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Why a Surprise Trip Might Be the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Mental Health

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From wellness retreats to active road trips, there are all kinds of travel trends that are great for your body. But what about your mind? Well, the latest travel trend can take care of that: surprise vacations. While "mystery trips" have been around for decades, they're coming back for a few important reasons. Here, travel and mental health experts weigh in on the biggest benefits of letting someone else plan your vacation for you.

The Surprise Travel Trend

The main reason people love surprise trips so much? The novelty of it. "These days, with all the information you could possibly want at your fingertips, going on a surprise trip adds an unknown factor to your vacation that you can't get any other way," explains Roshni Agarwal, founder of The Vacation Hunt, a travel company that plans surprise trips.

Plus, it's gaining popularity because there are versions of the idea in all price ranges. Black Tomato, a bespoke tour operator, just launched an offering called Get Lost, which allows travelers to have the most luxe, off-the-grid surprise trip imaginable, complete with sophisticated tracking devices so that you can safely leave your phone at home. Potential destinations run the gamut from Mongolia to Guyana—literally anywhere you can imagine. (If this sounds expensive, it is. You're looking at $20K a person.)

Then there's Pack Up & Go, which specializes in U.S.-only weekend trips. You tell them what your budget is, how you want to get there (car, bus, plane), and they take care of the rest. A week before the trip, they send you an email with the weather forecast for your destination, along with other helpful info for packing. A few days before, they send you an envelope with the destination and your itinerary. On the day of the trip, you open the envelope and you're good to go! (Related: 7 Reasons to Take a Real Winter Vacation)

Why Travelers Love It

One of the biggest perks of surprise travel is that you often end up visiting a place you never thought you'd venture to. "I honestly would have never thought to myself, 'I should plan a trip to Philadelphia just to see it,'" says Katrina, a 23-year-old based in Dallas who recently used Pack Up & Go to plan a surprise solo trip for herself. "I would definitely do it again, and I hope that when I do, I get another city that I never thought of visiting before." As for her biggest takeaway from the experience, she says that "throwing caution to the wind and just doing it isn't as scary as I always thought it was."

Plus, there's the fact that for many people, the planning stage of a trip is the least fun part, and once they arrive, they often spend time internally evaluating their choices rather than actually enjoying the trip. Sound familiar? "Unfortunately, many people spend their vacations regretting their choices by thinking things like, 'If only I'd gone to Europe, we'd be having more fun,' or 'I should have spent the extra money to get the better hotel,'" says Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist, author, and lecturer at Northeastern University. "When you let someone else make those decisions, you don't second-guess yourself."

The Mental Health Benefits

Perhaps most important of all, surprise trips can be great for your mental health in several ways. Let's face it: Planning a trip requires decision-making. "Today's workforce experiences decision fatigue on a regular basis," Morin says. "From deciding which project to tackle next to picking out which company to partner with, making decisions all day long is exhausting." Ugh, agreed. The reality is that many people are too tired to plan a vacation. Between flights, hotels, restaurant reservations, and tours, it can be a lot to handle. "It's much easier to take a backseat sometimes and let someone else make the decisions so that your only job is to relax," she adds. (Related: How to Turn Your Next Trip Into a Self-Care Vacation

Plus, handing over the reins to someone else can be a great mental exercise, especially for people who struggle with wanting to be in control all the time. "By expanding tolerance for uncertainty, surprise vacations can offer a reduction in overall anxiety," explains Anna Kress, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ. "During a surprise vacation, people who have a tendency towards control can discover—perhaps for the first time—the freedom that comes from letting go." And since many surprise vacation companies allow you to express your preferences before they pick a destination, you'll still have a reasonable amount of control over where you're headed and what you do.

What's more, testing your limits when it comes to adventure is actually good for your brain. "Anytime your brain is challenged to problem-solve or adapt, there's an opportunity to form new neural pathways," says Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., an NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist and teaching faculty member at Columbia University Teacher's College. When you need to transition and adapt to new things moment-to-moment, you exercise something called cognitive flexibility, which fires up multiple parts of your brain, she says. "Stress, anxiety, and fear can then be transformed into curiosity and allowance."

These benefits not only sound good in theory, but they actually do happen when you commit to a surprise trip. "I had never traveled alone before, and was a bit nervous, but the idea of not knowing almost eased my nerves since I wasn't able to look into my destination," Katrina says. "The idea of giving up control was a great way to see just how flexible I can be when put into situations. It was a test of my own strength, and made me realize I really could do anything."

How to DIY a Surprise Trip

If you don't want to shell out the cash for a company to do the organizing for you, it's absolutely possible to get a similar effect on your own. Here's what experts suggest for DIYing your own surprise vacation.

Have a friend plan it. "If you have a travel partner, you can ask the partner if they'd like to set up a surprise vacation for the two of you," Kress suggests. You can agree on a budget together that works for both of you. And if you're traveling with your significant other, you can even reap some relationship benefits from the experience. "Giving up control of your travel plans to someone you love gives you an opportunity to connect with them in a completely different way," says Krista Canfield McNish of FoodWaterShoes, a 35-year-old based in San Francisco who often plans surprise trips for her husband and vice versa. "If you're open to it, you'll be presented with a rare opportunity to discover what the person you care about values in an experience and that in and of itself is a priceless gift."

Use a travel agent. With all the online booking options out there, it might feel kind of old school to use a travel agent, but it's actually one of the most practical ways to be surprised by your trip. "Give your travel agent a general idea of what you're looking for," Morin recommends. "Say something like, 'I'd like to go on a family-friendly vacation that involves lots of outdoor activities,' then leave it up to a travel expert to decide what type of trip will best meet your goals." Plus, travel agents have a ton of experience with working within a budget, and they probably have some cost-saving tips and tricks you've never considered before.

Let fate take over. This idea works best if you have a slightly bigger budget. "Get a travel magazine and flip to a page," suggests Hafeez. "The first destination you see is where you go. Or get a map, close your eyes, and point. Where your finger lands is where you go."

Switch things up. "Consider doing the opposite of what you would normally," says Hafeez. "If you typically travel to resorts, try a five-state road trip in a rented Winnebago. The idea is to explore who you are when experiencing something different."

 

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