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Travelers are going to extreme lengths to avoid scrolling and notification anxiety on vacation

Sarah Wood   

Travelers are going to extreme lengths to avoid scrolling and notification anxiety on vacation
  • Adults are increasingly attached to their devices and are almost constantly online, study shows.
  • Many are turning to the tourism industry to force themselves to disconnect and relax on vacation.

Six years ago, I spent ten days without my phone at a meditation retreat in Thailand. The experience was so refreshing that I felt like I had a new brain. I vowed to use my phone less, but unfortunately, the habit didn't stick. My phone usage has skyrocketed in the years since, sometimes clocking ten hours of screen time.

Planning a wedding and buying an apartment in the same month brought my digital dependence to new heights. On a recent trip to a Scottish cabin advertised as somewhere to "stay where the world can't find you," I tried to go tech-free and reset. With an itinerary of fly fishing and hiking, I thought it would be easy to unplug.

I was wrong.

The days were fine, but right before bed, I couldn't stop myself from scrolling through my email and notifications. I felt disheartened by my failed attempt to unplug.

62% of adults aged 18 to 29 say they're constantly online

Being unable to put your phone down, even on vacation, is becoming increasingly common. In 2024, a study by the Pew Research Center surveyed nearly 6,000 US adults on their tech usage. 62% of participants between 18 and 29 said they are almost constantly online.

In response to this constant online-ness, people also want to disconnect completely, especially while on vacation. Global search interest for "digital detox retreat" has increased by 50% in the past year. No longer beholden to emails and Slacks, vacations are the perfect time to shut down devices, and people are turning to the tourism industry to help them.

People are turning to the tourism industry to help them unplug

Property managers and tour operators are offering unplugged trips and tech-free destinations to meet this demand.

Unplugged is a cabin company in the UK offering "digital detox" long weekends in nature. Guests can use their phones to navigate to their Unplugged cabins, but once they arrive, they're expected to lock their phones in a box for their trip. The cabins have a paper map, a Polaroid camera for travelers, and a retro Nokia phone for emergencies.

"The key we found is to give people all the things that they might need their phone for," said Hector Hughes, CEO of Unplugged. The company launched in 2020 and has 23 cabins and a 94% occupancy rate since July last year, marking a 209% increase in bookings over the previous 12 months, according to Hughes.

Group travel operator For The Love of Travel (FTLO) ran its first phone-free trip this February and a second in April, and five more are listed on its site through 2025. For FTLO, the trips become "phone-free" once you arrive at the first hotel and meet your tour operator, who manages the logistics for the rest of the journey.

FTLO CEO Tara Cappel said guests are asked to leave their phones in their hotel safe or at the bottom of their bags when the group is together. "We're also obviously not controlling whether people are going back to the rooms and getting on their phones. It's an honor policy."

According to Cappel, their first two trips were filled, and all guests expressed interest in another "phone-free" trip.

She acknowledged that tech-free travel hasn't become completely mainstream, "People are still a little intimidated by the idea."

Hughes told BI, "Many people haven't switched their phones off for years," Hughes added. "People experience phantom buzzes and find themselves searching for their phone instinctively before remembering it's locked in a box."

The reasons for going phone-free when traveling vary

One popular motivation is for couples to spend quality time with their partners. Hughes told BI that 80% of their guests are couples.

Elena Mnayarji, an MBA student at Berkeley, went on a phone-free honeymoon with her husband in Mallorca last summer. She said she didn't plan it but wanted to disconnect after a busy wedding. "By the time we got to Mallorca, I was exhausted and really needed to shut my brain off."

When she arrived in Mallorca, she turned her phone off and put it in a drawer at their hotel for their entire trip. Not checking her phone was difficult, but Elena was happy that she committed to it.

"For the first couple hours, it was a little tough," she said. "But I felt a lot less anxious." She also said her husband felt more connected to her.

Phone-free travel can also help with burnout

Last summer, nonprofit strategist Izzy Doonan did a tech-free week-long trip in the Cascades with her partner and another couple. They wouldn't have cell service, so they embraced the opportunity to get offline. "As the trip got closer, we all realized how burnt out we were. It was fitting to take a trip without our phones and really unplug," Doonan said.

As soon as they drove into the park and lost service, the group put their phones in the glove compartment of their car and didn't use them until they left the park.

"A lot of the nerves were from our parents because they wouldn't be able to contact us," said Doonan, who wasn't personally concerned. "I felt quite safe in the confines of a national park," she said, adding they had a car and other campers were around. "I would 1,000% do it again."

Logistics of traveling phone-free

Traveling phone-free does pose some logistical issues. "One concern that was brought up was that people's families back home were worried," said Cappel.

FTLO provides the trip leaders' phone numbers and full itineraries with contact information to travelers to share with whoever might need it. Mnayarji echoed, "I would recommend people tell their family if they're going to go phone-free. My mom was freaking out, so I had to text her from my husband's phone."

For both FTLO and Unplugged, you can use your phone to help you navigate to the destination and then are asked to put your phone away. Traveling domestically, bringing an emergency prepaid phone, or traveling with a tour operator in charge of the logistics are ways to make your tech-free trip as safe as possible.

Cappel said, "Committing to a multi-day phone-free trip is a lot, but if people can start with an afternoon and leave their phone in their hotel for the day, it's a great way to start and realize it's really doable."


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