The following excerpt is the first chapter from Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel by Sara Clemence, a former editor at Travel + Leisure.
Ask someone why they travel and they probably won’t say that they want to snap a few Instagram selfies, answer a bunch of work emails, and maybe squeeze in some YouTube browsing.
Yet, all too often, that’s painfully close to reality.
On average, Americans check their phones about 50 times a day. And we don’t stop when we’re away from home — we take our electronic habits with us on vacation.
It’s time to get back to traveling the old-fashioned way — to be more connected with our surroundings than with our social media feeds, to enjoy skipping countless rocks on the surf without giving into the temptation to check the news. You might call it mindful travel, present travel, or authentic travel. It’s about de-digitizing your journeys and re-discovering analog pleasures — like people, pencils, and old-fashioned maps.
Here are six ways to start immersing yourself in your destination instead of your gadgets.
1. Identify Your Intention
It may sound like the start of a yoga class, but it’s the most important part of the trip-planning process. And you should set aside mental space for it, just like you’d make time to figure out your flights.
Your intention is the purpose of your trip. It’s less a single goal (I want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro) than an expression of overarching values (I want to push my physical limits).
Along your journey, you’ll be checking in with your intention to make sure what you’re doing aligns with what you really want.
Keep your intention simple, and aim for clarity: I want to break unhealthy habits. I plan to immerse myself in a foreign culture. I hope to blow up my comfort zone. Finally, write it down to make it official.
2. Do a Deep Dive
Explore as much of your destination as you can before you leave — and that doesn’t mean digging through online hotel reviews. Read about the history and architecture of the place you’ll be visiting, listen to the local music, research the local food scene, peruse news sites, and tune in to radio stations. Look for fiction by native authors. If you get familiar with the culture, politics, and cuisine, you’ll feel (almost) like a local by the time you arrive.
3. Visit Unconnected Destinations
Want to get off the digital treadmill? You don’t have to rely on tricks or willpower to achieve that goal. There are some spots in the world where you can’t get reception, no matter how hard you try.
It’s one of the most popular (and breathtaking) tourist destinations in the United States — and has almost no cell phone service.
Wireless signals are banned in this town, which is home to one of the world’s largest radio telescopes.
Service is so spotty here that locals are known to toss their phones in the air to catch enough of a signal to send a text.
In the heart of the outback, you can connect to nature — but not to Facebook.
4. Going Alone: Yes or No?
It might seem easier to have a contemplative trip if you’re on your own. But you don’t need to be a wandering hermit to be mindful: there are upsides and downsides to traveling solo.
- More time to think
- Easier to make new friends
- More self-reliant
- Complete freedom
- Forces you to speak the language
- More aware of your surroundings and other people
- Nobody to help you solve problems
- No safety in numbers
- Nobody to create memories with
- It’s easier to retreat to your devices when traveling alone
5. Avoid Stuffing Your Itinerary
A great trip isn’t about cramming in the maximum number of sites, activities, destinations, and meals. The most rewarding journeys leave plenty of blank space for wandering, reflecting, people watching, napping, and serendipity. Draft a rough schedule for your trip, choosing one or two activities to anchor each day — a meal at a certain restaurant, a hike, a museum visit — and leaving the rest up to chance and whim. An empty afternoon is a good thing, not an error that needs to be corrected.
6. Think Beyond the Hotel
Your attitude toward travel matters a lot more than your lodging. Still, you’re more likely to have a memorable, authentic experience sleeping in a century-old farmhouse than staying in a generic chain hotel. Consider some uncommon accommodation options.
As long as there have been travelers, there have been workaday people willing to put them up. But modern technology has made it easier than ever to rent someone else’s bedroom, apartment, or house. Those homes can be cheaper than hotels — especially for families or longer stays— and often offer privacy, kitchens, and space to spread out. Even better, they give you a sense of what it’s like to live in a place, not just sightsee there.
The idea of staying in a guesthouse on a working farm started in Europe, and has been particularly popular in Italy, where these accommodations are known as agriturismi and number in the thousands. They’re designed to allow guests to experience rural life — without having to do any farmwork — and to support agriculture. Meals made from (very) local ingredients are often part of the package. The United States has a similar concept called farm stays. Agritourism is also common in New Zealand and Australia and in other parts of Europe.
You can sleep in the Vatican — and no, you don’t have to join a religious order. In Europe, monasteries, like farms, offer lodging, often in historic buildings. Quarters range from Spartan with shared facilities to comfortable with private baths. Some are known for their wonderful food (though others are not). Monasteries are not family-friendly, and you may be subject to rules regarding clothing, curfew — even speaking. And although these accommodations tend to be cheap, they often don’t take credit cards.
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