The pros and cons of spontaneous travel by a former control freak

At the start of this trip I wrote about how I was doing things a bit differently this time around. One of those rather significant differences was my lack of organisation. For the first time I’ve been travelling without an itinerary, just a rough idea of the countries I wanted to visit.

When I left London on August 28 I knew I had to be in Paris on November 15. I booked by flight from Istanbul a few weeks in advance, but apart from that I have rarely planned anything more than a day or two ahead. Sometimes I went to bed with one plan for my next destination, woke up and went somewhere else.

It’s been three months and the verdict on on-the-fly travel is in:

I LOVE IT.

It hasn’t always been easy and keep in mind most of my travels until this trip have been planned in great detail well in advance. This was initially very out of my comfort zone. But within a week I was going to the bus station not knowing what time the next bus left, arriving in towns unsure if I would stay, finding accommodation by walking the streets looking for guesthouses and frequently extending my stay in the morning if I like the look of the place. The thought of thinking even three days in advance was too much. I made decisions at the time I had to and rarely a moment before.

I had expected it to be difficult to find CouchSurfing hosts at the last minute, but I found a host in every place I looked. I think it worked in my favour because rather than asking hosts if I could stay in a few weeks time, I was sending requests at short notice so people knew immediately if they were available.

Belgrade to Bar Railway

So what’s been so good about travelling on the fly?

In short, spontaneous travel has two very big advantages: freedom and flexibility.

Flexibility to extend my stay in places I loved

The best part of travelling like this has been being able to change my plans in a second, which was awesome when there was something happening that I wanted to go to.

“Oh you should stay for (insert cool activity here),” so many people said to me.

“OK, cool,” I was able to reply.

This happened so often during my trip. It’s the reason I spent so long in Niš – I just kept finding reasons to stay and so I did. I ended up staying an extra night in Vlorae in Albania to visit the dog shelter and again in Elbasan to spend more time with the great CouchSurfers I met. My decision to visit Mitrovica in Kosovo was made in about 30 minutes after a CouchSurfer I met in Priština offered to message his host to see if I could stay as well.  The host wasn’t available the next day when I had tentatively planned to go and visiting the town wouldn’t have been the same without CouchSurfing so that was a big win!

Freedom to leave places I don’t like

The first time I was in Barcelona I hated it and spending three days there was a drain. I was regretted spending so much time in Bruges earlier this year and then having so little when I got to Gent. It was a lesson I learnt early on (again) on this trip. I booked three nights at my hostel in Belgrade and planned to spend only one night at the World Testicle Festival. But after two days in Belgrade I’d had enough of the city and was excited to get to the festival, which was starting the day before I planned to get there. But because I’d told the CouchSurfer I was meeting that I wouldn’t be there until the Saturday, I felt I couldn’t show up earlier. I wish I’d made the call to just go anyway – I’m sure it would have all worked out.

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was another bust. It’s worth perhaps a day to walk around, but there’s no reason to stay longer than that. Being such a large city I’m sure if I was booking my trip in advance I would have planned to spend a lot longer there. Luckily I only booked a night so jumped on a bus back to Serbia to catch up with my new friends in Niš.

Biogradska National Park, Montenegro

Freedom to discover new destinations

If I had researched and organised by time in the Balkans from the UK I would have had a much shorter and less interesting trip. Most of the highlights from my time in the region came in places I didn’t know existed before I arrived. Most people I met offered suggestions for my trip and that’s how I ended up visiting the Uvac Canyon in Serbia, Durmitor National Park in Montenegro, Theth in Albania and Kruševo in Macedonia. Of course some of those places would have popped up if I’d done more research but some of those destinations were hard enough to find information about when I was in the country, let alone on the other side of Europe.

I made the decision to visit Knjaževac at 11.30pm, went to bed, woke up and went. Doing this was a lot easier because I was travelling alone and didn’t have to consult anyone. At the moment I am travelling with a friend so we’re making most decisions together, but still travelling quite spontaneously. We made a rather last-minute decision to visit a friend of mine in Madrid rather than head straight to Portugal and that worked out brilliantly.

Flexibility to make the most of my destination

When I arrived in Nova Varoš to do a tour on the Uvac Canyon the next day, I was told there was a thunderstorm forecast. Because I didn’t have any plans I was able to stay at the guesthouse until the weather got better. I waited for three days and it was definitely worth it. If I’d organised this trip in advance I either would have skipped the tour or had a pretty crap experience. Instead it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

If bad weather was forecast (which was surprisingly rare) I’d use that day as a travel day and spend it sitting on a bus or train, rather than trying to explore in the rain.

Flexibility to look after myself

Travel is tiring and I frequently have off days. CouchSurfing doesn’t always allow for a lot of downtime and frankly, putting up with the many Australians I met in hostels was exhausting. About every 10 days I found I was getting cranky and losing interest so I’d take some time to myself. I’d book a private room in a quiet town and just chill out. The thing is, I never quite knew when I would feel the need to do this. But if I felt myself becoming antisocial, I’d just stay by myself the next night. Problem solved.

When I arrived in Istanbul I was hit by a big bout of travel fatigue. I couldn’t even muster the energy to explore the city at first. I’d intended to spend two days there, but I just couldn’t formulate plans for my next destination. My amazing CouchSurfing host Gulcin invited me to stay two more days, which was exactly what I needed to recharge and get my act together to explore Turkey. If I’d had to rush on with my trip I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much.

Lake Ohrid Macedonia

As much as I loved having so much freedom, there were times when my lack of planning worked against me.

After four weeks of on-the-fly travel I could have been caught declaring I would never travel any other way. I was almost ready to write something along those lines, but something told me to wait. I had a feeling things wouldn’t go as smoothly in Turkey.

As I said above, my time in Turkey got off to a rough start, and while I enjoyed the freedom to take time to recharge, the situation might not have been as bad if I’d planned the trip. My three weeks in the country revealed some of the not-so-great sides of spontaneous travel.

Spice Market, Istanbul

Wasting time making plans

Turkey is a BIG country. It’s not on the same scale as Australia, but I’d taken it for granted that I rarely travelled more than two or three hours at a time in the Balkans. From Istanbul, most of the places I considered going to next were at least a nine-hour bus ride away and I was not in a state to handle that. I spent days debating my options. Would I catch the train? Break up the journey with stops in other places? Fly?

If I’d thought about it in advance I wouldn’t have spent so much time glued to my computer researching train timetables and more time exploring Istanbul.

Wasting time in places I didn’t want to be

My lack of planning affected me most in Selcuk, where I stayed for two nights while visiting the ruins at Ephesus, Şirince and Pamukkale. These three destinations took me three days, but if I’ve planned it better I could have got away with just one night in Selcuk and had more time in Cappadocia. But I didn’t think it through and found myself hanging in my not-so-impressive hotel room basically killing time. My main mistake was not visiting Ephesus until the afternoon. If I’d gone in the morning I could have visited Şirince the same day and headed to Pamukkale the following morning.

Limited my travel options

Turkey wasn’t as easy to navigate as the Balkans, purely because of the size. Because I wasted a lot of time, I had to rush once I finally made up my mind where to go. I ended up flying some legs in Turkey, which I don’t like doing because I feel I miss too much, but I just didn’t have the time for the train. The few times where I the train was almost an option, I was never quite where I needed to be and ended up on the bus, which I don’t really enjoy. Well except in Albania where the furgons are extremely entertaining.

Sacre Coeur Paris

Missing out on places I did want to see

I knew I wanted to head east in Turkey, but it was going to take time. I was also keen to see the Black Sea region. But instead I headed down the west coast. Why? I actually don’t know. Everyone kept telling me to go to Ephesus and Pamukkale so I did. I was so overwhelmed with options I just did what seemed easier. The result was I spent more time in parts of Turkey that didn’t interest me much and then raced around places like Adana, Antakya, Gaziantep and Urfa, which I loved. I didn’t even get a chance to go to Batman, which I wanted to visit for obvious reasons.

Rushing because I (almost) ran out of time

When I worked out how much time I had before I needed to be in Paris it was 11 weeks. Some part of my brain rounded that up to 12 and I decided I’d have roughly two weeks in each country but I planned to spend just one in Kosovo giving me three in Turkey. The problem is I can’t just “round up” and create an extra week. I didn’t realise my mistake until I was in Macedonia. I refused to cut into my time in Turkey (three weeks was such a short time as it was) so I cut a week off my time in Macedonia and raced off into Kosovo. The only blessing is that I know so little about Macedonia that I don’t know what I missed. The worst part is I don’t know much more about Macedonia than before I arrived there and that disappoints me.

Also three weeks was really not much time to spend in Turkey. I spent almost two months in such a geographically small area in the Balkans and then gave myself less than half that time in a country more than twice the size. It was not smart and although it’s hard to look back and wish I’d done things differently, I wish I’d had more time in Turkey.

Porto

Lessons learnt

I know travelling in the off-season played a big part in being able to travel spontaneously. There were always beds in the hostels, CouchSurfing hosts weren’t getting as many requests and getting a seat on a bus or train on the day wasn’t an issue. It would have been a different story if I’d been walking into hostels with no booking in the middle of summer. It also helped that I was travelling in very cheap countries. The most expensive room I ended up in was €20 and that was a beautiful room in the mountain town of Kolasin in Montenegro and included breakfast. I knew I could turn up in a town and afford whatever room was available. This would not have worked out so well in Paris or Zurich. So as much as I enjoyed travelling like this, there are destinations and situations where I won’t risk it.

Turkey was a learning curve. I should have done more research and planned a few things in advance, or I should have made decisions sooner instead of wasting days sulking about length of the bus rides I was facing. But it wasn’t all bad. Not having a set itinerary allowed me to leave Cappadocia early when the weather turned bad and spend an extra night in Adana when I discovered how much I liked it there.

The greatest lesson I’ll take away from this experience is knowing that I can adapt to new ways of travel – and love it!

I still have a couple of weeks to go on this particular stage of my trip and true to form I only have plans for the next two nights. Beyond that is still up in the air.

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris