Why I Don’t Plan My Trips Abroad

Yes, you read that correctly. I’m a solo female traveler, and I don’t plan my trips, nor does anyone else plan them for me. I’m a famous “unplanner.”

Itineraries, schedules, and bookings set far in advance make me feel trapped. Over time and many trips, I’ve discovered that I much prefer the freedom of planning-on-the-go. Never fear, to travel blind is a little illogical: in this blog, I lay out my reasoning and process for going the less-planned route.

The reasoning: The case against a set itinerary

  • Planning is exhausting. It takes up a ton of time and energy, and sometimes you get competing advice. How do you know you’ve picked the best city and the exactly-right activities? If you’re like me, a non-refundable “purchase” or “book” inevitably comes with FOMO and second-guessing of decisions (to my readers who don’t speak ‘millennial’: FOMO means “fear of missing out”)…
  • When you’re at your destination, there’s a huge chance that external circumstances will cause an interruption in your plans — a fact of life. A train workers strike! A torrential rain storm! Oops, you didn’t realize this place was closed Mondays! Crap, what do you do now?
  • You may have an internal change of heart while in the midst of carrying out your schedule – maybe you’ll be disappointed or uncomfortable with some element of the place and wish that you could make a change. But alas, you’re not due to check out for 4 days…

Let’s face it: when you have limited time in a destination, you want to enjoy it to the max, no second guessing. But if you’re all planned out, it’s often too late and too expensive to make a switch. At this stage of the game, any deviation costs you precious time, money, and emotional distress.

I’ve got a lot of trips under my belt, so of course, I’m speaking firsthand. When I was city-hopping in Ecuador, I had a mind to go to Baños de Agua Santa, well-known for its waterfalls and whitewater rafting (one of my favorite activities). Then I saw it was 30°F; I was just not feeling that. Instead, I traveled south, away from the Andes and to the historical city of Cuenca (where temps lingered around 70°F), and there was a lot to see and explore!

Now I wholly adopt an “unplan” policy. I live completely in the moment, reacting to my personal urges and feelings, and the recommendations of locals and other travelers. This works for me.

The process: A travel checklist for “unplanning” for a trip

There’s a very important caveat to my “unplanning” method: planning and itinerating every day’s activities is not the same as learning. Prior to taking a trip, I learn about my destination. The last few years of trips have looked a little like this:

  • BOOK: Julie books trip (usually, somewhere around a month ahead). Yay! Here goes nothing!
  • LEARN: Ask self: Ok, what does _______ have to offer? I bring up my Google Maps app and scan the city or country, zooming in on places of interest I’ve heard about. Google Maps already has scenic spots and attractions marked, so I check out photos and descriptions and save/flag any must-sees to my Google account. This also helps orient me to the layout of the city or country, and some of the main attractions, so I can start mentally piecing possible routes together.
  • Open the Google Trips app. Since I sent my flight reservation to my Google email address, my trip will show up in my trips list. Within the app, I check out “Things to Do” and “Day Plans.” I continue to flag more attractions of interest on Google Maps for later. Pro tip: Don’t forget to download your destination details offline, as well as the Google Map, so you can access it without cellular data!
  • Now it’s time to get a more solid idea of the place I’m going. I download a travel book to Kindle; I like Lonely Planet, which has comprehensive information about a place’s top sights, history, need-to-knows, and specific information on where to stay and eat. I learn about expected weather conditions, so I can purchase anything I might need… be it waterproof shoes for jungle hiking, goggles for snorkeling, or wool socks for blistery elevations.
  • Learn about neighborhoods to stay in. This is accomplished through a little more research in Lonely Planet, browsing reviews in HostelWorld, or some word-of-mouth recommendations. Usually, I’ll book the first night of my stay, so I have a guaranteed place when I arrive. (I tend to re-settle in the midst of my stay, after I’ve spent a while getting the lay of the land.) I flag the Google location of my first night’s stay, so I’ve got it handy.
  • If I think I’ll find myself popping around town, country, or continent, I do a little research on the public transportation options at the destination. After identifying some carriers, I search the app store to see if any of them have apps I can download to my phone with information or timetables. Like airlines, some bus and rail companies have the option to reserve or purchase seats online, so it’s always helpful having it downloaded in advance when the mood strikes to go north, south, east or west.
  • GO: It’s time! I re-read the travel book on the plane to refresh my memory on facts about the destination, especially things I’ll need on my arrival like public transportation information. My maps are downloaded… I’m set!

When I get there: Going with the flow

Once I arrive, I set out to check out the places I have flagged within walking or public transit distance. I strike up conversations with strangers; most are happy to divulge their favorite places. After a few days, I may be ready to move on to another neighborhood or another city. Well, good thing I’ve done my research! I have a bunch of places flagged on my phone from my research, in all different directions. I rely on my energy levels, my desires, and my feelings; I can’t do everything, so I re-evaluate my flagged locations (places E→F→G, or L→M→N?), and get some opinions from locals or fellow travelers I’ve met.

Dice is rolled, decision is made… and I’m off!

What are your thoughts on my “unplanning” process? Leave me a comment below! Also, in a separate, upcoming blog coming soon, I’ll be tackling this question from a reader: How do I choose where to go next?

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