Road Trip Survival Guide – Cell Phones & Apps

This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.

Ditch the Phone?

I would be a hypocrite if I told you to ditch your cell phone? It’s often the only electronic device I bring, and the multi-functionality of these Swiss Army devices makes them invaluable on road trips.

AntiqueBut did you know that as recently as 25 years ago, we lived in a world pretty much devoid of cell phones? Most people relied on paper maps and written directions to find their destination. We had separate devices to take photographs, listen to music, and if we wanted to talk to someone on the phone, we used devices that were tethered to our homes. Some of us even… turned a dial! Yes, a quarter century ago – we truly lived in the dark ages.

Today, most of us would say that leaving our cell phones at home is inconceivable or even impossible. While I’m not going to advocate that you do leave your phone at home, I am going to offer some ways to reduce your dependence cell phone usage, describe some reasons for doing so, and offer some useful tips for when you do use your phone.

But before we continue, please review the scopes and perspectives that I’ll be addressing each of the questions presented in the Road Trip Survival Guide.

Why Disconnect?

There are many good reasons to set your cell phone down once in a while, but I would boil down the best reasons to three major themes.

Cell phones are unreliable. Cell phone batteries drain. Service coverage is spotty in some places. Apps and operating systems glitch and fail. Phones get lost or broken. And one day, the sun might let out a giant cosmic burp that renders all of our technology meaningless. Whatever the cause, becoming overly-reliant on technology – especially a single device – leaves us vulnerable for that inevitable day when our device fails us.

Cell phones distract us from life. Road trips provide an opportunity to explore the world around us. But the distractions of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Snapchat keep our eyes glued to five inch pieces of plastic instead of where they should be – beholding the wonders of the world we live in.

Cell Phone Zombies

Cell Phone Zombies

Cell phones create barriers between us. We all know the joke. A group of people are together at a restaurant, supposedly because they want to enjoy each other’s company. But instead, they spend their entire time there with their faces glued to their phones and not speaking each other. It’s a funny scene to watch, but most of us fail to realize that we’re guilty of the same behavior.

It’s ironic that I, of all people – a master of avoiding people and social interactions – would lecture anyone else about being antisocial. But travel is about more than just visiting places. It’s about experiences, personal growth, and exposing yourself to other cultures and ideas. If you use your cell phone as a shield from interacting with other people, you’re rather missing the point of travel.

The On-Call Expectation

Personally, I hate speaking to people on phones. I always prefer written communication, like e-mails and texts. If I absolutely have to speak to someone, I prefer to do it face-to-face. It’s bad enough if someone calls me while I’m at home or at work. But when I’m travelling, I really REALLY don’t want to be talking to people on the phone.

Unfortunately, technology has evolved to enslave us. Because we have the ability to multitask and be connected 24/7, there is the expectation that we will multitask and be connected 24/7. This is the “on-call phenomenon”. If we’re not always available to take calls from our employers, then we must not be serious about our careers. This is especially true if we’re competing with some ambitious kid who is willing to be on call 24/7. As a result, we work longer days, longer weeks, we work from home, and we work on our supposed “days off”.

This. Is. Bullshit.

We cannot allow ourselves to be slaves to our jobs. We cannot be so obsessed with money nor can we be so paranoid about losing our jobs. It is imperative that we assert our right to have time off from work. Not only to rest and recharge, but to live life. After all, what purpose is there in working hard to live if we never take time to enjoy living?

Take a cue from our European counterparts. A road trip should be a sacred time for you to relax, rejuvenate, explore, and grow. Take time before you depart to put your affairs in order. Then inform your family, friends, and employers that you will be out of reach for the next several days, weeks, or months. It’s YOUR TIME. Don’t let other people steal it away from you.

Don’t View the World Through the Lens of Your Camera

The second time I traveled to Jasper, Alberta, I took over 600 photographs. One destination. One week. Over 600 photographs. And I almost never look at any of them. Is it because the photographs are ugly? No. I’m a halfway decent photographer and Jasper is an idyllic location. Most of my friends described my photos as worthy of bring turned into postcards.

The reason I don’t look at them is because they’re meaningless. I only saw Jasper through the lens of my camera. During that trip, I didn’t take time to be present in the environment and soak in the experience. Therefore, my photographs aren’t connected to any real memories.

In contrast, I’ve only got about 450 photographs from my North American Road Trip. That’s still a lot of photos, but I never get sick of looking at them. That’s because I made a deliberate effort to put away the camera and live in the moment. Yes, I still took photographs. They’re a great way to preserve memories. But the memories have to exist, first, before you can preserve them in a photograph. My 450 photographs are spread out over five weeks and 15,000 miles. Very few of them are duplicates. I didn’t obsess over getting 50 different angles of the same scene. Many of my photographs include people I interacted with (my hitchhikers) and my dog, Remy.

Not only do I not get sick of looking at these photographs, many of them bring tears to my eye. Even without labels, I can distinctly remember each moment that I photographed, and in many cases – I can even correctly identify the location where the picture was taken.

Plan Ahead / Assume Your Phone Will Fail

TelecommunicationAlthough I question the accuracy of coverage maps, I think there’s near universal agreement that Verizon Wireless has the most widespread coverage area of any cell phone carrier. But even on this so-called reliable network, there are plenty of dead zones, especially as you head away from populated areas and into rural areas. Cell phone service is more difficult to find as you travel out west.

In fact, I can say with absolute certainty that being in a red zone (according to this map) is no guarantee of cell phone service. I spent a lot more time without cell phone service during my North American Road Trip than there is grey color on this map.

Download offline maps. I strongly recommend the Google Maps app (Android / iOS) for navigation purposes above all other navigation tools I’ve used. It’s fairly accurate, reliable, and intuitive to use. By downloading offline maps, you’ll still be able to access turn-by-turn navigation, even if you lose data services.

Bring an atlas, folding maps, or printed directions. Just in case your phone fails entirely, it’s a good idea to have an alternative form of finding your way back home.

Although I advocate minimalist packing practices, consider bringing alternate devices to supplement your cell phone’s most critical functions. An emergency flashlight is always good to have. Also consider a notebook and pen, a wristwatch, a CD mix, and/or a stand-alone camera.

Pay bills and take care of other chores that require a phone or data connection in advance of your trip. You never know when you may find yourself stuck, out in the middle of nowhere, with no signal.

911 Services

If you’ve vowed to leave your phone behind or are too old-fashioned to own a cell phone in the first place, consider at least purchasing a prepaid “burn” cell phone. These no-frill phones are stupid cheap (I’ve priced a few out at about $20). It’s a good thing to have in case of an emergency, especially if you need to call 911. In fact, you don’t even need to be subscribed to a carrier or have any prepaid minutes to dial 911. You can re-purpose an old phone for this, too.

Useful Road Trip Apps

Now that we’ve talked about why and how you should reduce your cell phone usage, let’s talk about some ways to get the most out of your cell phone during your road trip.

This list certainly cannot be exhaustive. There are simply too many apps available to download, and everyone has different goals for when they travel. A person touring breweries and coffee shops is going to download a different set of apps than someone who is touring museums and large city architecture, who will download a different set of apps than someone who is touring the National Parks. For this list, I’m going to try to focus on apps that are universally useful for road trips, regardless of the sort of trip you’re taking.


Google Maps (Android / iOS)

Rome2Rio (Android / iOS)

Places to Sleep

HostelsWorld (Android / iOS)

Couchsurfing (Android / iOS)

US Rest Areas (Android / iOS)

National Forest Map (Web Link)

Other Apps

Roadtrippers (Android / iOS)

Google Trips (Android / iOS)

Google Translate (Android / iOS)

Google Goggles (Android only)

GasBuddy (Android / iOS)

XE Currency (Android / iOS)

Journey (Android / iOS) – great travel journal that automatically affixes a date/time stamp, geographic location, and weather information to each journal post, which can automatically be linked to photographs.

Calls Blacklist (Android / iOS) – cut the cord and make yourself unreachable during your road trip!

Other Ideas?

Have I missed anything? What apps do you find useful when you travel? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.

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