Mi Familia: Unplugged

reading liberia airport

Reading in the airport at Liberia after two weeks with no phones or other electronics (except a camera).

brave ski mom logoThe first three hours were the hardest.

When our family left for a two-week holiday in Costa Rica this summer, we also left behind all of our electronics. This meant no phones, no tablets, no laptops, not even a watch. They all stayed home.

When we presented this idea to our teenage sons, we expected resistance.

Yet they thought it was a grand idea. Two days before our departure, our oldest son told me that he was looking forward to being unplugged. Our younger son, too, offered no resistance after we explained that his phone wouldn’t work in a foreign country and that searching for WiFi was not on the agenda.

Forward to the first three hours.

I’m sitting in the back seat of our car as we drive to Denver to catch our flight the next day. Within minutes of pulling onto I-70, I’m bored, totally at loose ends. So was our younger son, with whom I was sharing the backseat (Note to all parents: The backseat is terrible. I have a new appreciation for what kids suffer on road trips).

We wanted our phones. We wanted to listen to music, play games, fact-check and kill time through button pushing. It was withdrawal and we were not happy.

At one point, I developed a strong urge to look at a map of Costa Rica. I had to see that map. I had to see it NOW. Without a phone, I couldn’t.

And so it went, with me thinking of all the things I could have been learning, reading and doing, if only I had that darn phone.

Finding Freedom

Luckily, despite the initial frustration, the adjustment was fast. By the next morning, we weren’t giving the left-behind phones a thought.

Although some of my friends had cautioned us to take at least one phone — “just in case” — our travel went smoothly and we found our way through the airports and into our rental car without a hitch.

On our first morning in Costa Rica, as we drove to Monteverde, an area of Cloud Forest in the high Central American mountains, we were enthralled with the views, with reading signs, with laughing and joking together. And we recognized how much more we were taking in, simply because we were taking it in — fully and without distraction.

guancaste trees costa rica

You can see a lot when you look out the window instead of looking at a phone…

costa rica cattle country

foothills costa rica

And so it went throughout the two weeks.

During downtime, instead of playing games alone on the phone, looking at weather forecasts, Fitbit numbers or reading yet more advertising masked as emails, we read books, played games together and took naps.

reading at sea costa rica

Best of all, we didn’t have to worry about theft, low batteries, dropping the phones in the ocean or responding to any requests from work or friends. It was truly liberating.


On our return trip, we found ourselves stranded in Houston, knowing no one, and obviously without phones. After our flight was cancelled, we rushed to the customer service desk, while connected passengers dialed up the airline or their travel agent for rebooking.

At one point, we tried to borrow a phone to call our hotel in Denver and let them know we wouldn’t be arriving. We asked the couple whom we’d been seated next to flying out of Costa Rica if we could borrow a phone. Ironically, they, too, were traveling sans phones.

We remained phone free and unplugged. And we still made it home.

tiny lizard costa rica

When you’re not distracted, you have time to notice tiny things.

Lessons Learned

Since both my husband and I rely on phones and email to conduct business, we were especially eager to leave them behind and truly relax on this vacation.

Before we went, my husband notified his clients and set up procedures where they could easily reach his assistants. We also changed our voice mail messages and set up auto-responses to email to let people know when we would be available again and we unsubscribed to the majority of our email.

Upon reentry, neither of us had any voice mails or texts. And while we still had a lot of email, at least 80% of it was worthless.

Seeing the relative unimportance of this two-week accumulation convinced me to remove email from my phone.  I still answer email every day that I work, but my non-working time is now more fully my own.

I hope that this will make me a better, more attentive person when I’m around other people, and help me to be more efficient.

As for our teens, when we asked them what they missed while unplugged, their answers surprised us. Our younger son, at 15, missed listening to music. His older brother, who is 17, missed reading about sports and watching ski videos.

posada colonial la fortuna

Neither of them mentioned social media, texting friends or playing games. And, both of them remarked upon how happy they were to have read so many books while we were traveling.

Home Again

Back at home, not much has changed.

The boys are plugged in. Books from the library, which they checked out in a fit of enthusiasm, are sitting mostly unread.

Life resumes and goes on.

But now we know that life goes on whether we’re plugged in or not.

reading at posada colonial la fortuna

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  1. julesolder says

    Most excellent, Kristen. I’ll sure this widely, starting with my family.

    On my most recent screen sabbatical, I felt like I’d lost an appendage. I felt at sea. I felt very much like an addict in search of his cigarettes. I couldn’t figure out to do with my hands.

    My degree of dependence on an object astounded me.

    Thanks for the great report.

    — jules

    • says

      Thanks Effin. I did read Wild….actually I never finished it. I might be the only person in the US who didn’t like it. Funny! Cheers.