • Ease of use – Forget fiddling with syncing or configuring your email client, With a dumbphone, you just pop a sim card in it, and make calls. Not much more involved.

One affordable move could save you a fortune – switch to the combination of an iPod Touch and a basic mobile phone. With this, you get the best of both worlds – the same apps, email and Internet as on the iPhone, and no insane monthly data costs. You’ll need to learn to find free Wi-Fi to get online, but when you save $40/month, it may be worth the hassle.