Planning Unplanned Travel

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. – Gilbert K. Chesterton

In nine days I leave for Vietnam.  I have a one-way ticket to Hanoi.  After Hanoi, I have no idea what I’m going to do.  Crazy?  Possibly.  Liberating?  Absolutely.  This is the essence of One Way Backpacking; I’m intentionally creating an unplanned trip, and it’s only possible through careful planning.  Let me explain how this works and the things you have to consider.

Research where you are going.

1)  Pick a geographical location to visit

The concept of an unplanned travel adventure implies that you’ve got more than a week to travel and you’re not just trying to see that one “it” city.  Planning “a trip to Paris” is a much more rigid and constrained process than planning “a trip to France.”  Figure out exactly why you are traveling and what you want to get out of your trip. Next, look on a map for areas of the world that can offer you those things.

Want to spend a month tasting wine? Chile/Argentina, France/Spain, or Australia/New Zealand are all options.

Looking to see how far your savings can go?  Parts of Asia and Eastern Europe are rapidly growing destinations with rich history but somewhat depressed economies.

Thinking of cutting the cord and pitching a tent somewhere different every night?  The Western USA and its state parks provide rich scenery and fertile camping grounds.

2)  Visas and entry requirements

The most important thing you can do once you’ve selected an area to visit is to make a list of every country you may possibly want to enter and look up the visa requirements you’ll need to obey.  This will take some time, but the alternative is showing up at a border crossing or landing in a foreign airport and being told to immediately leave.  As an example how this should be done, for my trip I’ve created a list of ten countries that I might enter.  Next to each country I’ve answered the following questions:

  • Is a visa is required before you arrive or can you obtain one when you show up?
  • How much will the visa cost?
  • How long can you stay in the country?
  • Are there different regulations for arriving by air vs land?
  • What are the other country specific requirements?  Examples range from vaccine paperwork to proof of a planned departure.

3) Weather

Once you’ve figured out where you’re going and how long you’re allowed to stay, the next thing you’ll want to do is figure out when to go.  Personally, I’ve always used the weather to give me an idea of when I should or shouldn’t visit a place.  Knowledge of the weather can also help you pack your bag accordingly.  Do you need a down jacket for the winter in Australia?  Should you bring a bathing suit to Iceland in the summer?  When is it monsoon season in South East Asia?  Equipped with basic weather information about your potential destinations, you’ll be able to identify the best times to visit and start thinking about what to pack to have a successful trip.

4) What to do and see

Obviously you’ve selected this region because there are things you want to see or do.  Make a list of the cities or sights you want to see during your travel.  Look really hard at that list and rank everything in order of most important to least important.  Plot out all of those cities and destinations on a map.  Are your top three things on opposite sides of three different countries, or nicely grouped together and within an hour from each other?  Traveling anywhere with an itinerary of cities, train schedules, bus routes, or anything that even remotely resembles a mastery of “time” is a surefire way to have a bad time on your trip.  Before you leave is a great time to come to terms with the idea that you may not see everything you want to see.  Expect that two-thirds of your trip will be exactly as you planned, and that the other third will be the most mind-blowing and awesome adventure of your life.  That last third is important, because it distinguishes the difference between a tourist and a traveler.

5) Special Events

The Running of the Bulls.  The Fourth of July.  Australia Day. La Tomatina.  The Champions League.  All countries have special events and celebrations – perhaps you’re purposely timing your travel to be involved in one of them.  In addition to checking the weather and making a list of sights to see, a great idea while planning a trip is to check out the special events that are happening in the areas you’ll be visiting.  Sometimes a planned (or unplanned) special event can make the difference between “really good” and “amazing”.  Use information about special events to either plan ahead and actually make a reservation with a goal of being present, or use that information and plan to avoid certain locations when a large surge of population may be present.


The list above is not an exhaustive list of everything that should be considered while planning to travel without a plan, but  it is a good start.  As I get closer to my departure date I’ll list out more of the specifics of the trip I’m planning, as well as all of the things I’m not planning.


One thought on “Planning Unplanned Travel

  1. Pingback: How to Plan the Unplannable: A Thought on the Second Balkan Trip | Under the Infinite Shining Heavens

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