There’s something undeniably alluring about the idea of traveling without an itinerary: showing up at the airport with little more than a ticket in hand and a thirst for adventure, leaving the door open for whatever may come your way. Maybe you’ll have a whirlwind romance! Join a ragtag band of roaming street performers! Become a confident wearer of scarves! The world is your oyster, ready to be sucked from its shell and swallowed whole, probably at that adorable seaside café you just chanced upon while parading around with the street performers.
Or at least it sounds romantic and exciting. But for many of us, moving from idea to reality — that is, actually winging an entire trip — is the stuff that anxiety attacks are made of, particularly if you’re the type of person who usually plans a full schedule for even a casual weekend getaway, down to the route you’ll take to the dinner you reserved months in advance.
“Some people might think, ‘Oh, you’re so crazy. You’re not researching or planning.’ But you are — it’s just doing it on the fly.”
Is it even possible for a Type A traveler to enjoy a vacation when faced with the daunting prospect of a million unknowns? Can anyone who loves planning, logistics, and control really have a good time without a set agenda? The short answer is “yes and no.” The longer answer — based on a few more questions — can be found below.
Shouldn’t I Plan at Least a Little Bit? Please?
Yes. Rest easy, Type A traveler, because at least some planning is essential. First thing’s first: If you’re traveling internationally, you must check the visa and vaccination requirements of the country you’re visiting.
Next up: What’s the weather like? It’s a question that goes beyond packing: If you were hoping for an exotic beach vacation on a little-known Thai island, say, you should check to see if your trip falls within monsoon season. And always look to see whether your destination is having a major holiday or festival. I once visited Bolivia during Carnival and was chagrined to learn that everything was closed. A major holiday can also mean everything is booked solid months in advance.
Sarah Lang, founder and CEO of travel consultancy Foray Travel and Event Design, says it’s important not to confuse a lack of advance planning with a lack of research. “Some people might think, ‘Oh, you’re a spontaneous traveler. You’re so crazy. You’re not researching or planning.’ But you are — it’s just doing it on the fly and kind of incorporating those local tips that you’re getting while you’re there,” she says.
Lang, who recently spent 13 months traveling alone to 21 countries, says that, at minimum, she’ll always book her first night’s hotel and have a plan for how she’ll get there. She’ll also check to see if her destination has been in the news lately and whether there are any safety issues. “There’s never a situation when I would recommend traveling without doing research,” she said.
What Do You Want From Your Trip?
The fewer expectations you have, the more room for spontaneity. Let’s say, for instance, that your only goal is to wander the streets of Berlin for a few days, or drink micheladas on a hidden beach in Mexico. With the exception of the aforementioned necessary preparations, you can pull off a trip like this with only nominal planning.
But if you have a specific itinerary in mind, you’ll have to do some work ahead of time. Lang says that when she works with clients, she always starts by asking about their goals for the trip. “If somebody tells me that it’s their dream to visit Japan and see the cherry blossoms and eat at the top sushi restaurant, then we’re going to need to make reservations, like, a year in advance for them to have the best possible experience and achieve their goals,” she says. “There’s not much wiggle room in certain situations like that, where people have a specific dream or experience that a lot of other people around the world also happen to have.”
For someone who’s not used to spontaneity, balance is key. If you’ve picked a destination with the express goal of doing a certain activity or seeing a certain sight — say, heading to Peru to visit Machu Picchu or Cambodia to see Angkor Wat — it’s well worth your time to sort out your plan of attack. Funnel those planning tendencies toward the part of your trip where planning really matters, and allow yourself the freedom to let the other days fall into place.
Have You Considered the Local Culture?
Some places are just more difficult to crack than others. I recently took a somewhat unplanned trip to Glasgow after several months of living and working in Medellín, Colombia, and was shocked at how different the process of meeting people was. In Colombia, you couldn’t take a sip of tinto without a friendly local or expat striking up a conversation and inviting you to dinner later. In Glasgow, I found it much more difficult to make friends. In that case, my spontaneous trip would have been more enjoyable had I brought a friend or at least mentally prepared myself for the many nights I ended up spending at the pub alone with my book.
Obviously, it is possible to have a great trip if nothing unexpected happens — no flings, no roving street performers, no newfound penchant for scarves. You just need to remember that spontaneity doesn’t necessarily equate to exciting.
What’s Your Budget?
Like most travel, a spontaneous trip has the potential to cost either quite a lot or very little, depending on your particular travel style.
On the one hand, lack of planning means you may end up spending more on last-minute fares or ponying up for pricier accommodations because the more budget-friendly options are booked. Additionally, having extra cash gives you the freedom to change plans more nimbly than you would if you’re strapped. Only you can decide whether the spontaneous option is worth the financial hit.
That said, things can also go the other way. Lang points out that in regions where bargaining is the norm, you can often score a far better deal in person than if you booked ahead. In many places, she says, “It’s perfectly acceptable to bargain for everything from your rafting tour to even your hotel room.” (But, she adds, this means having to weigh whether it’s a good use of your time: “Most people don’t want to spend their vacation going from hotel to hotel bargaining.”)
When’s the Last Time Everything Went According to Plan, Anyway?
One of the simultaneously beautiful and terrible things about travel is that no matter how carefully you’ve planned, things rarely work out how they’re supposed to. Last month, I was all set to embark on a three-day trek through Myanmar’s Shan State, with the goal of arriving at a lovely, placid lake on my birthday. I’d researched online and found a reputable trekking company; I emailed to confirm that the trek was possible despite it being a major holiday in the country. Imagine my surprise when I crawled off my overnight bus and the company’s owner informed me that they would not be offering the three-day trek after all, only the two-day version. On top of that, every hotel in town was already booked because of the aforementioned holiday. I was forced to improvise, hastily booking one of the last remaining rooms in town from an app on my phone and arranging to leave for a shorter hike the next day instead.
Traveling, even with the most meticulously laid plans, often forces us to let go and accept that things will not always work out the way we expected them to. But really, isn’t that part of the adventure?