A Tech Geek Gives Up Her Smartphone for Guidebook Travel (and Survives)

·Managing Editor
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No one loves technology more than I do. While I certainly see the downside of the overabundance of gadgets and apps that weigh us down (mentally and physically) when we travel, I firmly believe there is more benefit to technology than disadvantages.

And yet, I have recently begun to wonder whether technology is causing me to miss out on something. My dear friend Natalie Compagno is the owner of a wonderful travel guide bookstore called Traveler’s Bookcase on Third Street in West Hollywood. One night at dinner, we naturally began discussing guidebooks.

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“I don’t think I’ve used one since college,” I professed sheepishly. It was true. I still had it, a dog-eared Lonely Planet that I took with me when I studied abroad in Australia in 2000. Page corners are turned down, entire sections are ripped out, key attractions are highlighted, and notes are scribbled in the margins. It still lives somewhere in a closet at my parent’s house in Pennsylvania.

“We’ll have to change that,” Natalie said to me.

I wanted to try an experiment. What if I eschewed technology during my upcoming trip to Greece? Not entirely. Come on! But what if I refused to use my smartphone as my travel guide? While I would typically use a mixture of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Gogobot, CoEverywhere, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to dictate my itinerary for a city, what if I threw caution to the wind and used a guidebook, or several, to plot out my three days in Athens.

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And so I stopped into Traveler’s Bookcase to purchase some books. Here’s the thing about guidebooks. They aren’t always up-to-date. Natalie’s employee led me directly over to the Athens section.

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A peek inside the Traveler’s Bookcase. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

“Hmmm, this one is good,” she told me, pulling the Wallpaper* guide to Athens off the shelf. “But some of these haven’t been updated in years!”

We found four that had been updated (although Wallpaper* was an edition from 2012). I purchased the Wallpaper* guide, A Traveler’s History of Athens, Time Out Athens, and Top 10 Athens. The next morning on the beginning of my 17-hour sojourn from the West Coast of the United States over to Europe, I grabbed a pen and a highlighter and settled into my plane seat to scour the books.

A wonderful sense of discovery washed over me, one that I no longer experience when I come across a thing I want to do or a place I want to see on my smartphone. There is something special about touching the pages of a book, thumbing through the chapters, and then physically marking them that leads to a greater sense of anticipation about the trip ahead. For me, the anticipation of a trip, whether for work (like Athens, where I would be attending the TBEX conference) or for pleasure, is often equally as enjoyable as the trip itself. I love the excitement that builds before a trip, the same kind of butterflies you feel right before a long-awaited date.

By the time we landed, I had plotted an abundance of itineraries. A day trip to Hydra! Poseidon’s Temple! Shopping at the flea market and Elena Votsi and Ermou Street.

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I had a list of restaurants for lunch and dinner. I knew exactly what I would be seeing at both the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum, and I had brushed up on my Greek history to boot! I was prepared. I was winning. I was ready to take on Athens and toss my smartphone into the Aegean Sea.

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I really missed bookmarking pages. (Jo Piazza for Yahoo Travel)

Not so fast.

When I began my mission, I was intent to use only the books and the maps, forgoing my long-trusted Google maps and GPS. That was a shortsighted plan. Sometime over the past decade-plus of always having a map function on my phone, I have forgotten how to read a map, or perhaps that bit of my brain that reads maps has simply been dulled or reallocated into a part that is really good at Angry Birds.

And so I got lost. Over and over again I would find myself on the wrong street or in the wrong part of town, dying to pull out my phone but too stubborn to admit defeat. I would wander into shops with my ill-folded map (How do you fold a map?!) and point (and pout). But each and every time, the shop owner or bar owner smiled politely and helped to correct me along my way. On two occasions, the bartender even poured me an apologetic glass of ouzo, certain that I would need it to continue on my hair-brained mission.

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Using guidebooks instead of burying my face in my device each time something didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned forced me to do two things that I think are often lost in modern travel — speak to locals and wander lost around an unfamiliar place. Through both of those activities, I was able to make new discoveries, such as the Flamme Rouge Cycle Café in Gazi, which I found when I was looking for a market that I still believe does not exist, or the café that sold the most delicious macarons across the street from the Megaron conference center.

A taste of the adorably quirky decor at the Cycle Cafe. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

The Wallpaper guidebook led me to two restaurants that I positively fell in love with, The Butcher Shop and Polly Magoo, an adorable French bistro set in a former corner store that is so mysterious, our concierge had never heard of it.

The downside is that the guidebooks are obviously less interactive. I had to call the restaurants to ask for opening and closing times and to make my reservations. One shop and one café I wanted to visit were no longer in business when I arrived at their locations.

I missed the ease with which I could look something up on Yelp or TripAdvisor, but I reconnected with the reasons that I love guidebooks. I don’t think that one necessarily has to negate the other. Used together, a smartphone and the right apps along with a guidebook can offer the traveler a more complete experience. Taking away the crutch of the phone forced me to stop staring at my screen and interact in ways that travelers should.

Related: Put the Cellphone Down and Back Away Slowly: Mobile Etiquette Gets Tough

There’s room for the phone and the book. We should keep embracing both.

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