How to Trade Your Roaming Fees for the Freedom to Roam

No WiFi or cell service? No problem—with a little planning, you might even fall in love with offline travel.

Paper maps—remember those? We seldom get anywhere these days without the dotted routes generated by Google Maps. The idea of traveling without an internet connection might seem daunting, especially when it comes to international excursions and road trips. But if humankind found a way to get around before, we can certainly find our way back there again.

So what happens if you pull the plug? Not only will disconnecting save you the added cost of an international phone plan, SIM card, or data package, but it’ll also encourage you to savor the moment. Before you know it, you’ll be snapping photos without checking how many likes they’ve received, enjoying a coffee break without treating it like social media scroll time, and, above all, rejecting the mindlessness that comes from relying so heavily on a device. Instead, consider allowing yourself the freedom to roam.

But traveling without connection does require some planning—and that’s something the American Association of Automobiles (AAA) knows a thing or two about. In 1937, long before the birth of the world wide web, the organization unveiled the TripTik, a spiral bound notebook filled with maps that helped drivers navigate their way around America’s growing network of highways, byways, and backroads.

Flash forward to the 1990s and early 2000s, and TripTiks were very much in their element. Customers would work with AAA agents to plot their personalized road trips out on a series of physical maps. As Stacey Barber, executive director of travel at AAA says, “I could not tell you the amount of people who, as soon as I tell them I work with AAA, immediately say, ‘Oh, I remember going into a branch, getting my sheet maps, planning my trips, getting in the car, and having AAA alongside us all the way.’"

Today, of course, TripTiks have been digitized, and you can request one through AAA’s website or mobile map. You can also still get your hands on a paper copy if you prefer, via mail order or in person at your local branch. Barber says the organization has produced about 6 million TripTiks to date this year, and about a million were printed and bound by agents on behalf of members.

“Members can filter on points of interest, highlighting specific hotels as well as restaurants, fuel locations, and camping grounds,” she says. Digital TripTiks can also sync with local discounts while you’re on the road as well as easily direct you toward the nearest AAA location or auto shop if anything goes awry. For offline use, you can download both your route itineraries and saved places.

person reading aaa digital tour book on ipad
AAA

If you’re embarking on a network-free road trip, Barber suggests stocking your car with “an emergency kit, spare tire, and food and water in case you have car issues while without cell service.” But TripTiks can also be used while traveling on foot. Simply identify your points of interest in a designated city and organize your route based on the order in which you’d like to hit those spots. “You can put in where you're staying, where you'd like to eat, and then it will map it all out for you,” Barber says. “Save it to your device so it's accessible offline, or save it as a PDF—you can print it and take it with you as you're walking through the city.”

When it comes to international trips, it’s especially important to familiarize yourself with the area and review stops ahead of time. “Download some metro and subway information as well,” Barber says. “It's really about doing your research and making sure you have the materials available for you, printed or saved to your digital device.”

Other helpful apps include Maps.me, a great tool for tapping into offline maps anywhere around the world. Before you disconnect, simply download a map, bookmark your stops, then enjoy turn-by-turn navigation while you’re out and about. For those who enjoy the great outdoors, AllTrails is a solid hiking-focused equivalent. And don’t sleep on travel writers and podcasters—in his Audio Europe Travel App, the great Rick Steves offers audio walking tours that allow users to get to know cities like Paris and Berlin with detailed maps and historical commentary, all seamlessly downloaded to their phones or tablets.

rick steves walking through a european city with a guidebook
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe

If you’re in a pinch and need to ask for directions on the spot, but don’t speak the local language, a translation app could be your savior. Google Translate works offline, though keep in mind offline translations are limited to only 59 of the 100 languages regularly available. The instant camera translation feature is also clutch, allowing you to point your phone at any signage that needs translating (majorly important for those foreign convenience store runs). And for exchange rate information, the XE Currency app has your back.

Beyond the apps, it’s always good practice to store screenshots of reservations, tickets, and addresses. Written guidebooks will never go out of style, and it’s always fun to scour the travel section at the bookstore in anticipation of a big trip. And don’t forget about your phone’s compass feature, which is an excellent way to quickly get your bearings if you’ve gone off course.

Then there’s the good old fashioned paper map, which AAA happily provides for destinations across the US, Mexico, and Canada. “They have the highways, exit numbers, airports, colleges, attractions, toll roads, and the AAA branches,” Barber says. Plus, they’re a lot more romantic. “They really allow you to enjoy the journey without having that unexpected phone call or email from the office.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram