5 Things You Learn From Traveling Without a Plan

April 24, 2016 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
white sands national monument, NM

white sands national monument, NM

I went to New Mexico a couple weeks ago by myself.

This confused people. "What's in New Mexico?" they asked.

I told them I didn't know, that I just felt like that's where I wanted to go.

"But what are you going to do?"

"I don't know," I said.

This was not an acceptable response for most people.

"I know that I'm flying into Santa Fe," I offered.

It was so funny to me because it reminded me that feeling comfortable with this is not something that is considered "normal." I meet and follow so many people that are similar to me that I tend to forget that this isn't the way most people are.

I didn't always feel comfortable traveling like this. The first trip I ever took by myself was a few years ago, to Colorado. I planned it all out. I had someone I knew pick me up from the airport; I stayed with them. I had them drive me to my hotel, where I stayed while I participated in a festival for a few days. I locked myself in my room at night, double-bolting the door. I was hyper-cautious of my own safety. I was suspicious of strangers. All in all, I had a fun time, but it was relatively uneventful. A typical vacation.

Fast-forward to spending a month in Greece, working in refugee camps without any sort of plan. Just showing up, not knowing anyone or being affiliated with any organization. Fast-forward to spur-of-the-moment spending a week in New Mexico. To deciding to spend 5 weeks this summer in Southeast Asia and not planning that out, either.

Why would I choose to do this? Why do so many other people? Why is it so much better than a regular vacation that I will do it over and over and over again?

1. It teaches adaptability

My number-one favorite quality about myself is that I am super adaptable. I adjust really well to change. While some people are naturally better at this than others, it is also very much a learned quality, and I welcome every opportunity I have to exercise it. 

Traveling without a plan means becoming comfortable with extremes. It means things will go wrong. I always have at least one time on a trip where I want to just totally break down, usually because I am exhausted, moody, really hungry, alone, and/or uncomfortable. This happens no matter how much fun I'm having otherwise. I get to a point where I want to cry and I think, "Why on earth did I ever think this was a good idea?"

And then I adjust.

You learn very quickly how to accept things rather than stress about them. Things go wrong, and then they go right again. You learn to adapt to sleeping on a sagging couch just as easily as you adapt to sleeping in a queen-size bed. Things change, and you learn to either deal with them, or accept them as they are.

2. Non-attachment

You will no longer have a sense of attachment to the things you want to do, to the people you meet, or to your experiences. 

When I went to New Mexico, I knew that there were two things I wanted to see: the white sands and Carlsbad Caverns. But once I got there, Carlsbad just didn't seem to be working out for me. I couldn't find anyone to stay with, it was a farther drive away, and I just didn't really feel like going anymore. In the past, I might still have gone because I told people I was going and it would be cool and how could I go all the way there and not see it? But instead, I just let the whole idea go.

I have realized that I have a much more incredible time when I am allowing things to flow instead of trying to force things to happen. Sometimes that means that the trip doesn't turn out even close to the way I thought it would. But in letting things that don't feel right go, I create space for better things to happen. 

In New Mexico, I had initially thought I would do things in a certain order, but a boy I was supposed to stay with asked if I could come a different night instead. Instead of getting frustrated and trying to find another way I could stick to what I thought I wanted, I said sure, that feels okay to me. He ended up suggesting I go see Tent Rocks, which was incredible and something I would have never known about otherwise. 

tent rocks (more pics below)

tent rocks (more pics below)

When you don't have a set plan, you're able to change your mind extremely easily. I rarely book anything ahead of time anymore unless I absolutely need to. Through Couchsurfing (more on that below), I can find places to stay, and since it's free it's super easy to cancel, or to find somewhere to sleep last minute. I had thought my New Mexico trip would be about me exploring so many places, but about halfway through, I was starting to crave a quieter, more internal experience. I was supposed to stay with people living off-grid that I really wanted to meet, but it didn't feel like what I wanted to do anymore. So I canceled with them and through a friend of a friend found a super comfortable place to stay that was exactly what I was looking for.

You'll also meet the most amazing people, most of whom you will never see again. When I first started traveling, I desperately wanted to "friend" everybody that I met. I couldn't understand how I could create connections with people and then never see them again. Nowadays, if people stay in my life, that's great, but if it doesn't happen I am grateful for that person's effect on my life and I move on. There's a certain magical quality to me about connecting with someone, learning something from them, and then letting them go. 

3. You learn that you can rely on yourself

It is so powerful to know that you can handle yourself in any place, in any situation, at any time. That you can be in a different country where you don't speak the language and still manage to find places to sleep, to get food, and to get basic needs taken care of. To trust that you know what is best for yourself at all times. 

You learn to be resourceful. This comes from not knowing what's going to happen next and still managing to find solutions to arising problems. It comes from messing up. It comes from purposely putting yourself in situations where you are going to need to be able to do everything yourself. That doesn't mean that you already know how to do things; it means you ask and learn. 

This is a small example, but in NM I had an afternoon where I was super moody. I was overtired, and had a few hours with nothing to do before I could go to the next place I was staying. I was covered in sand and felt gross and what I really wanted to do was collapse into a bed and whine. But when you're alone and none of that's an option, you learn to find solutions instead of focusing on your emotions. In that situation, I ended up finding a fancy gym. They let me in for free because it was my first time there, and they had a hot tub, a shower, and all of the equipment you could imagine. I left there clean, re-energized, and much more content. 

Traveling without a plan also helps you become much more in tune with your intuition. I've heard that this is actually a common thing amongst frequent travelers. We all have this, but we're usually taught that logical decisions are better, so we don't listen. But the more you listen to your intuition, the more you strengthen it, and the louder that inner voice gets. What do I feel like doing next? Which option feels better? Does this feel okay? Does this person feel right to me? All of those things are easily answered once your intuition becomes strong enough for you to listen to it. 

4. You find a greater trust in humanity

For me this happens most often because of Couchsurfing, which I absolutely adore, but it will happen either way if you open yourself up to it. 

Couchsurfing is basically a way to stay with other people for free. Since they live in the area, they can show you around, and they often invite you to hang out with their friends and include you in their lives for a little while. At the very least, they'll give you a place to sleep and offer some suggestions for things to do. I have had some of the best experiences and met the coolest people ever while Couchsurfing, and I've gotten to see places in a way that I never would have been able to otherwise. 

People tend to become really worried when I tell them about this, because there are so many "what-ifs," and they're all valid, I guess... But once you do it, you understand. There are reviews, and I don't stay with people who don't have a decent amount of reviews. I also generally don't stay with men that live alone (although I broke that rule on my New Mexico trip, and it ended up totally fine.) I have done it a bunch of times and have found that people are amazing, and generous, and friendly. It's also a really nice way to travel if you're alone, because then you never actually end up alone.

But even without Couchsurfing, people all over the world are genuinely nice. Not all, but most. People will help you out, they will give you food, they will tell you stories and give you advice. They'll give you rides and teach you lessons. You just have to interact with them. I used to keep more to myself and try not to call any attention to myself. Now, I find myself striking up conversations with people everywhere, and I have had the most interesting experiences because of it!

5. You learn what freedom feels like

I am reminded of this over and over again, but never has it so fully hit me the way it did when I landed in New Mexico. It was late at night, I was on the other side of the country in a place I had never been, in a car I had never driven, no one knew where I was, and I was driving to a man's house I had never met before to spend the night. I could have gone anywhere I wanted, I could have kept driving, I didn't have to answer to anyone. I almost started crying because of how totally free I felt. 

When you have no plan, it leaves so much room for anything to happen. For crazily amazing things to happen. For things to happen that you could never have been able to plan for yourself. It leaves space for you to be able to say "yes" to anything that comes your way. It allows you to really, truly live. 

There's no better way to do it.