Go to the airport, without a ticket, and take a random flight to a destination you’ve never been to. That was the spontaneous travel challenge. It’s a challenge I had wanted to do since I was young, but it presented a lot of challenges, not the least of which was budget. Last-minute trips don’t equal budget trips. But with a budget, a carry-on bag, and my passport, I left my house last week just a few hours before I turned 31 to go to LAX. What ensued was one of my favorite trips and adventures of all time (a story for another time), which didn’t have me actually flying on a plane until the following afternoon, a plane that would stop in Honolulu before continuing onto the Hawaii island of Kauai. It became something of a case study on spontaneous travel. Below I share a little bit of what I learned.

1. Spontaneous travel is expensive. This was by far the most expensive trip I’ve taken. The flight alone was $1,000. That’s more than the cost of a flight booked in advance from LAX to Bangkok, Singapore, and Dublin. It’s also triple what I paid for my first flight to Hawaii last year. Part of that is due to it being last-minute, but I can’t ignore the obvious: Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day has been raining on my parade since I was a kid, and this year was no different. As it turns out, people love to travel. Also, hanky-panky and travel evidently go hand in hand (As if you need proof, check out the Expedia Pleasure Index). And people love to do that on Hawaii. And I can’t blame them. But that means that flights, hotels, vacation rentals, and yurts (yes, I inquired about staying in a yurt, as well as a bio-dome.) are full, making what is available more expensive. Lesson learned: Hope that House of Cards comes out again on Valentine’s Day next year and stay in, or pack the car and take a camping trip. Takers?

2. Spontaneous travel doesn’t have to be expensive. While my trip was expensive, last-minute travel like that doesn’t have to be. For example, a last-minute weekend trip (from Thursday through Monday) to Cabo on a flight leaving LAX tonight starts at $550. Bundle that with a hotel, such as the luxurious Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort, and flight + hotel comes out to $1,150, which is just over the price of my flight to Hawaii alone. And at least in Cabo, unlike Kauai (where car rental prices start at $100 per day), a car isn’t required. Before doing a random spontaneous trip like this in the future, I’d price 5-10 destinations ahead of time so I know a little bit about what to expect and can then narrow it down.

Kauai's Waimea Canyon in Hawaii

3. Unplanned travel experiences are often where my fondest travel memories are. I truly believe that some of our best travel experiences aren’t found on an itinerary. They aren’t something a travel magazine, guidebook, or blog post tells us. In fact, often, it’s a result of a folly, a wrong turn, a random conversation with a stranger, or stumbling upon something unexpected. That’s what is so glorious about travel. It removes us from the familiar and plops us down into the unfamiliar, where are five senses are heightened and anything goes. Even when I got to Kauai, I didn’t reference travel websites, magazines, or guidebooks. I relied exclusively on locals’ recommendations and my own senses. I took a lot of wrong turns. I got rained on frequently. I got lost. But there were no expectations. I didn’t have a photo or description of what Wailua Falls would look like. I didn’t know that I would cross a road that literally had a river running right through it. And I didn’t know that the best Hawaiian meal I’ve ever had would come at the hands of a tiny restaurant in a empty shopping center. This was the kind of travel experience that I feel like I must have had as a young kid when I didn’t care where I was going or what I’d be doing, but cared only that I was going. Below is what I posted on Facebook on the first full day as I sat perched above Waimea Canyon:

I don’t often share a lot of photos on trips like this, but felt compelled at this very moment, as I sit on a tree branch hovering over a 3,000-foot drop (at Waimea Canyon) while I keep wiping my screen because of all the rain. I need moments like this, to remind me how big the world is and how small I am. It humbles me, affirming why I rebooted my life 4 years ago and started chasing my dreams in the first place. It teaches me why I continue to challenge myself, take calculated risks, and create and pursue dream lists. It reminds me why I wake up in the morning, why I take spontaneous trips, and why I go adventuring with strangers. Moments like this continue to bring life full circle. Because this is life.

4. Strangers can be the most valuable travel guidebook and become new friends. My evening routine on Kauai was pretty routine. Every night I would go to a different restaurant that had bar seating. So each night I would belly up to the bar by myself, make some new friends, and chat up the bartender. I ended up taking a day trip with one couple I met at the restaurant of the hotel I was staying at. This doesn’t discredit travel magazines and guidebooks, but talking to locals can provide history, perspective, and advice about a destination that few can. And who knows? Maybe striking up a conversation will lead to an unplanned, epic travel moment. Or maybe even a new friendship.

5. It’s not about where I go, it’s about who I’m with and what I do when I get there. Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” I don’t care about how many countries or continents I go to. I don’t care where I go next year or five years from now. What I care about is that I go. And it’s that that I care about for others. It doesn’t matter where you go, how you get there, and what you do when you arrive. What matters is that you go. Because no matter where I travel to, I always come back a better person than who I left as. Kauai only continued to reaffirm that, as this was easily one of my top five favorite travel adventures, and it really had so little to do with the destination itself – the beaches, landmarks, restaurants, and so on – but rather the people and unique, personal experiences that were involved with it from the time I walked out of my house to the time I walked back in.

What have been some of your favorite unplanned travel moments?