When you really think about it, the idea of taking a road trip for a weekend without direction guidance from a GPS system isn't that radical. After all, it was the norm just 15 years ago, before GPS systems were built into every single smartphone and most newer vehicles on the market. In 2019, though, traveling without Siri directing you to your destination is pretty much unheard of. But, after taking a weekend road trip with two friends during which I decided to go without the help of any apps, I can confidently say that taking a road trip without the help of a GPS system taught me how to enjoy traveling even more than I already do — even if I did get lost a few times.
During my prior vacations to new cities and countries, my eyes have often been glued to my iPhone’s Google Maps app as I walk to whatever direction I need to go. Not only is this a total battery suck for my phone, but I’m also aware that it prevents me from really getting to know a city. When you have a phone telling you exactly where to go, why would you actually pay attention to anything other than turning right and left when Siri says to?
So, during a recent road trip I had planned with two of my good friends, I decided to change things up. I would try not to use my GPS system on my iPhone X at all, and rely solely on paper maps and directions I printed out prior to departure. (For the record, the response I received from my friends upon telling them my plan was one of pure horror: One of them simply Gchatted me "oh no." As a result, I begrudgingly agreed to let one of my friends use their phones' GPS to guide us during the trip should I get seriously lost while driving. But only as a last resort.) It was fitting of the trip we had planned, anyway: The road trip my friends and I had decided to take was through Pack Up + Go, a travel company that plans vacations for people based off a questionnaire they fill out. Questions covering everything from like what sort of vibes you like at restaurants to what sort of places you've already visited are included, and collectively are meant to help the Pack Up + Go team create the perfect getaway for you.
The hook, though, is that the company keeps the destination a surprise for participants until the day of departure — the destination reveal, along with a description of planned activities, restaurant reservations, and hotel details, is all hidden in an envelope that you're meant to open just before leaving on your trip. In other words, if you're someone who likes spoilers (hello, it me, the girl who reads the last page of books before the first), you're going to get a little impatient in the weeks leading up to the trip. I had to stop myself from peeking more than a few times.
We discovered upon opening our Pack Up + Go envelope on the morning of our trip that we were headed to Newport, Rhode Island for the weekend. The small, beachside town is just three hours northeast of New York City, but it's still an entirely different world to the one my friends and I are used to, and one I was psyched to explore.
As the envelope detailed, we were to make the three-hour drive from NYC to Newport, Rhode Island in a 2018 Ford EcoSport that Ford Motor Company graciously lended us for the weekend — one that was such an intense color of bright blue, I was certain we'd be spotted from literal miles away should we get seriously lost. (Though transportation like plane tickets and train tickets are always included in Pack Up + Go's itineraries, car rentals aren't included — so, if you want your surprise trip to be on the road, make sure you have a car or make other arrangements for a rental). The contents of the envelope also detailed that we were set to stay in a bed and breakfast-type hotel in Newport called the Hotel Viking.
And so, plans in hand, we set off on our trip — and as I came to find out during my three days of GPS-less navigating, relying on an actual map is more difficult, but totally worth it. Here's what I learned:
1. Going On A Road Trip Without A GPS System Doesn't Mean Less Planning — It's The Opposite
My first lesson hit me like a ton of bricks pretty quickly into the trip. Like, within the first five minutes. Departing from the Bustle offices in downtown New York City, my friends and I had planned a few stops during the weekend that were both on the way to and on the way back from Newport. For the Friday evening we were leaving, we decided to take a detour to get dinner, and settled on a restaurant called Washington Prime in a small Connecticut town called South Norwalk — the restaurant was about 50 miles into the 180 mile drive between NYC and Newport, so it sounded like an ideal time to stop for some good and exploration. Then, on Sunday night when we were driving back to NYC from Newport, we planned to visit Providence, RI (somewhere I was super excited to check out after finding out that it's the hometown of Jersey Shore's Pauly D, and that he once called it "the Jersey Shore of Rhode Island.") and Mystic, CT (somewhere I was also super excited to check out, because of that Julia Roberts movie called Mystic Pizza).
Now, this would have been all well and good — if I didn't realize moments after we piled into our EcoSport that I'd made a huge error when printing out the directions from Bustle's NYC office to Newport, and managed to completely omit our planned stop in South Norwalk, CT. Even if I did get us on the freeway out of New York City with the directions I had printed, I had no idea how I'd get us to the restaurant we'd chosen for the night, only the Hotel Viking. Great start.
Unfortunately, we had to use our failsafe — my friend's GPS on her iPhone — before we'd even begun the road trip. "So, how are you going to write this in your article?" my friend asked me sarcastically, while pulling out her phone to begin directing me to the correct freeway.
Though I wanted to try this experiment out to be more present when I travel and let the trip play out the way it wanted to, it turns out that not using a GPS system actually means your plans need to be more rigid unless you have access to an accurate paper road map. Best laid plans, indeed.
2. I Had To Memorize The Directions Before Driving, Because Looking At A Sheet Of Paper While Trying To Operate A Moving Vehicle Is Really Hard
This is something else I didn’t really expect before we left, but looking back, it probably should have been obvious. We don’t text and drive because it’s a danger to ourselves and others on the road — trying to read a paper map is the exact same thing. Anything that takes your eyes away from the road is not safe, so if you’re taking a solo trip without a GPS, you do need to make sure that you have a vague idea of where you’re going before you actually begin driving. I never realized how much of a co-pilot Siri was until this experiment, and honestly, I want to apologize to her for taking her role in my road trips for granted.
Sorry, Siri. You can pick the playlist next time we road trip.
3. Not Using A GPS Is The Best Way To Really Learn The Layout Of A Town
Despite my initial snafu, we did eventually make it to Newport — and it was every bit as beautiful as the photos on Google Images promised. As a Californian, I've always been captivated by New England beach towns; the foggy, cold climate juxtaposed beside the subtly vicious waves of the Atlantic Ocean hitting the shore can only be described as goddamn poetic. But, just like any new town, it takes time to learn your way around — and when you're only there for a day, there's even more pressure to familiarize yourself so you don't waste time getting lost.
On the Friday night we arrived in Newport, it was rather late and the town was just dimly lit by slivers of moonlight, making it impossible to really commit any of our surroundings to memory. Newport, in addition to being a beach town, is also a mansion town: One of the biggest draws of tourism to this seaside New England paradise is touring the famous, lavish mansions that line the suburban streets. While I was looking forward to checking out the mansions — particularly The Breakers, the mansion that belonged to the Vanderbilt family in the 1800s — they managed to all look the same with silvery moonlight bounding off them.
In the bright light of day, however, any intricacies of buildings that I missed in the evening were crystal clear. Architecturally speaking, the town is an absolute masterpiece — and realizing that suddenly became my sole focus (apart from not crashing) as we drove away from the hotel the next morning to begin exploring. Focusing on the details of each and every notable building I drove past helped me a lot to actually remember where we had been, and thus get some semblance of the town’s layout without an actual map in front of me.
4. I Suddenly Became Very Aware Of How Many Starbucks Locations I Drove Past
OK, OK. Yes, I focused on the details of the buildings around me… but I also found that I was unconsciously noting when we passed a Starbucks location as well. You can’t blame me: There are tons of Starbucks locations all over the country, and the towns of Newport, Providence, and Mystic are no different. As someone who needs a very large iced coffee every morning to survive, the green Starbucks logo catches my eye rather easily — so each Starbucks location became something I could easily remember while we were driving around and exploring each town. It also helped that Newport is a quintessential New England beach town, lighthouse and all: Even the Starbucks locations were in gorgeous beachside buildings, making them impossible to miss.
I’m not saying this will work for everyone — maybe you’re less of a Starbucks person and more of a McDonald’s person — but finding something memorable to you that you can focus on remembering while you explore any new city, with or without a GPS, will definitely help. Think of it as a modern version of constellations: no matter where you are, if you recognize a Starbucks, you have more chance of figuring out your location.
5. Wrong Turns Happen, And That’s OK
OK, I’ll admit it: By the end of day two in Newport, I was getting pretty cocky. My Starbucks method was working like a charm, and I’d managed to drive us back and forth from the hotel to everywhere from Newport’s Cliff Walk to the city to the harbor without looking at even my paper directions once. Clearly, I knew the city — right?
So, following our last dinner in Newport, we piled into our car and I proposed a challenge to my travel companions: I was going to get us back to the hotel without looking at a map. My friends were allowed to check their phones and tell me if I was going too off course, but other than that, there were to be no hints. And so, I pulled out of our parking spot, and confidently took a right at the first traffic light we saw.
Twenty minutes later, I conceded that I was probably supposed to have taken a left, and I’d somehow driven us a bit outside of city limits. But hey, these things happen — though I didn’t expect it to happen right then, especially when I was kind of trying to show off, it was inevitable that we would get lost at least once during this experiment.
Coincidentally, this snafu actually ended up being a blessing in disguise: The next day when we were driving out of Newport, the direction I needed to go happened to be the one I’d accidentally gone toward the previous night. All’s well that ends well.
6. I Learned To Trust My Instincts More Than Ever Before
While I do think that having built-in GPS systems in our phones and our cars has changed the way people travel for the better, I would recommend that everyone go without using theirs for at least a few hours when they travel. Yes, you might get lost — but getting lost can sometimes teach us more about a city than actually going the right way can. And even more importantly, though you will struggle in the beginning, relying on your memory for directions will help you to trust your gut and your instincts more than ever before.
Case-in-point: During our drive back to New York, as aforementioned, my friends and I took a pit stop on the way home in Providence, Rhode Island. This is a city that I have never been to, and one that I didn’t even spend time studying a map of like I had for Newport before the weekend had begun. After a weekend of directing us all over Newport without a GPS, I was loads more confident in my ability to navigate Newport by trusting my inner compass. And it worked: we didn’t get lost once, and that includes while we aimlessly drove around downtown to take in our surroundings.
The experience was certainly harder than I expected it to be, but it’s definitely one that I would repeat — the mindfulness involved in directing oneself without digital assistance on-hand was refreshing, and it helped me realize that my reliance on my phone doesn't have to be so heavy. You'll get lost, you'll find your way, you'll notice loads of Starbucks locations — it all leads to a more present experience.
Just make sure you don't print the wrong directions. Learn from my mistakes.