Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: When to Plan Your Travels

When aircraft first became suitable for long distance flight, pilots usually relied on compasses and other instruments as well as detailed flight plans to navigate the airways. Around that time in 1938, Douglas Corrigan made a transatlantic crossing in piece-of-junk plane with a broken compass and apparently no instruments, flight plan, or radio. After the flight from USA to Ireland a newspaper described him as a pilot who “flies by the seat of his pants,” meaning he relied solely on perception, intuition, and skill to fly successfully. Sometimes as travelers we should emulate Corrigan and use our instinct to navigate amazing experiences, and sometimes we need a detailed flight plan.

Based on our personalities, we all lean towards being either spontaneous decision-makers or planners. This definitely holds true when dealing with travel. Some people will plan a three day trip a year in advance down to the minute while others may take a spur-of-the-moment two week road trip without knowing where they’ll sleep the first night. As with all things in life, most of us fall somewhere between the extremes. However, sometimes we find ourselves questioning our choices. Should I have planned more? Could I have gotten more out of that trip? Was my itinerary too restrictive? Did my schedule cause me to miss a cool opportunity? Instead of dwelling on these potential regrets in hindsight, consider these four factors when determining how much planning your next journey needs.

1) What is your goal?

Ultimately this may be the most important factor to consider when planning or choosing to wing it. Ask yourself, “Why am I going to this place?” To enjoy culture? To relax? To check off a hike, mountain, or environmental experience (Machu Pichu, Great Barrier Reef, etc.)? To discover unique, exquisite food and drink? The list of goals is endless, but they all fall somewhere on the spectrum of planning requirements. If your goal is to experience Alaska’s wilderness by backcountry camping in Denali, you have to submit a detailed itinerary to the backcountry station to even receive a permit, not to mention pack in all the essentials needed for survival. However, if your goal is to escape work for a week and relax at the beach, all you have to do is reserve some kind of lodging and get there, no plan required. Want to experience culture in Cuba? You won’t find it in the resorts. Instead you have to stay in “casas particulares,” BnB’s ran by private citizens. This actually requires some planning; you have to have proof that you are staying in a hotel or a casa particular the first night of your stay to enter the country. After the first night, spontaneously traveling around the country and staying in a casa particular wherever you end up is a wonderful way to explore Cuba.

2) How close is your destination?

This one is simple to evaluate. Are you visiting a place nearby (within a short or moderate drive) that will be easy to return to? If so, then don’t worry about plans. Just go check the place out. Explore. Ask locals what you should do and where you should eat. If you fail to find the experiences you were hoping for, you can easily try again later with a solid plan. If you’re flying somewhere far away, maybe you should consider creating a plan because it could be a long time before you have the chance to return. For example, I’ve had several day trips or one night excursions to Asheville and Nashville, both of which are just over two hours from Knoxville where I live. These trips require little more planning than having a general idea of what you want to do in the city. For anyone whose long-distance travel may be limited to once every year or so, a two-week excursion to Scotland may require more planning than just showing up and asking locals where to start.

3) What will this trip cost you?

Like proximity, cost is major factor in my planning strategies. Detailed plans can be used to keep costs low in the first place. However, if your costs are high—maybe an expensive flight is necessary—then I suggest developing a plan to get the most out of your trip. Create goals and a plan to accomplish them so that your trip is definitely worth the price. If you’re able to cut out major expenses for a cheap trip or have some free time to explore a new place, getting lost in a city and finding your way around by talking to locals and making new friends can be the experience of a lifetime. And for some people, this is even the most rewarding way to enjoy any adventure.

4) How much time do you have?

Lastly, I listed time as a factor to consider. Do you have three weeks in France, or three days? Personally I would spend my three days on a carefully considered itinerary of my must-do goals. But with three weeks, there is a ton of time to see where conversations, connections, and your instincts take you while exploring.

Remember, while I have listed these concepts separately, they are all interconnected and meant to be considered together. One’s personality and personal preference should also be taken into account, but I urge everyone to take a look at methods different from your usual. You may find ways to incorporate them into your preferences or maybe even adopt them completely.