Family Vacation Time: No Signal, No Problem

Reading Time: 4 minutes

T-Mobile_NoCoverage_SD

To celebrate the recent Independence Day holiday, my family took a road trip to South Dakota to look at some really large dead Presidents, and as we always do when we travel further than the public library, we relied on the friendly Google Maps lady to guide us all the way there, avoiding traffic and making excellent time. Arriving after midnight, all I wanted to do was check in and get some rest before braving Mount Rushmore on July 4th. As we were unloading the bags, however, I received the first of two distressing messages.

You have used 40MB of your allotted 50MB of roaming data.

Crap.

This was day one of a six-day trip. I quickly turned off my cellular data, but not before seeing this pop up in my e-mail:

Chase Fraud Alert: Please confirm activity

Double crap.

Thankfully, the more frightening of the two was the easiest resolved. I called Chase, and they cancelled my card and shipped out a new one. They also were able to cancel the card only for transactions in my home state, so we were able to continue our vacation uninterrupted. Kudos to Chase for their prompt service, and especially to their fraud algorithm developers. That’s some impressive analysis to determine that a charge at a grocery store we have visited before was fraudulent.

Author’s note: As it turns out, our card number was most likely lifted from a gas pump. Helpful tip: learn how to recognize credit card skimmers, or just pay the clerk inside.

The T-Mobile text, unfortunately, was not so easy to resolve. I wasn’t aware that there was even such a thing as data roaming, and I sure wouldn’t have assumed it would only be 50MB. How was I going to make it through the next week with no data? No Twitter or Facebook? No Hangouts or E-mail? No GeekDad?!

There has been plenty written about “cord cutting” and “disconnecting”: how it teaches patience and focus, how it’s good for your social life, etc. The difference, though, is that unless it’s Mom and Dad taking away your iPhone for spending $5,000 on in-app purchases, those are voluntary actions. At the very least you know it’s coming and can prepare for it. Having someone pull the plug out from under you is an entirely different experience. Still, we’re an adventurous family. How bad could it really be?

Lego panic

Ok, maybe I underestimated exactly how reliant on the internet we truly are. It’s one thing to wake up and not be able to check Facebook, Twitter, Slack, and Feedly. It’s quite another to not be able to check the weather forecast, look up phone numbers and addresses for your destinations, check your itinerary on Google Calendar, get directions via Google Maps, or know if something has blown up at work. Thankfully, the hotel and cabin we stayed at had wi-fi, and most of the sites I needed used SSl. I was still worried about hitting the road internet-less, but I figured if the Griswolds could do it, so could we.

As it turns out, it was great. My youngest had a Cracker Barrel atlas he received as a gift one year, and between that and the local map from the hotel front desk, we all managed to work together to figure out the best route. It’s easy to forget that there are more ways to get to a destination than just the fastest one. Without GPS, we had to map out our path on paper, and since we were going to be traveling between the same cities all week, we managed to cover the entire area, seeing sights we would have undoubtedly missed following Google Maps.

Huh. Maybe that Robert Frost guy was onto something.
Huh. Maybe that Robert Frost guy was onto something.

Sometimes, though, a map just isn’t enough. What do you do when it’s 6 AM, Mom has an urgent medical need for a caffeinated beverage, and you can’t find a coffee shop anywhere? It turns out there are these biological resources called “natives” that, via a simple voice interface, can provide a multitude of information, from where the best place is to get a steak, to the location of the nearest Starbucks Urgent Care facility, to which roads to avoid due to the local flooding. And once in a while, if you’re lucky, they’ll also share much more.

At the National Museum of Woodcarving, I was pleased to see my 15-year-old strike up a conversation with the old resident artist. The rest of us were ready to go, but we were reluctant to interrupt. Finally, after probably a half hour of imparting some of his decades of woodcarving wisdom, the old man handed over his carving knife to my son. It was a generous gesture from someone who was obviously touched by a young man’s interest in his craft. I’d like to think all of that would have happened even if our phones were working, but I have to admit, since the workshop was at the end of the museum tour, my son would probably have pulled out his phone and wandered outside, texting his girlfriend or checking Instagram, and missed out on this amazing experience.

And as the week continued, we grew to be less dependent upon the constant stream of information. On day one, when we did somehow manage to wander into a coverage area and the phones started vibrating, everyone jumped at the chance to see what they’d missed. This became less and less frequent until finally, we just turned our phones on airplane mode and used them solely as cameras. Through it all, as we drove from one monument, museum, or park to another, we laughed and joked, played games, solved Mind Trap and Crack the Case puzzles, and had real conversations. It was one of the best family vacations ever.

Next time you hit the road, stow the smartphones, toss the tablet, and see what’s been hiding on the other side of that screen – both outside and inside the car.

All images by: Randy Slavey

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