Traveling Without A Plan Took Me To 70 Countries Over 2 Years
In most aspects of life — like my career, relationships, and finances — I have an idea of where I’d like to be and how I hope to get there. I’m the type of person who breaks down a to-do list to the hour. When it comes to travel, however, calling myself a poor planner would be generous. Surprisingly, traveling without a plan has taken me on some pretty epic adventures around the world.
Most recently, I slept under the Milky Way on a sandy stretch of a remote island off Australia. It was close enough to the dunes that the tide wouldn’t sweep me into the ocean, but far enough from the tousled bush not to tempt the lurking dingos. The starry sky sparkled like a mirror of the glittering bioluminescent waves. There was something about the infinite nothingness that gave me the solace I crave in my often chaotic, nomadic life.
I didn’t plan to find myself on Fraser Island, although it definitely sounds like the kind of weekend you plan in advance for, doesn’t it? But alas, there I was, after a day of swimming in a perched freshwater lake and roaming through the rainforest, ruminating on the decisions (or rather, lack thereof) that would lead me to camping out with strangers in sleeping bags underneath the stars.
I live for nights like that when I'm on the road. I’ve traveled to 70 countries for over two years without an agenda, and I’ve never once regretted not planning ahead.
While planning is typically a precursor to traveling, I’d argue that the best type of trip is the spur-of-the-moment kind. If you have the time and nowhere to be at least for a little while (and the privilege of being healthy and able), consider my plan to make absolutely no plans on your next getaway.
I Try To Spend And Save My Money Wisely
Traveling is expensive, and it’s even more expensive when you don’t plan it. Booking in advance could probably save me a pretty penny, but I like to live a bit more impulsively. Because I know this about myself, I make sure to always have a budget in mind and enough money saved up in a separate savings account as a cushion I can fall back on.
I consider the cost of living and currency exchange in my destination, and I budget to save a portion of my paychecks. This way, in the event that unexpected circumstances arise — like I want to splurge on back-to-back festival tickets in Portugal or I spontaneously buy a beat-up van in Australia and the engine fails — I’m not so strapped for cash.
It’s important to be honest with yourself about what kind of traveler you are. I happen to feel fine in less-than-ideal accommodations like backpacker hostels, bamboo huts, and most recently, a 1991 sweaty van. If you have more expensive taste and look forward to staying in luxe accommodations, you’ll want to budget accordingly.
I Book One Flight (Or Another Mode Of Transportation) At A Time
Booking transportation in advance sacrifices spontaneity. Call me a commitment phobe, but I never quite know what I’ll want to do and where I’ll want to be until I’m, well, there. What if I want to stick around, or what if I’m itching to leave, or what if someone invites me to their cousin’s wedding in Morocco and I feel like going?
Before I found my way to Brisbane, I’d thought I’d live in Byron Bay — a quaint surfer sanctuary — where I was going to sleep in a tent for a few months on end. That was, until I impulsively bought a van and thought I’d travel up the east coast in that instead. Had I sketched out a schedule for my Australia trip in advance, I’d never be sitting here in my adorable converted camper in a jungled beach I’d never previously heard of.
Note: The few things I do research and pay mind to before traveling are country-specific travel requirements (i.e. onward tickets, vaccinations, visas, passport conditions, etc.).
I Never Book All Of My Accommodations Off The Bat
For some, planning accommodation means putting all of your trust in the internet. To me, that’s scarier than showing up someplace with no clue where I’m headed. That’s why I always book just one or two nights somewhere in the city’s center (I look for the little yellowish region in Google Maps, which indicates the “happening” area), so I have a definite place to drop my backpack while I get a lay of the land. I prefer hostels, so I sort through the better-rated options on my Hostelworld app en route there.
I do my best to arrive during the day so I feel safer while getting a grip. I also make an effort to talk to locals and other longer-stay backpackers about recommended areas once I’m there. After a day or two, I’ll either extend my stay at the hostel I’m at if I like it, or I’ll walk into another one of the hostels or hotels I’ve checked out and book one of them.
I also like to use Airbnb when I’m traveling for a more local experience, and once I’ve been in the place a day or two, I have a better idea of the neighborhood in which I’d like to book. (In this case, you just have to sort by “Instant Book” since you’re already there.)
I Go It Alone
Traveling solo allows me to go with the flow and say “yes” to anything I want to. I’m neither restricted by travel partners’ fears or apprehensions, nor confined to their itineraries. I can go wherever I please to do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it.
When I want the company, I use websites like Meetup.com to find local get-togethers surrounding hobbies I love — like writing, meditation, and hiking — and CouchSurfing.org, a free home-sharing network that connects travelers with locals. This kind of freedom led me to hitchhiking across Thailand in the back of pickup trucks, living with a family amid terraced tea plantations in Sri Lanka, venturing to discover distant family in the rolling hills of Calabria, Italy, and more. I’ve had countless once-in-a-lifetime experiences that have only happened because of my open mind and schedule.
Based on my experience, if you’re traveling alone, I think it’s important to put yourself out there. Put your phone away and ask a local for directions. Sit at the bar instead of at a table. Join the free walking tour. Be conscious of your body language. If you put it out into the universe that you’re ready for and open to an adventure, adventures may come your way.
If you don’t want to travel alone, however, you can still adopt the say "yes" mentality. Make sure you’re honest with yourself and your travel partner about what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. This is your journey you’re sharing with another person; that doesn’t mean you’re just following that person. Remember that it’s OK to split up and meet back up again later if you feel like people-watching in the park and they feel like going for a surf.
I Pack Light
Whether I’m traveling for one week or six months, I only travel with a carry-on backpack holding the bare necessities. (We’re not talking about the time I purchased a human-sized Turkish lamp on the road, or the time I lugged around an Indian rug or two — you know, for the home I don’t have…)
Because I mostly travel to sunny spots, I never really need heavy clothes beyond a denim jacket or the oversized men’s flannel my family wishes I’d toss. I travel with a few tank tops and some flowy pants that roll up small, two bathing suits, two pairs of leggings, a small quick-dry towel, and two pairs of shoes (Birkenstocks and a pair of sport sneakers for hiking and such). I’m definitely a minimalist traveler, but when you’re on the road long enough, you learn that you end up wearing the same three outfits anyway.
Traveling light means I have a more comfortable time navigating public transportation, and I feel freer to do as I please without the burden of lugging around a billion bags.