Destination Unknown: Is Mystery Travel for You?

What exactly is this street-food vendor trying to get me to eat? What little shop is around the next corner? Mystery is one of the great joys of travel. It keeps us surprised, delighted, and just unsettled enough to heighten every experience. But what if the mystery started before you even packed your bag?

That very proposition—mystery travel—is one that's gaining popularity. The basic idea isn't revolutionary: Spouses, siblings, and friends have been surprising loved ones with preplanned trips for a long time. But the chance to outsource the mystery, to keep all travelers in suspense until the last minute, is a relatively new notion.

Not for Everybody

Turning over a wad of money and plunging headlong into someone else's vision of your dream vacation isn't for everyone, most notably anyone with very limited vacation time and specific ideas about how to spend it, control freaks, and those for whom planning the trip is a huge part of the vacation itself.

For others, though, it's a perfect fit. Passing on the planning simplifies matters, and the added dose of mystery emphasizes the thrill of travel. Denise Chaykun at Magical Mystery Tours, a San Francisco-based mystery-tour-planning company, reports that most of the clients are experienced travelers who "tend to be adventurous and up for anything." So far, she says, the mystery travel concept has mostly attracted couples and pairs of friends in their 20s and 30s.

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Similarly, American Express Nextpedition is most popular among 20- to 40-year-olds with an adventurous spirit and passion for travel. And Ellen Bettridge, vice president of the American Express U.S. Retail Travel Network, says that one of the more surprising trends is the mystery trip popularity among honeymooners, suggesting "after months of planning a detailed wedding, many brides and grooms relish the thought of having someone else taking care of the planning process."

Three Different Approaches

Mystery travel is still a relatively new trend, and there's no one right way to do it. Here are three different approaches that have cropped up recently and are getting some buzz:

Categorize, Then Customize: American Express is the biggest name in the mystery-trip game right now with its Nextpedition service.  Before beginning the booking process, travelers take a fun poll to determine their traveler type (types include "detourist," "tasteblazer," and "poshaholic"). Using these traveler types as a baseline for planning, specialists then customize a trip based on more of your personal information and preferences. U.S. trips start at $1,000, and international mystery vacations start at $2,500. All trips come with 24/7 assistance. Recent Nextpeditions have included a culinary tour of New Orleans and a Barcelona-by-Vespa adventure.

Mystery on a Budget:  A growing number of companies are offering mystery trips that can be customized to any budget. For instance, Magical Mystery Tours creates trips based on personal interests and financial limitations. Recent trips the company has planned include a long-weekend anniversary trip to Yosemite and a multiweek trip to Portugal, which, the company reports,  included "swimming with dolphins, hiking, and lots of great Portuguese meals."

Free and Solo: Through mid-April, the Proteus Gowanus gallery in Brooklyn is running a Bureau of Unknown Destinations as part of yearlong exploration on the topic of migration. To participate in the project, make a booking in person at the gallery up to two weeks in advance. Begin the day of your solo mystery trip by tearing open an envelope holding a free round-trip train ticket, a notebook, and a small task to complete.

A Good Fit for You?

As someone who considers the planning stage to be a major part of travel, my first reaction to the concept of mystery travel was to come up a laundry list of concerns ranging from general (Would they choose a destination I'm excited about?) to specific (What if they sent me to crappy restaurants?). And yet, I'm still intrigued. I love discovering new places and am easily delighted, so a mystery trip might be right up my alley.

What’s your take on mystery travel? Would you even consider it? Have you already tried it out? We'd love to hear your opinions and experiences.

Read comments or add your own insight!
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