Why It’s Great to Travel Without a Plan

travel anywhere you wantOn my first round-the-world trip in 2006, I planned everything. I knew where I was going and staying, for how long, and how I would get there. But over the years, how I plan my travel has changed. Now, I’m a last-minute planner and rarely travel with any set itinerary. Years of long-term travel has made me much better at going with the flow. When plans change or things go wrong, I just roll with it. Life on the road works out in the end and mishaps are just part of the journey.

Traveling without a plan gives you incredible flexibility. Since nothing is booked far in advance, you aren’t tethered to one itinerary and can pivot to something different when you change your mind or something better comes along. Letting the day unfold randomly can lead to exciting and unplanned adventures. I changed my plans to meet a friend on an island in Thailand and stayed for a month. Another time, I met a girl in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, delayed my departure a few days, and we ended up traveling and dating for five months.

I wouldn’t have had those or many other experiences if I had rigidly kept to my planned itinerary and schedule.

However, most new travelers are the opposite – they over plan. Their entire route is scheduled, sometimes down to the specific hour. Two days here, three days there. I understand why people do that. Countless itineraries appear in my inbox from people who are attempting to see all of Europe in three weeks or Southeast Asia in two months. When you have limited time, you want to see as much as possible. You don’t want to waste a single second. That’s true whether you have two weeks or two months of travel ahead of you. Few people travel forever, so there is always a finish line that looms large. It’s a race against the clock.

But in travel, less is more. Spending more time in one place allows you to get a better feel for the rhythm of life. It enables you to visit at a more relaxed pace, see more than just the highlights, and open up your schedule to the happy accidents of travel. Slowing down can make a huge difference.

As Buddha said, the middle way is the right way, and the middle way for traveling is to simply plan your general route and fill in the blanks along the way.

When I first create itineraries to new destinations, I start out overzealous and try to cram everything in. Then I take a deep breath, realize it’s unrealistic, and revise my plan to outline the one to two things I want to see each day and space everything out.

I think the best “trip planning” is to figure out the general path you want to take, book the first few nights of your trip, and let your travels unfold from there. Keep moving until you want to stop or change directions. This way you are never locked into a certain place if your feelings change.

Go with the flow.

There’s no magic bullet to planning a route, whether it’s through a city or a country. Simply move forward in a continuous loop and avoid doubling back. That way you can keep your transportation costs down and you know where you’re going, but your plan is flexible enough that you can stay in your destination longer or leave sooner if you choose.

The one thing that every traveler will tell you is that unexpected things happen on the road, throwing a monkey wrench into the best-planned itinerary (from breaking your leg or losing your camera, to staying longer in one place or jetting off somewhere new with people you’ve just met). If you aren’t flexible, you’re going to stress out over any changes to your itinerary. You’ll rush from attraction to attraction in a tense state while never really letting yourself enjoy the moment because you’ll be too worried about missing what’s supposed to come next.

The best travel plan gives you a good idea of where you are going with the flexibility to adapt to changes on the road. It’s important to give yourself wiggle room for places you like or dislike, or if you get burnt out and just want to take a travel time-out and relax for a few days. Decide where you want to go and what you want to see, but don’t tie yourself down to too many dates.

Traveling without a plan is a great idea. Traveling with only a semblance of one is even better.

27 Comments
  1. I traveled around the world for 8 month with only a RTW ticket with vague dates (that we ended up changing anyway) and no real itinerary. We never had any plan outside of landing in whatever country our ticket had us going to and I was never nervous.

    It’s not that I’m really spontaneous, rather I realized that when you fly from one country to the next you always enter at a big international airport which is set up to find you a (usually cheap) place to stay and a way to get into the city. And once your in the country a few days, after meeting locals or other travelers, you get a whole different take on a place then what the guide books give you.

    My most favorite spontaneous experienced happened in Europe when I was backpacking with my college roommate. We were in Germany and ran to the train station to catch a train to another part of Germany but arrived seconds too late and literally watched our train pull away from the platform. We stood there, mouths wide open unsure of what to do next when another train pulled into the platform. The sign said it was going to ‘Verona.’ We had no idea where that was, but looked it up in our book and found it was in Italy. We just shrugged out shoulder and got on. It was one of the most beautiful train rides I have ever been on and we had a great time once we were there.

  2. This is really funny – I wrote about this topic on our site a few weeks ago. We travel with a semblance of a plan — general ideas of where we want to go when, and if we get a great deal somewhere then we jump on it ahead of time — because I hate missing out on good airplane deals. We generally don’t book hotels EXCEPT that we always book our hotel for the first night in a new country because we like to have a guaranteed bed and shower when we hop off a plane. I can’t walk into a new country with nothing planned but I like having a semi-plan so I don’t feel completely lost and clueless at all times.

  3. Taylor Davidson

    It takes some experience to be confident enough to travel without a tight plan; it’s hard for people to learn how to “wing it” without doing it themselves. All I can say, for travelers less experienced than you: start small, and work your way up. But obviously you know that :)

    Oddly, I bought a ticket two days ago for a flight in three days to a place I know nothing about, with no schedule beyond a final destination in a month. Should be fun…

  4. Ren

    I envy and admire people who can go on trips without set itineraries and set dates. Unfortunately, I’m a citizen of a country where I have to apply for a visa to go most places (esp. Europe and USA). And in order to get a visa, I need to present bank statements (to show I have enough cash to stay the number of days I say I’ll be in the place), an itinerary, airline reservations, and hotel/hostel booking/reservations. So, unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly leave much room for flexibility. :-(

    I’m trying to keep our iti as flexible as possible, though. At least I’m not noting down where exactly we have to go (like which specific sights to see). 😛

  5. I tend to plan things out more when I am going on vacation with my wife or friends. I feel like I need to show them around or provide them with a game plan. If I do not plan anything with them, most will just want to hang by the pool or eat at Applebees. Ugh

    I have planned less and less with trips as the years go on. My Italy/Switzerland trip in March 2008 was a last minute idea and turned out great. We booked airfare in January, hotels in February and activities during the trip via my laptop.

    Enjoy Europe!

    Andrew

  6. Matt, great post. I’m like you, I prefer to just have a general direction – and whatever happens when I turn up at the airport happens. I’ve travelled Round The World for 7 months with just the plane tickets and nothing else planned – and I loved every single second. Highly recommended.

  7. This seems to be a topic on a lot of folks minds these day.. as we just did a piece on this recently on our site as well. We call it trusting in Nomadic Serendipity.. and living on NST, or Nomadic Standard Time.

    We have a general intention of a plan laid out, but totally allow serendipity to direct our specific course.

    Today is a perfect example. We were planning to arrive to Capitol Reef National Park and camp at their campground in central Utah. But when we arrived, their first come first serve campground was full. So, off we started heading towards the next closest campground.

    Right outside the park on public lands.. we found a free boondocking spot with a spectacular view of the park AND cellular data service (which I’m using to submit this comment right now). Had we found camping in the park, we’d be staying with little view, no connectivity, paying $10/night and kids running around our trailer.

    I love what nomadic serendipity brought us to instead :)

    Cheers to Serendipity!
    – Cherie

  8. I used to not care about planning much for my trips. That was long before I had a laptop and knew about all the nice travel sites. Now I usually try to get a general idea of the place and make a list of things I’d like to see. Figuring out an order and such usually waits til the last minute. My methods of planning have changed because my wife likes to force me to make a plan (funny how when we dated she’d go with the no plan method).

  9. I concur! I echo Cherie’s NST idea…if I had too tightly planned my trip through SE Asia last year for example, I might not have been able to lend a hand in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. If I had too tightly planned my trip through Oz shortly thereafter, I would have missed out on all the nooks and crannies that locals introduced us to in passing – some of which took us “off course” for weeks! Once you have a general lay of the land, going with the flow is the best way to experience a different place (for me).

  10. Good advice Matt,

    Living in Japan as shown me the dangers of extreme planning. Japanese tours are crazy for squeezing in every possible attraction in the smallest amount of time. Five countries in 4 days anyone?

    I am the opposite. I don’t nor do any research. This is also not optimum because we invariable miss some cool things I would have liked to have seen. Your last sentence is the best advice I have heard on travel planning.

    “Traveling without a plan is a great idea. Traveling with a semblance of a plan is an even better one.”

  11. it’s much easier to have a semblance of a plan when you’re traveling with kids. sometimes those meltdowns can be avoided if you have a few places in mind to rest, distract, eat, etc!

    hope you have a GREAT trip!

  12. Olive

    Having a very strict plan or itinerary is tiring. That’s why I cherish the moments when I can travel alone and go at my own pace. Otherwise, I choose my travel buddies very carefully. I like taking trips with those who are “minimalist planners” like myself because you never know when a detour can present itself.

    And since I live in an archipelago, .I have learned to appreciate and go with the ebb and flow of things. After all, you never know what the tides may bring…. 😀

  13. haha.. I might be the odd one here. I love to plan. Travel planning is part of the fun that I enjoy before the trip. I love to read about things to do, places to eat, sight to see. Ok. I used to be worse than this. One trip, I plan down to the date of what to do. But my trip mostly is set in stone. I have limited vacation days. And if I go back to Thailand, I have gazillion friends to meet so I have to plan out when to meet whom and where.

    But once I have kids. The strict planning is out the window. But I still love to have a list of things to see so we know what we will be doing each day. However, I won’t be in panic if it doesn’t go according to plan. We just change and do something else.

    Budget is probably the main issue why I plan so much. I want to travel as much as possible but having kids the cost is higher than independent traveler. So planning help me to be able to still enjoy traveling with kids and not going broke. The research will help me on the admission fees like checking out discount days or free admission date.

    Oh.. I would love to try no planning trip. I think it will be liberating and fun!!!

  14. Linda G

    I’m thinking you don’t send out ‘newsletters’. If you do … please put my email on your list.
    I have just discovered you.
    Thanks,
    Linda

  15. It seems that I’ll be bucking the trend then. Next year I plan to travel solo from Japan to Bali. It will be my first big adventure and the only thing I’m booking is my flight out to Japan and my return from Bali – everything else is up for grabs though I have a general itinerary I’d like to keep to. I figured that my worst nightmare would be to meet people who invite to a place only for me to have to turn them down ‘because I have a flight to catch’ when really there is no need for me to go at all. Glad to hear that I’ll be donig the ‘right thing’.

  16. If you’re looking for a real adventure, this could be the way. However, I’ll still recommend a nicely plan travel if you’re new to a certain location.

  17. Katie

    I am a major planner, but at the same time the longest I’ve been able to travel at this point is 2 weeks at a time. I prefer not to spend my valuable vacation time trying to sort out where I’m going to stay or figuring out what to do. It just seems easier and more efficient to have it figured out ahead of time.

    That being said, I am hoping to do a RTW trip soon. I’ve “planned” where I want to go and what I want to see, mainly for budget purposes so I could figure out how much money I need to have saved up. I’m planning to hit several countries that require visas in advance, some with letters of invitation, so that will limit my flexbility to some extent. But I imagine with a longer period of travel time I’ll be more spontaneous than on my shorter trips.

  18. I learned the hard way that a strict itinerary doesn’t work too well, as my first time out I planned every single day of 10 days in Laos. But mother nature had other plans and the monsoons threw my schedule way off base. Fortunately, it didn’t really matter and ever since, I’ve traveled with a basic outline of what I’d like to do. And the beauty is, that outline is in a constant state of flux!

    I recently spent 3 months in Asia and during that time I exended my return ticket twice and must have redone my outline about 5 times! Talking to other travelers I met along the way gave me inspiration to go places I hadn’t even considered and some of those last minute changes ended being the best experiences of my travels!

    For me, this is definitely the way to go! Unless I was heading to a big city, I never booked accommodation in advance and would usually buy my bus tickets the day of (of course, this is the norm in many parts of Asia). And you know what? Things always worked out. There were never any nervous moments where I feared what I would do!

  19. Well put! I really don’t have anything to add to this other than to say that if anyone ever tells me they’re planning to travel I will immediately send them to this article.

  20. Liz

    Ha! I NEVER have a plan, which is an insane way to travel. If I had it in me, I would begin to plot and plan the way I see others do it. I’m so jealous of them- I feel like they can see into the future! Basically, when I lived in Italy, I would book a flight on Wednesday, fly out Thursday morning (returning Monday morning for school), and pack literally 5 minutes before I had to leave for the airport. When I went to the Middle East for 6 months, I booked my ticket 3 weeks ahead of time and planned nothing. Also, I’ve missed about 10 flights this year, as it’s nearly impossible for me to go home when I say I will. On Memorial Day weekend I impulsively took a 6 hour bus to NYC instead of flying home from Maine… completely forgetting that no rooms are available in New York on long holidays. Luckily, the couple in front of me on the bus offered me a room in their home in Brooklyn!
    So, do I recommend traveling this way? No, not really. It’s extremely stressful and expensive. Plus, you miss out on things that you would have known about had you researched and planned ahead of time. My advice? Plan and prepare as much as possible- just don’t worry about sticking to your itinerary. If the trip isn’t flowing, you have something to fall back on and you’ll be educated enough to make a decision about whether or not you want to deal with certain roadblocks.

    • NomadicMatt

      I like to travel with a semi-plan. That way I have a general idea of what I’m doing but am still flexible to making changes.

  21. Booking a flight 2 weeks in advance sounds like a plan to me! That’s why I like hitchhiking – it’s possible to just wake up in the morning and think – “I think I’ll leave today – where shall I go?” It seems ironic, but the less I spend money travelling, the more freedom I seem to have. If I pay for public transport, it helps to book in advance. If I pay for a hostel, I need to work out what’s the most affordable. I have slept in a variety of rather interesting places because I don’t have a plan. Admittedly, this is certainly not a way of life for everyone.

    Thanks for sharing and for getting people thinking.

  22. We have been reading your blog, and love all the tips! We to are planning a RTW trip departing in under 8 months! Wondering if we have to much of a route…. Would love any feedback about our route and any other advice you may have! Traveling without a route scares the crap out of me!

    Thanks

    Getting Stamped

  23. Traveling without a plan is also the luxury of someone who has all the time in the world: that is your every day. For those of us mere mortals who only get 2 weeks (or 3 months if we are lucky Uni students), having not even a loose plan can mean wasting time you don’t have.

    It’s also extremely dangerous in some parts of the world as a woman. I lived in India for a while–you can’t show show up somewhere there.

    But I am just envious! I’m still tied to my day job and fit my travel in long weekends and 2 week vacations!

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