The Impromptu Traveler: Plan a Little Less, Enjoy a Little More

When you go on vacation—a real vacation to a destination you’ve dreamed about—you want to enjoy every minute. See the sights. Get a feel what the area is about.

So, you plan and plot. Map out what to do each day, each meal.

That was our family’s usual mode—Disney World was a four-day marathon with every sight and theme park accounted for—but when we planned our trip to China, we were just too tired to bother.

What to do in Beijing: Foot Massage
Exhausted and stretched, the departure date snuck up on us and suddenly we were on a plane, heading to Beijing, finally opening our guidebook. We got the gist—Forbidden City, Great Wall—but decided not to over plan or over think our schedule. We’d go with what people recommended; what looked interesting.

I started with the flight attendant and asked her to recommend something to do in Beijing.

“A foot massage,” she replied. “Go to Taipan Spa, they’re all over the city. Clean and nice and for $25, you’ll get a 90 minute foot massage.”

So our second night in Beijing, when we were wide-awake, but not hungry thanks to jet lag, we went and had side-by-side foot massages. Heaven. Still awake, we followed a suggestion to walk through a park a few blocks from our hotel.

China is very safe, so even though it was after 9 p.m., we walked to the park and went in to discover a side of Beijing that’s not in the guidebooks. Ritan Park was alive with people, boom boxes playing and couples dancing—tango, waltz, and traditional Chinese dance. We wandered through the groups, amazed at the slice of life we got to share.

Eating Street Food
Sue Shimkus, owner of Lake Zurich Travel and Cruise, is less enthusiastic about unplanned vacations. “It depends on what kind of comfort level you have with travel,” she says. And recommends having a professional plan anything that requires a reservation to get the best use of your time and value for your dollar.

In Xi’an, we again asked for suggestions and a guide told us to go to the Muslim quarter and “eat everything.” So we did. We wandered down alleys where we were the only Westerners. All the signs were in Chinese, but we pointed and the vendors used calculators to show us prices. We’re still not entirely sure what we ate, but for about .50 we had a delicious lamb and scallion Chinese “quesadilla.” We also tried fried quail eggs and some dumplings filled with a very tasty vegetable.

Increasing Happiness by Increasing Surprise
According to Keith Cox, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University who is studying identity, memory and happiness, when a surprise is good, the out-of-the-blue character of the event increases your happiness with it—hence our delight at finding the park nightlife.

“If you approach vacation as rushing from event to event with a list of things that must get done today, it starts to feel like work,” he says. There’s no one-size fits all prescription for the best trip, if you really like order and structure, you shouldn’t go against your nature, but at least allow some time for exploration and adventure.

Would we do it again? Absolutely. I loved not knowing what to expect and having that sense of wonder the first day we started exploring each city. And the one thing we did research, resulted in our worst meal of the trip. My husband made reservations at the only Michelin three-star restaurant in Hong Kong for our final dinner. Beautiful room, filled with tourists and inexplicably bland food. We left wishing we had instead asked for directions to someone’s favorite street vendor—next time!

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