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Ditch the “American” Itinerary and Travel Loosely to Discover the Soul of a Place

Every travel adventure needs spontaneity, so take a chance. If you go from museum to museum you miss everything important in between.

Ramparts of Asilah, Morocco. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

The freedom I felt having no idea where I would sleep was incredible. I distinctly remember stepping off a bus, looking a motorcycle taxi driver in the eyes and telling him I needed a hotel. He brought me to a place, and I’ll admit that the American in me briefly thought that he was in cahoots with the hotel. When I got off the motorcycle, he told me that he would wait for me to have a look at my room. As it turned out…..

My impromptu trip to Machu Picchu brought me to unexpected villages. Photo: Michael Lepetit.

I’m not too particular where I sleep.  I don’t need a nice hotel or a super soft bed.  In fact, I don’t even need a bed at all.  About five years ago I had what I considered the most successful summer ever, measured by the fact that I had slept on the ground more than on a bed.  There was a lot of camping that summer–in Peru, in the Catskills, in Cape Cod, and in Maine.  So, it stands to reason that when I travel, I am not too particular about what my hotel looks like.  If the bed looks too dirty I usually either sleep on top of the sheets or in a sleeping bag. But it took me a while to figure out that the bed didn’t really matter to me at all.

I hadn’t always been like this.  My first big self-planned trip was with my friend as we backpacked from Berlin, where he was taking classes, to Budapest, stopping in a few cities along the way.  To avoid being left without a place to stay we always had reservations at the next two cities; while we were in Berlin, we had a reservation for Dresden and Prague.  Then, once in Dresden we booked a hostel in Vienna, and so on.

The following summer I went to Morocco, alone.  Since it had worked the previous summer, I used the same system.  I was always two cities ahead.  It was in the city of Asilah, however, that things began to change.  I was riding a bus into the center of town and a man walked on.  He said he owned a hotel and that he had room for me.  He even had a notebook with a bunch of testimonials.  When I told him that I already had a place to stay, he looked at me and said, “Well, you’re an American, so you don’t know how to travel.”

Now I know that he was most likely running a scam (Cara Hoffman’s book Running: A Novel provides some insight into the scam cheap hotels run on backpackers). I don’t regret not going to his hotel, (I’ll leave out the details but I did get food poisoning that night and I was very happy for my hotel’s western toilet) but as with even the mildest form of criticism that comes my way, I took his words to heart.  Was I doing it wrong?  Was I not yet a “true” backpacker?

My motorcycle trip through rice fields in Vietnam was among my top favorite memories from the trip. Photo: Michael Lepetit.

Two summers later I was in South East Asia, and the freedom I felt having no idea where I would sleep was incredible.  I distinctly remember stepping off a bus, looking a motorcycle taxi driver in the eyes and telling him I needed a hotel.  He brought me to a place, and I’ll admit that the American in me briefly thought that he was in cahoots with the hotel.  But the experienced traveler in me said that everything would be fine.  When I got off the motorcycle, he told me that he would wait for me to have a look at my room, and that if it wasn’t to my liking, we would go somewhere else.  It was almost the opposite of a scam.  The hotel was fine and when I came down to pay the taxi driver, he too had a notebook of testimonials.  As it turned out, he wanted to take me on a sunset tour on his bike.  And of course, I said sure!

He brought me to rice paddies and people’s personal farms.  We had some beers on a mountain overlooking the sun setting on Cambodia, we talked while resting in hammocks, and we visited some temples.  It was one of the best experiences I’ve had, and all for seven dollars.

I owe most of my best travel experiences to the fact that I make little to no plan.  I have met some of my closest friends because I altered whatever plans I had made in order to mesh with theirs.  I spent a week in Zanzibar on a beach with friends I had only met a week earlier.  I’ve had entire itineraries turned upside down because of spur of the moment decisions.  In Kathmandu, I had spent so much time there that I was a regular at a restaurant and I had met enough people — tourists and locals — that they threw me a surprise party; but I had initially planned to stay only three days there.  Another time rather than take the highly advertised Inca Trail to Machu Picchu I took a much cheaper and more independent trail that was recommended to me while I was in Peru.  It was an amazing experience that I would have missed if I had booked the Inca Trail from home.

And yes, there have been times that this spirit and the spontaneity it involves has not worked well for everyone.  One woman I met while traveling in Nepal told me that she couldn’t find a single hotel to stay in.  She ended up sharing a bed with the daughter of her taxi driver that night! It would be irresponsible of me to encourage people to never plan a trip ahead.  Most of my “loosely planned” trips are possible because I have a lot of time abroad.  A wasted day isn’t a big deal when you’re on a five-week voyage.

However, I don’t always travel on such a loosely-made itinerary. I have had my share of “strictly planned” trips as well.  That summer when I slept on the ground more than on a bed, I went to back to Peru for three weeks with my father, who does not like to waste any time.  I could not imagine telling him that we would spend an hour riding around on a motorcycle looking for a place to stay.  So when he told me that he had reached out to a friend to plan every hotel and bus ride of our trip, I knew it was the best choice.  And to be fair, it was very practical, I still had a great trip.

The streets of Kathmandu became my home for two and a half weeks. Photo: Michael Lepetit.

Having said that, I’ll add that any adventure needs spontaneity, so the best balance is to have a loose itinerary.  Know where you’d like to end up or have a rough idea of what you’d like to see.  If you’re going somewhere during its peak season it would be a good idea to book ahead.  Not everyone is as comfortable as I am sleeping on a floor, and that’s fine!  It is, after all, your trip, so make sure it meets your needs.   But don’t plan something for each day from the comfort of your home.  If you spend your trip running from a museum to a monument and then to another museum, you are bound to miss the things in between, and these things tend to hold the real soul of a place.  A trip is a change of scenery and a time to do something different. Breaking from an itinerary or schedule is the first step in transforming yourself from at-home mode to travel- mode.  Sleep in late, walk around, be spontaneous, have nowhere to go, and let a place open up to you. Like the details of a painting that slowly come into focus as you look at it longer, any location will teach you about itself if you let it, but only if you aren’t too distracted by sticking to your plan.


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