Travel in a foreign country is something that most people save for, dream about and meticulously plan, minute by minute. That’s part of the fun for a certain variety of traveler, and, as a tour guide, I obviously count myself amongst their numbers. Spontaneous travel is something that an ultra-organized professional traveler would never even consider, right? Well…..
Here’s the thing, my travels are so planned in my work, almost down to the second, that I run like a Swiss clock while I’m abroad. I want to make sure that every second of a tour, even the free time, is elegantly organized to the point that it looks effortless. My bus drivers have even joked with me, calling me “La Svizzera” or the Swiss woman. That means, though, that my travels lack the one thing that I used to love most about travel, the magic of serendipity.
Serendipity, spontaneity and capriciousness are the things that take an average experience and elevate it to legend. That time when I was 20 and literally threw a dart at a map, then ended up in Spain, staying up all night at someone’s party and sleeping in a big apartment with a crowd of kids from the train. The other time, while researching the Rick Steves Rome guidebook, that I was kind of kidnapped (in a good way) by a handsome hotel owner and given a tour of all of his favorite parts of the city. Letting my son jump into a local game of soccer in Sicily instead of doing the sightseeing I had in mind, and chatting with the other moms while we watched our kids. All of these are magical in my memory.
My early 20’s were the most spontaneous. I would book a ticket to Europe and only have a plan for the first and last day I was there. This was in the dark ages, the 1990s, when Internet booking didn’t exist. The only way to reserve a hotel was to find one in a guidebook and fax the hotel your request, then wire money or send a credit card number. Anyone even remember faxing anymore? It was such a hassle to prebook hotels, and often there would be crossed wires, like the time I arrived in Munich during Oktoberfest to find out that my reservation didn’t exist. But that’s another story for another time. The strategy was simple in the past, grab your rail ticket and try calling ahead from a payphone to the next city. Or, more commonly for me, arrive in a city and look for the crowd of people standing around the arrivals hall in the train station. People with a room to rent would hang around and offer whatever they had, usually a spare bedroom or low budget guesthouse. In retrospect, it’s kind of alarming to think that I often just went along with whoever looked ok-ish and offered the right price. I usually looked for little old ladies and ended up in their flowery wallpapered spare room on a thin mattress that smelled like stale perfume. Ah, the good old days.
These days, you won’t find hawkers trying to fill their house in the station. You won’t even find the hotel booking kiosks that were so common. And actually, come to think of it, the train stations are no longer filled with grubby backpackers sleeping on the platforms, since many students don’t even get rail passes, they simply book cheap flights. It’s a little sad, those were great days, being trapped on trains for hours with other backpacking students. But now I’m starting to sound like an old fuddy-duddy.
The point is, the Internet has changed everything. Mostly for the better. The old strategies for spontaneous travel are gone, but a new way has emerged and it’s not bad. All you need now is a smartphone, a little know-how and the courage to go off the rails. Do it! Who needs rails, after all?
I haven’t had the chance for a spontaneous adventure in a while, my trips have been too structured. That is why I was delightfully surprised when I found myself with four days off. The possibilities! The options! I was overwhelmed with choices. So…..I didn’t make any. I just couldn’t. I needed to focus on my work. I also wanted to wait and see how tired I was after my tour. Sometimes I just want to go sit in a comfy hotel room and read, or go and visit friends that live in Italy.
My tour and group were fantastic, and I felt more energized than tired. I was ready for an adventure. But to where? Considering that I hadn’t really thought about my free days until about 3 days ahead, I was figuring I would be staying in Italy and catching a flight to London from there. That would be fine, but I know myself. If I stayed in Italy, I would find a nice hotel in a quiet town and lay around my room reading and watching movies, doing laundry and finishing up paperwork. Italy is lovely, but it’s my comfort zone and I get lazy there.
I chose to shake things up a bit. I jumped onto my favorite app for European flights, Skyscanner. It’s better than Expedia or Kayak because it includes flights from ultra-cheap airlines like Ryanair. I browsed a bit to see what sparked my imagination. Morocco! Tunisia! Both sound great, but considering the volatile situation down there, I might save that trip for when I have a friend along. There is no way for me to blend in with the locals, I’m already like a peacock walking around southern Italy. I’m brave and independent, but not stupid. Belgium is on my list, but all of my friends who live there are bus drivers, which means they are working. What I was looking for was somewhere I’d never been, somewhere exotic, historic, and preferably sunny with a beach. Athens! $80 one way on Vueling Airlines. Done.
I need to be in London by the 11th, so, before jumping, I pulled up another screen to found a flight to London. Those flights were not as cheap, so I ended up with a ticket that was not as direct and ideal, but I have time to make it work. Done and done.
I made that decision on Tuesday night at 11 pm. My flight was at noon Wednesday. Uh oh. I don’t know anything about Athens. So let’s start with getting a guidebook. I pulled out my iPad and downloaded the Rick Steves Greece book. I love technology! I can buy any English book I want at almost midnight in a foreign country! You know, that was just not an option 10 years ago.
Next hurdle was a place to stay. I did a quick search on my favorite hotel booking sites, booking.com and hotels.com, both of which I like because reviewers cannot leave feedback unless they have actually stayed there. I also prefer paying in cash, and booking.com allows for that. I cross referenced what was available with the Rick Steves guidebook and TripAdvisor. Our books are great, but the hotels are usually booked out in advance. TripAdvisor is something I use with great caution as their reviews can often be biased. I tend to ignore the highest raves (often fake reviews) and the worst criticism (I work in tourism, I get it when people have a bone to pick). Looking at the middle gives a good picture.
Making a reservation less than 24 hours in advance meant that the selection was picked over, but there were a couple of decent choices. Lastminute.com had some good deals on 4 star business class places, but I didn’t want to stay in some soulless chain hotel in the business district. It’s the Rick effect. I need charm. I found a cool hotel in a funky district near the archaeology museum. The reviews said the neighborhood was questionable, but I like weird, arty places so I took it. A big, mod room with a balcony and view of the Acropolis, all for $75 per night. Venturing outside of the tourist district has advantages!
I got to the airport and planned to read the guidebook on the plane. I tried…but didn’t feel like it. Instead, I listened to music and did some work so that my time would be free in Athens. When I landed, it was such a charge to see something totally new! I was absolutely useless, I couldn’t even read the writing! Awesome! It was like being 20 again.
There are advantages to age, money being one. I did not feel like deciphering the metro system and I’m not on a tight budget anymore, so I grabbed a cab and the guy took me to the doorstep of the hotel. Good thing, too, I’d have walked for miles looking for it. I don’t mind throwing money at a problem these days if it makes my vacation happier.
I dove into my sightseeing with my guidebook and map of the city, following the walking tour of the Archaeological Museum. And then I realized, I didn’t feel like reading. I just wanted to look. I was on MY time. ME time, like I mentioned in my previous article. I wanted to feel the art, feel the city and let it speak to me. So I changed strategy. I tucked away my book and just wandered. Let my feet take me wherever and spend time having no idea where I was or what was coming next.
It was three days of magic. Partly it was Athens, which is really magical. Partly, though, was that I solidly took off my tour guide/professional traveler hat and got in touch with the teenager with the railpass. Being clueless and letting the day take you where it will. Spontaneous travel. It’s a good reminder, to help a tour guide to understand her clients, many brand new to travel abroad, their thoughts and feelings better. More than that, though, it’s also good for the soul.