Why I Set Travel Intentions vs. Make Travel Plans

Why I Set Travel Intentions vs. Make Travel Plans

My first trip to New York City was a blur. It was December 2012 and I had recently decided to give up on the idea that sobriety was right for me. Sobriety was not right for me. I wanted to drink. We spent our nights bar hopping and, I, getting blackout drunk, and we spent our days rushing all over the city with a hangover. Repeat, repeat, repeat, for three days. We saw a lot of sights (you can see the pictures: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 Part 1 and Part 2) and did a lot of drinking. But without those pictures and the few drunk moments that still make me feel icky, I would tell you the one memory that stands out the most from that trip is how much my feet hurt.

It might seem like I travel a lot, but the truth is I feel like a bit of a late bloomer. While many of my friends went to Europe and Southeast Asia after high school and college, I didn’t go anywhere except for a trip to Vegas in my mid-20s and that trip to NYC when I was 27. I suppose there was also one trip to Toronto in my mid-20s, and partway through we took the train to Montreal and then visited friends at the Royal Military College in Kingston. But again, I was blackout drunk for most of that trip. (I don’t even remember what RMC looked like.) And again, one of the memories that stands out from all of those trips is how much my feet hurt.

I used to do the same thing Holly did in many of her early trips: tried to see as much as I could. The first trip to NYC is a perfect example. I listed all of the things I wanted to do and see, figured out which neighbourhoods they were in, and then mapped out our days in a way that we might actually be able to cross most things off the list. And we did! The pictures prove we did and saw all of the things. But the pictures don’t show how much my feet hurt at night, how I had to soak them in hot water before going to bed, and how much I cringed at the thought of having to put my shoes back on the next day. I didn’t want to walk another step.

That wasn’t what I wanted to remember from my trips. I wanted to remember the conversations we shared over coffee and meals; the taste of those coffee and meals; and the names of the cafes and restaurants I loved so much that I would hope to visit again. I wanted to remember how good it felt to get to know a city so well in just a few days that I could find my way around without directions; and how cool it felt to be able to give someone else directions, when they asked. I wanted to remember what the sky looked like when the sun went down over each landscape. I wanted to remember being there—really being there.

Fortunately, it only took a few trips for me to learn this lesson—and to learn how nice it could be to travel at a slower pace. I have the memories of my sore feet to thank for that, but I can also thank my blogging friends. It wasn’t until I started travelling to their hometowns to visit them that I realized I didn’t have to rush around to see everything each city had to offer. All I wanted to do was spend time with them. That’s why I was there. And whenever I travel somewhere now, I ask myself that same question: why am I going here? The answer helps me set an intention for the trip, rather than make a strict plan.

When I used to make travel plans, I felt busy and anxious. I also never felt like I got enough time anywhere I went—probably because I didn’t. I was so focused on getting from Point A to Point B that I didn’t soak in the journey it took to get there. I couldn’t remember the streets I had walked or neighbourhoods I was in, and I definitely didn’t remember the conversations we had. I just knew I had a couple hours to spend in every point I’d marked on the map, so I squeezed in as much as I could at each stop and then moved onto the next one. This always ended with me going home (to my hotel or a friend’s place) feeling like I’d run a marathon. (And did I mention the sore feet?)

The first time I decided to set an intention vs. make any formal plans for a trip was when I went to Denver in October 2014. My intention was to finally meet my internet BFF Clare, and to soak up any time I could spend with her. You’ll read a bit more about that in the book, but that was my only goal for the trip—which made everything else that happened feel like huge bonuses. Would I like to go to Red Rocks with another friend? Yes! Go on a spontaneous hike? Yes, please! Have lunch in a part of the city I’d never thought of going to? Yes, again! Because I didn’t have a calendar full of events, I was able to say yes to whatever came my way, and it felt good.

Not only did it feel good to be spontaneous, it feel good to let go of any expectations I had about what that trip might look like. And if I were to give anyone travel advice now, it would always be that: don’t expect anything. Just be open and be happy with whatever happens. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan ANYTHING. I actually love the questions Holly included at the bottom of her post, and think of many of those myself. There’s usually 1-2 attractions I’d like to see, some friends I want to spend time with, etc. So I make sure I do those things. But I also leave a lot of room open in my calendar, so I’m not rushing from one to the other.

The result is always a trip I actually remember every detail of. I remember the conversations we shared over coffee and meals; the taste of those coffee and meals; and the names of the cafes and restaurants I loved so much that I hope to visit again. I remember how good it felt to get to know a city so well in just a few days that I could find my way around without directions; and how cool it felt to be able to give someone else directions, when they asked. I remember what the sky looked like when the sun went down over the landscape. I remember being there—really being there.

And that’s true of every trip I’ve been on since October 2014. I set an intention, leave my calendar fairly open, and am open to every opportunity that comes my way. And I come home remembering every detail and feeling totally content with how it went. Nothing is a blur. In fact, I can probably describe how I experienced a city through all five senses: what it looked like, how it smelled, what the food/drinks tasted like, what the sounds were and how it felt to be there. I might not “do it all” or “see everything” but that’s ok. I remember what I did do. Nothing is a blur. And the bonus: my feet never hurt.

The reason I’m sharing this story now is because I am in the middle of a month full of travel—and even though I’m moving at somewhat of a quick pace (four cities in one month), I’m trying to take it slow, set an intention for each trip and enjoy my time in each place. Here’s what it looks like:

Experiment #9: Slow Travel

  • spend a week in NYC (Nov 3-10)
  • spend a week in Toronto (Nov 11-18)
  • spend a week at home (Nov 1-2, 19-23)
  • spend a week or so in Victoria (Nov 24-Dec 3?)

I’m happy to report there was a lot of downtime in NYC. I didn’t see many sights, other than what anyone sees when they walk around the East Village and Midtown and Central Park. But I went to one play (Tiny Beautiful Things – if you’re in NYC, please check it out). I also spent quality time with my friend Shannon, shared a few delicious coffees and meals with friends, and even met up with a friend from Vancouver who also happened to be there at the same time. And I narrated my audiobook. (!!!) That’s why I was there, and it was an incredible experience I’m so grateful to have had. Everything else was a bonus.

Looking ahead to next year, people keep asking why I want to go to the UK and what I plan on doing when I get there. Truthfully, I have no plans. I just want to go. I want to book a one-way ticket and have enough money that I can afford to stay for as many weeks or months as I want to. I just want to go. That is the intention. And by going with no expectations or plans, there is no real chance of being disappointed. Everything will be a bonus. :)

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  • This may not be the main intent but this should be the one travel post every traveler should read. That and minding your tourist manners.

    My family was never able to afford to go anywhere but when a family friend offered to take us to Disneyland (the only expense for us was tickets, they covered the rest) all 8 of us piled into a car and drove 9 hours straight to Disney.

    In my mind I thought it was going to be fun but besides the rides the whole thing felt like one chore after another.

    See that? Go there! Snap a photo! Move on to the other thing. Now r&r for 3 days! I didn’t remember much about that trip except my feet hurt too!!! It was just walk, photo session, walk, photo session, wait in line, walk.

    I’m looking forward to traveling but I’m not planning activities in detail. There’s no shame in taking a nap in Tokyo if I wanted a nap.

    • Haha, I knew what you meant! And there is definitely NO shame in taking a nap anywhere in the world. I didn’t mention it in the post, but that reminded me of something else I think of often: when I’m at home, I listen to my body and do what it needs – so why wouldn’t I do the same when I travel?

  • Love this. I went to Ireland this past summer with my boyfriend. We rented a car, drove west from Dublin and figured it out as we went along. One of the best trips ever! We had a couple places in mind we wanted to visit if the timing worked out, but the vast majority of the time we just drove around and stopped wherever we wanted to.

    • Ok, I know I said I don’t have any plans for the UK yet, but this is totally a dream for me. I would love to rent a car and drive around Ireland! I don’t have any stops in mind yet, but I just have a feeling I would love the country and want to see it that way.

  • Love this post and loved seeing you in NYC. I’m so with you on this. In both travel and life, I’m trying to slow down and enjoy the unexpected moments instead of trying to squeeze in all of the things. It’s hard because travel is so special that I want to see it all and do as much as I can, but then I don’t realize it’s been a whirlwind, exhausting trip. Thanks for the post. I hope you’re having a good time in Toronto!

    • It was so nice to see you too! And I’m with you on wanting to see as much of a place as you can, but I think something I’ve learned (after many trips to NYC) is that you’ll NEVER see it all. Ever. Even the people who live there don’t see everything. I also try to remind myself that going somewhere isn’t always *once* in a lifetime—it could be the first of a lifetime. :)

  • I usually have a few things in mind based on my research that I can’t miss and then leave the rest open to luck and surprise. A benefit of traveling at my age (47) is that I don’t have as much energy as I did even ten years ago. I definitely want some down time during trips and don’t feel guilty about enjoying my hotel or just having a lazy breakfast.

    • Oh heck no. I totally enjoyed my hotel in NYC last week! I’m not ashamed to say I was in bed by 8pm a few nights and had a couple lazy mornings too. Also… we paid for it! So we should enjoy it. ;)

  • If I was going to the UK I’d be planning to go when the tours of Buckingham Palace are going (I’m a big fan of the Royal family) Or I’d see if I could get tickets to one of Her Majesty’s Tea Parties. As a Canadian citizen living or visiting the UK you’re eligible to (once in your lifetime). That would be fantastic,

  • I don’t so much travel as go on research trips, but I like it that way. I spend a lot of my time in museums and libraries, and then anything else I see is unplanned. And the research itinerary usually means that I’m off the beaten track a bit so I see things that aren’t on the tourist agenda – I don’t like crowds so I avoid the major tourist attractions as a rule. I’ve never been to the Eiffel Tour, but I’ve spent a week living in a tiny apartement in the Marais and eating Lebanese food in the hole in the wall opposite the Jewish shop selling Dreidels. Notre Dame left me a bit cold, but the medieval church of St Severin a few streets away where I stumbled across a choir practice was exquisite. I once spent a whole day as the sole tourist on North Ronaldsay walking the length of the island and meeting the seaweed-eating sheep who came to investigate me. And the highlights of my first trip to Wellington were the afternoon I spent on the top of a mountain sitting in a cafe that leaned out into a valley full of fog so that it felt as though I was floating in the clouds, and the walk along the seafront and accidentally getting a front row seat for the dress rehearsal for the next day’s opening of the national museum, complete with a war canoe full of Maori warriors doing a haka, from about 3 metres away. I barely have photos, but I have brilliant memories. Hmmm. Perhaps I should write a retrospective travel blog?

    • Yes, please! You gave me some incredible visuals in this comment alone, Sarah. I would love to read more – and am so glad you’re enjoying these experiences. :)

  • Just like you, I have gone on so many different types of trips – ticking things off the to see/to do trips, slow trips and ones of the drinking variety (they were my least favourite – what’s fun about a hangover…). I think each time you go back to a place you will have a totally different experience. I have gone to Edinburgh 3 times and each trip has had a different flavour… And ticking things off a list doesn’t give you the full immersion experience. Although saying that there are certain things I really want to see and do but I think like you said they should be factored in with some slow travel time to just immerse yourself in your surroundings and the local people.

    • NYC is exactly the same, Sharon! I’ve been six or seven times now, and each time has been totally different than the last. That also serves as a reminder that we’ll never be able to “do it all” in one trip, so we should enjoy the things we *can* do. :)

  • Totally agree! I love to travel like that. In May, my mum and I went to northern Italy for a few days and all we planned up-front was flights, a rental car, and the first night’s hotel at Lake Como. After that, we wandered around with no set agenda and found places to stay as we went. We saw the most amazing places, ate waay too much pizza, and just generally had one of the best holidays of my life, even though we didn’t see a single ‘tourist spot’ that everyone always rushes around to see!

  • I really enjoyed reading this post! Like you, I️ haven’t been on many big trips compared to those my age (I’m 24). I recently took my first big trip without my parents to Washington DC for a few days with a close friend. I felt rushed to visit everything on our list and I think that took away from truly being able to be in the moment and enjoy where we were. I won’t be traveling any time soon, but I know for sure that I’ll be putting intention at the top of my to-do list next. Thanks again ❤️

  • Cait, I love this. “By going with no expectations or plans, there is no real chance of being disappointed. Everything will be a bonus. :)” What a wonderful way to setting your mindset and really appreciating the luxury of travel to someplace new.