Should I plan or be spontaneous with my trips?

16 February, 2022|Making the most of travel|
Should I plan or be spontaneous with my trips? The Travel Psychologist

Finding the beauty in unplanned moments

By Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist

The ability to plan is, as far as we know, unique to humans and is considered to be a cognitively complex process. It involves imagining the future, and holding a number of factors in mind to come up with the most effective course of actions for the task at hand. When we think about it in this way, we can see that travel planning is actually a very complicated; We have to know and understand where we are going, make predictions about how we might feel and what we might want to do, figure out how this fits with our budget and time, and evaluate potential choices in relation to the other options available to us.

There are of course a vast array of options when it comes to how much our trips and itineraries are planned, and indeed whether we do this ourselves or draw on the expertise of travel professionals. In the 1990s the popularity of the package holiday reached it’s peak, with one-size-all holidays created to meet our every need, and our only decisions being to choose from the pre-selected excursion and cocktail lists. In the noughties the rise of budget airlines gave people more choice to plan trips that met their particular needs. Alongside this came the meteoric rise of the travel blog, which helped us to plan our trips according to our own particular preferences.  During this period many of us became planners and savvy at finding and creating amazing experiences that met what we were looking for. This was fantastic in many ways for us as consumers as it put us fully in charge of our trips. As such, many of us now consider ourselves to be planners when it comes to travel; a whopping 82% of respondents in our Instagram community would define themselves in this way. Is this always a good thing or are there times when planning is less helpful for us? In order to consider this question, lets start by looking at the factors that might influence our tendency to plan.

Our personal characteristics

It is likely that our personality plays a part in our tendency to plan. People who are higher on the neuroticism dimension will tend to experience more anxiety about new situations, and may be more likely to plan as a way of managing this anxiety. In addition, those who are particularly conscientious tend to be thoughtful and may also be more likely to be plan in order to get the best out of their trips. Our attitude to planning will also be relevant. If we view planning as an effective way to get more out of our trip we will be more likely to do it. The extent to which we enjoy planning will also be important; for example if it helps us to get excited about our trip. This is definitely the case for me personally; thinking about the sights that I might want to see is a big part of the excitement of a trip. If we hate planning and view it as laborious or even ‘not cool’ then we are less likely to take the time.

Abundance vs scarcity mindset

The term abundance mentality was first termed in Stephen Covey’s groundbreaking book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. In a business context Covey talked about how viewing the world through the lens of there being “plenty out there for everybody” can be helpful in terms of interactions with other people.   In contrast a scarcity mindset is the view that there is a limited ‘pot’ of success. In a business context this can be unhelpful as it can lead to competition rather than collaboration. In relation to travel, a scarcity mindset could mean feeling that we have few opportunities for trips and and this may create anxiety and pressure for trips to go ‘perfectly’.  As I wrote in my previous article  Expectations and holidays: Finding the balance  this can be really unhelpful for our enjoyment of our trips.

The relevance of budget is of course an important factor and if we have a limited budget (or limited time for that matter), there will of course be more pressure to get a trip ‘right’. Planning can be an effective way for us to prioritise what we might want to see or do if we have a limited budget. It also helps us to think about where we might want to spend more or less; if we want a hotel with a great view on one particular part of our trip we may be willing to stay at a budget hotel at another destination, especially if we are going to be spending minimal time in the hotel room.

In the words of my good friend and fellow Psychologist Dr Hannah Darrell-Berry who is definitely not a planner when it comes to travel; “if I don’t manage to see everything I want to this time, it’s fine. I can always go again later if I really want to”. This hits the nail on the head when describing what an abundance mindset looks like!

Seeing the value in spontaneity

In what ways might spontaneity be helpful? Well, in most aspects of life we learn that showing up consistently and discipline is crucially important. Anything that is desirable in life requires this kind of consistency; whether this is working out every day to achieve the ‘perfect body’ or getting up early everyday on cold and dark mornings to get to work. These things often involve learning to override the ups and downs in our own emotional states and body sensations on a day-to-day basis.   There is nothing wrong with this, especially if we are living in line with what we value. However if we consistently tune out from our own emotions and body sensations then we essentially lose touch with ourselves. I wrote more about this in my article  Travel and our appetite for life.

When we are spontaneous, we are tuning in to how we feel on a given day and going along with this. Whilst doing this 100% of the time would be pretty unhelpful, I would suggest that giving ourselves regular opportunities to connect with the ups and downs in our emotions is really important. For many people, myself included, practices such as yoga and meditation can be a good way to do this regularly. Our trips and having time away from the demands of life can also provide an important opportunity. Planning to the extreme means that we may be making the most ‘efficient’ use of our time but it means that we are not having the opportunity to practise tuning into ourselves. So of course a balance is required between having planned activities and giving ourselves the opportunity to be spontaneous.

Think about positive experiences you’ve had when you’ve been spontaneous. This might be finding a restaurant unexpectedly or coming across a part of a city that you’ve really enjoyed by mistake. There is something quite magical about coming across a restaurant that looks really unassuming and turns out to be amazing. Whilst we don’t want to spend all of our time wandering aimlessly, there is a balance to be struck.

Does the destination matter?

I think destination and type of trip is really key here.  As Amy a member of our Instagram community helpfully summarised:

“We would all love to be totally spontaneous but it’s not practical. South of France, yes I’ll be spontaneous all day long. NYC; I planned attractions that looped up so we weren’t doubling back with potential food places/toilets on route”  

Amy’s thoughts totally resonate with me. As many of you know I absolutely love Greece. When I am there I totally go with how I’m feeling on a given day; stroll around town in the morning and beach in the afternoon – yeah why not? I hardly ever plan anything. If I go on longer haul trips or destinations where there are particular sights that I want to see, I would plan seeing the key things. For me it is always helpful to try and organise times without much planned to just go with how I feel. I guess looking back this might always appear to be the most ‘productive’ use of time and it absolutely isn’t, but sometimes it is exactly what I need.

As regular readers will know I’m an advocate of us all thinking about what our travel needs might be so that we can be intentional with our trip. Depending on what else is going on with our lives, we may want a busy trip with lots of new experiences and sights. Sometimes the energy of this may make us feel alive if we have been feeling a bit stagnant . At other times we may need something different. We can get better at tuning into this if we pay attention to it.

Who we are travelling with

If we travel with a partner, family or friends it is likely that there is a planner in your group. Based on the personal characteristics described earlier it is often the case that someone will take this role. We can then get into a dynamic where this is self-fulfilling. There will be times when this person really enjoys the planning process and this works. There will be other times when this person just steps up because it is expected of them. I would encourage you to check in with one another to ask if this is working for this particular trip and whether one or both of you need a different type of trip or a different level of planning. As with anything in relationships and life, it can be helpful to have clear communication to understand and negotiate what might work best for both of you. Strong relationships are built on clear communication and not unspoken expectations, so make sure you and your partner, friend or family member talk through what you each might need from a trip on this one particular occasion. This might be different to previous trips.

Summing it up

In summary the answer to the question of whether to plan or not depends on a lot of factors. Our personality, our attitude to planning, what is going on in our lives and what we might need from trip, who we are travelling with and of course where we are going will all be relevant! Like anything in life, planning can be a very helpful and effective strategy, but if we use it to the extreme or at the wrong times, it can be unhelpful. So I ask you to be mindful of when planning is and isn’t working for you.


Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change.

Simon and Schuster.  Das, J. P., Naglieri, J. A., & Murphy, D. B. (1995). Individual differences in cognitive processes of planning: A personality variable? The Psychological Record, 45(3), 355-371.