Millennial Money: Mystery travel lets you focus on the fun, not the details

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Travel planning can be a real chore. Booking flights, deciding on the right hotel and building an itinerary might be fun for some, but others dread it. That’s why some travelers are opting for an unorthodox travel strategy that eliminates the planning stage altogether. It’s called “mystery” or “suprise” travel, and the destination isn’t revealed until the day of departure.

This idea isn’t new. Some friend groups plan regular mystery travel vacations, with one person or family planning and booking the itinerary for everyone else.

Lanie van der Horst, a travel blogger, asked her husband to plan a trip. He decided to keep the destination — Byron Bay, Australia — a secret.

“I literally cried when he told me that he had a trip planned that I didn’t have to think about,” van der Horst says.


As these surprise trips have become more popular, travel booking companies have begun offering them. Customers pay a flat fee for the trip and set certain guidelines such as dates and preferences, but the destination remains a surprise until the last minute. For group travel, this means that everybody will be surprised when the destination is revealed.

Mystery travel is not only exciting and simple to plan, but it can also nudge travelers to explore destinations they may never have considered otherwise.

“If you like white-water rafting, you may have already been to the well-known spots in Arizona and Colorado,” Roshni Agarwal, co-founder of The Vacation Hunt, a mystery travel service, said in an email. “But did you know that the U.S. National Whitewater Center is in Charlotte, North Carolina?”


Although it differs from travel agency to travel agency (and from friend group to friend group), the basic process of mystery travel involves:

— Choosing a date or range of dates.

— Deciding on a budget.

— Setting certain parameters or preferences.

Preferences could include the types of activities you enjoy, such as outdoor adventures, or exclusions for destinations you’ve recently visited or plan to visit.

Then you wait and let the anticipation build. Some mystery travel agencies (and friend groups) will even send a physical envelope with the trip details inside — not to be opened until the day of departure.

Airfare and lodging costs are included in the trip budget, which can vary from $1,499 per traveler for a short weekend trip (3-4 days) to several thousand for longer international excursions. Recommendations for food and activities are generally offered, but the costs are not included for package trips.

“We often tell our travelers to expect to spend around $100 per person per day on dining, shopping and activities,” Agarwal said.

For mystery trips planned for a group of friends or family, it’s imperative to get aligned on the budget ahead of time. The cost of the trip shouldn’t be one of the surprises.


Beyond the sense of adventure and the fun story to share with friends, the appeal of mystery travel lies in its simplicity. Rather than spending time and energy on decision making, travelers can focus on the trip’s experience.

“There are a lot of decisions that have to be made at every stage of a trip, and having someone else decide for you is honestly one of the biggest advantages of surprise trips,” Agarwal said.

Even the relatively simple act of booking a flight involves dozens of decisions, such as choosing the airline, where to sit and when to depart. Handing these decisions to a travel booker or trusted friend can mitigate decision fatigue.

This simplicity comes with trade-offs: You may prefer an afternoon departure but get stuck with a morning flight. Or you could end up in a destination you would never choose for yourself (for good reason).

Meticulous planners, who prefer to set every detail of their trips months before departure, could also feel discombobulated by the uncertainty of mystery travel. What to pack? How to know what activities or restaurants to visit? These uncertainties could generate a sense of anxiety rather than adventure for planners.

Van der Horst, whose husband planned a last-minute trip to the beach, suggests that planners share some details about what travelers need — like a bathing suit.

“If you want to trick them … tell them to pack extra stuff. Just let people know what they actually need.”


This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected].


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