There’s a really meaningful Irish song, written by Ewan MacColl, which laments the diminishing numbers of The Travelers, who are the Irish equivalent of gypsies. They have an idea where they’re going, but don’t worry too much about the details of how they’re going to get there, or how long they’ll stay.
I was reminded of that song recently, when I saw a quote from Lao Tzu, the famous Chinese philosopher. “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
Both of these make a statement about travel that many of us would find unnerving. We usually develop painstaking itineraries, with dates and times and details of where we’re going to stay, and how we’re going to get there. When I do a custom trip to Ireland for someone, I research bus schedules, opening hours, and the like, and I work through the whole trip minute by minute to make sure my clients aren’t stranded or wind up in the wrong place. I often recommend they book attractions ahead of time, to make sure of being able to go. I tell them to bring enough cash to pay the B&B because some of them don’t take credit cards.
And yet, the surprises on a journey are sometimes the most memorable part of the trip. I remember speaking with a member of a group of doctors who had taken a tour of China that wound up in Beijing just as police were cracking down on protesters in Tienanmen Square. He described how the tour operator rounded them up onto a special bus and sneaked them out of town to the airport just ahead of flight cancellations and serious security restrictions. He almost glowed as the told me about these experiences and how he wanted to go back to China as soon as possible. Scared? Yes, but also tantalized and excited.
That kind of travel does appeal to some people, such as the college-ager who backpacks across western Europe. But we don’t have to go to that extreme to find the footloose version of travel, providing we do some advance preparation.
Many B&Bs and guesthouses, especially when it’s not high season, have openings for which you can call just hours in advance to book. And there are associations that keep lists of local accommodations, so you can call two or three if you have to, to find someplace to stay on short notice.
Having a car makes your itinerary much more flexible, but Ireland also has pretty decent public transportation and you can get from place to place fairly easily. Jump on the bus or train, call ahead to find a place to stay, and voila, you’re on your way to a new adventure.
In much of Europe, you can hop a train in the evening and arrive in another country by morning. Transportation and accommodation in one!
Food is another issue, but if you’re not tied to four-star restaurants, your options are pretty open. Stop at a farmers market or a grocer’s and pick up some picnic style eats; fruit, sandwich fixings, bottled drinks, etc., and you can dine almost anywhere. Hit a little cafe or pub when you get the chance and you’re much more in touch with the local scene all around.
One essential item for this kind of travel is a good guidebook. I recommend those published by Rick Steves. They are practical, informative, and updated every year “on the ground” from actual travel experiences. You can also get good information from Frommer’s, Michelin, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and more. Rick recommends tearing out the sections that cover your destination and leaving the rest behind. A good tip for traveling light.
With this kind of travel, “light” becomes even more important. You don’t want to be schlepping a heavy suitcase when you walk a few blocks from the train station to the guesthouse, or when you’re hopping a bus with limited baggage space.
There’s a comfort factor in a package tour or pre-arranged itinerary that can be very relaxing, but if you long for a more flexible holiday, that’s possible and enjoyable as well.