After reading a title like that, you’re probably wondering how such an oxymoron could be possible. If you’ve never traveled without a plan before, it is one of the greatest ways to take a vacation; however, even when going on a trip without an itinerary, there is still a bit of pre-departure research that is involved. Use this guide to help you successfully plan a trip without making plans.
Why You Should Travel Without A Plan
The thought of traveling without a well-structured plan can sound extremely scary to those who have never done it.
“But, where will I sleep? How will I know where to go and what to do? What if I run into trouble?”
Don’t fret, as these questions all get answered along the way. You’ll realize it’s easy to find hostels, get recommendations and use common sense to keep yourself safe. The beauty of traveling without an itinerary is you can live in the moment and change your plans as you go. Before departure, you’ll have no idea what you’ll encounter. Maybe you’ll get an opportunity to volunteer with an interesting organization or do a homestay and live with locals. Or, maybe a music group you like will be coming to town or a unique festival. You may even find a new friend you would like to travel with, or possibly even your future husband or wife (you’d be surprised).One of my first solo backpacking trips was a summer in Europe. Before going, I planned out every single detail, down to what trains I would take each day. I booked 90 nights of accommodation in advance, signed up for tours and wrote down restaurants and bars I wanted to check out. After about a week of this tightly scheduled trip, I realized I hated the commitment. In Amsterdam, I met a guy I really liked, and would have stayed longer with him if I hadn’t pre-booked my train and hostel in Bacharach. In Paris, I missed out on a huge summer music festival that was happening the day after I was leaving. And in Rome, I met some of the greatest people I’d ever met in my life, but only got to spend three days with them due to my rigid schedule. Moreover, I missed out on free and discounted tours through my accommodation that offered the same itinerary as the ones I had pre-booked.
I had quite the opposite experience when backpacking South America, where I planned virtually nothing. First of all, by not booking accommodation and tours way in advance, I had the ability to show up to a place and ask other travelers, locals and hostel owners what was worthwhile to do in the area. Using this tactic not only forced me to interact with locals, it allowed me to discover some lesser known hikes and sites. For example, when in Ushuaia in Patagonia I knew I had to visit Tierra del Fuego; however, I discovered two hikes I enjoyed even more but had never heard of, Martial Glacier and Valle de Lobos.
Along with discovering new sites, I was also able to visit lesser-known cities I hadn’t expected to end up in. For instance, when I arrived in Lima, Peru, I figured I would head straight to the lazy beach town of Mancora afterwards. That is, until someone in my hostel showed me their photos from a hike in Huaraz. I left Lima early, a city I expected to love but wasn’t that crazy about, and spent almost a week in Huaraz trekking and taking in the unique natural scenery.
Lastly, too much planning can actually cause stress. When you’re locked into certain dates and itineraries, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you hear about something more interesting or a better deal along the way, you’re stuck with your plans unless you don’t mind forfeiting money and going through the hassle of rescheduling bookings. Arriving somewhere without a plan will allow you the freedom to enjoy as many activities as you want. And when you’re done, you can hop on a bus and move on to the next city.
What You SHOULD Plan Ahead Of Time
Now, when I say you shouldn’t plan ahead of time, this refers to you itinerary. You should allow yourself freedom and openness to unexpected adventures by not locking yourself into a day-to-day plan. However, there are a few things you should always plan before embarking on a trip.
The most important thing to research before a trip is what steps you’ll need to take to be able to exit your home country and enter the one you’re visiting. Make sure your passport isn’t expired and research what visas and/or documentation you’ll need. Moreover, call a travel doctor and find out what vaccinations are necessary. Keep in mind these doctors can be pricey, as they’re often not covered by insurance. If you’re only going to need something small like malaria pills, see if you’re regular doctor can write you a prescription instead.
Moreover, you’re not going to be able to go anywhere unless you book the first leg of your flight. Know at least when you want to travel outbound and where you want to go. Personally, I like booking my round-trip ticket in advance, simply to save money. This doesn’t mean I plan an itinerary, just a starting and ending point. It can also be wise to book your first night’s accommodation, simply to ease your initial culture shock.
In terms of safety, I like to enroll in the U.S. government’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. If there is ever an emergency where you needed U.S. assistance, this makes the process easier. Moreover, I do some research on the first city I will be visiting to get an idea of what areas are known to be safe and unsafe. Of course, always ask your hotel this same question, and have them provide a map to show you exactly where you can and can’t go. Because the staff lives there, they will know the best answer to this.
Finally, decide who you will be traveling with. Personally, I usually skip this step because I enjoy traveling solo; however, there are many people who would rather travel with a companion. Choosing the right travel partner is important, unless you want to end up with the travel partner from hell. Make sure you’re on the same page about budget, the types of activities you enjoy, preferred accommodation styles and how often you’re okay with doing things separate from each other to help ease conflict on the road.
There are two ways you can go about becoming a non-planning travel planner. The first – and scarier – option is to just do it. Literally, book a plane ticket to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, get your visas and vaccinations and just show up. You’ll be forced to be spontaneous, and to see just what you’re capable of. And truth is, if you really hate the unplanned aspect of the trip, you can always spend a day in an Internet cafe booking hotels and tours for the remainder of the vacation.
The second option is to ease your way into it. Maybe on your next trip you pre-book your hotels but not your tours. Then, on the following vacation you can forgo both with only an itinerary of city names. After that, you probably won’t ever need it again. Another way to do this is to do an unplanned trip close to home. Go somewhere domestic or get on a train and go to a nearby city you’ve always been curious about, not making any plans but just letting yourself discover the area organically. Most likely, you’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy yourself.