Scheduling vs spontaneity: How to find a balanced travel style
The more I travel, the more I realise that it's not just a place that makes a trip magical... it's also the way you approach the city and how you choose to explore it. Do you run around as fast as possible, checking all the 'must see' attractions off your list? Or should you impulsively decide to head off in a particular direction just to see what you will find? Is there a better way to travel? How do you choose?
These are the questions that have been spinning around my head recently. There is so much information out there that it seems silly (and potentially unsafe) not to do your research before you venture out into the world. Travel is a chance to see things you've only dreamed of seeing and do things you perhaps wouldn't do at home, so it's natural to want to make the best possible use of your trip. But, having experienced some very tightly scheduled travel days recently, I find myself resisting another overly-planned trip.
These seem to be the options available when you're presented with the opportunity for travel:
This is the most labour-intensive route which involves tons of preparation before the trip. You research every aspect and map out what you will see and do in advance. This usually involves checking accommodation ratings on Trip Advisor (perhaps cross-referenced with Booking.com, Google reviews, and the official hotel website and social media pages, just to be sure), scouring Pinterest for travel tips and buying or borrowing a guidebook.
Then, now that you're gathering steam, you check out tours on Viator and buy tickets in advance for major train journeys and popular attractions like museums and theme parks. You Google it all until your search history is a virtual bread crumb trail marking your journey into the woods, filled with tidbits such as the history of the suburb you are staying in and the location of that restaurant you saw on Instagram.
If you're an uber-planner, maybe you'll download the offline map of the area you're visiting, so you can get around without enabling roaming on your phone. Since you'll have booked major attractions or tours in advance, you'll have a schedule of where you need to be on certain days of your trip. Then you'll slot in the nearby historical sites and photo stops mentioned in your guidebook and in that YouTube video you saw. You might as well, since you'll be in the area that day anyway, and it makes sense to do/see/eat that then.
Then, when you're finally on your trip, there's no room for a spontaneous wander around a cute market you stumble across. You can't stay longer at the art museum you unexpectedly adored.
You can't stop and eat a slice of that delicious looking cake in the shop window you just passed, because you're booked for an early dinner at that restaurant that had rave reviews on Zomato. You can't take a rest day when your feet are sore from walking and your mind is overloaded and you just want to stay in bed and not venture further than the hotel coffee shop.
You've checked off all the sites you're supposed to see, and experienced all the highest-rated and most-recommended everythings. But did you enjoy it? Did you have time to pause, reflect on where you are, and even breathe?
Go with the flow
The other option is likely to strike fear in the heart of any habitual to do list-checker and life organizer: you just see what happens. You hear from a friend that Japan is lovely in the spring time, so you book a flight. You see that there is a special on Nordic cruises, so you grab the opportunity. Maybe you're feeling impulsive so you book a one-way ticket and decide you'll figure out the rest later.
You choose hotels based on whatever is available, looks good or fits your budget, without doing much background research. Maybe you don't book a hotel at all, and use apps like Couchsurfing and HotelTonight to find a spot to sleep as you move around. You wander around the city at your own pace, with only a vague idea of the main attractions from that movie you saw that was set in New York. When you've had enough, you simply book the next train out, and move on to another city.
Perhaps you've even read up on the tourist vs traveller debate, and decided you won't be one of those obvious outsiders carted around on big sightseeing busses, snapping blurry photos of every cliché tourist site. So you deliberately avoid the guide books, the recommendations of city guides and the brochures at the airport, in favour of seeing a more "authentic" side of the city.
As wonderful as it all is to move at the pleasure of your soul, you do run into some issues. You decide to mission out of the city to see a landmark you heard about, only to find out it's closed for renovations this month, and you wasted half your day. Maybe your trip coincides with a national holiday you weren't aware of, so everything is closed or completely overrun with tourists.
You thought it might be nice to visit a neighbouring country on your way back, but they require advanced visa applications and proof of accommodation bookings for your stay, so it doesn't work out. Months later, you speak to a friend who visited the same place, and they can't believe you didn't try an amazing local dish, or visit the most beautiful and praised lookout point in the city.
So what should you do?
While the two examples above are extreme ends of the spectrum, there is a lot of room in between for you to claim as your own. Depending on your personality type, you may lean more strongly in one direction (Hi, I'm Lauren and I'm a planner), but if it goes too far, it can really impact your experience abroad.
Yes, travel is quite a rare (and often costly) occurrence in most people's lives, and you want to make the most of the time you have in a distant country you may never visit again. I understand. But you also don't want to feel like your holiday was one big to-do list. Even though I'm an organiser by nature, I've realised that over-scheduled and over-planned trips take a lot of the fun and wonder out of discovering somewhere new.
On the other hand, you don't want to be so carefree that you end up wasting time and money, or miss out on opportunities you didn't know existed.
I've walked along that spectrum on recent trips, and I've learned a few techniques to help keep things more balanced. If you have any tips from your own journeys abroad, let me know in the comments section!
Here are my suggestions:
Decide in advance what kind of trip you would like
Sometimes we get so caught up in the excitement of visiting a particular city or country that we overlook the amount of work that will be involved. Some trips, by their very nature, require more planning. That road trip through Italy might sound awesome, but when it gets down to it, you realise that you've unknowingly signed up for a lot of additional admin. Now you have to rent a car, get an international drivers' license, map out the route, and book all the accommodation in advance to meet the requirements for a Schengen visa.
Now, maybe it has been your lifelong dream to do this road trip - and I'm not saying you shouldn't go. But make sure you choose the right kind of trip to match your current resources and capacity. If you're already juggling a demanding job and social responsibilities and need your holiday to disconnect from it all, maybe you should have opted for a simpler all-inclusive beach holiday package. Think carefully about what kind of trip you really want, so you can make an informed choice.
Do the research, but don't let it rule your trip
For all the super-planners out there, this is going to be hard to hear: you can't control everything. Still breathing? Stay with me.
Travel is meant to be an adventure, and sometimes the best memories are made when something unexpected happens. Yes, stocking up on travel tips and devouring guidebooks can add to your excitement, but don't let them dictate everything. You want to have a custom experience, not follow a prescriptive itinerary.
Once you have the basics in place (visa, accommodation, flights, etc.), treat every other tip or guide as optional, not mandatory. I've written so many city guides with tips on what to see/eat/do in various towns, but I always view them as suggestions to my readers. They're things I loved, and you might love them too. But you don't have to follow my guides exactly.
For example, if you are a foodie like me, you may pitch up in Barcelona with a mega list of cafes, tapas spots and restaurants you want to try. But feasibly, you can only eat three meals a day. Instead of worrying that you're missing out, see the list as a helpful tool that saved you from the thoroughly average fast food you may have eaten instead. Maybe you'll come back one day and try out the rest, but the ones you did see added to the unique mix of experiences that comprised your current trip.
If you are going to Paris, you do not have to go up the Eiffel Tower if you really don't want to. You don't have to go inside every famous museum or art gallery if it's not your thing. If there is a boutique hot chocolate shop that has rave reviews on TripAdvisor, pencil it in, but pay attention to how you feel about it. Are you just adding it to the list because someone said you should? Or does the idea genuinely thrill you?
If the research and planning gets too much, stop. Take a break. Return when it excites you again.
Set up a schedule that can be shifted
Yes, I know that it's smarter (and cheaper) to book tickets online in advance for things like major tourist attractions and transport to beat the crowds and save time queuing. Go ahead and do that. There will be other fixed things such as flights and accommodation bookings too. But stagger those immovable activities carefully so that they become a frame for the remainder of your day, instead of constricting bonds.
The best way I've found to view this is to see windows of free time as interchangeable modules that can be switched out and moved to other days. So, if you know you need around three hours to do an activity, but you don't feel like it on the day, you can swap it out for another three-hour activity you penciled in for later in the trip. Be smart with how you structure your time, but don't schedule every minute of your trip.
Leave room for down time
In the same way, don't be ruled by the voice in your head that says "You're only here once! You have to see/eat/do this so you don't waste the opportunity!". If you need an afternoon or even a day off, take it. Better yet, intentionally factor in extra time in between your wanderings so you can rest up in a coffee shop, go back to visit a park you liked, or sleep in after a late night out.
I'm not saying you shouldn't experience as much as possible... I'm just saying that it's normal to need a break after a few days of exploring a new country or city. Your mind will be trying to process all the different languages, strange smells, unique foods, and new customs, people and places. After a while, the "wow" factor gets muted by sensory overload. Take the time to get it back.
Where do you fall on the scheduling vs spontaneity spectrum? Any insight to share from your own travels? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!