Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Unplanned Vacation

One of my most memorable experiences took place with almost no plan in place
Over the next few weeks, I have a few coworkers who will be taking holidays from work. I've just started with the company, so I'm not allowed to plan any vacation days yet ... but I can still think about them, right?

That let me to think about my past travels, and how I'll plan future vacations. The most memorable of those have one thing in common. They were all unplanned vacations.

By "unplanned vacation," I mean the type where you purchase a plane ticket to an exotic locale, and just go. This is without mapping out your activities for each day or tightly scheduling your sightseeing. You just go and do whatever comes to you at the time.

This isn't for everyone. I know many people who would be frightened at the very suggestion of forgoing planning. But the truth is, my experiences have showed me that things are just more fun that way.

What are the advantages?

Well, the best advantage is the ability to just relax and go with the flow. I mean, you're on vacation, right? That's what it's all about.

I have been on a couple of trips that have included tight schedules. I've been rushed from one place to another and I've seen travelers get angry when something on their itinerary goes wrong. In one instance, I arrived at a site with one woman just a few minutes after sunset -- it sounds small, but she became really stressed out about it and wouldn't let it go. I don't think that's the way to have a good vacation. Needless to say, I didn't have the best experience traveling with her.
Eating with a Bolivian family

After relaxing and doing things in the moment, small interactions become more significant in my mind. Everything is more pleasurable since I am essentially doing what I want. I'm not judging myself by my ability to follow a schedule.

One of the best vacations I've had was to Bolivia back in 2008. I had saved some money and had two weeks free before heading back to the states. I spontaneously purchased a round-trip bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I also booked one night at a hostel in that city. That was it -- I knew almost nothing about the country and did no other planning.

My trip to Chile was also unplanned
I had a fantastic time. I met another traveler on that 42-hour bus ride. I met some of his friends. I learned about what I could do by talking to locals and other travelers. I hit five different cities traveling by bus. In each place, I just figured out what to do next. I found lovely people to hang out with. I always had something to do. Other than a short problem with high altitude sickness -- cured with coca leaves -- everything went well. I was back on the bus to Buenos Aires with some of my best memories.

Are there any disadvantages?

If you're pressed for time, or better stated, if you're covering a large area in a short amount of time, then you'd most likely benefit from a stricter schedule. 
In Thailand, my first days were spent alone

For example, I knew a couple of guys who did something drastic. They spontaneously made the same 42-hour bus trip, one way, to Bolivia before I did. The trouble was that they only had a few days off! They arrived to the border, convinced the guards to let them in without visas, and were on their way back to Buenos Aires the following day.
This was fun, but I was with unfriendly people

I've had my own regrets too. In 2011, I went on a trip to Thailand for about four days. I went on an off season, so my hostel was nearly empty. The people who were there weren't friendly. I went on a tour with a group of people who were as cold as ice. While I eventually met up with cool people, with some better planning ahead of time (particularly with meeting fellow friendly travelers) I would have had a better experience.

Additionally, if you're on vacation, chances are you'd want to get something accomplished. If you have the wrong attitude, or hang with the wrong people, you could easily end up on your last day without having accomplished anything. Imagine visiting Paris for the first time, but managing to forget to visit the Eiffel Tower.

On that same trip to Bolivia I made, I ran into a group of three Irish girls at a hostel. They had been there for over a month, sleeping all day every day and heading out every night to drink and use drugs. One got sick, but they continued the routine! They did absolutely nothing they couldn't have done at home.

So how does one have an unplanned vacation?

Here's what I do to prepare:

I know it's important to research the place I'm going to. I find out some facts, such as how travelers get around. I also read about basic safety tips and learning about common scams in that country is useful. It's important to check out travel visa information too.
A great night in Chile with new friends

I figure out how much time I have, then book my transportation (such as flights or bus tickets). I book a place to stay for one night at least. I figure out my sleeping situation as I go.

If I'm alone, I figure out how I'm going to meet people. If I'm lucky, there will be lots of friendly folks staying at the same hostel. If not, I can use websites such as Couchsurfing or meetup to connect with friendly locals and fellow travelers.

That's it really. At that point, I worry about having a good time!

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