Would you take a trip if you couldn't use your cellphone?
A new tour company called Off the Grid is asking travelers to put their cellphones away and not even use them for photos.
"When you're somewhere new, there's a lot to soak up, a lot to see, a lot of cool, interesting people to meet. Your phone can distract you," said Off the Grid founder Zach Beattie.
Off the Grid trips, he says, are designed to be "fully unplugged and very social."
The first trip is to Lisbon, Portugal, in July, with others planned to Prague; the Croatian coast; Barcelona, Spain; Lima, Peru; and Tulum, Mexico. "People have signed up for every trip we've launched so far," Beattie said.
Tours are seven to 10 days, with small groups of up to 16 people. Prices range from $1,500 to $1,650, including accommodations in hostels, some meals and ground transportation (but not airfare). Itineraries include at least three excursions and two social events, with an emphasis on unique experiences over bucket-list sightseeing. The Lisbon tour includes surfing lessons, yoga on the beach, a day of sailing and dinner with a family to learn about local cuisine and wines.
"We are under-scheduling," Beattie said. "The entire focus of the trip is mindful travel and not cramming every single site into your trip."
The phone ban won't be enforced quite as strictly as it seems at first glance. "We want it to be volunteer," he said. "We're not collecting phones and throwing them in a locked trunk. It's held by you, but put in a pouch, and you state your intentions for the week," whether that's checking your social media once or twice a day or a total blackout.
Tour-goers also get a "dumb phone" without internet access that's loaded with numbers for group leaders and other participants, both for emergencies and to promote socializing.
Seventy-five percent of U.S. travelers vacationing internationally use smartphones to access the internet, according to MMGY Global's Portrait of American Travelers 2018-19.
Participants may bring regular cameras, but Beattie is hiring a photographer for each tour so there will be plenty of images to remember the trip by. Once the trip is over, participants will have access to those images for use in social media posts.
"I think it's interesting and challenging to say, 'Can I enjoy this moment without a camera? Can I soak up this memory and have it be part of me without instantly sharing with someone else in order for the moment to be real?'" he said.
Those signing up range from kids graduating high school to folks in their 60s, but most participants are professionals ages 24 to 35, "people who've worked for a couple of years who really need a real vacation," said Beattie, who's "bootstrapping" the business using money he saved from a tech job at a mapping company. He's hired guides for every trip but will help lead the first few himself.
Kensey Neely, 30, a speech pathologist from St. Joseph, Missouri, signed up for the Lisbon trip. "I'm so excited to go," she said. "I had been trying to find a way to step out of my comfort zone."
Giving up her phone will be hard, she says, but "I'm hoping once I do it during the trip, I won't be as tied to it when I get back." She is taking a digital camera, but hopes to use it sparingly: "I want to enjoy the experience and not take pictures of every little thing."
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