Passenger waiting at airport gate in Frankfurt, Germany
Waiting for Departure © Angelo DeSantis

How to Plan Your Next Trip … Without Making Any Plans

When I tell people that I don’t plan my trips, they usually don’t believe me. And when I think about it, perhaps they’re right.

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In fact, long term travelers like me actually have lots of plans, but they’re not the concrete itinerary that most people think is what constitutes a plan. Being spontaneous and free with where you go, what you see, and when, is great, but you often need some broad brush strokes of ideas to actually get you there.

So while for me, the most worthwhile kind of travel doesn’t involve booking too many plane and train tickets or reserving accommodation ahead of time, there is still a bit of planning involved. If you’re leaning towards an unstructured, follow-your-nose kind of trip then here are the steps I recommend you do actually plan before you go.

#1: Plan Who You’re Going to Go With

This should be the easy part, and a lot of the time the answer just comes naturally out of your decision to travel. For example, your partner really wants to travel too, and you decide to tackle the wide blue yonder together.

However, if nobody around you wants to go traveling with you, then you do need to think about whether you can handle traveling alone. I’ve already said that traveling solo has a lot of advantages, although personally I prefer to travel more often with my husband, and I’m lucky that he’s as interested in traveling as I am.

But there are down sides to traveling on your own — greater potential for loneliness for one — and you may want to look into finding a travel buddy. On the other hand, if you’re the spontaneous type, you might be happy to head off and trust that you’ll meet up with some like-minded people. That’s pretty easy to do on the road.

Hold the Sky © Mayr

#2: Plan How Long You’ll Be Away

Again, this kind of planning decision is often dictated by your circumstances. If you’re in between college semesters or using your annual vacation time, you know the maximum time you can be away.

On the other hand, you might be at a stage in life where you can travel for longer. For example if you’re a gap year traveler or if you’re at a stage where you’re prepared to quit your job, pack up and/or get rid of all your belongings and not have a planned date of return; maybe you’ll stay away a year, but if you like it, it might be longer. For me, one year turned into six.

In any case, planning the length of your trip, whether it be one month or indefinite, helps you decide what to do with your “real life” back home while you’re gone, so it’s an important plan to have.

#3: Plan Enough to Know What Your First Plane Route Should Be

Presumably you have at least a vague idea of the country or continent you’d like to visit, and whether you want to keep on traveling to other places once you’ve been there. If you have a few key destinations in mind, you might find that a round the world ticket makes sense. These days, they’re making less and less sense for long(er) term travelers, because you can get more flexibility by buying as you go, and doing so is not as prohibitively expensive as it used to be.

So if you’re not sure where you’re headed then just go sector by sector. There are budget airlines in most parts of the world these days and as long as you’re flexible with timing and exact destinations, you can pretty much get anywhere you want without breaking the bank.

Planning a departure date from home is pretty important though, so you have a date when you’ll move out of where you’re living or you can tell your boss when your final day of work will be. Without exception, I’ve always had the first plane or train segment booked ahead for every trip I’ve made.

A Fork in the Snow, Yellowknife © Northern Xander

#4: Plan How You’re Going to Pay for This Trip

Keeping in mind how long you think you’ll be away, you also need some kind of a plan for how you’re going to pay for this trip. I have to confess that making a pre-trip budget is the weakest part of my travel arsenal; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done this. This is not because I have oodles of money (I promise I don’t) but because I just figure out the vaguest idea of the most expensive parts, like airfares, and then just go with the flow on the rest.

Because I tend to travel on the cheap, I’ve usually been able to cover my trip with recent savings while working on the road as a teacher. A couple of times I’ve used a credit card for the odd hostel or plane ticket (but I always pay it back with my next paycheck. I’m not encouraging you to go out and travel on credit, okay?).

Bottom line: you need to plan where the money’s going to come from. Either you’ve been smart enough to save some already, or you need to start saving now (and this might affect how soon you can go). Or you might be planning to travel longer term and you can sell off some of your possessions, like your car, and use some of this cash to help finance your trips.

And finally, you might be planning to work while you’re away, like I did. In fact, I didn’t leave Australia until I had a job lined up in Japan, and never moved on to the next country until I had another job waiting, even if it was a few months away. That meant that I could work a bit and save a bit (and still take small trips while I was working), then travel for a few months before settling down to work a bit more.

#5: Plan Some Places You’d Like to Go, and Get Reading or Surfing

Spontaneous travel doesn’t mean uninformed travel. I’ve met backpackers who thought it was cool to not know anything about where they were going and to not really know where they were. Sorry, but to me their trips started to look like long beer-fests punctuated by cheap hostels where the staff spoke different languages.

I think it’s important to learn about the places you want to visit. That doesn’t mean you have to know the opening hours of every museum or get a comparison of every hostel before you arrive. But get a feel for the place, what’s important to the people there and what might be significant and meaningful places for you to visit there.

Grab your favorite guide book or get online, and read. Read critically — you can’t always trust anything you read about travel — and get a cross-section of opinions about what’s interesting or worthwhile where you’re headed.

#6: Stop Planning and Go!

Okay, enough with all this planning. We want to travel free and spontaneously! So just go. The rest of the planning will take place along the way. It might be based on info and tips you get from other travelers or new ideas you come up with along the way. Maybe it’ll depend on whether you like the teaching job you land in Korea or whether or not you can get some bar work in Glasgow. Whatever! Flexible is definitely good here. The joy of not planning is you never really know what exciting adventures await you.

Are you an obsessive planner before you travel or are you happy to get the broad idea mapped out and then hit the road? Share your preferred style in the comments below!

  1. There is a lot to be said for not planning your trip but at the same time if you are going to go that route you should be able to keep yourself focused and be aware of how you are spending your time or you can end up doing a lot less of the things you first planned on doing.

  2. Great post! Point #5 really struck home with me. I have always been and avid reader/researcher about my destination and I believe it only enhances your trip.

    This summer we had visitors to Japan who read about the destination and those who just showed up. The ones who took an interest in the destination seemed to get a lot more out of their trip.

  3. Good point Shane, I’ve had two sets of family members from Europe visit us in Oz this year and the contrast is clear – the ones who’d read up (and were so interested in Aussie culture that they took a book on how Aussies tick home because they hadn’t finished reading it) definitely got more out of their trip.

  4. #3 brought back memories… :-)

    My last major trip I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town. I was planning on traveling in Africa for a few months but wasn’t sure how far I’d get. So I decided I’d fly home from wherever I ended up.

    Except that I kept going and going. It seemed the trip wasn’t ending. I made it up the length of Africa, then across to Asia, to the Baltics, to the Caribbean… and believe me, none of that was planned. One thing led to another – you know how it is.

    If I had had an RTW ticket, or an onward ticket, I would not have swum (or is it swam?) with stingrays in Eritrea, delivered emergency food supplies in Northern Uganda, camped with the army in Mozambique, or counted elephants in Mombasa…

  5. Planned spontaneity! I love it! I especially like the idea of having some possible destinations in mind and just settling on a starting point.

  6. @ Brian, I love the idea of “analysis paralysis” but thankfully I have definitely never suffered this in relation to traveling (to writing, maybe!)

    @ Sharon, ditto on “planned spontaneity” … should be more of it.

    @Scribetrotter, agreed, I’m a big fan of a one-way ticket and finding out your destination later. Some people get stressed by that and like to know where they’re going … but not me (or you, obviously!)

  7. Hi Amanda,

    Your blog made me get up & go (at least mentally). Just can’t wait to get out there and really become a part of this world.

    Good luck with your book – what are you writing about?


  8. Lajja, glad to give you some inspiration! My book – currently set half in Oz, half in Europe – every novel I (try to) write seems to get intertwined with my travels.

  9. I’ve completely given up on structured travel at this point. I always seem to get much more out of my time when I spend a little time figuring out things that I definitely want to see, then working them into my trip when I have the time and inclination. Part of the trouble with over-planning is that eventually, you get over-invested in the plan and feel a certain need to stick to it.

  10. I’m a few months late. I see your article was posted in November, but I was fortunate enough to stumble upon it at all. I’m Noah. I’ll start by saying I’m 18. Yes, I’m young, but ambitious none the less. I came across this post by typing ‘how to plan a spontaneous trip’ in google. I’ve travelled to Italy and Spain in high-school. It was great, but it was a little too structured for my adventurous mindset, which is why I really admire your (and many other commenters) sense of impulsiveness.

    I’m going to school right now, but I am restless. My desire to experience new places is really starting to distract me from my daily routines. I consider myself an amateur writer. I’m not a travel writer, because I haven’t lived up to the ‘travel’ aspect, but I’ve gotten a head start, and I write constantly about my appetite for adventure. On a show I watched today, a man being interviewed said that he turned to travel as a means of ‘finding’ himself. It struck a chord somewhere within me.

    My main point is this. My education on how to execute my travel aspirations is limited. I have a hunger to feed, and I’m not sure how to satisfy it. As I read people’s comments, I see people who have taken action, and it’s great to see, but I can’t understand how they do it. Again, I realize I’m young and have a future ahead of me, but I’m so eager. It’s confusing at my age because in one ear, I’m being told that now is the time to go to school; get an education, but in the other ear, I’m being told that now is the time to explore and take advantage of my youthfulness.

    I suppose I’m looking for answers. I don’t know where to begin. I love the idea of a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, but where do I start? Is it wishful thinking for an 18 year old to start traveling? Do I need thousands and thousands of dollars to support me for a whole trip, or just enough to get started? Are my priorities even in the right spot?

    I am assuming that you’ve been all through this confusion when you began your travels, but how do I get past it? I’m sorry for asking so much, but I really don’t have anybody around here that I can turn to! But, as a fellow travel-lover, I’m hoping you can reply and not necessarily answer all of my questions in full detail, but give me some insight of any kind. I feel like there’s so much that I left unsaid, but this is long enough. This is the first time I’ve ever turned to a complete stranger for advice!

    I really want to start writing and seeing the world! Maybe I should start with writing about this process:) Might make a nice preface to my novel!

    Thank you so much for reading,

  11. Hi Noah,

    Wow! do I know how you feel?! Yes
    Do I have all the answers? No.
    But I’ll try to reply like you asked for.
    The world and its trappings will remain no matter how old you grow and no matter how much money you make. What you need to decide is what is more important to you? Getting an education like everyone else or really growing as an individual. As a 29 year old I can say I wish I thought like you when I was 18 and got out there.
    I’m not deterring you from your education – it sure it important but its not the whole world. Education also comes from meeting people and seeing places.
    Wise man said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. So take that step now.
    So here’s what I suggest – complete your education as per set plan. Use your free time (weekends, summers etc) to take small trips. Sponsor these with money earned with evening jobs or jobs on the road.
    As you grow & explore you will also find newer ways to make some money while you indulge your passion to travel. Your education may also help get a good job which will allow you to take more luxurious vacations later.
    # 1 step to take – get up and do it.
    Good luck buddy!

  12. Lajja,

    Thank you for your response. I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever see it, so I Really appreciate it! I’m not sure what I am going to do in order to take that step you mentioned, but I am going to do it somehow, sometime. I’m thinking that I may already have. Financially, I’m a penny pincher. Spare change is building up in the corner of my bedroom in buckets and I recently took on my very first piano student! (That’s what I’m taking at university; music) But, one day after school as I was about to pull in my driveway I decided I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I’m fortunate enough to have a canadian national park on my very road in prince edward island, so, knowing it would be deserted this time of year, I ventured into the wild of my own backyard . It was a defining experience and I was so surprised to be able to find tranquility and adventure just a few minutes down the road. It was a simple expedition, but I ended up getting lost in my own excitement for three hours in the snow-covered terrain. I couldn’t stop. I released my inner-explorer and I even encountered coyotes from a distance! I followed animal tracks across a large plain, trekked through a forest trail, and jogged over a wooden boardwalk that rested on a frozen pond. I walked out about 800 paces onto the frozen gulf of st. lawrence and peered over a mountain of jagged ice almost three times my height. Beyond the ice build up I noticed two seals off in the distance. Back on land, I climbed to the top of the highest sand dune which was blanketed with a thin layer of snow. It was silent, vast, and desolate, but standing up there for five minutes just watching the still made me realize that perhaps the first step to appreciating the world is acknowledging the fact that beauty can be found anywhere ; it’s all just perspective. I always took my surroundings for granted and I think my little journey opened up my eyes wider than another trip to Europe could do. I could go on forever about my experience, but I don’t know how many words can do it full justice. One thing I will say though is that it was most definitely spontaneous. I was poorly equipped with ankle socks and sneakers, and often found myself falling into snow past my knees, but my frozen toes were well worth the trip. I wish I had had a camera with me. I’d love to show you pictures if I had any. Anyway, I wasn’t thinking about your reply when I made the decision to go, but I like to think that maybe it unconsciously persuaded me to take the initiative. So, if that is the case, I once again thank you for seeing my post. I’m thinking that maybe my adventure would be a good intro to my own blog site!


  13. Noah,

    I stumbled here pretty much in the exact same way you did (altho my google search was “traveling without a plan). It kinda threw me when I read your comments b/c I am feeling the EXACT same way–I just turned 18 today, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel so restless and bored with my life. I also have the same deal with family expectations that I’ll go to college next fall (I was accepted to my top choice, and with amazing financial aid…hard to refuse).

    I had an incredible experience spending a semester away from home last spring and it’s been hard to settle back into the humdrum routine of school life. Like you, I know what I “should” do–but I’m a little afraid that if I follow that path, I’ll never get off of it. I just want some time to explore, wander, to see the world, without all the attachments and expectations that come with being a teen/young adult nowadays: first it’s college, then internships/first jobs, grad school, marriage, career, etc…and where do we go from there?

    I’m thinking of taking a gap year–maybe two. I’d actually live the first year with my aunt in Europe, which might allow me to do some shorter trips around the continent and earn some money while i’m in one place–but after that, who knows?

    I loved reading about your experience in the national park–it sounds so beautiful–in fact, it’s inspired me to explore my backyard a little further too. Granted I think it would be a rather less nature-y experience for me, considering I live in downtown Chicago but my city really offers so much: you’ve reminded me, altho you may not know it, that I don’t have to go far to get a peek beyond the bubble of my world.

    Thanks. If you ever wanna chat about travel, you’ve got someone who understands where you’re coming from (though I doubt I’d offer very good advice on how to go about doing it, haha)


  14. !!! I was quite excited to see someone responded to my post, and even more so excited to see it was someone my age. First off, happy belated 18th lol. Yeah, wow. It’s pretty great that someone is in the same boat as I am. I’m on my ‘spring break’ from university right now, and literally, every day has consisted of hours of web surfing travel blogs, talking to strangers about travel(like this!) searching for cheap flights around the world(just for fun), and discovering my new favorite tv show called ‘departures’ – about 2 Canadians who did the whole school thing..then just decided do take a year off and travel the world. It’s so incredible. Anyway, I’m also not one to offer we’re likely equally confused about what the heck we are supposed to be doing..BUT, I was talking to a friend of a friend of mine, and she did the same thing you mentioned. She’s 19 right now, but when she was 18, she got a ticket to Europe and lived with a family member(think it was her aunt too). She was in Switzerland, and luckily she knew the language, so she got a job at a store and took cheap trips throughout Europe and had some amazing stories to tell. If I had relatives in Europe, I think I’d definitely pounce at the opportunity….at least at some point. I actually had a conversation with my dad(which arose from me sarcastically declaring that I want to quit school lol) and he ended up telling me that I should probably just get it over with. For now, it’s what I’m sticking to. Although my mind changes very often…but for right now, I’m thinking that a big trip would be much more enjoyable knowing that I have my degree under my belt. Another thing that is stopping me from putting school on hold is the fact that I have some pretty sweet financial aid too. I’m on a full scholarship because I worked my butt off in highschool lol, so I wouldn’t want to throw that away. BUT, I mean, my school year goes from September to mid-April, and I pretty much get an entire month off in December….so really it’s about 6 months of school a I’m trying to get away from thinking that school is taking up 4 years of my life, because it’s really not that much. My plan for right now is to finish this school year, work during the summer and save everything I can, and in April of 2010(next year) after my second year of school is finished, I’ll be taking off to Kenya to live with my cousins over there. We’re lucky to have family in other continents! They’re already excited about me coming over, although nothing is really set in stone yet. It seems pretty far off right now, and it’s hard to look forward to knowing that you have a whole extra year in the way, but time flys. I actually can’t believe I have just about 2 months left of my first year. There are so many things you can do too…My friend from Memphis mentioned that a trip to Central America would not be extremely expensive and that it’s very doable. That’s something I’d like to do in the future, maybe in a few years..It’s apparently pretty cheap down there so I could potentially pull off a full adventure through all the central american countries! I love talking about this stuff! I’ve recently discovered You should check it out…it’s pretty addicting though lol. So, yes, of course, I’d love to keep in touch so we can talk about this stuff more.

    I always forget to come back on Vagabondish so you can add me on facebook :

    Or if you’re the cautious type when it comes to adding strangers to facebook, I’m at : [email protected]

    Jeepers..I probably shouldn’t be exposing so much personal info on the world wide web..but oh well.

    Talk to you soon! – noah

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