Spontaneity in travel is so overrated

Spontaneity in travel is so overrated

Planning versus winging it: Why the often maligned approach to travel usually gets you better results


I used to be spontaneous once. Actually, I was spontaneous several times.

But I was also wise enough to recognize how unwise it was, so I describe these unfortunate moments of poor judgment as "impulsive" and "lazy" rather than "spontaneous," which essentially means the same thing. For me, at least.

I also picked very bad places to be spontaneous.

Once I was on a trip to Amsterdam. Tired out from the strenuous task of trying to book last-minute RyanAir tickets, I'd intentionally failed to look into sleeping arrangements.

"At night we'll just go clubbing, and dance all night! It'll save us money, too," were the exact words my roommate/travelmate (and post-trip, no longer a mate) and I uttered to each other before starting.

It all seemed like a wonderful adventure at first.

Then, after spending a bit too much time at a coffee shop (time measured by the droop of the proprietor's once-bright smile), we emerged to find Amsterdam dark and cold.

Our backpacks heavy, even a brisk, illuminating stroll through the red-light district couldn't jolt me out of my misery.

My most vivid memory of that stroll? Admiring the waterfowl bobbing on the crimson surface of the canal. Not a particularly edifying glimpse into the world of legalized prostitution. Just cooing drowsily at birds and wishing that I, too, could sleep on water.

Forget clubbing -- we wanted to sleep.

Instead, we trudged aimlessly from café to McDonald's to café while I grew less and less charmed by the fact that European places had such early bedtimes compared to their Asian counterparts.

I was miserable.

I was so miserable and uncomfortable that, while seated at a regular cafe nursing a cup of coffee like it was the last cup on earth, I made no objection when a man seated himself at our table. I nodded along when he said he lived nearby. I nodded along when he said he had a very big bed. I nodded along when he said we could all go and sleep in it.

"Don't worry," he said. "My daughters are sleeping right next door!"  

I stopped nodding.

The Spontaneous Mystique

Not only is spontaneity in travel overrated, for something that's mostly fluff and posturing, I've also found it to be expensive.

Spontaneous travel is possible with either one of two things: a huge reserve of money that you're completely indifferent to using, or being willing to undergo a lot of unnecessary discomfort for the sake of hopefully telling a story.

From last-minute bookings, or being unable to find lodgings for your budget and ending up overspending or spending the night on the streets, spontaneity will cost you, money, time and/or otherwise.

But believers in spontaneity preach by anecdote.

Whatever the rational arguments against deliberate ignorance, they'll tell you about the time they had a fabulous time at some really obscure destination off the beaten path, because they stayed away from guidebooks.

And if they end up inconvenienced? Even better.

Because misery may suck, but retelling misery can be addictive.

The travelers who romanticize retroactively are the repeat offenders. They're so successful at making the time they lose their passport, their money and their on-the-road virginity seem like a valuable life experience that they not only convince the more gullible members of their audience, they convince themselves.

I used to listen to some of these stories and feel inadequate. I wondered, where the hell is my close shave with a crazy cabbie? (Everyone seemed to have one, whether it was being taken for the equivalent of US$10 or having their ears talked off in a guttural dialect).

More on CNN: Confessions of a Chinese taxi driver 

But extremes are rare, and often exaggerated. Spontaneity in travel isn't necessarily the worst decision you could make: it's just overrated.

Most of the time, lack of planning doesn't lead to disaster. It leads to mediocre experiences.  

And we thought we could just wing a place to stay in Berlin.Rather than a spontaneous day of free-form adventure, living like the hero of a musical number, joining a troupe of street musicians, what really happens is that after a bit of aimless wandering on identical streets you are forced to stop following your heart and obey the urgent directives of the stomach. 

Planning is dreaming

So my conclusion is, planning is sexy.
 
This isn't just a sneaky set-up to a self-aggrandizing syllogism (planning is sexy, I plan, and therefore I am sexy).

Itineraries excite me. This doesn't mean I will follow one rigidly and mechanically.

I think of them more like some people think of New Year's Resolutions: lists of wishful goals that sometimes you do end up achieving. Or a safety net. 

Paradoxically enough, the lure of spontaneity seems to increase as planning for trips becomes easier than ever, just iPhone-toting Instagrammers are rejecting the convenience of instant Tumblr uploads to embrace the analogue. We have numerous apps and websites and forums to help us plan for our trip, but sometimes we perversely reject the information, hoping to find wonder in wondering or wandering, claiming that we're excited by the unknown.  

But you're going to be that contrived about maintaining your ignorance, you might as well be more contrived in an honest way -- by planning, which also comes with obvious advantages.

I've always found that planning saves money. The earlier I booked, the cheaper it was.

It can also make for a more meaningful trip. The research you do while planning takes advantage of the wisdom of past travelers, so you can avoid the tourist traps, whether subtle and obvious, and build an itinerary tailored towards your preferences.

It is also enjoyable, if you do it right. It can involve reading about your destination and fantasizing about it, or booking a ticket and simply thinking about it. To cut the planning out of the trip would be sex without foreplay. 

The preparation is part of the anticipation. 

Do you take spontaneous trips or plan furiously like a Vacation Nazi? Talk to us! Comment below. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Violet Kim. 

Violet Kim is a freelance writer for CNN Travel.

Find her online @pomography.

Read more about Violet Kim
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