8 Tips for a (Nearly) Tech-Free Vacation

Don't make Facebook your "frenemy." Tips for helping travel and tech coexist.
Regan McMahon Senior Editor, Books | Mom of two Categories: Cell Phone Parenting, Screen Time
Senior Editor, Books | Mom of two

Family vacations are a great time to recharge and connect with your kids, but connecting can be tough if they're plugged into their electronic devices day and night. Ever try to point out the sights to a kid engaged in battle on a Nintendo DS or have a heart-to-heart with a middle schooler whose ears are stuffed with ear buds? Ever plan a morning snorkel for the whole family only to find you can't pry your teen off the couch to trade Twitter for flippers? 

We've all become enmeshed in media and technology in our real lives (step away from your iPad, parents). Vacation can be a time to unplug or at least limit the time you spend wired, in the interest of having more face time with the people you love.

Here are some strategies for striking a balance between family bonding and electronic engagement:

Leave it at home: You can't be distracted by what you don't bring. Chances are, even if you don't bring your own tablet or laptop, you'll be able to use one at the home of someone you're visiting or your hotel's business center -- or you and the kids can make an adventure of finding an Internet cafe to use for an hour. You'd still have your smartphone for looking up Yelp reviews for dinner, tomorrow's weather forecast, and your flight status.  

Or, you can take it with you: The upside of bringing a laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone is watching movies on the plane or in a car and having fun apps to play. This is great for passing the time to avoid boredom -- but it's a good idea to decide on the appropriate time and place for screen time.

Follow the inside/outside rule: Try something like this: Tech is OK only at the house or hotel room, and only at night. Daytime is for outside play, adventure, exploring, and family interaction, so leave screens and devices back in the room.

Share your playlist: Make music sharing a fun part of your vacation. Have everyone in the family download a personal playlist to share with the group in the car or where you're staying. Kids can turn parents on to the music they love. Parents can expose kids to oldies from their era or program music to fit the vacation locale -- slack-key guitar and ukulele for Hawaii (the soundtrack for The Descendants is an excellent collection), the Beach Boys for the California coast, zydeco music for New Orleans, and Disney songs for a trip to Disneyland. Sing-alongs are allowed and encouraged -- and fans of the Frozen soundtrack will need no encouragement!

Get a local media fix: Instead of individual family members plugging into separate devices for an isolated film-viewing experience with headphones, go on a family outing to a theater near where you're staying. It's fun to share the experience with the locals.

Get off the phone: It would be ideal -- but maybe not realistic -- to put phones on lockdown. How about establishing a few rules that your family can agree on, such as "No texting during outings," "Phones are only for taking pictures until 6 p.m.," "Apps only in the car," or "Daytime is family time, friends are for after dinner"? Also, remember that in foreign lands putting phones on airplane mode not only cuts the time you isolate yourself from the group to text and email, it also saves you money (avoiding high data costs). You can make a game out of hunting for a WiFi zone where you can go online for free.

Friendly fire: Kids get homesick for their friends when they're out of town. Respect their desire to send vacation photos from their phones or via Snapchat, upload pictures to Instagram, chat on Facebook, or digitally communicate face to face via Skype or FaceTime. But taking a break from texting throughout the day is a good way to be here now; tell kids that if they're glued to their device, they're stepping out of the group experience, which shows a lack of courtesy to those around them (the family in "family vacation"). Agree on a time it's OK to contact friends -- say, on a lazy afternoon when other family members are reading or napping, or after dinner. 

Pack family games instead of video games: Kids love playing games such as Apples to Apples, Uno, or regular card games -- all of which fit easily in a suitcase. Mad Libs and Car Bingo are great for the road. Charades is another fun one to get the whole family involved, and it requires no equipment at all. Unplug, and plug into fun with humans!

About Regan McMahon

Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page... Read more
Does your family travel with tech? What are your rules?

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Comments (15)

Adult written by Roxanne Collins

Three day weekends are always the very best, especially at this time of year. It is the ideal time to get out of town and away from work for a few days. Taking vacations regularly is important, whether you actually feel tired or not. Some people feel that they cannot get away from their work because it is too demanding and they feel indispensable. If this is the case, it is probably one of the best possible reasons to take a break from it all.
Parent written by elea12

I really do like your tips for maintaining appropriate times and places for tech in the vacation setting! Like most people, I find it's really hard to completely unplug from my phone and technology when I'm on vacation. When I'm traveling out of the country, I like to use G3 Wireless for my iPhone data plan in order to stay connected so I can check out restaurant reviews or fun places for the kids.
Educator and Parent written by MikeWilson007

Thanks for the tips its really helpful for me to Vacations with the family and specially with the child WritingGen
Parent written by MilesMaynard

This problem is faced by many parents, as when they are on vacation to have fun with all family members; their kids are usually busy in electronic media platforms. Same thing happened with me as well, when our whole family was on the beautiful journey of Alaska on Koshertravelers.com cruise. My kids were not involved in any activities with us and kept themselves busy playing games on their mobiles and involved in chatting with the friends. So it is essential to follow the tips that you have shown here to have tech free and enjoyable vacation.
Parent of a 13 and 16 year old written by newbern4

It is kind of sad in a way how much our kids-- and us adults, too, in some ways-- have come to heavily depend on our "extra curricular technology" instead of "old fashioned" social interaction, so I believe that it is up to us parents to keep some balance between the two. In our 2-teen home, there is always somebody-- or some thing "plugged in". At the beginning of summer vacation, I declared "Tech-NO Tuesdays". Every Tuesday there is no technology allowed at all: No TV, No DVD, No Video Games, No Facebook, No Ipods, No Kindles, and No cellphones or computers (unless needed for school, work or emergencies.) What started out as a most dreaded day ("What??? Are you serious, Mom?? You have got to be crazy!! What are we supposed to do all day????") has turned out to be one of our favorite "family days"! Although admittedly difficult at first, I don't think the kids minded as much as they thought they would. They've done some reading (from real books!!), done craft projects, baked and tried new recipes (from a cookbook instead of the internet!), organized their rooms (!), and to their surprise, found a myriad of many other things to do that don't need wireless hook-ups. The major benefit is the actual quality of our family time on those days-- we have have had a lot of fun playing card games and board games-- and they have decided that "old-fashioned games" like Monopoly, are pretty cool!! In fact, some of their friends -- a few who had never even played "those kinds of games!-- have taken to coming by on other days to play as well. And even though there is a "no cellphone while playing" rule at our house, no one seems to mind, and the kids have even ignored the incoming calls and texts from other friends while in the midst of a game. Amazing!!! I wish I could add additional days, but I don't want to push my luck--- but I am planning on keeping "Tech-NO Tuesdays" throughout the school year (except as needed for homework, etc.) It just might work all year long...!
Parent written by Collyn Trayl

I definitely agree with you, that is one reason that I implemented a "No Gadget Day" every Sunday. We just spend the day as our family bonding time. Just like vacations, it should be spent as quality family time and if you want to know more on how to spend your vacations you can look here
Educator and Parent of a 1, 6, 11, and 15 year old written by bizzibean

We are taking a 17 day driving trip to DC in just a few weeks. I decided that we would "journal" while we are on our trip so my husband is setting up his cell phone to be our hotspot and the kids each have access to our family blog where they will record things that they see and do and post pics from our adventures along the way. I think that this is a great way for them to get their tech fix and for me to focus them on educational value of all the cool things that we will see and not just tech or the sake of tech.
Parent written by CSM Screen name...

We're taking our kids on vacation to Northern Maine this summer and we're staying at a place 'off the grid', one hour from the closest town. There is solar polar for the main lodge, but otherwise there is no electricity and we've told the kids that we will not be bringing any electronics into the place. It will also be nice to have my husband not have the ability to check his email or FB every 10 mins. I can't wait.
Educator and Parent written by CSM Screen name...

If you go to Yellowstone N.P. you'll be happy to know that there is no internet reception w/in 80% of the Park. Ditto tv reception. Also, if you're really interested in going off-line, go to Cuba, where only v-e-r-y s-l-o-w 56 K dial-up is available, and only for $6/hr, at some (mostly All Inclusive) hotels and ETECSA offices. Otherwise, you'll just have to enjoy the sights, sounds and aromas of this incredible islands. Rather than being plugged in most of the time, Cuban kids manage to have real fun, like we used to have a half-century ago!
Parent written by nightowl1957

Every year at spring break my wife and I take our 5 grand-children to a state park and rent a cabin for four days. Our main rule is if it plugs in or uses batteries, you cannot bring it. The kids have a great time and look forward to it every year. We play Uno, Farkle, charades, tell corny jokes, etc. We would highly recommend it to everyone!
Parent of a 15 year old written by cmemarie

We went for a week to a beautiful location with a full ocean view from our room and a balcony that fit us all. I was really disappointed that my husband (who was doing online school most of the time) and kid were always on their electronics in the room. No one read the books for pleasure they brought (except me) and we never played a game. We did watch a movie together once, but it was late and everyone fell asleep! I decided next time there would be new rules, a limit on how much time I guess just like at home. Or we'll go camping where there is no reception!
Teen, 14 years old written by Flaming Pencil

This article reminded me of a St. Augustine trip my family and friends took together; my friends and I used a gun app we downloaded onto our iPods to play a physical (real life) first-person shooter using an app (the hotel we were staying at was our "map"/playing field). We successfully mixed physical play and supposedly useless electronic devices.
Parent of a 3, 6, and 10 year old written by rockpounder family

We just did that this year with our boys - our DS frenzy gboys :o) All I have to say, is that we purposely left it at home and drove around the state with only 3 electronics (my BB, my wife's android and her iPad). The iPad was for family Netflix time!!! It was awesome. Love the article!!! Keep it coming!