Answer in short? As little as possible…no matter what anxieties you possess or how little time you have in your destination.
Despite travelling for more than a year now, I can still get myself in a twist when it comes to travel planning: What if I miss an amazing place?; What do I pack?; Is there anything I need to book in advance?
The night before my departure I will wonder why I did not think to create a list, consult endless books and maybe even create a spreadsheet.
However, the minute I get back on the road with my backpack, I quickly realise just how unfounded most of those fears were and I soon feel grateful for my lack of planning.
What do I plan before I travel?
I skim-read a travel guide and talk to friends to feel out which places I may want to see. I have a quick Google of good places to visit and check if I need to book anything in advance. I read some travel blogs. I make sure I have enough money. I book my first bus/plane/train out. I pack the night before.
That is it. No tours, no activities pre-booked, no ongoing transport set in stone.
In fact, very often the only thing I have done before reaching a destination is talk to some people or briefly look at some vague online information, and I just sort the rest out when I get there.
Because the wonderful thing about being a traveller as opposed to a tourist is that you are open to the novel, wild, different and varied. You “go with the flow”, as it were. If I am on the road and someone throws me a curve ball, I can say “yes” and grab it, instead of dejectedly trundling to my next planned destination. If I want to travel with someone, I can travel with them. If a travel partnership turns sour, I can leave them and move on solo.
Lack of planning leads to spontaneity. It means you living in the moment. It means letting go and travelling with your eyes wide open. It’s exciting.
Trust me when I say that when you get on the road and start travelling you will want (and even need) to be flexible with your plans.
Not to mention the fact that you will find out some of the best information and the cheapest deals at the destination itself. That tour you almost booked from home may well be half the price at the destination itself.
But what if I only have a short time in my destination?
As I said, plan as little as you can. If you have limited time, research the places in much more depth and sketch out a more precise itinerary. Definitely pre-book your first night’s accommodation. As much as I love flexibility, it does bite if you wast a whole day planning on a small 7 day holiday.
However, it’s important to not be overly rigid. So much of the best information and the most beautiful hidden gems will be found on the ground and not from your laptop. Many of your favourite moments and places may well be things unintended and it’s vital that you are open to them.
What if I have anxiety?
Don’t fall into the trap of pre-booking a dozen tours and set routes. Not only does this shut you off from opportunities on the road, it also stops you from facing and beating some of your fears.
Anxiety is rooted in preconceived fears and ideas that usually pertain to some far-off futuristic event that hasn’t even happened yet. For instance, when it comes to travel we ask ourselves questions such as “what if I get mugged?” and “what if I don’t book in advance and the tour somehow becomes fully booked, even though it almost never is?”
Planning and making sure that everything is in place is often volunteered as a good way of avoiding anxiety.
However, in my opinion and experience, over-planning stops us from facing our fears and anxieties. It’s a bulwark. I was incredibly anxious about travelling and I feared that my lack of planning would only exacerbate my issues. However, what I found was that for the first time I was facing my fears until I could say: “I can do this!” The sky didn’t fall, I didn’t die, I saw what I wanted to, and when I got lost I found the good way again. If I had planned every inch of my trip, I don’t think I would have learned about my capabilities in the same way or been as open to new experiences.
Lack of planning pushes you to live in the moment, to deal with the here and now, and to step forward with your senses open. If you suffer with anxiety, you should probably plan the least.
If you arrive and find that things are just too much, then you can take steps to alleviate that anxiety by booking tours.
Another option is to make sure that your first week is well-planned, but leave the rest of your trip to chance.
So, if you are going abroad to foreign lands tomorrow and have planned virtually nothing and are now panicking, don’t fret. Instead, accept that you are in the perfect position to go on the adventure of a lifetime.