When we left for Spain, we had two things: an arrival ticket for Barcelona, and a departure ticket from Sevilla two weeks later. We had no hotel reservations, no rental car, no pending Couchsurfing requests, no train tickets. No schedule. No plans. No friends, family, or acquaintances. We didn’t even have language fluency. What we brought was a guidebook and a tent. This is what we call “the wing-it method.” It comes with its own gesture: flapping elbows.
Four years ago, we went off on our three-week trip around Iceland. I spent months planning every last conceivable detail. I had a two-page spreadsheet listing bus departure times for each city and what sights we would see there. I emailed backup copies of it and carried a printout with my passport. This was “the spreadsheet method.” For the most part, it worked fairly well, considering that I had been a skinflint and bought a four-year-old guidebook in order to save $12. The main problems we ran into were finding plant-based food, museums and tours that were closed the day we were in town, and random seabird attacks. The spreadsheet method is effective, but highly labor-intensive, and it can induce a false sense of security. Certainty is the enemy because it’s so often misplaced.
I had vague plans to put together a spreadsheet for the Spain trip. The problem was twofold. First, I decided to “upgrade” by coming up with some gorgeous design template that would look good on Pinterest. Then I could offer the template to my readers! Great idea, but perhaps not immediately before a long and complicated trip? Also, I have no design expertise whatsoever. Second, I was trying to preload three weeks’ worth of material on the blog while still being available to my clients and working on my novel. I was working through a stack of guidebooks and saving things to TripAdvisor, but the official fancy-dancy itinerary never got made. My husband was okay with this; we would be in Spain no matter how much or how little advance planning we did. The point was to see the country, meet people, learn about their culture, try the food, and see some birds (hopefully without being attacked by them this time).
The wing-it method [are you flapping your elbows?] has little middle ground. At its best, it allows for fabulous moments of serendipity. At its worst, it can be a real killjoy. Not every problem can be solved with money. If you don’t have money or feasible plans, a wing-it fail can get you into trouble. Each of the following factors is a force multiplier. Any of them can spoil an otherwise nice day. Each additional factor can make it feel exponentially worse. An ATM eating your card. Being stranded. Being hungry when all the surrounding stores and restaurants are closed for at least three hours. Having even a minor injury, or mosquito bites. Carrying 35 or more pounds of luggage. Being jet-lagged and sleep deprived. Having a headache. Getting a stern lecture in a language you can barely understand. Finding out that your journal got wet in the rain because your daypack isn’t waterproof.
What worked on this trip? We made every single one of our transportation connections. We were charged fairly on all our transactions. We slept pretty well. We only got caught in the rain on three different days, when we were prepared for more. The recommendations we picked up from TripAdvisor and the guidebooks were reliably accurate. We had fun and took a couple thousand photos.
What didn’t work? We had to make three separate stops and spend $50 on the first day because I forgot a charger cable, and my entire bottle of deodorant leaked into my entire container of melatonin pills. We used up our data allowance on the phone plan only halfway through the trip, couldn’t upgrade, and then figured out only after we got home that the expiration date on the payment card needed to be updated. An ATM ate our debit card and the error message was in Catalan. I was cold almost every day. Twenty mosquitos got into our tent one night. Both my pens ran dry at inopportune times. Part of my toenail came off. I spent four hours of the trip trying to read bus schedules in Spanish and figure out amended itineraries. We lost an hour at one of the sites we liked best because the location dot on TripAdvisor was 10 kilometers off. We almost wound up going to Gibraltar on a Sunday, when everything would have been closed. We had a few not-fun “NOW what do we do?” moments.
We learned. We learned that what’s true in one country or city may not be true elsewhere. We learned to cross-check site locations through independent sources. We learned to take screen shots. We learned that for us, the most important research to do in advance is how to find a grocery store and how to get to the camping. We learned that guidebooks don’t always include the types of sites that interest us the most. We did a status meeting on the flight home and wrote a two-page “lessons learned” report in preparation for our next trip. We learned to rely on each other more and to be more open about our moods and qualitative experience.
We’ve been lucky in our travels. We’ve never been involved in a riot or a transit strike. We’ve never been mugged. We’ve never had food poisoning. We’ve never left behind anything important. I haven’t even been street-harassed, something that happens to me at home on a near-daily basis even though I’m 40. Generally speaking, we feel safer on the road than we do at home. That’s why we go. Other parts of the world are much cleaner, nicer, and more civilized (whatever that means, exactly) than where we live. The wing-it method involves trust, and a lot of it. Trust in the goodness and altruism of ordinary people. Trust in commerce. Trust in government. Trust in animal behavior. Trust in our equipment. Trust in each other. Trust in our own powers of situational awareness, grit, stamina, and flexibility. Trust in our ability to turn any event into at least an interesting story.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.