Why You Should Only Half-Plan Your Next Holiday
There are certain travel destinations - Machu Picchu, for one - that demand a high level of strategic coordination and reservation-making from a first-time visitor. There’s the guide to book, the acclimation time to plan, and the train to coordinate. If you show up in Cuzco without a semblance of a plan, sure, you’ll probably still end up finding a way to visit the hallucinatory Incan city. The majesty of the place itself might even break through the fog of earthly exhaustion you fell into after navigating the many complex human and natural obstacles along the way. But, really, the best way to get to Machu Picchu is either on a train you’ve booked well in advance, watching the insane landscape slide by while drinking a coca tea, or on a multi-day hike along the Inca trail - spots for which are often booked months in advance.
There are other destinations, however, where it’s much better to show up with almost no plans - nothing more than place to stay for a night or two and a vague idea of what kind of holiday you’re looking for. Unless you’ve been there before, you won’t know if you’ll love the hustle of the capital or if you’ll want to get to the beach as fast as possible.
On a two-week trip this winter, I learned that Vietnam, at least in my experience, lends itself very well to a figure-it-out-as-you-go trip. Need to get across town? UberMoto will be there in a matter of minutes to take you as far as you can go for the equivalent of a dollar or two. Curious about the island of Phú Quốc? Book the hour-long flight for $80 on Vietnam Air the day of and then find a hotel for the night on Booking.com. Got a stretch of coastline on the outskirts of Nha Trang that you’d like to explore but which can’t be reached by public transportation? Rent a scooter for $20 a day and DIY the day trip.
Actually, do that last part any time you're in a scooter-friendly location. Having your own little motorbike brings the immediacy and accessibility of wherever you are to its fullest potential.
If you don’t make any plans, it’s not a big deal when you miss your connection and arrive in your destination city a day late, like I did. You text your Airbnb host apologetically and he bumps your reservation back a night. That doesn’t mean you should show up completely blind. Research restaurants, ask friends who’ve been or know people there, read a guide book, go through all the motions you’d normally go through before parachuting into a new-to-you place. Except instead of itemising an itinerary with all lodging, meals, and adventures accounted for before you even know what the place smells like, just open up Google Maps and star everything you think you’ll like. Star the good restaurants and museums and bars. Star coffee shops and bustling markets.
Star the smaller towns you know you want to check out. Star the good beaches and national parks. Do that all in advance. Then, once you’re on the ground, pick a place for breakfast, go there, and then see what else is close by and do that next. Your day will fill up quick.
Book your next place to stay a night or two in advance. Book your plane tickets to the next city before you start getting bored. This next piece of advice is important: Call ahead to arrange a stay at a fancy resort if you need pampering. (Usually about halfway through the trip, you’ll need pampering.) I spent two sumptuous days at the Anantara Resort in Hoi An, over-eating at the breakfast buffet and then working it off on the elliptical in the only gym I visited during the entire trip. I spent unnecessarily long amounts of time in bathrobes. I got a massage in the Anantara's spa which undid the damage to my lumbar spine caused by the overnight sleeper bus the night before. (Also, at a good spa in Vietnam they wash your feet before you get a massage. I'm not sure why exactly. But it was nice.)
Hoi An's historical centre is in a state of picturesque decay with narrow alley ways that provide escape routes when you encounter a truly colossal group of tourists. Sure, you could stay right in the action, but sometimes you need to take a breather in a walled off resort with well manicured paths and a yoga class every morning.
Spend the extra money on a more luxurious tour company if you’re dead set on doing a tour. It’ll be worth it. Message smaller hostels on Facebook to see if they’ve got beds available - they usually respond. If you’re into diving into the local food scene but don’t know a whole lot about it, seek out a local who gives guided food tours and book them a few days ahead of time.
Apart from that, having hard plans is actually kind of stressful on a lot of types of holidays. It means you’ve got to get to X location by Y date and time - which doesn’t account for the possibility that Z, where you were just hanging out, had incredible weather and actually deserved an extra couple days of straight lounging. The stakes are so low there - if your Airbnb sucks or the hotel you booked ends up being a bit too musty, you can remedy that situation almost instantly. All it costs you to bail is the £30 you spent on it in the first place. Plus, in places where things don't operate with the timing and precision of a Swiss watch, you might as well lean into it.
Flights will inevitably be late or cancelled, you’ll get stuck in traffic, and the restaurant you wanted to check out will close at 4pm on Thursdays for no obvious reason. That’s why if you keep your plans loose, nothing can really “go wrong.” In fact, they might even be better for it. Just pull out your phone and adapt and enjoy.