Your smartphone is a powerful tool—especially when you travel. Heck, even an old smartphone can help you book a last-minute room, catch a cab just about anywhere, research your trip on the fly, and of course listen to any song, watch any movie, and snap thousands of great pictures and videos while you’re traveling.
Plus, you know…you can “call” people if you ever need to.
A smartphone might just be the single most useful thing you can pack for your next trip. I get that.
But there’s a downside to the convenience of traveling with a supercomputer in your pocket. And if you’re not careful you can spend half of your vacation staring at a screen instead of enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime destination that you paid thousands of dollars to get to. Or worse, just trying to have the same Instagram vacation as everyone else.
It’s tough to walk the line between connection and distraction, especially when we use our phones for everything when we travel. But there are a few simple things you can do to curb your phone addiction and have a more connected—and memorable—trip.
Here’s how I limit my screentime when I travel.
Turn Off Notifications and Alerts
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from the past 20 years of travel is simple: Nothing is ever that urgent.
You almost never need to know what’s going on in real-time while you’re traveling. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling. You can completely check out. Heck, I usually don’t even know what day it is when I’m on the road.
Take some of the urgency and anxiety out of your life by turning off alerts, push notifications, and badges on literally every app you own (including messages and WhatsApp). You’ll be amazed by how much less you use your phone.
Reorganize Your Phone
I constantly reorganize my phone, moving things in and out of group folders, rearranging apps according to how frequently I use them, and trying to hide distracting apps deep in my phone. It’s a whole thing.
But you don’t have to be an organization nerd to streamline your phone.
Before your next trip, spend just 20 minutes going through the apps on your phone. I guarantee that you’ll find a few apps that are a complete waste of time and a couple of others you can do without for a few days.
The best thing to do is to delete these distracting apps (yay for more space on your phone!). But if that’s too extreme, you can move them into a folder on your phone titled “Don’t Open Until I Get Back.”
Just the act of hiding some of your most problematic apps in a folder away from your home screen can add enough friction to keep you from using them while you travel. Maybe even longer.
If you want to go a step further, move all of your most useful travel apps — things like Google Maps, XE currency converter, AirBnB, Podcasts, etc — to your home screen. That way you won’t even have to scroll through your phone to find the stuff you’ll need the most while you’re traveling.
Download All of These (Free) Apps Before Your Next Trip
Here’s every app on my phone when I travel
Get Really Into Podcasts
The easiest way to spend less time staring at your smartphone screen is to turn off the screen. Boom, problem solved.
8 Podcasts to Binge on Your Next Long Travel Day
Up your travel game with these great podcasts
In all seriousness, I’ve found that travel is a great time to embrace the audio features of your phone (music, podcasts, audiobooks, and even voice memos).
Odds are you’re going to be on the move a lot during your next trip. And while it’s easy to whip out your smartphone and zone out with a few episodes of The Office on your next flight or train ride, you’re kind of missing out on big part of traveling.
Namely…the “traveling” part.
If you stare at your phone the whole time you’re in transit, you’re going to miss not just some great views, but you’ll miss out on that rare in-between time when your brain isn’t occupied with all the normal day-to-day stuff.
Whether it’s work, an appointment, drinks with friends—it’s rare that we’re not on the way to something. But when you travel, you’re mostly just “on the way.” And that’s kind of awesome.
Don’t waste your precious “me” time staring at a screen.
Podcasts are a great way to drown out the noise of crowded transit while still learning something (or having some laughs). Podcasts keep you entertained without sucking you into all the notifications, distractions, and scrolling traps of other more visual apps.
And unlike Spotify, you don’t need a premium subscription to enjoy podcasts offline, which is nice.
The secret to podcasts is to diversify what you listen to. I love learning stuff from 99% Invisible, but you can only listen to so much “smart” stuff before you need a break. Download a few comedy or storytelling podcasts and you’ll be set for any long train ride.
Here’s a full list of some of my favorite podcasts for long travel days if you need some help getting started.
Audiobooks w/ Libby App
Like podcasts, audiobooks are a great way to reduce your screentime without sacrificing any entertainment value. And you don’t need to buy an expensive Kindle or sign up for Audible to enjoy the best audiobooks on the market.
All you need is a library card.
Libby has become my go-to app for both ebooks and thousands of current and classic audiobooks — often read by the author. I just finished listening to Tom Hanks read his short story collection, Uncommon Type (each story features a typewriter) for free on the Libby app. And it doesn’t get better than drifting off to sleep with ol’ T.Hanks’ dulcet tones.
Get a library card, download Libby, and enjoy free audiobooks offline while you’re traveling.
Set a “Bed Time” with Downtime (iOS)
Some people swear by Screentime — the feature that “restricts” the amount of time you can spend on any given app. But I’m honestly not really a fan.
Mostly it’s just a way of adding another annoying pop-up alert that says you’re “almost out of time” on a specific app before you tap “more time” and keep on watching YouTube until 1 am. It’s too easy to ignore.
Instead, I like to use the Downtime feature within Screentime. This setting is a system-wide “night mode” that dims the screen to a more mellow yellow color (better for going to sleep) but also literally limits the apps you can open. I set my Downtime from 11 pm — 6 am.
The apps get greyed out on your home screen, and while you can still use them in a pinch (you can enter your password or ask for more time) the idea that your phone has “gone to bed” is a great reminder that you don’t need to be scrolling your college roommate’s sister’s neighbor’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s Instagram feed at 2 am.
Turn Off Roaming Data
Nothing limits the amount of time you spend on your phone while traveling like restricting your data usage to Wifi only. You can turn off cellular data completely in settings or just target a few of the biggest offenders (like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube). Either way, keeping phone usage to wifi is a great way to unplug from your phone while traveling.
And turning off cellular and roaming data for time-wasting apps will save you some expensive roaming fees since scrolling and video apps are the most data-heavy apps.
Delete All the Games on Your Phone
Yup. All of em. I don’t care if you love playing games on your phone. You didn’t pay thousands of dollars to fly halfway around the world to play Bejeweled.
I know some people keep a few “time killer” games on their phone for when they’re waiting in line or taking a train or whatever, but your precious vacation is not a time to indulge in killing time.
I’m not trying to judge you — I love games — but most phone games are designed to suck you in and steal your time. They’re filler. And while vacation is about enjoying downtime, playing a game on your phone just feels like such a waste.
If you’re bored, find something fun to do—like take a hike, take a nap, have a drink, or read up a little on your destination. Or just be bored. Doing nothing can be a great way to spend time on vacation, and honestly, a few minutes of uninterrupted boredom almost always leads to something way more interesting to do than play a stupid phone game.
Create an Email “Out of Office” Message
I know the thought of leaving for vacation (and actually taking that vacation) isn’t popular with most office environments, especially in the US. But screw that. If you’re actually going to be “out of the office,” announce your intention by setting up an out-of-the-office reply for your email.
It’s not rude to be unavailable when you’re literally trying to get away from it all. This strategy obviously doesn’t work for everyone — especially if you’re traveling for a long time or working remotely — but you can (and should) set clear boundaries on who gets to demand your time while you’re traveling.
You won’t compulsively check your email if you’re not getting any emails or alerts.
Enable “Color Filters”
If none of these tips are enough and you really want to go full-on Ghost Protocol during your vacation, you can make your smartphone screen less appealing with one simple tweak: Make everything black & white.
That’s right. There’s a black & white mode on your phone, called “Color Filters,” and it will definitely keep you from using your phone while you travel.
To go in to “black & white mode” just triple-tap the home screen on (older) iPhones and boom—everything will go greyscale. On newer iPhones (without a home button) just go to:
Settings > Accessibility > Display (or Display and Text) > Color Filters > and choose “Greyscale.”
The lack of color takes a little getting used to, and it’s not awesome for taking photos (you’ll want to toggle out of it to use your camera), but I can’t believe how…boring it makes my smartphone screen. And that’s a good thing.
Plus, it’ll save your battery, so that’s cool.
Pack a Book and a Deck of Cards
Go analog, baby. There’s no denying that your phone is still the go-to item for most daily travel things, like taking pictures, navigating, booking a room, and catching a cab, but that doesn’t mean you need it for everything.
I love learning new card games from other travelers, and there’s nothing more relaxing than curling up in a hammock with a good book. Bring one or two physical creature comforts—a chess set, UNO cards, a journal, or a Polaroid camera—and step away from your online life.
Keep in touch with friends and followers as you go, but build in a way to enjoy the people and place where you are with something real. It won’t take up much space in your bag, I promise. Plus, you’ll never need an adaptor.
How to Fight Phone Addiction When You Travel
Honestly, a smartphone is an incredible device. You should travel with one. But a smartphone is a lot like Spider-Man — with great power comes great responsibility. And if you’re not careful you can get stuck in the web.
Set limits on scrolling apps, bring analog alternatives, delete games, and embrace the passive audio features of your phone like podcasts and audiobooks to keep you from staring at your screen instead of soaking up the scenery.