A Micromanager's Guide to Taking an (Almost) Spontaneous Vacation
For some people, spontaneous traveling comes easy. For others, well, it takes a little planning.
You have to understand that I’m a plan-aholic—especially when it comes to traveling. I’m the Type-A who can’t leave for a trip without doing extensive research, reading everything from magazine articles to local blogs and plotting out Google maps with restaurants, museums, shops, and must-visit sites. I’ll study public transportation systems so I know how to get from the airport to the hotel upon arrival.
Landing in a destination and having no idea where I’m staying or what I’m going to do is pretty much my worst nightmare. It’s no wonder I became a travel editor.
The truth is, I’ve always wanted to be a more carefree traveler. So when I had the opportunity to take a solo trip to Paris last fall (a city I had never been to before) I took it as a sign. This was my chance to overcome my phobia of spontaneity.
Before embarking on this challenge, I had already asked friends and colleagues to send me their lists of must-see sites and Paris restaurant recommendations. I didn’t study them before leaving, but I did tuck print outs safely in my suitcase—partly as a security blanket, partly to test my own will. And on the flight over, I couldn’t help but feel scared and nervous. As I wrote in my journal, “What if I miss something?”
If you, like me, are paralyzed by the thought of an impulsive itinerary, the following insights may help you along the road to recovery.
Pick one thing to plan.
The idea of leaving my accommodations up in the air was too daunting and anxiety-inducing for my first foray into the unknown. I also had a few bucket list hotels: the stunning Peninsula Paris, where my room had a view of the Arc di Triomphe, and the iconic (and recently renovated) Plaza Athénée, where I ate what felt like my weight in breakfast pastries at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant. I also spent a few nights in a quintessentially chic apartment in the 7th, booked through the rental company Paris Perfect. But perhaps most importantly, I didn’t want to spend my precious time in Paris buried in last-minute booking apps like HotelTonight, Booking Now, and Priceline—as easy-to-use as they are.
Don’t be too proud for Uber.
I’m a big fan of public transportation, and always take it from the airport. It’s more affordable than taxis, plus it’s a great way to explore a city like a local. But upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle—not armed with any knowledge of the bus or metro system as I usually am—I made only a half-hearted attempt to navigate my way to my hotel before giving in to the easiest (albeit more expensive) solution. And just like that, I was whisked away in a cab. In hindsight, Uber may have been a better option since it typically costs less (especially with these helpful hacks). I’ll save that for next time.
You may regret a meal, or two.
I chose to book my hotels, and that meant winging my meals: not easy for someone who typically makes reservations months before stepping foot in a destination. Leaving five days of food in Paris up to chance was hard to, er, swallow. Unfortunately, this led to one mediocre croissant (yes, they do exist), one lackluster lunch, and one dinner surrounded by American tourists.
It’s fine to cheat a little.
After one too many food busts, I decided I had earned a peek at the Paris restaurant recommendation list I’d packed away. The compromise? I wouldn’t purposely seek any of them out. Instead, I committed what I could to memory, and as I aimlessly explored the city, I was able to recognize a few of the spots I had read about. Without this one concession, I never would have sampled the pungent Époisse or Camembert from Marie-Anne Cantin’s cheese shop in the 7th arrondissement or the decadent hot chocolate from Angelina, near the Tuileries Gardens.
Be OK with things going wrong.
I went to the Rodin Museum on a day it was closed. The upshot? I continued turning down streets at random until I bumped right into the romantic, sculpture-filled Luxembourg Gardens. Another day, after visiting the new Fondation Louis Vuitton cultural center, I couldn’t figure out how to rent a bike through the city’s bike share system for the way home. The upshot? I walked the three miles, which happened to take me by the Trocadéro—and one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower.
In the end, I think I said it best in my final journal entry, which I finished just as my La Compagnie flight touched down at Newark: “Do I think my trip was a success in un-planning? Yes, I honestly do. I loved the freedom I felt just wandering the city, without being hindered by any kind of schedule or reservation. Would I do it again this way? Absolutely.”