I love going on vacations, but over the years, I've learned that I don't love planning vacations.
Coordinating tedious details — flights, hotel rooms, itineraries — is not my idea of a good time. Having too many options exhausts my Libra brain, and after spending weeks planning out exactly what I'll do, see, and eat, my energy on the actual trip is spent on making sure that everything happens as planned, versus going with the flow.
In one word, it's draining. It's for this reason that when I decided to take a solo trip for my birthday in 2019, I knew it had to be a surprise.
The rise of surprise vacations
In case you missed it, the newest trend in full-service trip planning is surprise travel. In other words, you won't find out where you're going until it's time to head to the airport. Designed for those who are anxious to step away from their computers and put down the travel brochures, surprise vacations allow you to experience all the fun of disconnecting for a trip without getting bogged down in logistics.
If you're like me, at first glance, relinquishing control sounds thrilling. No more Pinterest boards filled with "best places to eat." No more coordinating flight times and locations between friends. No sifting through hotel reviews and wincing at the prices. But after further examination, worry starts to set in.
Is this safe? Will I have fun? What if I get sent somewhere I hate? These questions and more swirled through my head just seconds after I hit submit on my travel form precisely four weeks before I was set to head wherever. But, as it turns out, it was the best trip I've ever taken. Nico Bergengruen, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Jubel — which tailor-makes vacations based on a database of over 1,000 destinations worldwide and on-the-ground-expertise consultants — says this is because making a surprise trip "puts the true feeling of adventure back into travel."
"Your trips become more memorable because you give your control-freak a break," says Bergengruen. "You avoid choice paralysis, and you don't spoil your trip or set disappointingly high expectations because you don't over-research the trip beforehand."
How it works
First, you have to decide what type of trip you'd like to go on. Are you interested in journeying near or far? Would you prefer a plane, train, or a road trip? Is your ideal spot somewhere hot or cold? And how long do you want to be out of the office? Figuring out these things will help you decide which service is best for you. Jubel plans multi-destination surprise trips around the globe, while Pack Up + Go focuses on designing 3-day, 2-night trips exclusively within the United States.
After you're clear on what you're looking for and which service is best, you'll fill out a survey online detailing your budget, available travel dates, and sharing a bit more about yourself. If you prefer mom-and-pop eateries and art museums over outdoor excursions and upscale restaurants, this is where you say it. A travel agent then crafts a custom trip and sends you a sealed itinerary just days before your departure. You could peek. Or you could turn the waiting game into a big game of clue.
"Our travelers have the option when booking their trip to sign up to get clues to their destination, so they can try and guess where they're going and share their anticipation and surprise with their friends and family," The Vacation Hunt co-founder Roshni Agarwal says. "We find obscure facts about the cities, states, regions, and countries where our travelers will go — or even well-known facts obscured by a cryptic clue wording — then pair it with a fun picture and post it on Instagram and our Facebook page."
The most significant benefit of taking a surprise trip is obviously not having to do any planning, but there are also real brain perks. Case in point: Scientists at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine found that the area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, aka the pleasure center, reacts strongly to the unexpected.
Additionally, taking a surprise trip allows you to experience places you may have never considered going before — even ones in your backyard. That's why Pack Up + Go focuses on stateside travel, according to Director of Marketing, Corinne Hogge.
"Sending travelers to these hidden gems not only helps to reduce over-tourism but also works to disperse the socio-economic benefits of tourism," Hogge says. "Additionally, while everyone loves to travel, resource limitations can make it difficult to take time off for a long trip to an international location."
That’s exactly why I chose to go on a surprise trip via Pack Up + Go. I’ve been to many cities in the U.S., but somehow they managed to send me to one I’d never been to, but desperately wanted to visit thanks to Grey’s Anatomy: Seattle.
On the trip, I got to conquer my fear of heights on the Space Needle, ate chowder at a crowded table with strangers at Pike Place Market, and made a friend at my hotel who took me out for birthday drinks to celebrate. I likely would’ve never done any of these things if I had planned the trip myself. Not knowing where I was going until the day of inspired me to, in the words of Natasha Bedingfield, release my inhibitions and really step outside of my comfort zone. That’s not to say I didn’t ditch the dinner reservations the company booked for me in favor of quiet night in with room service, but letting go of control empowered me to make the best decisions for me in the moment and honestly, it turned out to be the best experience of my life thus far.
Up for the adventure?
Letting go of control is easier said than done, but take a risk. Sign up — yes, even you self-proclaimed Type-A people. At a time when millions of vacation days are going unused every year (768 million in 2018 to be exact), according to CNN, start 2020, which will undoubtedly be a stressful year for Americans, on relaxing note and let the travel pros do all the work.
Alexis Reliford is a Los Angeles-based writer. Follow her on Twitter at @alexis_reliford.
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