This is the fifth in a series of posts about how travel, reading, writing and communicating intersected during my five month European backpacking trip.


I had just said goodbye to my parents at Newark Airport and was standing in the security line when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Dad holding out a shiny new pen, a final parting gift that served me well throughout my trip. I kept it long after the ink dried up, and whenever I had to buy a new pen and didn’t know the correct Croatian, Italian or German word, I’d show Dad’s gift to the store clerk as an example and soon be on my way to selecting a new one. I’m partial to blue ink but was often forced to choose black or even (ugh!) green because it was all they had in stock. But even colored ink was better than those few instances when I lost all my pens and found myself inkless for the day.

Despite these annoyances, I much preferred the quest for an endless ink supply than having to manage technical needs of a laptop or PDA while traveling. My gadgets were simple — pen, paper and an ordinary 35mm camera. Writers and travelers have different needs when it comes to gadgets for a particular trip, and this time my personal preference was low-tech all the way. I knew I was responsible for blogging some of my experiences, but I also knew that for the first time in ten years I would have the freedom to wake up and remain offline for the entire day if I wanted to…and that’s what really drove my decision to “go wireless” and leave my dearly loved iBook behind.

Internet cafes and libraries became routine stops along the way — some bright and cheery, others dingy and a bit sketchy, but the majority offered relatively cheap internet connections in comfortable locations. (And sometimes I’d even score a free pen left behind by a previous computer user!) The best terminals were the free ones, but waiting to use an ancient PC in a crowded hostel lobby was not always worth the wait. Instead, I enjoyed exploring cities while seeking out internet spots that were not as popular with the backpacking bunch, like the Amsterdam library, where users are allowed 30 minutes free each day. This time limit was usually fine with me, since it killed the temptation to stay online longer. The confusing foreign language keyboards encountered at some cafes were another blessing in disguise — frustration came fast and I figured it was time to stop writing and get back outside!


If I had been traveling with a digital camera, I would have probably uploaded more photos to the Eurail Blog or my personal blog, instead of trying to write a rushed summary of recent events. Lots of other travelers do this with ease on their own blogs, posting great photos and videos too, but I chose instead to travel as not-so-snappy-happy Kel. I took a bunch of photos with my regular camera (until it broke), so fortunately, I do have some good shots, and while traveling with my friend she took a slew of digital photos that we both have copies of now. But I still feel like I missed the boat a bit on the photo opportunities that my trip offered.

As I now craft articles and essays about my travels, I’ve got plenty of rich details to work with from my journals, but I’m often missing that one great shot to accompany the story, which would be excellent to have when submitting to an editor. While reading Don George’s Travel Writing after my trip, I was reminded just how important the “tools of the trade” can be to getting a story published. His tips about “vox pops” and “memory snaps” got me thinking about how I want to approach future travels as I develop my freelance writing career.

I may not have a deep enough collection of photos from this journey, but besides that, I don’t really regret my decision to travel as a low-gadget writer. I’ll definitely carry along a digital camera on future trips, and might consider an audio recorder on certain occasions, but a pen and notebook will still serve as my primary tools. I’ve seen writers and travel bloggers at both ends of the gadget spectrum succeed in sharing incredible stories from the road — what works best for you?


  1. I’m with you all the way. I look at a laptop as a necessary evil when I’m on assignment and have to post lots of stories (or hotel reviews) from the road. I’ll leave it behind in a heartbeat whenever possible. You see a lot more, meet more people, and have less weight on your shoulders (figuratively and physically) when you’re not loaded down with gadgets. I would imagine that if you polled a large group of successful travel writers, the majority would prefer pen and paper while on the road. No recharging, no looking for a hotspot, no worries about something expensive getting stolen. Carry important docs on a thumb drive and you’re set.

    I love carrying a digital camera with a 1GB memory card though (and a spare). That actually allows more freedom than the old days of carrying around film. Plus you can ditch the lousy shots right away.

  2. I never travel with anything besides a camera. The fact US cell phones don’t work in Europe makes it easy to leave the phone behind.

  3. Tim: Yup, no use lugging a heavy laptop…OR film loaded with lousy shots — I’m guilty of the latter this time, but never again!

    Hunter: I forgot to mention cell phones, probably because I haven’t had one in almost a year. There are cell phones that work worldwide, but it was more fun to play the payphone hunt.

  4. On a recent trip to Norway, my thumb drive was DENIED. Freak security systems wouldn’t allow me to upload documents – and no one would cut a journalist any slack either. I lost close to a grand’s worth of work. Very aggravating.

  5. I’m a total gadget-head but I went ’round the whole world for a year with pens and notebooks, and didn’t regret it once. Less weight, less security worries, no fear of getting sand in your laptop, and no adapters to carry.

    That said, I am a sucker for carrying my laptop, Euro cell, and digital camera when the situation allows. But pen and paper worked like a charm for me, and I never went without an internet cafe for too long. They really are just about everywhere now.

  6. Sounds like the more lightweight laptops become, some of us might be inclined to carry one along more often. Although the lighter they become, the more expensive as well…so I probably won’t buy one anyway 🙂 It will be interesting to see how things change (or remain the same) 10-20 years from now.

  7. The day that it’s all so light and convenient that I opt to carry it for months on my back will be wonderful, but something will be lost as well. Part of the fun was maintaining a site for a year with no tech.

  8. I want to second, what the previous posters said.

    The more you travel, the smaller your bags become.
    One day you don’t miss all that gadgets at all anymore.

    Anyway – who want to me dependent on some electronics.

    After I got robbed in Vietnam of most of my gadgetry I finally saw the point.

    You can travel much more careless and free without it.


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