Take a mystery cruise with Uniworld and you may end up in gorgeous Mainz, Germany. | Courtesy of Uniworld
Take a mystery cruise with Uniworld and you may end up in gorgeous Mainz, Germany. | Courtesy of Uniworld

Embrace the Unknown with a Surprise Travel Agency

Leave the planning to the pros.

It's time to stow your tray tables and secure your luggage in the overhead bins—travel is back in full swing. Introducing Return Ticket, a collection of first-person stories, thoughtful guides, and clever hacks designed to help aspiring globetrotters navigate our new normal as safely and smoothly as possible. Buckle up and prepare for liftoff.

We’ve all seen the movies where a “whimsical” character goes to the airport, chooses a flight off the daily departure list, and hops on a plane without a second thought. It’s exciting, mysterious, and more than just a little unbelievable as a plot point. First of all, wouldn’t a last-minute ticket be incredibly expensive? And how do you know what to pack? Would you just buy everything once you get there? Really, who can actually do that?

As it turns out, any of us can actually do it—and it’s much more affordable than you might think. Over in Norway, they’ve long enjoyed jumping into unfamiliar waters with something called a blåtur—translation: “blue trip,” or “into the blue”—when a traveler throws caution to the wind and embarks on an excursion completely laid out by someone else, often a boss. There’s even a thriller based on it (though it’s murdery and probably not the best illustration of the concept’s playfulness).

Over in our neck of the woods, we call it a mystery trip, and our planners are a growing faction of the travel realm called surprise travel agencies. How it typically works: Customers fill out a pre-trip travel survey with their budget and destination preferences, everything from where they’ve been recently—either as a place to avoid or to use as a guide—to accommodation requirements or if their only goal is to try all the hot dogs in town. Professionals behind the scenes then take in all the information and act as a matchmaker, spitting out a location, accommodations, and a suggested itinerary—hot dog stands included.

Pack Up + Go client Shelby Geralyn looks right at home in Denver. | Courtesy of Pack Up + Go

Surprise trips can also be deployed in scenarios other than just sending wanderers somewhere new to explore. For example, say you and your college pals are dispersed around the country and attempting a reunion, but can’t seem to agree on a place. The surprise travel agency can be the outside entity that takes the wheel and saves your friendship—or, at least, prevents a big blowout.

Or maybe you’re in the weeds planning your wedding, only to realize a few weeks out that you’ve forgotten all about choosing a location for your honeymoon. The agency can do it all for you, or put together an itinerary to be revealed once you’ve landed in your chosen dream destination.

What if you want to surprise a friend or significant other with a weekend away to celebrate a birthday, or simply finally learning how to do their taxes? A surprise agency can do that, too. Or you’re slammed at work—the reason you need a vacation, after all—and definitely don’t have the 10 to 20 hours or so it statistically takes to do the research and plan a getaway. Answer: Have an expert do it for you.

In most cases, travelers are given a packing list ahead of time and told what to expect when it comes to the weather. And if everyone holds up their end of the bargain, on the day of embarkation, they show up at the airport still in the dark about the details. They then rip open an envelope to find out where they’re going, take a selfie with the sign (helpful both for social media purposes and to, you know, tell your loved ones where you’re headed), and hop a flight to happiness.

How about this for a ride? | Courtesy of Uniworld

Go big or stay home

For over half a decade, surprise travel agencies have been spurring the imagination of stateside travelers, thriving despite the steady decline of their more traditional travel agency counterparts. And as the pandemic ebbed and globetrotting resumed its pre-COVID allure, their popularity exploded. It’s not hard to see why: After more than two years of staying close to home, taking in the same surroundings day in and day out, people were ready to get out and go somewhere. Anywhere. The numbers back it up—this summer both business and leisure travel hit pre-pandemic levels in an explosive release of bottled-up demand.

One traditional travel company even added a new mystery option to their roster. “We heard from our customers and advisors that people are just willing to go anywhere,” says Ellen Bettridge, CEO and president of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. “They’re so excited to travel again.”

In summer 2022, Uniworld launched their first mystery cruise, something they’d never done—or even heard of—before, but thought they’d test the waters, so to speak. Ahead of the trip guests were given a packing list for their 10-day excursion, which on the way to the airport was revealed to be on the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, aboard the 128-passenger art deco River Queen.

Revealing the itinerary for the next day. Really, who doesn't love a balloon? | Courtesy of Uniworld

To differentiate the offerings from their regular cruises (“obviously, there’s not additional rivers [to explore],” says Bettridge), they packed the schedule with incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that clients would have a challenge accessing on their own, and teased the daily itineraries the night before with festive costumes and balloons that popped to reveal clues. One night, Bettridge dressed as a grape for the big unveiling of the next day’s events: a choice between wine tasting or a brewery tour in Mainz, Germany.

The success of the first cruise was so great that it was followed by two more in the fall. Excursions have included attending a riding school in Spain, and, one night, being regaled with stories by a German lord in his castle. “His family has been there for 17 generations,” adds Bettridge. Next year’s offerings have already been announced: The first a trip to Amsterdam in June starting at $6,999 a person, and one that begins in Nice and ends in Lyon in July at $7,339 per ticket.

Next year, Uniworld will also launch their first-ever around-the-world river cruise, spanning 46 days from Cairo to Lisbon, and beginning at $39,000 per person. It’s already sold out. The river cruising business is indeed booming.

“I just think that pent-up demand is a real thing,” says Bettridge. “I believe that people also—and always—are looking for what’s new and different, the coolest travel thing to do. That’s still out there, and we see it all the time.”

They look happy with the outcome. | Courtesy of Pack Up + Go

Discovering your own backyard

If Uniworld’s offerings sound especially decadent, well, that’s because they are. To be fair, the whole idea of a surprise trip in general sounds over-the-top. But it doesn’t have to be. Depending on what you want, it can be quite wallet-friendly.

Seven years ago, when Pack Up + Go founder Lillian Rafson was 23, she met two women in a hostel on a backpacking trip around Europe. She soon found out they were on a surprise trip booked with a European agency. She’d never heard of the concept before, but they explained that across the pond, it was quite common, not to mention accessible. “The company worked with budget tourists and people who are looking to stay in hostels,” says Rafson. “In Europe, there are a lot [more] options for low-cost carriers and less expensive options than in the States.”

Rafson began to think about how something like that would work back home, and came to a realization: “I grew up in Pittsburgh, lived in New York, and had hardly traveled around the US,” she says. “I started to think, ‘There’s so many amazing places here—I’ve been to Riga, Latvia, but not Denver, Colorado. Why is that? How can I change my own mindset and encourage people to visit a place that they might not think to visit organically but might fall in love with?’”

These guys found love in Milwaukee. | Courtesy of Pack Up + Go

She quit her job at a startup in New York, moved back home to Pittsburgh (“another one of those underrated cities”), and created Pack Up + Go in 2016, where it became one of the country’s first dedicated surprise travel agencies. For Rafson, surprise travel is not only rewarding for the client, but has the added benefit of spreading the economic benefits of tourism to less traveled destinations. “I come from a family of small business owners and I think a lot about the economic impact of tourism on local economies,” she explains. “And when you think of trends in travel, a lot of people tend to visit locations they see on social media and that their friends are visiting.”

Trips can be taken by plane or train, but there are also road trips, staycations, and outdoors-oriented trips, where you stay in a cabin or glamp (the latter two categories were added in the pandemic). Trips start at $700 for three-day plane or train trips. And unlike some other agencies that plan trips both domestic and abroad, locations for Pack Up + Go are kept to the US. It began as a way to put travelers at ease before it became their philosophy to travel your backyard. Rafson cites a statistic that only about one third of Americans have passports. “Limiting our destinations to the US would provide a level of comfort for our travelers, because they know they can use their cell phones and currency,” she says. “It takes some of the anxiety outside of that surprise.”

Some travelers have been so comfortable, in fact, that they've decided to move to their trip destination. “That has been really mind-blowing to me,” says Rafson. “That’s certainly not our intention but it means we picked a good place for them.”

But should you want to go completely out of your comfort zone, there’s also a surprise travel agency for that. In the years since Pack Up + Go was founded, travel agencies have cropped up that let you loose in Latin America and the Caribbean, or pop you over to a new European city every three days.

And for the ultimate adventure, one luxury operation drops you in the middle of nowhere in either a desert, mountain, coastal, or polar region, setting you up to find your way out in a grand-scale escape room scenario (call it “survival of the richest”). With the “Get Lost” tour option from Black Tomato, you’re given ample time to train physically and mentally for the challenges ahead, preparing to get to know not just a new, unknown environment, but also yourself. It’s kind of like Alone–but you’re paying $30,000 for the privilege (don’t worry, they have their eye on you the whole time).

But if you’re not the type that needs to “get lost to find yourself,” as Black Tomato says on the tour page, you can always opt for something more relaxing. Sailing European rivers sipping Champagne with royals, perhaps. Lounging somewhere on a beach in Mexico, or glamping in the red rocks of Sedona. The options run the gamut—you just won’t find out what they are until the very last minute.

You just gotta jump on in. | TaraPatta/Shutterstock

Thinking about a surprise travel experience? Here are some companies to get you started.

Pack Up + Go
The OG of the bunch, Pack Up + Go specializes in exploring your overlooked backyard with plane or train trips, road trips, and outdoor destinations throughout the US. During the pandemic, they also added staycations. Plane or train trips begin at $700 for three days and they recently launched their own Peace of Mind Refund Assurance insurance for more flexibility, allowing refunds up to the day of travel.

The Vacation Hunt
Founded by husband-and-wife travel enthusiasts Jeff Allen and Roshni Agarwal, Vacation Hunt plans US, European, International (with two separate categories), and all-inclusive resort trips for three to 14 days, with flat-fee base pricing ranging from $960 for domestic trips to $2,500 for European destinations. There’s also a special section for honeymoon trip planning, where even if you have a destination in mind, they’ll save you tons of time by helping to fill out your schedule.

Magical Mystery Tours
With a name as fun as the service they provide, Magical Mystery Tours began in 2009 when two friends planned a vacation for a third, and it was a hit. Now they plan domestic and international mystery trips, plus traditional trip planning (currently suspended due to the high demand for mystery trips). Trips start at $1,500 for a three-day domestic journey. You can also purchase a gift certificate, if you know someone who could use a little more spontaneity in their lives.

Black Tomato
Do you have deep pockets and a lust for adventure? On their Get Lost Tours, which begin at $30,000, Black Tomato drops you in the middle of nowhere and you have to find your way out. A wilderness survival class is given beforehand, and prior to your trip, they give you advice on how to prepare mentally and physically. Choose between polar, jungle, coastal, desert, or mountain environments or have someone choose for you.

Rustic Pathways Mystery Trips
Surprises aren’t just for grown-ups (though we could probably use them more than the kiddos). Rustic Pathways is a youth-focused travel company fostering global citizenship for middle school, high school, gap year, and college students. Sign up for their 18-day mystery trip for $7,145 plus airfare, and be sent a Patagonia duffel with clues along with a packing list a month in advance. Each day on the trip is a mystery as well, with clues to decipher as a group about the day’s itinerary.

Whym
Get it? Traveling on a “whym.” And this company really does leave it to the last minute—you’ll find out where you’re going by text two to three hours before takeoff. The itinerary is peppered with even more surprises, from sporting events to horseback riding, depending on your budget, and trip options spanning solo flights to group road trips around the US and its territories.

Blind Experiences
Looking for an impressive and sustainable luxury surprise? Depending on your preferences, this Rome-based travel company will send you everywhere from glamping in the Galapagos to a 1920s safari camp in Kenya. The company's roots are in planning honeymoons, but itineraries can be planned for families, groups, and a new child-adult bonding “legacy” trip at places like the Treehotel in Swedish Lapland or a secret pod in the Swiss Alps. Fun for the whole family.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She points at the departures board a lot, mostly just 'cause it's fun.