By Sammy Amaro |

One week into my study abroad trip in Eastern Europe, my phone broke. It wouldn’t charge or restart on its own whenever I tried to use it.

It was only when I couldn’t use my own device that I realized how much control phones have on our lives, and that small dark screens can become figurative walls we hide behind. I would look around or go to talk to someone, but they’d have their headphones in. Everyone seems to give up on trying to talk to each other as we travel between locations, and we’re missing out on really getting to know one another.

The idea of the picturesque 1950s suburbia where neighbors knew each other’s names has long since faded. Though it seemed the only option 30 years ago, even groups that travel with one another no longer talk among themselves on public transportation. And why would they?

Phones are fantastic. While traveling abroad we can still talk to our parents, friends, and significant others thousands of miles away. Navigating an unfamiliar city is not a problem with digital maps and GPS. We can translate foreign words and calculate how much to tip our server at lunch. Phones can do so many great things, but while they may be used to keep people connected anywhere in the world, they also impede that process with the people next to you.

My study abroad group was on an excursion to the artistic city of Szentendre, just north of Budapest along the Danube River. I didn’t have my phone, so for most of the train ride there, I stood at the front of the train car and watched the towns flash across the windows. Most people in the carriage were looking down at their phones, earbuds plugged in and completely in their own worlds. Everyone from our group was silent, which wasn’t a surprise. It was a hot day and it was difficult to hear each other over the roar of the train running along its track. But this wasn’t the only time I would see a scene like this.

As the bus bumped across the rural roads on our return trip from Romania, the bus was quiet. The only voices I heard from my seat in the back row were those of the driver and the occasional response from our Hungarian guide. All the students were either entertained with their phones or asleep. It’s an unspoken rule not to disturb people with headphones on. Once their attention has been given to their screens, it’s time to give up on trying to interact with them.

I had little to look forward to in the next hour. Dreading the hour and a half I had left until we reached Budapest, I turned to my seatmate and words fell out of my mouth.

“Converse with me. What’s on your mind?” I asked. This inherently made one of the girls nearby laugh, and our conversation started from there. We talked and laughed almost the rest of the way. It may have seemed like a mundane topic, but through this conversation I learned about her favorite movie and how foundational it is for her humor.  Just talking with her gave me a better understanding of how she grew up and her taste in comedy. 

In my mind, traveling should be about getting to know the people you travel with. It wasn’t about getting to the destination but rather the journey there. From stopping at a sketchy gas station, belting out Lady Gaga over the interstate, or the serious conversations whispered in the pitch black with highways lit by headlights, these were events in and of themselves.

Trying to form relationships with people on trips, phones are a huge distraction. They provide an endless supply of music, podcasts, news, books, text messages and apps. Everything is available with a push of a button and swipe of a home screen. There might be a person beside you, but their attention is nowhere near you or the present moment. There’s no need to talk to someone sitting right in front of you, or next to you, if your head is hovering over your device. 

It’s important to live in the moment, to get to know the people you travel with. The minutes you get on a bus can be spent on your phone, but that time you have with others can be wasted very easily.

The solution to this kind of problem is simple. Put down your phone and talk to whoever you sit next to. Catch them before they put their headphones in and ask about their day, or about the last movie they watched. 

There is no reason to waste the journey looking down at your phone. The person next to you might not be in your life for that long, so get to know them while you can. What do you have to lose? That Hannah Montana song will still be there when you get home.