Planned or Spontaneous Travel: How My New South Wales Trip Panned Out

Remember when I splurged my innermost travel secrets — well, kind of — by explaining my research and planning for an upcoming trip to New South Wales on the east coast of Australia? Now that I’m back, I want to share a few lessons I was reminded about in regard to traveling spontaneously or with a plan.

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Recap: My Half-Planned Trip

You might remember I usually like to make trips with a minimum of planning. This has several advantages, including the ability to be more flexible, and the fact that I’m much more open to new possibilities and discovering experiences that would have been impossible to plan in the first place.

The concessions I made on this trip were mostly related to the fact that we were traveling during a peak period, from Christmas into the first week of the New Year, which is high summer and school vacation time in Australia and, I’m guessing, the time when the most Australians are on the road, along with a huge influx of overseas visitors too. So I booked some hotels – not because I booked literally at the last minute — I did it a couple of weeks in advance — but because they were dirt cheap. We had our airfares to Sydney, too, plus an approximate plan to stay with two sets of friends up in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney, and the basic information on how to get up there by train.

Girl Planning Travels with a Map
A Little Planning Never Hurts

On the Ground: Spontaneous Versus Planned Sightseeing

One reason my husband makes a great travel companion is he’s also happy to be spontaneous about our trips. We wanted to spend a few days in Sydney before we headed up to see our friends, and he didn’t start making plans for what he wanted to see in Sydney — his first visit — until we arrived and were crashed out in our hotel room recovering from our midnight horror flight. Then he pulled out a map we’d picked up at the airport and started making suggestions.

We spent a couple of days covering the bits of Sydney he’d always seen on TV back home in Germany — walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and admiring the odd architecture of the Opera House — with afternoons in places we both find interesting, like the Museum of Contemporary Art down near the harbor. We never planned more than a day in advance, and did so by batting around ideas over dinner, and neither of us felt pressured to do any additional “musts”; while everybody else would say, “Take a ferry out to Manly Beach,” my husband decided the beaches are better back on the west coast and he’d rather see some modern art.

When we moved up to the Hunter Valley, two hours north of Sydney, we really had no plans other than landing on the doorsteps of friends. Both sets of friends had lived there less than six months, so they weren’t exactly reliable locals when it came to suggestions for what to see and do, but together we all stumbled through local maps and brochures and found some great days out. Fortunately for us, they had the same ideas as us about combining a bit of relaxation (usually in the form of late breakfasts) and a bit of exploration (with lake cruises, mountain drives and vineyard visits) and we could happily continue operating in spontaneous trip mode.

Open Road Near Allentown, Pennsylvania
Open Road Near Allentown, Pennsylvania © Nicholas_T

Spontaneous or Planned? Lessons for Travelers

I actually came home from this trip relaxed and inspired, which must mean I had the right balance of not tearing around to see everything, but visiting enough interesting places that my imagination got ticking. In other words, the perfect trip for me. I don’t want to forget the reasons why this happened, so these lessons are just as much for my own selfish benefit as for anyone else:

  • Don’t feel obliged to visit so-called must-see sights. Visit what interests you. Remember, the Eiffel Tower once got voted as the world’s most disappointing tourist spot. Seek out the places which are of personal interest to you.
  • Be spontaneous. Wait to see what the weather will be like before finalizing your plan for the day. Wait to see what mood strikes you when you wake up — do you feel like a hike in the mountains or a lazy day in an art gallery with a long picnic lunch in the park? Don’t be afraid to change your plans.
  • Plan and book things that could really mess up your vacation. In this case, I had airfares, and hotels booked for busy nights. I’ve arrived in cities before without a hotel booking during peak travel times and spent a couple of hours trudging around to find a spare bed, and I’m too much of a flashpacker to want to do this any more. Another case for booking is for very popular attractions — for example, if we’d wanted to get on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with BridgeClimb, we would have needed to book at least a few weeks in advance.
  • Forget all notions of what sightseeing is. Two of the places we stayed up in the Hunter Valley definitely qualified as small town stopovers with no obvious sightseeing spots. Fortunately, I love exploring small towns and the fact that one of them was home to the factory which produces my favorite breakfast cereal totally made my day. Learning the habits and quirks of the local inhabitants led to all kinds of fascinating insights.

Planning for the Next Trip

In a few months, I’ve got flights booked for a trip to South Australia, and so now it’s time for me to start learning about my destination and figuring out which bits of the trip I want to plan. That’s an exciting time, and I’ll try to remember my own tips when I’m doing so.

Where are your next trips? How much will you plan, and how much will you leave up to spontaneous decisions? Let us know in the comments!

  1. Great advice. I like to have a little bit of a plan, but not overly planned. Because then you feel disappointed that you didn’t make it to such and such place. I’m kind of in the middle. I want a little bit of a plan, but not overly planned.

    Thanks for advice!

    Misty Faucheux

  2. @Nattyb, cool, the planning is half the fun!

    @Misty, you’re welcome. I agree – little bit planned, not overly planned – definitely the way to go. Sometimes convincing your travel companions not to plan too much can be tricky though.

  3. Hola Amanda,

    I usually do a lot of research, (That’s because I like doing research) but I don’t plan. I take the research with me as a resource and then my husband and I decide what we would like to do from that. But, there have been many wonderful trips where I’d just chuck the research and we’d happily invent itineraries as we go. The important thing is being there NOW, isn’t it?!

  4. I’m right with you. I’ve stopped buying guide books and mapping out every second of a trip. I find I get taken off course anyway. Know how the local transportation works (or doesn’t work) get some free brochures and start talking to locals and fellow travelers alike. You’ll come up with more than enough ideas.

  5. @ Jody – good point – if I’m going somewhere really new to me then I also do a stack of research – kind of like creating my own guidebook. But there’s no day-by-day plan or anything. Sounds like we’re similar!

    @ brian – I agree, getting ideas from locals and other travelers often gets you to the most interesting spots.

  6. Nice piece, though I think your hubby may have missed the point of the advice to “Take a ferry out to Manly Beach”. The beaches may be “better back on the west coast”, but, as in the best travel, the journey itself is the point. The ferry ride on Sydney Harbour is a true travel gem.

  7. @ Gary, sorry, didn’t mean to sound anti-eastern-states! I didn’t mention it but we did get out on gorgeous Sydney Harbour and even camped out there on Cockatoo Island, so my husband would agree that you’re right – he loved the harbour. (and camping out there was fantastic – so quiet!)

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