Travel tales

Destination unknown: A mystery weekend with Surprise Trips

Surprise Trip to Madrid

What type of travel planner are you? Do you book your flights months in advance and meticulously research the best places to stay, eat and visit before leaving home? Or are you a last-minute booker who just wings it when you get there? But how about taking it to the extreme and going on a weekend break where you don’t know where you’re going until you get to the airport? That’s the concept behind travel company Surprise Trips. You choose the date, duration, airport and budget, but only find out where you’re headed two hours before take off. I definitely fall into the travel planner category – I’m sure the research stage is half the fun – so how would I get on on a mystery trip with someone else taking the planning reigns?

Note: Surprise Trips are no longer in operation, but you can do a similar trip with or Wowtrip.

Rooftop bar

All good cities need a rooftop bar

Destination unknown

My travel companion for this trip into the unknown was my best friend Nicki. We’ve travelled around the world together – winging it 99% of the way – but relocations, mortgages, husbands and babies mean it’s been a while since we took a trip together. We fixed on two nights in July departing from Gatwick, then left it to Surprise Trips to work their magic. All you know is that you’ll be going to a city in mainland Europe, the flight won’t be more than 3.5 hours long and you’ll be staying in at least a three-star hotel.

Vintage bookshop in Madrid

Pretty vintage bookshop

The company works with 77 different European destinations – excluding the UK, plus Paris and Barcelona as most people have already been there. You can also eliminate three places you don’t want to visit – mine were Seville, Tallinn and Riga as I’d either just been or had booked to go. Not having a clue where you’re going does come with a few packing challenges. Should I pack sun cream or thermals? The flights are all hand luggage only so you need to pack light too. We got our first clue 72 hours before departure – a weather forecast. We were looking at 30–40 degree sunshine, though our trip coincided with a European heatwave which ruined any sneaky plans we had to try and guess where we might be heading.

Balconies in Madrid

Colourful balconies

The morning of the trip we arrived at the airport just in time for the big reveal. You feel like there should be a countdown or fanfare to go with it, but in fact you find out by email, which revealed our destination was… Madrid! It wasn’t somewhere I’d have picked myself – central Spain in the height of summer sounded like craziness and I’d been in Spain a few weeks earlier. But I do love historic cities, tapas and sangria, so things were looking good. We did some frantic Googling of how to get from the airport to our accommodation, picked up a guidebook and some Euros from a cash machine, and we were all set.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor

I’m normally a bit of a nervous flyer but the excitement of reading about where we were headed and making plans worked as well at distracting me as the mini prosecco (guaranteed to turn easyJet into first-class!). Most trips use hotels, but we were actually staying in an apartment right in the centre of the city – which is just what I would’ve chosen myself. This is a new development for the site so there were a few teething problems in sorting out key collection, but soon we were all settled in and ready to explore.

Buen Retiro Park

Boating in Buen Retiro Park

A quick browse though the guidebook left us with a couple of must-sees, a few more maybes and lots of time for wandering, eating and drinking. No big plans meant no pressure and it was one of the most relaxing trips I’ve had in a while. For me the best thing about a surprise trip was that it gets you to visit places you wouldn’t have chosen yourself. There were probably 10 European city destinations I’d have picked to visit over Madrid, but I loved it. There’s always a chance you end up somewhere you don’t fancy, but even then you’re sure to discover a few hidden highlights that’ll make you glad you went.

Tio Pepe sign, Madrid

Classic advertising in Puerta del Sol

The verdict

So would I take another surprise trip? Actually I would! Although I love planning and researching trips, there’s something very freeing about just turning up somewhere. Being planner-in-chief comes with a certain amount of pressure – you’re the one who chose the hotel and who everyone expects to know where to go or what to do. This way everyone’s in the same boat. I’ve travelled to quite a few European cities so there was a chance I’d end up revisiting somewhere. But I’ve already written about how much I love returning to destinations and not having a big ‘to do’ list makes for a more relaxed trip. I’ll no doubt go back to my planning ways for most trips, but won’t say no to a bit of spontaneity once in a while too.

Madrid city views

City views

Would a surprise trip suit you?

Up for the challenge? If so here are a couple of practicalities to bear in mind:

Do you live near an airport? If you’re within easy travelling distance of an airport it makes things easier, as it’s more difficult to book parking or train tickets if you don’t know your return time. Flights aren’t ridiculously early – our was at 11am, but because I live quite a way from Gatwick I couldn’t have got there in time for check in so had to stay in an airport hotel the night before. The site covers 31 UK airports, though the bigger the airport the more options, and the harder it is to guess where you’re going.

Are you flexible when it comes to accommodation? The hotels are three-star standard or above. But you won’t know know which one you’ll be in until the last-minute – so if you only stay in five-star luxury, have to have a pool, or have special requests like gluten-free breakfast then it might not suit you.

Are you on a strict budget? You set the budget for your trip before you book so you know what the flight and accommodation costs will be. But everything else – transport, attractions, food, drinks – you pay for when you get there. Prices vary hugely across Europe, so if you’re on a budget you could find yourself somewhere pricey like Switzerland or Scandinavia where your travel cash won’t stretch far.

Do you care about where you sit on the plane? Most flights are with budget airlines (though not Ryanair which is a bonus!) and as you can’t check in advance you can’t choose a seat. So this means you might not be able to sit together and will probably get lumbered with a middle/back seat. Though it helps to check in as early as you can, and you can sometimes pay a supplement to swap for a better seat.

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Destination unknown: A mystery weekend with Surprise Trips

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  • Reply
    GallopAroundTheGlobe (@KiaraGallop)
    September 11, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    I love the concept of this but as I’ve been to most capital cities in Europe, I’d probably end up re-visiting somewhere, which doesn’t have quite the same appeal as going somewhere new. It would be good if you could set up a profile on their site and note ALL the cities you’ve been to, to prevent duplication. I’d definitely be more interested then 🙂

    • Reply
      September 12, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      It is a little bit tougher for bloggers or anyone who’s visited a lot of European cities already – a few more to cross off the list would make it better for me too!

  • Reply
    September 11, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    I absolutely love this idea! Eurowings offers something similar with flights but only from Germany unfortunately and it’s just the flights. I love the idea of just rocking up at the airport and having flights and accommodation already sorted. Glad you enjoyed Madrid!

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 11:16 am

      Madrid was so great! It was surprisingly nice to have everything sorted for me too.

  • Reply
    Jordan Beck Wagner
    September 11, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    What a great idea!!! Too bad it isn’t in Germany yet!

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 11:15 am

      Hope they start a German version soon!

  • Reply
    September 12, 2016 at 10:06 am

    I love the idea! I would really like to try this!

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 11:14 am

      Hope you get to give it a go someday!

  • Reply
    September 12, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    What fun! I love Madrid and find something new to do every time I am there. Love the Prado!! This is a cool concept but not sure I could do it. But, you never know.

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 11:14 am

      Madrid was great – I’m going to have some more posts about the actual city coming up. I’m such a travel planner normally this was so far from my usual style but I’m surprised how much I enjoyed it!

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Exciting !

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 11:13 am

      It was really fun!

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Would love to do this. Putting it on my list. Thanks for the info!

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      You’re welcome, hope you enjoy it!

  • Reply
    Confuzzled Bev
    September 13, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    It certainly sounds like an interesting concept.

    I like that you say no RyanAir is a bonus… personally I don’t mind RyanAir but HATE Easyjet. Each to their own… 🙂

    • Reply
      September 13, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      How funny! I’ve never had any bad experiences with easyJet – actually BA are the ones who I’ve had the most problem with (lost bags, not getting the seat I’d paid for), but I’ve read a few things about Ryanair working right on the edge in terms of safety and with my nervous flying I’m happier avoiding them!

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    I love the concept and it definitely sounds very exciting… but I don’t know if I could do it myself. I’m very much a planner and researcher and uncertainty give me really bad anxiety 🙁 But who knows.. maybe one day I’ll be able to do something like that 🙂

    • Reply
      September 14, 2016 at 6:25 pm

      I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past too and found planning helps so it was a bit of a challenge too! I did do some quick internet research and buy a guidebook as soon as I found out where we were headed so at least we knew how to get from the airport etc which did help a lot.

  • Reply
    September 14, 2016 at 5:39 am

    I do love the idea. Thanks Lucy. I’m putting this on my list!.

    • Reply
      September 14, 2016 at 6:26 pm

      Thanks Gina, hope you enjoy it!

  • Reply
    September 14, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    I’d never heard of this! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Something to consider down the road.

    • Reply
      September 14, 2016 at 6:27 pm

      Thanks, it’s definitely worth a try sometime!

  • Reply
    Vicky @ A Backpack Full of Adventures
    September 17, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I love the idea! Like you, I’m more of a planner, although I do think I used to be worse. Up until last year, every time I went away, I liked everything to be planned out, and I always made an effort to stick to my plan – but it can be a bit stressful sometimes. Ever since I started travelling solo, though, I’m trying to be a bit more flexible. I’m still not one of those people who can just go there and… wing it, but I’m getting there 😀

    I love the concept of Surprise Trips, and I can definitely see myself giving it a try. Although Kiara’s right, it’s a bit of a hit and miss if you’ve been to several places in Europe already!

    • Reply
      September 18, 2016 at 9:29 pm

      I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wing it completely either – I’d be too worried about missing something – but I do like to factor in plenty of time to just wander around and see what I find as these are often my favourite bits!

  • Reply
    September 17, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    What a fun idea – and a great business concept. I hope they set this up in other parts of the world as well. And glad you enjoyed your location! I wonder where you’ll go next… 🙂

    • Reply
      September 18, 2016 at 9:13 pm

      It’s one of those ideas I wish I’d thought of myself! Who knows where next?

  • Reply
    September 21, 2016 at 2:03 am

    It is such a great concept – like you, I am such a planner, but the premise behind the trip is so intriguing! I love that you just show up and take in the city – what a nice way to take it all in. I would definitely do it; however, being located in the US does present challenges. I hope they expand it here soon!

    • Reply
      September 21, 2016 at 7:47 pm

      It is such a great idea – hope they do expend it to the US too, you’d have some great options for a weekend!

  • Reply
    Rachel Gault (@rachelgault)
    September 27, 2016 at 4:13 am

    This sounds like so much fun! I’m a big planner but love the idea of a spontaneous trip!

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