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If you ask anyone about the thing they can’t travel without, 9 out of 10 will answer that it’s their cell phone. I am one of those travelers who can’t imagine leaving home without it. It not only ensures that I have the phone numbers and addresses of everyone I care about handy but also gives me instant access to maps, addresses and phone numbers of businesses, hotels, and restaurants -- and even a translation app I can use to communicate with locals.

Yet, I remember a time when we didn’t have this tiny, convenient device. And occasionally I feel nostalgia for those times, when travel was more spontaneous and every time we left the house we had to be ready for an adventure. Here are some of the ways travel was different before cell phones.

1. We Had To Find Our Way Without The Cell Phone’s Built-In GPS

As we drove to Chaco National Park in the middle of nowhere, following the map on my phone, I thought about the first time we visited the site. We had a huge book of road maps of the Southwest that covered everything in the region, even the most obscure places.

Acting as the navigator, I tried to find the right page and then figure out where we were on the map while my husband was driving. I was panicking. I didn’t see the road we needed to take. We missed the turn before I found it and had to backtrack a few miles, but we got there.

Now, the GPS has replaced me. It even talks to us, giving us step-by-step instructions, telling us ahead of time (and repeating it) when to turn before missing the road. While I was happy to lose the job, sometimes I miss being in charge of directions.

2. We Had To Research What To See (And Where To Eat And Sleep)

Before visiting a new country or a new region, we used to buy a full-length travel book about it, study it before leaving, and carry it while on the road. Sometimes these books were heavy, covering a whole country or a large region.

While now our cell phones point out hotels and restaurants around us and offer driving directions, ratings, and every detail we don’t know we need, before we had cell phones, we used the book for reference.

When the book got outdated (we didn’t buy a new one every year), we knew that we were taking a chance: The hotels and restaurants listed could be out of business. We experienced this a few times, and when we did, we’d simply move on to the next place. It taught us how to go with the flow, adding an element of adventure to every trip.

3. It Was More Challenging To Communicate With Locals In Foreign Countries

The cell phone makes communicating with locals easy these days, with apps that translate phrases, full sentences, even paragraphs. They can even do the talking for you -- at the push of a button.

But before carrying a phone, I carried a pocket dictionary. I also studied the basics of the local language. Pulling out the dictionary and looking up a word while locals were waiting for me to communicate was slow.

It still worked, and maybe it made people more tolerant, more patient with each other. Now, having everything at our fingertips, at the push of a button, we become impatient when we have to wait.

Old photo from the writer.
Emese Fromm

4. We Were More Willing To Rely On The Help Of Strangers

If we have car problems on the road now, we can look up the closest mechanic, call, and get things fixed in no time. But things were different before cell phones.

The first time I traveled to Mexico and was driving through what is now known as the Riviera Maya, we stopped at a beach after following a short track in the sand toward the ocean. As we did, the car key broke off: Half of it got stuck in the driver-side door. We were stranded on a sunny beach in the middle of nowhere, with our money, hats, and sunscreen inaccessible -- all locked in the car.

A group of strangers helped us out, driving my husband back to Cancun, to the car rental company, where he sorted things out, while I waited. By the time he returned with a mechanic from the rental company, I knew the beach intimately and had made a friend.

5. Staying In Touch Took Extra Effort

Travel was slower before cell phones -- and always an adventure! Staying in touch could actually be a problem at times.

The first time I traveled without my kids -- also to Mexico -- I promised to call them every night. Without a cell phone, I planned my days around stops in the larger towns, where I knew I could find a payphone to call. Sometimes it took hours to get through. But I always managed, either standing in a phone booth in the street or finding a post office to call them from.

Though I Would Not Leave Home Without My Cell Phone, Sometimes I Miss The Old Days

While I can hardly imagine leaving home without my phone (like most people, I have a slightly unhealthy attachment to it) sometimes I miss the way travel used to be. That’s why we look for and seek out -- and enjoy -- off-the-beaten-track destinations without cell phone coverage.

We try to make it a point to spend a few days during most vacations in one of those places. And we can always come back to the convenience of being connected -- to everything, from loved ones to maps and the businesses we think we need.

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