How to Unplug: Six Steps to a (Mostly) Screen-Free Vacation

As a technophile, I didn’t think I was capable of stepping away from my screens while traveling — until an ah-ha moment on my honeymoon made me finally cut the cord. Now I use these tried-and-true strategies to unplug on vacation.

There were toucans outside. Howler monkeys called out in the distance, and ancient Mayan ruins sat just a short drive away. My brand-new husband and I were lounging in our Belizean bungalow on our honeymoon, but instead of gazing deeply into each other’s eyes or at the jungle around us, we were binge-watching TV shows while scrolling through our smartphones.

I’m not sure whether it was the “Are you still watching?” screen of shame or a low cell battery (or maybe both), but the realization hit me like a freight train: Why would I travel all the way to Central America just to be attached to my phone? And on my honeymoon no less?

Up until that day, I couldn’t imagine life without my smartphone. But in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to throw it outside. Instead, I promptly put my phone in my suitcase and ignored it the rest of the trip. The better part of a decade and two kids later, I still try to make every vacation (mostly) tech-free by following some simple rules.

Leave the tech behind.

The easiest possible way to have a tech-free family vacation is to have a tech-free suitcase, but that’s not always realistic. I travel light, which means I typically save all my reservation information and boarding passes on my smartphone. Taking it with me is, unfortunately, non-negotiable. But I don’t need to bring my tablet, laptop, fitness tracker or e-reader. The less I take with me, the less there is to distract me from showing my kids the joys of traveling.

Clean out your phone.

Even when I’m not traveling, I like to periodically go through my devices and remove any apps that are time-wasters or distractions — this keeps me from noodling around on them. After all, if there’s nothing on my screen for me to do, I won’t look at it for long. I program all relevant numbers into my phone’s contacts, and I save reservation confirmations as screenshots in my camera roll. But for all social media, fitness trackers, games and even my news apps — each is deleted or deactivated. If it’s not a working trip, I remove my email app, too. I can always re-download the apps during my trip, but making them less accessible helps me reconsider whether they’re really necessary.

Quick Tip:

To figure out which apps you spend the most time on, navigate to your device’s battery settings (in iPhone), or download specialty apps that track and categorize your usage.

Turn off notifications.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, my body has an instantaneous reaction to a phone notification. If it dings, beeps or buzzes, my fingers reach to unlock my phone before I even register what’s happening. By turning off all notifications and putting my phone on Do Not Disturb mode, I reduce the temptation to pick it up and take time away from fun with my family.

Set ground rules — and commit to them.

Setting ground rules is one of the most important things my family does before any trip. Some members of my family swear up and down they can’t live without their devices, so on our trips we have designated tech times. Phones and tablets are strictly cameras between breakfast and the last group activity of the evening. Before or after that, it’s fair game for everyone to use their screens for whatever they want.

Quick Tip:

Get buy-in from your kids by asking each of them to suggest screen limitations everyone in the family will follow on your trip.

Prepare everyone.

We’ve gone on enough family vacations for everyone to know my rules on electronic devices, but I still remind everyone before a big trip. Sometimes that means talking about why we limit our screen time in the first place and brainstorming ideas on what we can do during downtimes instead. Unplugging can be massively disruptive to a routine and social life, so give everyone enough time in advance to prepare.

Bring non-tech substitutions.

People fought off boredom long before Netflix and video games were available in the palm of your hand. My family brings a small collection of versatile, compact games to use during meals or between activities. My kids love these kinds of games, but we don’t often get a chance to play with them when we’re home. Traveling offers a unique opportunity to leave behind busy schedules — and screens — and have fun together as a family.

Quick Tip:

A deck of cards provides myriad options for games, and many board games have pieces that can be taken out of the box and stored in plastic bags for easier packing.

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Unplug by planning a trip with the Marriott Vacation Club Destinations® Exchange Program