Or: how we survived 10 days in Italy on airplane mode. And how you can do it, too!
For those of you who don’t rely on the internet being in your pocket at all times, especially when you travel, carry on; this post was meant for those of us (like me!) who struggle to recall what life was like before Google. In fact, much of my constant exploration is powered by how easily I can find things with my smartphone.
So why’d I forgo the data connection? To be honest, I didn’t do it for nostalgic reasons. I did it because it’s pretty expensive for U.S. users to get an international data plan. So if you want to save some money, check out these tips.
#1: Get a great paper map.
Whether you buy it before you leave (there are several well-designed, waterproof options available for most major cities online) or get it when you arrive in the city (we did the latter, and they were all free), paper maps will be essential if you’re not using the internet. I’m a little ashamed to admit that prior to this trip, I probably hadn’t used a real map in years.
At least in Europe, where most major landmarks are grouped together, using a paper map was easier than taking a chance on a GPS. Particularly in the close-together, haphazardly planned streets of most major Italian cities, Google Maps wasn’t much help anyway, at least not for reliable walking directions.
#2: Use offline features of your favorite apps.
Look, I didn’t say leave the smartphone at home; I just said ditch the data plan. I take all of my photos on my iPhone, so it’s rarely far from me.
Many prominent travel apps offer offline features. My favorite Google products, including Drive and Maps, offer the ability to save offline maps, docs, and more — all of which are handy for extending the functionality of your paper map.
If you’ve never done it before, read how to save an offline map with Google Maps.
#3: Screenshot things you need but can’t access off-data.
If there isn’t an offline feature, this is the next best thing. I screenshotted turn-by-turn directions from train stations to our accomodations as well as lists of top restaurants and their approximate locations, among other things.
Paper maps can be challenging to use when your destination isn’t on a major road, or worse, when it’s not in the area covered by the map (which happened to us in Florence, when our Airbnb was off the map). Having screenshotted directions on hand can be a godsend for these types of situations.
#4: Make sure your accomodations have wi-fi.
While I didn’t use cellular data in Italy, I did use the free wi-fi in our hotels and Airbnbs, plus the occasional cafe.
If you’ll be using offline maps and screenshotting online details for your daily itinerary, you’ll want access to wi-fi (that is, unless you’re the ultimate planner and will prepare it all before you leave — I certainly didn’t), so be sure to check before you book your accomodations.
#5: Don’t be afraid to ask the locals.
And ultimately, if you get stuck, ask for help.
When our Airbnb apartment was off the map in Florence, I popped into a cafe and asked if they could tell me where the street I was looking for was, and they pointed me in the right direction.
Of course, this will be simpler if you can speak the language of the country you’re visiting — that conversation I had in Florence was in Italian — but even if you can’t, it’s still worth asking. If all else fails, hand gestures and pointing out where you want to go on a map can go a long way.
And even when you’re not lost, ask the locals for recommendations. They can often give you a better suggestion than the best online tips can.
Overall: I’d do it again
While I still enjoy the ability to look up anything at any time when I have a smartphone in hand, I’d go without it again, especially as long as international plans remain high. That’s money I can put into travel expenses!
As a side note, though, we were thankful that my mom, who was on the trip with us, got a plan, and we did use her phone in two urgent situations. Once, without it, we might have missed our train, something that would have been so expensive it would have eliminated any savings we pocketed from not having a data plan. So, if you’re a heavy smartphone user, weigh the pros and cons, and go with whatever makes sense.