With a little mental preparation, you can be ready for anything.
One of the biggest adventures of my marriage was taking a six-month trip through India and Europe. My husband Andrew and I carefully planned the trip for over a year, booking hotels more than a half year in advance and making lists of must-see spots.
We didn’t realize our mistake until we were already on the trip: our visa allowed us 90 days in most parts of Europe. We’d booked over 110.
My first reaction, I’m embarrassed to admit, was feeling a panicky flip in my stomach. “Only” spending 90 days in popular European destinations and “having” to choose less-familiar foreign countries to explore the rest of the time are truly great problems to have. Looking back, I think I was still in that stage of travel where you wonder if you left the oven on or if you sent that last email. Except I didn’t have a stove or any emails to worry about anymore because I had quit my job and let my lease expire. My travel plans were a final security blanket, and it was scary to change them. But we didn’t have much of a choice. So Andrew and I made a quick decision to strike Germany off our list and spend a few weeks touring the Balkans, where the visa restrictions didn’t extend.
Andrew was satisfied by the neat, one-step logic of buying overnight bus tickets. We need to leave Greece? Albania was the next country to the north—problem solved. All we needed to know for sure was on which street corner to catch a bus across the border. Details, like language, currency exchange rates, and how to make it to our next destination, would work themselves out later. He snoozed on my shoulder on our way to the capital city of Tirana.
It was harder for me to relax when I didn’t even know how to read a menu. At a restaurant by the hotel, we did our best to ask two waiters to describe a dish. The waiters conferred with each other. One stepped forward.
“It is meat,” he said. “With sauce.”
It was delicious, too, whatever it was. (Since I decided against using barnyard noises to ask, I’ll never know for sure.)
After lunch, we set about finalizing travel plans. Some tiny internet forums hinted at bus stations that offered service to Montenegro, another visa-friendly country in the Balkans. When we asked at the station, workers shrugged. There’d probably be a bus the next day, they guessed; we were welcome to show up then and see if there was a bus we wanted. Andrew, again, seemed happy with this response. In what I admit was not my finest hour, I spent the rest of the afternoon stress-eating cake in the hotel room.
“I looked into taking a train,” Andrew admitted days later. “But the forums I saw said a lot of the trains still had bullet holes in the windows from the war. I thought you’d be freaked out.”
In that moment, I loved my husband more than ever. He knew I would appreciate the story, but only from a safe distance. His laid-back, day-by-day approach to working out logistics was working better than me worrying over what would happen a week from now. If I trusted his instincts, I realized, we might even have a good time.
From there, the trip took a turn for the better. In Montenegro, we were one of the first guests at a B&B. The elderly host poured Andrew a hospitable shot of brandy when we arrived at 10 a.m. and took us on driving tours through the coastal town of Ulcinj. We decided where to go next based on tips from other backpackers or photos I’d found on Pinterest.
At times, I still felt like I was either white-knuckling my way through the trip or felt stuck with a bad choice (like when we went to the wrong town by accident and spent three days ordering takeout in a hotel room with broken AC—we couldn’t figure out which town the gorge we’d hoped to see was actually in, and didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a blind guess). Mostly, though, I was surprised by how fun it was to stumble into discoveries together, like learning that Croatian cuisine includes unparalleled barbecue.
During the last week before we were able to resume our original itinerary, we made it to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. The brilliant turquoise pools and gushing waterfalls were the most beautiful natural site we visited in the entire six months we traveled. Footbridges just inches over streams made us feel like we were walking on water. The park was so big, with so many bends in the path, that sometimes we lost sight of anyone else and had the whole world to ourselves. I kept thinking how strange it was that if my plans had gone “right,” I would have missed it.
Finding my way to Plitvice was more than a happy accident. It was a wake-up call. Being able to change my plans on the fly was a privilege—both in the sense that I felt honored and grateful for the experience and in the sense that the many forms of social privilege I enjoy made it possible at all. No matter how I may prefer to organize travel plans, I want to remember that.
I reached out to fellow travelers through social media and connected with a few who are actually happy when their travel plans fall through. Avid traveler Erica George estimates she’s been to almost two dozen countries in the last two years. While some trips are the result of plenty of advance preparation, she’s also been known to land a job aboard a ship by walking through a harbor and asking about openings. Several of her favorite trips were to countries that weren’t on her original itinerary.
“I was flying to Turkey to meet a friend, and found out he wasn’t doing the hike [we’d planned] anymore,” she said. “But based on a conversation with a friend of a friend in a bar, I found that there was a dance camp in the Ukraine.” So she did that instead. Or when a work opportunity with a veterinary clinic fell through, fellow travelers urged her to visit Lithuania. Viewing Poland by bus along the way, and taking a solo five-day break in Krakow, became one of her fondest travel memories. She recommends striking up conversations with people who may have tips that aren’t listed in guidebooks. For travelers dipping a toe into unscheduled travel, she recommends taking either the first or last day of a vacation to play things by ear and see what you discover.
Some other Type A travelers I know, Christine Hrichak and her boyfriend, resolved to put their detailed itineraries aside and learn to be more in-the-moment with their travel plans. It wasn’t easy at first.
“We were both worried that we were causing the other one stress, and that was stressing us out. We talked about it and both agreed that we were on board with pulling off to the side of the road to check something out,” she said. One benefit they’ve noticed is more contentment during their trips.
“There’s no reason to plan every moment and [research] what’s the best restaurant in the city,” she said, no matter how much the internet makes travel feel like a competition. They’re currently dreaming of a road trip from New Jersey to Newfoundland—and trying not to plan too much.
Whether you choose spontaneous travel or have a mishap, it’s smart to know the basics to stay safe. Susan Zerfas, a representative of Signature Travel, offered some guidelines for travelers coping with unexpected changes in their plans:
As far as my and my husband’s Balkan misadventures? “I think you did what any sensible person should have done,” Zerfas assured me. Cancelling our original plan to tour Germany caused a few headaches, but it turned out much better than breaking our visa restrictions.
Andrew and I just booked a flight to Austin, Texas. I’m still happily browsing options for things to do on this trip … OK, and maybe for the trip after that, but I’ve also learned to leave some of our time open to chance.