From my experience with travel, you can essentially separate all backpackers into three separate groups. There are the people who plan their trips months or even years in advance, having everything booked ahead of time. Then there are the people who can’t imagine knowing where they’re going to be a week from now, who make decisions day by day. And of course there are the rest who fall somewhere in between.
As someone who’s found myself resonating with all three ‘travel personalities’ over the past few years, there’s a lot I’ve learned about how much planning a trip dictates the type of experience you’re going to have. Like many people, I started off with having most aspects of my trip planned when I first started traveling and then slowly found myself becoming less and less planned with my travels for various reasons – both within and beyond my control.
I’ve learned to love spontaneous travel but with that being said, there are pros and cons to any style of travel. So let’s get into it!
I for one hate feeling unprepared when I’m in a new place or setting alone. It definitely causes some anxiety at first, especially if you don’t know much about the cultural differences of the place you’re visiting.
One common problem I had in the past because I wasn’t prepared, was getting scammed. This can happen with tuk tuk drivers when you aren’t aware of the price or buying a SIM card at the airport. When I got to Sri Lanka with no plans, I knew I had to get a SIM card for directions and getting a ride to my hostel.
After many flights and quite the journey, I was so tired that I was careless and didn’t check my receipt. I paid for a phone plan but all they gave me was an empty SIM card with no data on it. I didn’t realise at first because I was using the airport wifi but figured it out the next day and wasted heaps of time sorting that out.
Yes, sometimes you get some amazing last minute deals, but you often end up spending more money on transportation – flights specifically – if you book last minute. Or you may have to end up spending a few days longer in a city you’re ready to leave because of the pricing.
This happened to me when I wasn’t allowed on my flight to Vietnam due to visa issues (more detailed blog post soon to come!) and I was stuck in Manila for 2 nights while I waited to prices of flights to Sri Lanka to drop. This was honestly pretty frustrating because I wanted to leave Manila but already lost so much money due to missed flights.
This falls hand in hand with the issue of cost. When you don’t plan ahead of time, you may have to wait around more than you’d like, as we saw with my Manila experience.
Another example of inconvenience that I saw first hand was problems that arise when you don’t look into public transportation ahead of time. A friend I made in the Philippines was trying to get from one island to another on a ferry. Little did she know that the ferry’s had been backed up for days because a few of them had broke down. This resulted in her taking a ‘private boat’ that cost twice as much as the usually ferry and took double the time to get there!
On the bright side, she had a hilarious story to share afterwards, consisting of climbing up a steep hill with her backpack and being ushered into a blacked out van that took everyone from the boat to their hostels. It turns out that they were operating an illegal operation and couldn’t dock the ferry at the regular spot.
4. Missing Out
If you’re not smart about the way you travel spontaneously, it’s easy to miss out on things you would have loved the chance to see or experience when you were at a particular place. To avoid letting this happen, I do my best to look up cool spots on Instagram and save it while I’m on a bus or train from one place to the next. Later I go through the spots I chose and see how close they are to each other.
Another problem I have encountered was missing out on staying at better hostels because they were already booked up. While it can be annoying, I’m not overly picky with the hostels I stay at. I take it with a grain of salt and just think of it as a place to sleep. With that being said, I did book some hostels in the Philippines ahead of time due to recommendations and was SO happy that I did because later in my trip I ended up staying in some pretty dodgy places because I had to book them last minute.
5. Wasting Time
One of the biggest things I struggle with when engaging in spontaneous travel is wasting time deciding what to do. Yes, sometimes things fall together nicely with new people you meet but often times you can end up spending heaps of time trying to sort out where to go each day.
The key is to prioritise your timing by trying to make plans on the go. Either way, it sucks to feel like you’re missing out on valuable time when you’re traveling but it’s almost unavoidable when you haven’t pre planned anything.
And that leads us to the next point …
1. Saving Time
Okay, I know I sound like a bit of a hypocrite right now, but hear me out!! While it’s easy to waste time figuring out plans at each new destination, you save a lot of time before the trip happens. We all lead busy lives so if you’re open to spontaneity when traveling, you can save yourself the stress and time of pre-planning everything.
I found myself in this position at the end of 2018 when I was getting ready to leave Australia after a year of living abroad. I was working full time hours, trying to spend time with my friends and I was so in denial that I had to leave, so I subconsciously kept putting off planning. In the end, I’m SO happy that I capitalised on the rest of the time I had in Australia instead of spending hours on end planning my 2.5 months of backpacking.
When you travel with no set plan in mind, it allows you the freedom to choose when to leave or stay longer in a particular spot you really enjoy. This comes in handy when you meet new friends and aren’t bound by a strict plan and can join what they’re doing if you so please.
During my first full day in Sri Lanka I woke up with no plan in mind. After I had breakfast I spent some time thinking about the possible route I’d do, maybe starting with Galle. After sorting out issues with my phone and getting back to the hostel I began chatting with a guy from Melbourne, Australia – where I had just lived for the past year.
We got talking and after finding out he was going to take the train in the opposite direction as I had originally planned to Kandy, I asked if he’d mind me joining and that was that. I was able to change plans in a second because I wasn’t bound to any hostels that were booked, train tickets, etc. It also made me feel a lot more comfortable to go with a guy instead of alone because I hadn’t yet gotten my bearings in the country.
3. Quality over Quantity
When you travel more spontaneously, it forces you to slow down a bit and spend more time in places you may not have originally planned to stay if you had sorted out the plans ahead of time.
I’m not sure if it’s just me, but when I plan things for a trip I often think I can do WAY more than is truly possible in the time I have. I’ve slowly come to realise that it’s much more enjoyable to not rush the trip as much. If you only have a few days in a place, it makes sense to plan things out, but I’ve learned not to rush my travel if possible. If I had made it to Vietnam, I would have only had one week there and one in Sri Lanka. It would have been SO rushed and much more stressful if it had happened that way. So it was definitely a blessing in disguise that I had a full two weeks in Sri Lanka instead.
4. Escape from Reality
Think about your weekly routine. You probably have a set schedule for work and other activities and that can become mundane after a while. When you travel with no real plan, it allows you to escape the routine of everyday life.
During the two and a half months I spent traveling through New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, I literally never knew what day of the week it was. Do you know how refreshing that can be?! Of course I was on top of when I had flights, ferry’s, trains, etc booked, but I was so free from a routine and was fully able to enjoy each place I visited.
The most valuable thing about spontaneous or unplanned travel is how much you grow from all of the experiences you have – both good and bad. Yes, it can be scary at times and it can be harder than you may have thought, but it’s also freeing, gives you the confidence to do the things you want on your own terms and teaches you more about people from all around the world.
While I didn’t plan much for New Zealand and the Philippines, it was definitely in Sri Lanka, where I had literally nothing planned, that I feel like I learned the most and was genuinely able to take in every moment. Spontaneous travel was 100% out of my comfort zone but if I hadn’t done it, I would’ve missed out on some amazing adventures!
After trying styles of backpacking out for myself, I can definitely say that I’ve slowly grown to love spontaneous travel. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to book any hostels ahead of time or look into a country before I visit, but I’m definitely no longer afraid of what will happen if I don’t have a plan!