Night in the city without a phone

We’re in San Francisco for the remainder of the holiday weekend, and tonight I found myself alone with the big girls and no smartphone. Instead of panicking, the three of us got resourceful and saw a movie, found and booked a dinner reservation, and got around just fine.

The takeaway: Technology is awesome but grossly overrated.

The phone snafu was a pretty dumb mistake on my part. The five of us drove down in our minivan together, but Powerwoman and G dropped the big girls and me off at our hotel before continuing down to see some family members in Silicon Valley. When we arrived at the hotel, I was so fixated on getting L and R out of the car safely that I forgot to take my phone. We didn’t realize it was in the car until Powerwoman already was effectively out of the city.

This could have been a disaster. We were planning to Uber all over town, find a movie theater showing Moana at a reasonable time, then use Yelp to find a good restaurant before the show.

Instead, we did it the way I did it when I was a kid and the way countless others did it when they were younger: We winged it, we flew by the seats of our pants. And it worked. Masterfully. Almost without a glitch. (The glitch: NO PICTURES TO DOCUMENT THE NIGHT.)

To meet the challenge of picking a movie theater, we fired up the old laptop and I wrote (with pen on paper) some options down. To find a good restaurant, we used our voices to ask the concierge. Finally, to physically get ourselves from one part of town to the other, we shot our left arms into the air and hailed taxis.

Admittedly, the girls were a bit confused. HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET FROM HERE TO DINNER, asked a befuddled L, the Uber addict, when she learned Mommy had my phone. R was more concerned about no music.

But we did it, people. And you can, too.

Poetically, our night in the big city without a phone came on Black Friday a day when REI and other big companies encourage people to ditch technology and “opt outside.” We opted outside all right. Not internationally, but we did. And it made for a holiday gathering I’ll remember for a long while.

Why I hate Pokemon Go

All Pokemon, all the time

All Pokemon, all the time

Unless you’re completely off the grid, you’ve probably heard about this new augmented reality game called Pokemon Go. The augmented-reality game challenges players to explore the real world to capture virtual creatures they can see only when they look through their Smartphones.

People of all ages are going crazy for the game. In a matter of days exceeded Twitter as the most frequently used app in the United States. Usage in our country spiked so high so quickly that the game’s servers crashed (for a short while).

And users have been singing paeans to Pokemon all week. They love it because it gets kids off the couches at home. They love it because it increases fitness. They love it because it’s something fun to do together. They say it’s good for travel.

But I’m still a skeptic. Because it means seeing the world through a Smartphone screen.

I wrote about the issue for AFAR magazine, and in the article came out pretty strongly in favor of technology in moderation on a family trip. My reasoning: If the goal of travel is to connect with the people and heart and soul of a new place, it’s hard to accomplish that when you’re staring into a cell phone screen.

Where do you stand on this issue? Please read my piece and let me know.

Photo above by Yoshikazu Takada/Flickr

Travel, technology, and the children of St. Jude

There are lots of reasons why I love working with Expedia on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, and the company’s commitment to supporting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital tops the list.

Naturally, then, I was blown away by this piece, in which my colleague Sarah Gavin shares her story about how Expedia recently leveraged technology to enable patients to “travel” without ever leaving Memphis.

No, the initiative isn’t family travel in the traditional sense. But considering that many of these terminally ill cancer patients will never leave the halls of St. Jude, Expedia has, in a sense, brought the wonders of travel to them and their families. I can’t think of a better use for technology. I also doubt there’s a better kind of travel.

Once you’ve read Sarah’s story, check out the video below. I dare you to keep your eyes dry.

Travel fun without screens

The new book from Jervis = Genius.

The new book from Jervis = Genius.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, probably): We’re not fans of screens in this family. Sure, the girls are allowed to watch programs here and there (as well as the occasional movie), but for the most part my wife and I try to promote tech-free fun.

This is why I was so jazzed when a friend lent me a copy of How to Entertain, Distract, and Unplug Your Kids by San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and maker (and single dad) Matthew Jervis.

The book came out this summer. In it, the author provides a treasure-trove of tech-free options for keeping kids occupied (the subtitle actually is “Tricks, Tools, and Spontaneous Screen-Free Activities”). I know the American Academy of Pediatrics recently stepped away from its previous declaration that parents should eliminate any screen time for kids under the age of two, but research indicates that kids who are encouraged to be creative on their own (read: WITHOUT SCREENS) tend to be more skilled and confident and perform better in life.

That’s where Jervis’ suggestions can come in handy, especially on family trips. Many of the suggestions work well during family travel. Some even work perfectly in the confined spaces of passenger cabins on airplanes or trains.

Take the one on page 60, for instance—“You Complete Me.” In this exercise, Jervis suggests folding a piece of paper in thirds length-wise and having different family members take turns drawing different phases of an object (be it a person or an animal).

This game is one of our favorites on the road, and it usually keep the girls busy for hours (Jervis notes it keeps most kids busy for 30-45 minutes).

Another of my favorite of Jervis’ suggestions: a game he calls “Pebble People” (page 44). In this activity, the author suggests finding 10-15 smooth stones and drawing faces on them, then encouraging kids to draw play environments on a piece of paper so their new friends can have some context in which to interact.

I could go on and on summarizing all of the games in the book but that would spoil the fun. Instead, check it out before your next family trip and leave your tablets and Kindles and iPod Touches at home.

What are your favorite screen-free activities for a family vacation?

Family time, unplugged

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

As a freelance writer, I have to stay connected most of the time. My business depends on it—if I miss an email from an editor, I might miss out on a potential assignment, which means missing out on cold cash.

Generally speaking, I don’t mind this constant state of connectedness. It enables me to stay on top of trends, and to build my brand as a family travel blogger by posting Instagram pictures and other social media missives when we travel as a clan.

Still, every now and again, it’s nice to take a trip on which I’m completely unplugged.

Powerwoman and I try to take one such trip every year. For better or for worse, these tech-free trips usually happen when the two of us have the opportunity to steal away together, without the girls. In fact, we leave later today for four days of disconnected bliss on the Mendocino County coast (which is about three hours from our home).

The plan for these trips is pretty simple: Keep me away from technology at all costs. No Facebooking. No Tweeting. No Instagramming. And almost certainly no email.

Of course going away without the children necessitates a certain degree of connectivity; my mother-in-law, who’s watching the girls back at our place, needs to be able to reach us in case of an emergency. What’s more, Powerwoman often brings her phone so the two of us have at least one camera to document great places and fun times.

Still, for me, these trips are glorious. Because I get to just be in the moment. Every moment. All day long.

Preparing for our tech-free vacations always reminds me just how dependent on technology we’ve become. It also inspires me to try to be more tech-free in my everyday life. Especially when I’m with the kids: Do I really need to check my phone every time the damn thing vibrates or sends me a notification?

Of course the answer is no. And of course it will be far more difficult to ask and answer that question one month from now, when this unplugged vacation is long over and I’m back in the thick of life. Still, the question itself is a good one. And the self-examination it inspires almost always leads to more self-awareness, and at least the recognition that I could and must be better.

The bottom line: We all could stand to ditch some technology. I challenge you to take the same break in your life and evaluate the consequences. Big changes take time. This one’s worth waiting for.

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