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Smartphone...can't travel without it.

I know this may be a bit “preaching to the choir”, but on my recent trip to Italy, my wife and I discussed several times how vital our cell phones and a data plan are to our travels now.

We are long time travelers, many trips, and for years resisted bringing a phone or even a tablet or computer, I suppose under the illusion that we wanted to “disconnect”. However, now I can’t imagine traveling without my smartphone, and find it nice to have my tablet along as well.

Some of the features we noted:

Google Maps: Obvious, from directions, to restaurants, and a map overview. But also it provides detailed public transit info, need to get from Termini to your Hotel, hit directions, the exact bus number, even where to get on and off, when the bus is scheduled, everything right there. We also tagged restaurant, hotel, and shop locations for easy reference, many based on research ahead of time.

We also used the Google “location sharing” feature quite a bit. My wife just does not share the same interests in museums and churches that I do, so I go to a museum, she shops the streets and looks around, maybe stops for a coffee. When done, I can see exactly where she is (and vice-versa) and can walk right up on her in the street or shop. No setting up pre-arranged meeting places and times, no searching forever for her, of course no longer getting wonderfully lost anymore (you could also turn your phone off for that, I suppose)

Transport Apps: The Trenitalia app is really slick and well made. Search for routes, buy tickets, easy payment, even for the Regional routes, saved time and trouble at stations. Rome metro also has an app, and just about every train or metro option does as well. Uber was handy on an earlier trip...but of no use in Italy.

Edit: Hotel app: Since much was uncertain about travel, we held off on many reservations, and used to make reservations a few days ahead. Used the app to coordinate with B&B operators, though many prefer switching to Whatsapp once contact is established.

Google Translate: handy for deciphering words, signs, “how to say”, etc. Also just Google searches for menu items helped decode menus, though you could also find a number of apps for that.

Digital guidebooks, audio guides, including apps for sights like Pompeii. Also Google search is handy for specific things you encounter, see the Temple of Apollo in Siracusa…google it, websites and a Wikipedia article tell you all about it. My wife is also a plant geek, so we see a plant, use an app or Google to figure out what it is, same with trying to figure out why ugly ceramic heads are popular in Sicily. Like having a private guide in your pocket

QR reader; with Covid, many restaurants, museums, and other places ceased handing out paper copies of literature, instead providing a QR code to scan for a .pdf or even an app or website.

For all this, you may be able to get by with Wi-Fi, but Data connection works best. That is why we switched to Google Fi, when we landed, turned on the phones, and we had service at the same price as in the US, International call rates apply where applicable, but we had our same numbers, texts and calls to us from family in the US costed nothing more to either party than in the US. Many restaurants, museums and other locations wanted cell phone # or email for contact tracing.

Of course, our phones also serve as cameras, music players, email, social media (Facebook, Untapped), file repository for excel or word files, photos of documents, etc.

I’m starting to wonder how we ever traveled without a smartphone.

An Edit: I have also been using Google Pay more and more, while I did see it available some in Italy, it was not widespread in the places I was, otherwise, that would have been handy.

Posted by
1311 posts

I still travel without a smartphone and do not miss it.

Posted by
6858 posts

I’m starting to wonder how we ever traveled without a smartphone.

Perfectly happily. Life was simpler and people still had great best trips were without a cell phone. The cell phone is necessary (especially with all the QR code crap and covid requirements) but it doesn't "make" the trip, it's just a tool that wears a lot of hats and adds convenience. I remember not using my phone even 5 years ago or not even bringing it. And, no, I'm not old or technologically backward, it's just a preference.

Posted by
5549 posts

We’re in Italy right now, and I’ve commented several times how everybody (mostly locals, I believe) has their phone in hand, in use, seemingly all the time. That includes while driving a car, or riding a bike, or a scooter/motorcycle. When the “phone” is actually being used as a phone, the most common method seems to be the user holding it a foot in front of them, maybe at neck height, talking loudly in the direction of the device. Holding it to one’s ear seems to not be a technique worth trying.

Exception to holding the Smartphone is when sitting at a restaurant or caffe table, where it’s placed prominently on the table, to the side of its owner, or when driving for some, when it’s slid into a mount attached to the dashboard.

They’re certainly an essential tool, accompanying pretty much everybody, everywhere, at every moment.

Posted by
1513 posts

A few years ago I got separated from the group while in Venice. I called hubby but he did not hear the ring. I never thought about sharing location between us. That’s a great idea.
In addition to using our phones for just about everything, we also take paper maps along. I also have a battery pack we both can use while out and about.

Posted by
3146 posts

I have long wondered how I ever "lived" without my smartphone. Remember when you had to walk for miles to a phone if your car broke down? That being said, I totally deplore the poor manners of people looking at them when at the dinner table with other people or using them while driving. Thanks for idea about Google location sharing-I haven't used that but it certainly looks useful.

Posted by
6272 posts

We traveled without smartphones, computers, and the internet for years. Airfares and accommodations were cheaper, Americans weren’t traveling the world so much and getting to see Europe in ones 20’s was an adventure of a lifetime. A privilege as well! To travel you booked flights directly with the airlines via a rotary phone or visited a travel agency. Didn’t pack lightly. Read paperbacks, did newspaper crossword puzzles, sent post cards, and wrote letters. Learned VERY quickly ENGLISH was not spoken everywhere.

Still have postcards I sent to my folks from my 1972 trip. Amsterdam, Bremen Brussels, Copenhagen, Lake Geneva, London, Munich, Paris and Zurich.
No pre made train reservations, no pre made hotel reservations…you found things on your own. You used paper maps. You asked questions of strangers.

72’ was an eye opening trip that addicted me to European travel as well as empowering me as a woman to know I could survive traveling solo.

Has having a smart phone and various travel apps made travel easier? Yes

However, as I drive around LA and watch countless drivers make Uturns in intersections I know it’s because they are relying on their cars navigation system. They aren’t using their brains. Have no clue about what direction they traveled and wouldn’t be able to reiterate how they got to their destination.

Technology has made life easier and the world more connected but has it made the ability to solve problems with learned knowledge obsolete.

Love my iPhone but if I lost it while traveling I’d be able to survive.

Posted by
2213 posts

I'm not even interested in trying life without my smartphone anymore. I still don't turn the data on while we're out of country, but even just having access to wifi makes life more simple and convenient. Count me as the choir you're preaching to.

Posted by
2697 posts

Yes. Many people will say they traveled just fine without it in the past - absolutely true - but it’s getting harder to travel without it NOW. The world is getting more and more set up under the assumption that everyone has a smartphone (a term I never use outside this forum - it’s just “phone”, the default being a smartphone). The assumption that every traveler has one means that things are just harder without one. Obviously not everywhere or every travel style, but overall.

Examples - Internet cafes are much more rare because fewer people need them. Same for information offices. Small hotels or apartment rentals without full time front desk staff require you to call or text to check in. Need to make a call? Pay phones are exceedingly rare in many places and many hotels no longer have phones in the room. QR codes are required for covid safety checks (depending on country). Menus are accessed through your phone. Museums offer extra info through scanning a QR code or doing a tour through your phone. I believe some places are phasing out those handheld speaker things for audio guides in favor of apps or other systems. Subway systems are adding apps and I’d bet that eventually they won’t have paper tickets as easily available. If you want to use Uber or many local cab apps you need a phone. Restaurant reservations are often done online. Some restaurants don’t even take reservations over the phone (and good luck calling anyway, see: hotel and pay phones). Banks will call or text you if they suspect fraud on your account, but if you can’t get the call your account could be frozen. And so on and so forth.

Posted by
796 posts

A friend of mine has been making plans for a trip to Switzerland to visit old friends. He asked hid buddy to have 300 Swiss francs ready for him on arrival. His friend said, literally, "No one uses cash anymore, just bring your phone." An interesting situation. My friend does not know how to use his iPhone for transactions and he's never even thought of using it for his airline tickets. He's got a few months to download the apps, practice, and join the 21st Century.

One thing I like to mention in similar discussions ... as vital as we find our phones and considering how full of nearly irreplaceable data they can be, consider using a dedicated camera for your trip documentation. This keeps your phone tucked away in a secure location. Imagine if you took out your wallet and waved it around each time you wanted a picture.

TRUE STORY: In the lake resort town of Couer d'Alene, Idaho, an arch bridge connects the bay's pathway to the hotel's marina walkway. The peak of the arch is a popular selfie op. Under the arch, when the water is still, one can see two or three phones resting on the bottom of the channel. The staff told me a local diver recovers five or six every year.

Posted by
12810 posts

Admittedly, traveling with a Smartphone has definite advantages which makes traveling much more convenient.

Not for me in Germany. I travel just fine and effectively without a Smartphone in Germany, just having a simple flip cell phone, using public transport, my trip planning, Deutsche Bahn, the internet, books, brochures, relying on my knowledge of the geography, train system, and above all, the language, reading the newspaper especially, the headlines, listening to announcements over the PA system in train stations, speaking to locals in the restaurants, train stations, Pensionen and hotels, etc., basically, no need to rely on a Smartphone.

I started traveling in Germany exactly 50 years ago as a solo American backpacker college senior and have been doing that ever since in 25 trips. west, south, east and in particular, up north, the last trip in 2019 prior to Corona.

Can I travel in other countries , France, England, Poland, Belgium or Italy as effectively without the benefits of a Smartphone? Of course, not. My French is at best just fair in conversing ie, most definitely, I don't have the linguistic advantage.

Posted by
10004 posts

It’s not a phone, it’s a personal computer in your hand. Cannot imagine going without it.

Posted by
329 posts

QR reader; with Covid, many restaurants, museums, and other places ceased handing out paper copies of literature, instead providing a QR code to scan for a .pdf or even an app or website.

With Covid, I have are Spanish health pass as a .pdf with a qr code on my phone. So to enter a bar or museum, needed to get it out. Mine is from La Rioja, and the doc has the Rioja, Spanish and EU flags on it, and one of the waiters was very curious about where it was.

I also have my wife's and daughters pass on me phone, because some people's phone kept running out of battery.

Posted by
12810 posts

On restaurants taking reservations over the phone...yes, they still do Sometimes, amidst the talking, and normal noise in the dining area, one can hear the hostess in German and in English taking down reservations. This is a in restaurant in Berlin Savignyplatz recommended in Frommer's. Unfortunately, I didn't learn of the restaurant's existence until I saw it in the 1998 Frommer's Germany.

Posted by
310 posts

In 1992 I was travelling S America solo and my mother collapsed and became seriously ill. My brother called our Embassy in Chile because my mother remembered that I knew some one working there. I'd stayed with him a few weeks prior and he knew I was heading north to Peru and Ecuador (no actual itinerary of course). My brother left urgent messages at Amex in various places - and I eventually connected with a telegram in Quito, about a week later.

In 2017 we were in china when my partner collapsed on a bus and we ended up in a Lanzhou hospital with him seriously ill. There was one fluent English speaker in a hospital which must have had 5000 beds. I had no idea where I was and had all our bags piled in a corner of his room (I stayed at the hospital which is the custom in China). My phone was my lifeline for translation, communication and much, much more.

I won't travel without one now

Posted by
10998 posts

I remember traveling in the days before smartphones, the internet and computers. I remember carrying a bunch of paper maps and having to take them out to figure out where I was.

I remember using a phone card to call anyone and having to get an english speaking operator to take down my phone card details and connect me. I remember having to call to make reservations, change plans, or speak to anyone hoping I didn't have to start playing telephone tag.

I remember having to go to the train station or even the airport if I needed to buy tickets. I remember carrying numerous language books to translate the local language into English. I remember having to leave a paper Itinerary with someone in case they needed to get a hold of me in an emergency. (Of course, if I changed my itinerary I'd have to call. (see above.))

I can think of a lot more. But mostly I think how glad I am that I now have a smartphone that makes my travel so much easier.

Oh, I also remember carrying 3-4 books with me because I read quite a bit. Now, I can take dozens in my Kindle.

Posted by
2545 posts

What Frank ll said. Nostalgia is sweet but that stuff I don’t miss at all. We didn’t have smart phones and we (most of us) not being Steve Jobs didn’t even have the dream. We traveled and cobbled our way through those situations. But what a difference smart phones have made! For the poster above who travels without one I say good luck!

Posted by
5221 posts

Paul, that's a great catalogue of smartphone advantages for travel in Europe. I also agree with Claudia and others about how smartphones have contributed to making us dumber about where we are, where we're going, etc. I'm still pretty old-school, buy a local SIM card to call my wife, use wifi on an Android tablet for e-mail and looking things up, carry paper maps and guidebooks and phrasebooks, read with a Kindle, take pictures with a little Canon point-and-shoot. I'll be carrying a CDC card (backed up on the tablet) and asking for paper menus. Call it hybrid technology. What I can't get along without are things like glasses and shoes, technology from earlier generations. ;-)

Posted by
767 posts

I've mostly gotten by without a phone on my travels, but it's true I've been using one more and more. In South America, many tour agencies (e.g. in the Galapagos) and accommodations communicate through What's App. In Europe, I've often done private rentals and needed to text with contacts to check in, or to let them know about flight delays and such.

This time, I'm definitely buying roaming data before travelling.

I haven't been a big smartphone user at home. I only recently started having a (very cheap and minimal) data plan, but I certainly appreciate the convenience when I do need it.

And my husband and I are often looking at our phones when we're in cafes and restaurants when we're travelling. So what? Whose business is that? We are either looking up more information about what we've just seen or double checking what we are going to do next and how to get there. I don't see what's wrong with that and don't think it's anyone's place to judge us about that.

Posted by
207 posts

I am virtually never without my phone, and never without while travelling. That doesn't mean I have it in hand 24/7, but I do use it. Domestically, I'm in constant contact, or available for contact with wife and kids. That can be anything from "pick up xxx at store," or "get the mail," to "Ooops I used the wrong credit card." (When the kids were in HS the most common communique was "ETA?")

When travelling I also use it for maps, looking up stuff in general, checking transport status, train tickets, boarding passes, the list goes on. Yes, I CAN function without the phone, but why hobble myself and restrict myself to 20th century technology?

Posted by
1851 posts

That thing where we can now avoid an errand by not needing to go to a transit desk or counter to get tickets for later segments is certainly a plus of using the phone app. But on the other hand I do think that point-to-point directions have a downside compared to maps that give you the lay of the land. Now you are blissfully unaware that if you were walking from here to there one street over you would be passing much more interesting stuff.

(Simple example is Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana -- full of tourist traps and over-the-counter cheap pharmaceuticals, while if you go over to Constitucion instead you get the Metro cathedral and the real street market. Americans get short-changed when they follow their phones or the English signage.)

Posted by
2697 posts

Agree about point to point directions - I never use them unless I’m in a very big hurry, which I avoid on vacation. But phones have maps, not just directions. Using the map on the phone as a map not a direction service is very helpful. You can “see” your blue location marker move so you know you are heading in the broadly right direction and just meander your way there. Especially helpful when streets curve every which way and you can’t tell north from south anymore. Or you can look at google maps which labels things nearby. Church you’ve never heard of one block over? Go check it out, or read a little about it first right from the map.
Or, if you like pre-planning (I do!) make a personal map marking all your places of interest so you can at a glance see what you liked that’s nearby. Maybe you read a review of an interesting cafe or sight, weren’t sure you’d ever be in its neighborhood but marked it just in case. You happen to end up 3 blocks from it when you got off the bus too early - with the map you know that and can go to it, without the map you wouldn’t necessarily put together this bus mishap and the cafe. Personal maps are my #1 tip, they let you balance planning and spontaneity and require a phone.

Posted by
5780 posts

Well the nice thing about using Google maps is that it is not a fixed route. You need not slavishly follow the directions as given. The destination is pinned, and a recommended route given, but guess what? You are free to wander down another street, the Google Gods will not strike you down, it will simply say "OK" and re-route you, giving another option. You also need not hold your phone out front of you, staring at it the whole time; I usually input my destination, click on directions, but not hit start, put the phone in my pocket, and we walk the general direction, look at things, detour, and at some point, pull out the phone to see if we are on track, re-plan, repeat.

In my OP, It may have been a bit hyperbole to say you "Can't travel without it" (though not much), but remember that technology is just a tool, not your master. It should ease your travel, if it controls it, or takes over, then you need to reassess.

Posted by
6544 posts

Someone once commented that pretty soon the phone technology would be so advanced ". . . we can avoid having any unnecessary and discomforting contact with any strangers anywhere."

I am a foot dragger when it comes to smartphones. Perfectly comfortable with paper maps and a pocket dictionary. Using eyes and noses and asking people to find restaurants. Our last trip we had phones off the whole time, just turning them on to make a few phone calls home. I do not like to be dependent on one small device easily lost, stolen, broken, or just plain not working. But I see the inevitability of progress.

Posted by
395 posts

Thanks OP Paul. I had no idea my phone could do half that stuff, and since we're leaving in 5 days, I'm going to learn fast!

Posted by
828 posts

I remember the days when I carried my paper plane ticket in my money belt the whole trip because if I lost it, I’d have to buy another ticket. Now I never even get a paper ticket, I just scan my electronic boarding pass.

I do tend to get overwhelmed with the amount of info available. Pre-smartphones, we’d wander down the street, find a cafe that appealed and stop for lunch. Was it the “best” place in town? Who knows. Now you can see reviews on a dozen different sites, view the interior and exterior of the restaurant and all dishes available from your living room. In some ways it makes planning more challenging.

I do find myself saying “How did we travel without our cell phones?” each trip. The advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. I see the advantages of apps, critical documents saved as photos in the phone, the use of the notes feature to journal our experiences, and the ability to easily communicate with people (including translation).

Posted by
61 posts

I always have my cell with me and will never travel without it.

I did not travel during the days "before cell phones" due to my age so I cannot relate to having to "wing it" so to speak traveling abroad. However, there are times when I want to disconnect from all the tech and data a cell phone can provide--and it feels nice to just turn the phone off.

Posted by
1087 posts

I agree with avirosemail about maps. I am firmly in the camp favoring phones for all they do, but on my next trip I'm going to try to recapture something I think I've lost by using directions on an electronic device. And that is, a good feel for the entire area I'm visiting. Using a phone for directions makes me feel somewhat isolated and limited to just the area that is on the screen. But no problem, I just need to get a paper map so I can see and study everything . . . assuming if course I can still find one.

Posted by
8287 posts

French National Railway, OuiSNCF, is going paperless for tickets and discount cards. Good luck without a smart phone.

Posted by
31440 posts

I agree completely with many of the comments here, and can't imagine ever travelling without a smartphone. Although it's probably not "essential", the many functions it provides certainly make travel a lot easier. I can vaguely remember the "old" way of travelling, using maps, phone cards, etc., and it's wonderful that we've advanced far beyond that.

I found from past experience that a smartphone is especially essential for solo travellers. When I ended up in a hospital in Italy a few years ago, my iPhone was the only link I had to family, travel agent, travel insurance firm and airlines. I shudder to think what that experience would have been like without my phone.