If you are well-seasoned traveler, feel free to set the agenda aside and roam.
Other than setting aside vacation time, a budget, visa-requirements (of course), and a vague sense of places in your destination you’d like to see, don’t plan. In places that are crowded, with plenty of options, you don’t even need to pre-book your hotel — if your budget allows for some last-minute high costs. Though, it is a good idea to have accommodations sorted for at least the first few nights of your trip. It’s also a good idea to pre-book a rental car if you plan to explore by car (don’t forget to check on any regulations regarding international car rental in your destination country!).
The key to agenda-less travel is having enough travel know-how to feel safe, but little enough experience about the place you’re visiting to get your heart racing a bit.
A beating heart heightens your senses; it makes you feel more alive.
Somewhere, I saw an interview about heightened enjoyment with Li Ka Shing, the richest man in Asia. In the interview, he recalls telling his grandchildren that their apple will not taste as sweet to them as it does to him. This is because he has more life experience, has worked harder, to get to that point. While Li Ka Shing was talking about this in the context of appreciating the taste hard-fought victory, the idea that an object may be experienced with different intensity stayed with me. Moreover, I think the concept of heightened experiences applies perfectly to travel, particularly when you remove the expectations of a set plan, and you allow yourself to be taken into the experience.
When you arrive in your location, chat with the person at the car rental counter or other locals you interact with (hotel concierge, tour guide, or even restaurant server) to find out about interesting places people have visited.
Beyond that, play your days by ear. How much time do you have left in your day? Feel out the weather. Is it beautiful or rainy? If beautiful, opt for a destination further out. If raining, maybe something closer. Are you hungry and looking for a place to eat? Is it late so you are looking for a hotel for the night, or did you already know you want to be in another city? If so, pick a place in that city and let your navigation take you there.
If you are looking to visit the well-visited tourist spots of a country or city that information is usually easily available online (Google) but, again, don’t forget to reach out to locals that can also help.
But, if you want to TRULY experience the country, get lost. Get lost in the thick of their buildings, country roads, and local markets. Plan only to have chance encounters. You will be pleasantly surprised by the small details that you can find when you don’t overplan: a tiny local cafe, a unique shopping experience, a completely un-celebrated architectural gem. Moreover, travelling by feel allows you to experience a place as the people who live there experience it, not simply through the lens of tourist infrastructure.
Some of my most memorable finds include:
- The greenest grass along the rolling hills of Ireland (also the smallest roads). I never knew such a level of green could exist!
- The best squid steak in Freemantle, Australia.
- Only black butterflies exist in Guam (not confirmed, just observation).
- That there is a town called Marble in Colorado, because it produces marble. Additionally, Marble was where the statue of Abraham Lincoln (in Washington DC) was carved.
- A gondola with an observation deck that had the best views of Lake Placid while enroute to Whistler, Canada.
Each of these discoveries was an unplanned, but fantastic surprise! And, discovery, after all, is reason for travel.