Hopefully, the end feeling of any journey is refreshment and joy. The act of travel can be stressful, however. The buzz and bustle of airports and train stations can be more anxiety-inducing than enjoyable, especially in unfamiliar lands. I would count myself among the many who double and triple-check their bags to ensure everything is in order. Passport, camera, laptop, etc. Everything needs to be in its proper place.
It is with that same careful sense that I approach planning a journey. Whether I’m opening a hefty compilation of New York Times itineraries for cities all across Europe or a Lonely Planet guidebook for my own city and country, there is comfort in having a plan for each day. Knowing that I can squeeze in a few hours along La Rambla in Barcelona before departure or that I can embark on a city tour upon arrival in Copenhagen helps me make the most of every minute of travel.
Understanding that I am more comfortable with planned travel, it has come as a surprise that my most enjoyable experiences have occurred when I have welcomed flexibility into my journey. As much as hopping on a bus every hour allows you to see many landmarks, it does not grant you the time nor the clear mindset necessary to truly experience a city.
The flexible travel experience that most notably sticks out to me is the weekend I spent in Lisbon. My university scheduled a week-long study break (with the understanding among even the professors that there was likely more travel to be done than studying), and I had just finished the majority of the week in Barcelona and Valencia. Rather than book a return flight to Amsterdam from Valencia with the rest of my friend group, I chose to fly to Lisbon, Portugal.
With little more than a full backpack and charged phone, I explored Lisbon for the next few days. It would have been much easier to take the tram cars across the hilly landscape and towards the ocean, but it felt much more immersive and rewarding to make the trek by foot. It might seem aimless to stop wherever you would like along the way to a recommended landmark, but you often find the hidden gems of cities if you allow yourself to. In my case, I found street art, incredible viewpoints, streets full of vibrant colors, as well as one of the best cafes I have eaten at in all of Europe. They each caught my attention as much or more than listed landmarks and were only found because I allowed myself the time to stray off the beaten or recommended path.
My greater point in all of this is that I have found it necessary to adopt balance in travel routines. The best-laid plans do not always yield the most memorable results, and building in time to explore aimlessly can be rewarding. Flexibility can turn stress into refreshment, and a more casual approach can bring greater happiness than a rigid itinerary.