I've always wanted to walk up to an airline counter and ask for a seat on the next flight out - wherever it may be. That scenario is also my favorite scene in the Jim Carrey film Yes Man in which his character and girlfriend take an unplanned trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. They have a fun-filled weekend visiting a museum, taking in a football game, and getting caught in the rain. Despite a little bad weather and some other upsets, the two seemed to have a great time. While this form of travel may not be suitable for everyone or every trip, spontaneous excursions can be incredibly gratifying and memorable.
Despite the possible disappointments (which happen on even the most well-planned vacations), the thrills of spontaneous travel far outweigh the negatives. Although you can also apply the following suggestions to trips planned months in advance, the outcomes of these two types of travel can vary greatly. Longer, well-planned vacations tend to be exhausting, especially if you have everything planned out and you absolutely must see it all. Last-minute trips tend to be shorter and more relaxed because there are less planned events. If you go into a last-minute trip with the same expectations you would a well-planned trip (e.g. see everything there is to see), you're bound to be disappointed, which is why your mindset is everything. With the right attitude, you can still be a happy camper despite any (usually minor) frustrations that may come your way. Using our weekend getaway to Locarno in southern Switzerland as an illustration, the ideas that follow are to help you get in the right mindset for taking off into unknown, or little-researched, territory.
1. Be open minded. To everything: accommodations, destination, mode of transportation, sightseeing, etc.
I had my own ideas for how I wanted to spend the weekend. Friday evening I was pondering a Saturday visit to a nearby city in which a touring automobile exhibition would be hosting wine and beer at the train station square. I thought it would be something my husband would enjoy, but before I could even mention it, he suggested we drive south to warmer weather in the Italian part of Switzerland and spend some time sunbathing near Lago Maggiore. Um, yes.
He also suggested we stay the night. At a campsite instead of a hotel. Um, ok, yes. Let's do it! We searched the internet for some campsites in the Lugano and Locarno areas and wrote them down before we headed out the door.
Remember that spontaneous travel doesn't have to be pricey. By car, Locarno is just 2.5 hours from our home, so think of some destination that's within reasonable driving distance from your place and head there - adventure awaits, even in the most mundane (again, with the right attitude). Sometimes trains, buses, or airlines have great last-minute deals, so sign up for their newlsetters and your next destination idea might be waiting in your inbox. Also, we are on a pretty tight budget, so we opted for camping. You can also look into couch surfing or kitschy hotel/motels.
2. Be flexible.
If you don't actually book anything before you leave your house, know that places might be booked up and you may need to drive around/walk around town a bit before you find a place to stay. Because you were so spontaneous, you probably never would have known that that little town you're visiting is hosting some fancy cat expo, so you may have to drive to the next town.
Lucky for me, I have a husband who is VERY flexible. When we arrived at one campsite in Lugano, I was disappointed with the surroundings. Unfortunately, most of the addresses we wrote down were in the same town, except for one. I looked at Isaiah and asked if we could drive to the one in Locarno. When we entered the address into our navigation system, it informed us that the campsite was 35 km away. Not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump away, but because Isaiah had a positive attitude about being spontaneous, he didn't even argue or flinch!
3. Rejoice in the thrills and don't sweat the disappointments.
Our campsite was fantastic (Campofelice in Tenero). While it wasn't budget camping, which can be quite cheap, it was definitely a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel and just as lovely with its five-star services and setting. The pluses included an Acqua Park on the lake (Lago Maggiore), extra clean and newer toilet and shower facilities (with hair dryers!), friendly multi-lingual staff, half-price deal for the local bus, and a large shopping center within a 5-10 minute walk. Everything about staying here created a very relaxing atmosphere. I loved buying a pack of Desperados (tequila flavored beer brewed in France) at the Coop supermarket, cooling them in the lake, and having our own little party on a couple of beach towels. Even though we were away little more than 24 hours, I really felt like I was on vacation.
On the other hand, I made the mistake of reading the menu at dinner incorrectly and overpaid for mediocre pasta. (I should have known it was too good to be true to find a "Pasta for Two" dish at only CHF 21. Must pay attention to those very important words: per person.) Unless you go prepared with a food guide or something, eating out on vacation is always hit or miss. At least our pizza was tasty. You can't always have it all!
4. Be patient.
Because you most likely won't have enough time to research everything about your destination before you leave home, it might take you a while to figure out what there is to see and do at your holiday destination. Our dinner in Locarno lead us to aimless wandering (of course, not a bad thing) around the lakeside promenade, unaware of a beautiful square and the old town just a few blocks away. The next day, we headed back to Locarno, read the tourist maps, and discovered other areas of the city.
5. Work with your personal comfort level of preparedness.
Being spontaneous doesn't mean being completely unprepared. You can be as underprepared or as over prepared as you want. If you want to just take off with the clothes on your back, I'm sure that's an adventure in and of itself, but it isn't necessary to be so capricious to be a spontaneous traveler. If you decide to take a last-minute trip, there's a chance you have some time to kill before your departure, so using that time to make some preparations is one way to go. You can write down the addresses of a few places to eat and stay, or spend more time packing.
Over the last few years, I've learned to pack light. So, I packed us a bag with the essentials: toothbrushes, toothpaste, swimsuits, underwear, and an old T-shirt to sleep in. I figured I would just wear the same clothes two days in a row. Oh, I even grabbed a raincoat, just in case. It wouldn't have taken too much more time, though, to pack a pair of jeans, because apparently anyone who goes camping knows that you always bring a pair of pants even if the skies are clear and it's scorching hot out, or an extra shirt in case I spill chocolate ice cream on my top. But I didn't and I was fine.
One item you may consider investing in, if you haven't already done so, is a navigation system, which allows you to be a bit more on the underprepared side. I am so glad we purchased one right before we left for Locarno. (I had a flashback of an experience during our last trip to southern Switzerland - one involving the feeling of being so lost that you want to yank out the steering wheel and throw it through the windshield, which is one I never want to have to repeat.) Since we don't have a printer, we didn't need to waste precious time writing down directions to each of the possible campsites. We just hopped in the car (albeit carefully packed with camping equipment) and left!
These systems aren't just for road trips either. If you find yourself without a map of the town or city you want to explore by foot, you can use the navigation system as a hand held tool and select the option for points of interest. You select the sight you want to visit, and the system helps you navigate the roads as a pedestrian.
Sure we forgot some things and brought some things we didn't need, but we also went in with no expectations. If you don't expect your trip to be a certain way, how can you be disappointed? With a positive attitude and an open mind, it isn't difficult to return home from a last-minute trip a happy camper.