When I was little, I used to go on vacations with my Father. He is an interesting man, and always planned our trips extensively – we would walk for hours, trying to keep up with his rigorously planned schedule. It was a wonderful experience for which I’m very grateful, but I did often find myself growing wistful. I would imagine wandering down mysterious pathways, meeting strangers who would whisk me away to romantic… well. I was young.
Romanticism aside, the desire to be in the moment carried on into adulthood, and in recent years I’ve gone out of my way to defy my own traditions as much as possible in my little adventures; I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned.
A Little Planning
Firstly, spontaneity needs the right foundations. If you don’t plan extensively – if you don’t have a hundred options for yourself – then you will end up being a slave to circumstance, instead of letting it work for you.
I know this sounds completely contradictary to what I wrote in the preceding paragraphs, but let me explain. Spontaneity happens when you have created a lot of choices. It happens when you have set aside time for it, and when you have assigned room for any sudden changes in plans. If you plan to be spontaneous; if you want to go “wherever the wind may take you”, then you need to make some decisions beforehand. You need to be ready.
The most important decision you make will be your choice of travel buddy.
Long-time travellers will know what I’m talking about when I say that your best friend may not make the best travel buddy. You need to choose a person who not only knows exactly what they’re in for, but is totally on board with it. Spontaneity does not happen when you’re travelling with a person who wants the comfort and control of an itinerary. You are not going to change their mind, and you will end up with a vacation that neither of you want.
I advise you to look outside of your normal sphere of friends. There are sites online (Caution Advised), as well as casual acquaintances, relatives… You could even (and this is my favourite option) go alone.
People, and especially women, are often afraid to travel alone – but this option is the only one that will give you complete control and freedom in your travels. Your schedule, your rules… and your choice to change both of those things at any moment.
Of course, the biggest downside to travelling alone is cost, particularly when it comes to accommodation. Solo travel may give you freedom, but that freedom comes at a price. The world of travel accommodation is not kind to solo travellers – there are always reduced prices for pairs and groups, but brave independents may have to share dormitories and apartments if they want to reduce their costs.
However, on closer inspection, this may not be such a bad thing – especially if you’re interested in being spontaneous. Shared accommodation gives you ample opportunity to make new friends. You are in many cases almost forced to connect with people you may otherwise never have come into contact with, and these people can lead to wonderful spontaneous experiences.
Good examples of this can be found in the many stories that you hear from backpackers all over the globe. Times when travel plans changed entirely because of the people you met at the bar or the hostel lounge – ending in 3-month trips to Japan instead of work experience in Canada, or spending a week in a campsite instead of the intended 3 days – these times seem to be the regular fare of experienced solo travelers.
AirBnb and cottage holidays could also lead to spontaneous itineraries. If you book an entire place, whether by yourself or as a group, I encourage you to get to know your landlord – they will know all the places the internet can’t tell you about, as will the local people – get out there and visit that local pub!
Transport can be harder to play around with. Generally you’ll need to pre-book, especially for longer trips, and certainly especially when it comes to flights. Unless you have a very flexible flight schedule (unlikely), you’re pretty set in the dates you choose.
Trains are a lot more flexible, and buses even more so (they are frequent, cheap, and it is not as important to book yourself a seat in advance). Of course, if you are forced to book an advanced ticket and you still want to leave your schedule open, it’s a good idea to really examine the conditions of refunds and insurance. Purchasing insurance will not always guarantee your money back.
If you don’t have a credit card, you may find yourself “flying by the seat of your pants” anyway – I remember one trip I took around Europe where I had to cut my journeys into many sections, and get the tickets for each part as I arrived at each destination. It took a lot of pre-planning – knowing alternative routes (in case we didn’t get seats), alternative schedules, and knowing the layouts of the train stations themselves (in case we had to run to catch the next train). I’ve rarely had so much fun. But next time I will definitely take a car.
Cars definitely give you the most freedom. They often result in the most scenic journeys, and can be great fun when you’re travelling in a group. If you’re travelling alone it can also be fun of course (particularly as you can stop wherever you like and play whatever music you choose). The problem with travelling alone by car, again, is the cost. Rental cars can be pricey, espcially if you choose (as I highly recommend you do) to buy full insurance. It can also be tiring to drive alone. If you do intend to drive alone for long distances, I recommend planning stops and buying many snacks. Sugary ones. You could make yourself a list of possible places to get out and explore a bit, and then just see how you feel; and if what you feel is to drive down an entirely unplanned road, then go for it!
Finally we come to the planning of spontaneous activities. I highly recommend low-budget or even free tours. You will meet interesting people you should definitely get a drink with, see unusual places you can revisit, and hear about things you wouldn’t hear about on regular tours.
Find out what concerts and shows are on. Read blogs of people who have spent a lot of time in your location of choice. Visit the local watering hole and find out where people like to go. My personal favourite: Start walking and just explore at random. For this option, I suggest strongly that you take both a mobile phone and map with you – as well as the name of your accommodation in whatever language the locals will understand.
Obviously if you want to be spontaneous, don’t overplan your activities. But you have to know what’s available to you, or you’ll just find yourself going round and round, not have any direction to take. Asking the locals will truly guarantee you the best and most fulfilling time.
So good luck on your spontaneous trip! Take a deep breath, and remember that bravery can only happen when you’re afraid of something. Shake off your fear and just start walking.