Sitting on my lap in a dimly lit bar in Barcelona, she looked into my eyes. We had been drinking and this was the first time we had moved past friends and into something more fun. “Aren’t you going to ask for my number?”, she whispered as a not so subtle hint.

“Probably not”, I teased back.

Little did she know, I wasn’t being flirtatious, I was being practical. I didn’t ask for her number because I didn’t have a phone to call her from.

A Search For Electronic Balance

Throughout my travels I have done a lot of experimenting with phone usage. On one extreme, I had a permanently connected video phone that worked globally. On the other extreme, I went four months without any kind of phone. My search for connectivity balance is still a work in progress.

Living Without a Phone – How Did You Possibly Survive?

Humans have survived quite well without phones throughout almost all of recorded history. (While the dark ages were bad, there is strong evidence to show that this wasn’t related to cell coverage :-p) I continued this trend by voluntarily giving up my phone for four months while living in Spain. It was a novel experience but not nearly as bad as my friends and family expected it to be.

First, I’ll cover the good parts. I really liked the feeling of being totally free. I had no carrier contracts, pestering contacts or unprompted interruptions. I was able to run my businesses without problem and never once got a complaint from a client about communication issues. I had e-mail (which I could answer on my own schedule) and had Skype/Google Voice for when someone needed to actually talk with me (also on my own schedule). My voicemails were transcribed and e-mailed and I only accessed my inbox when it was convenient for me. It was the most ideal lifestyle I have ever had.

That said, being phone-less did have one major downside. While I didn’t mind giving up phone calls, I did frequently miss having full time access to online maps.

When I travel, I am constantly lost. It is not a trait that bothers or embarrasses me, it is just something I have come to accept. Even when I have access to maps, I usually only reserve their usage for really tough spots. I like being lost, it adds to the adventure.

There have, however, been times when I really needed to know where I was and how to get to my next destination. Be it wondering around the remote countryside of Peru while looking for a train station or getting completely turned around in Luxembourg, these were the times I missed my phone the most.

During this no-phone period, there were also times when other people missed me not having a phone. The girls I dated during this experiment consistently hated it when I didn’t have a phone. Frankly, I don’t blame them. They were far too forgiving with me. I had multiple times where this blew up in my face. No excuses, my stubbornness to go without a phone inconvenienced myself and the people I cared about.

At the same time, I am glad I did this four month experiment. I learned a lot and it got me closer to finding technological balance.

Living With An Always-On Video Phone – How Did You Possibly Survive?

I have also lived the communication lifestyle on the other extreme. Back when I was working for AT&T, I had a video phone that stayed online and was constantly connected. More than once, I had a close call where the device felt more like an electronic leash than a communication aid.

On one particularly inconvenient occasion, my boss, who was in Los Angeles (several time zones behind me), called me early in the morning my time. Waking up on the first ring, I narrowly avoided an incredibly awkward situation when, in a haze, I threw a shirt over the always-on camera. My boss was in a conference room calling me from a large video monitor and I was in my bed completely naked and not yet awake. In hindsight, this was my mistake. I shouldn’t have stored the phone facing my bed. :-p

My boss mentioned “I can hear you fine but I think the video isn’t working.”

I grinned. “The video is working fine, I just covered the camera because I am not exactly wearing clothes right now.”

We both had a big laugh.

After that, I added a piece of plastic to the phone to cover the camera.

Outside of the actual logistics of having an always connected video line, the phone caused some other annoying situations.

When passing through airports, custom officials never knew what to do with the spy looking device. I got stopped in each airport I went through and was regularly delayed by about 40 minutes. A flash of a employee badge and long explanation always seemed to solve the problem but each time I worried about far worse consequences.

Despite the downsides, having that super-phone was very convenient! I could call anyone, anywhere for free and they never had to know where I was on the globe. I had friends call and ask me to google something for them not knowing I was 7,000 miles (11,000 km) away. Owning the phone, helped me feel like I was home while still allowing me me explore a new country.

Similarly, I also made a new a friend as a result of my new found connectivity. AT&T assigned another employee, Mark, to make sure I always had phone access while traveling and we ended up becoming quite good friends.

On the more extreme side, when a volcano erupted in Chile and grounded all flights in Argentina, the phone became indispensable. I had multiple friends who were stranded come over to my place and use the phone to connect with family members back home. The phone helped in the facilitating the fixing a flooded house and in battling with the infamous LAN airlines call center waiting times. They could use the phone for as long as they wanted because the calls were free.

What Do You Plan On Doing For Your Next Trip?

In about a month I will be moving to Southeast Asia. I plan to spend about six months there. I will be porting over my domestic phone number to Google Voice again so that I can still get voicemails and make outbound calls on my normal phone number. I am going to bring my unlocked iPhone with me but I am not sure if I am going to activate it yet. I might just swap it for an iPod Touch so that I can get maps without having to worry about calls.

For voice calls, I will use my laptop over wifi to make Skype and Google Voice calls. I will also be experimenting with Google Hangouts. I haven’t found my connectivity balance yet but I have experimented with the extremes. For this leg of my journey, I will be aiming for something in the middle.

What have all of you done for phone service while traveling? Have you found any mix of freedom/convenience that has worked well for you?

Photo is of the Moai on Easter Island. (They sort of looked like they were playing telephone.) I purposely went to Easter Island without a phone. It seemed more appropriate that way.