In The Moment Tune out Tech and Tune into Vacation

by Anna Davies | January 03, 2019

Do you really need tech to relax and have a good time? I thought I did — until a flip was literally switched for me.

This past summer I booked a trip to a cabin in Cape Cod, MA, for myself and my 3-year-old daughter. We had visited the previous year, and, as a freelance writer, I’d been able to file stories during the day from the porch overlooking a lake as my daughter stayed entertained watching shows on her device. At night, she would snuggle up next to me as I binge-watched a new season of a favorite television seriesTo me, it had been the perfect vacation, prime for repeating.

This summer, however, there was a twist: The property had switched to a new Internet service and currently didn’t have any Wi-Fi — and my cell phone only showed one tiny bar. We were unplugged. I panicked. In fact, I packed us up and drove 250 miles back to New York City so I could attend a few meetings I had presumed I could have called in for.

As we drove back up to the cabin two days later, it suddenly hit me: I was too dependent on tech. After all, this was supposed to be vacation. Why had so many of my key memories from the last summer involved my laptop?

So, for the next few days, my daughter and I enjoyed our tech-free life. Yes, I took photos on my phone. But we also splashed in the lake, caught crabs at the beach, and played a silly, giggly game of mini golf. I also returned to my life back in New York feeling stress-free — and determined to learn how to turn off tech once I got back home, too.

Tech-free destinations by design

Turns out I’m not the only one embracing the idea of a tech-free vacation: Across the country, families are turning off tablets, phones and laptops in favor of spending real-world time together. Resorts have begun advertising tech-free as a perk — not a turn-off — and some families are deliberately heading to off-the-beaten-path destinations where Wi-Fi isn’t a guarantee. 

The array of rooms available at Chicago’s Hotel Monaco, for example, includes a “Tranquility Suite,” where guests agree to give up their devices (there is a TV in the room, but it’s hidden in a footboard). Similarly, Lake Placid Lodge in New York offers a package that asks guests to leave electronic devices at the door — in exchange for bestselling novels and newspapers.

Meanwhile, Wyndham Grand hotels has launched a “Reconnected” package, which not only provides families willing to take a break from tech a 5% discount on the hotel chain’s best available rate at select locations, but also a blanket fort kit, a flashlight for shadow puppets, an “adventure backpack” and an instant camera. There is also lockbox in which to store your devices.

“It’s our mission to bring quality time back to vacations,” explains Lisa Checchio, chief marketing officer or Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “Our phones have changed the way we take vacation today: The average person checks their devices 80 times per day — or once every 12 minutes — while on a trip, regardless of whether they are at the beach, by the pool or out seeing the sights. Our general managers see parents stepping away from vacations for conference calls or missing entire meals while they work on their phones. And we also see kids swimming less and swiping more."

Insights like this inspired the idea for a family program focused on quality time. "One of our guests told us that after they built the fort and started playing together with their toddler, they were having so much fun they ditched their dinner reservation out and ordered room service instead,” Checchio shares. And it's not just for kids. “We even had a couple on their anniversary book the package so they could build the fort together," she says.

Across the country, families are turning off tablets, phones and laptops in favor of spending real-world time together.
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DIY getaways from tech

Of course, you can always create a DIY vacation during which screen time is not an option. “This summer, my family booked a trip to a dude ranch in Colorado,” says Cari Dineen, a mom of two in Boston, MA. “We were four hours from Denver, but there were so many activities, like horseback riding, fly fishing, dancing and hiking, that my 8-year-old and 5-year-old were never bored. Booking a vacation where there’s limited access to tech doesn’t make it any less enticing.”

The key to a successful tech-free trip? Plan ahead, advises Springfield, NJ, freelance editor and mom Melanie Mannarino. “Before we go on our annual Jersey Shore vacation, we have a family tradition where we all head to the bookstore, and I let my 9-year-old son choose three books for the trip,” she says. “It’s fun, it gets him excited, and prepped for this week when he won’t have his shows and games, but he won’t be deprived.” The family also brings puzzles, board games and coloring books along on the trip.

As you work to set new boundaries and broaden the non-tech horizons for your kids, remember to model the sorts of behavior you’re hoping to encourage. 

“I think it's important to take a mindful approach to using technology while traveling — taking advantage of the benefits it brings, while limiting the amount of time you spend using it so you can explore, enjoy and remember the places you're visiting,” says Dave Dean, founder and editor of the tech travel website Too Many Adapters. “This applies to all members of the family: It's easy to focus on kids being engrossed in the latest video games or teenagers endlessly texting friends back home, but it's equally important for parents who can't stop checking work emails.

family running on the beach

“To that end, I'd recommend leaving as much technology as possible back home, and removing any and all apps that aren't vital to the safety, logistics or enjoyment of the trip from your phone and tablet,” Dean adds. “Turn off mobile data unless you're actively using it so you don't get pinged with notifications all the time, and perhaps try to limit Wi-Fi and device time at the hotel to the start and end of the day.”

It’s not about rejecting technology, Dean says, but embracing it on terms that serve you, your family and the quality of life you hope to share together.

“There's absolutely a time and place for using tech to enhance your travels,” he says. “After all, I run a website devoted to it. But I've found that setting limits on it and putting the screens away help open travelers up to richer, spontaneous and more memorable experiences.”

Finally, it’s smart to be judicious about when to turn off the tech — and when to use it as a sanity-saving tool for everyone. “The fact is, we live in a pretty tech saturated world,” muses parent Elise Sole. “I can’t imagine a flight with my 4-year-old son without a screen.” That said, the Los Angeles, CA, resident and her family are soon headed to a cabin in the South of France, and Wi-Fi isn’t guaranteed. “I think the easiest way to unplug is to make sure it’s not an option then go with the flow.”

As with any new habit, reducing your device usage is going to take a little time. So go easy on yourself if you slip up here and there. Be dedicated, but expect a transition period — for yourself and your family.

“It's definitely something I've struggled with at times,” Dean admits. “It's so easy to get caught up with the latest notifications or social media updates when I should be out doing something far more interesting. Fortunately, I first started traveling at a time when mobile technology wasn't anywhere near as prevalent as it is now, with no smartphones or Wi-Fi, so channeling the spontaneous excitement of those early trips makes it easier to remember to turn the phone off and start talking to strangers instead.”

Bottom line: A tech-free trip is what you make of it. Establishing rules and expectations before you leave — and making sure that your coworkers know that you won’t be reachable — can help make your off-the-grid trip a chance to truly tune into your family.

Go easy on yourself if you slip up here and there. Be dedicated, but expect a transition period.
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Take your tech-free habits home

Unfortunately, all vacations do come to an end, but it doesn't mean that your digital-free habits have to become a distant memory. You can’t totally disconnect once back in ‘the real world,’ but try these strategies to help keep that tech-free feeling from fading (if only you could say the same about that sun tan).

Have a tech-free weekend day

Round up electronics, put them in a central place, and commit to an entire day without tech — except for navigation apps, if needed. If it makes you more comfortable, put an out-of-office message on your email and let friends and family know you won’t be texting them back. If you must, check your texts a few times a day, but only to ensure there aren’t any emergencies.

Go tech-free in the a.m. 

The morning rush can be even more hectic if you’re always checking your email or messages. Limiting devices in the morning may give you more time to savor your coffee, enjoy family time and ease into the day — just like you would have on vacation.

Keep up the tech-free habits

Let’s say you discovered a love of puzzles in a vacation house. Or realized your family connected on long hikes through the woods. There’s no reason why you can’t introduce these things to your non-vacation life to some degree or another.

Let your kids discover tech-free ways to play

While it may be sneaky, a ruse wherein you unplug the router or television for a bit and simply pretend it’s broken can minimize the temptation to turn on for the kids — and you.

Anna Davies

lives in New Jersey with her family. She is a young adult novelist, and has written for Glamour, Elle, Refinery29 and The Cut.