By Robert Ross
When Is Too Much Research & Planning for A Trip... Too Much?



In the 1700’s a fairy tale was written about three Persian princesses who made their way around the island of Serendip. At each turn, they made wondrous discoveries by accident. It was a magical adventure, filled with unexpected surprises.

The island of Serendip is an actual place. The name of the island has changed, but the concept of a “magical adventure” remains the same.

My first trip to Europe was in 1964, before the internet, before cell phones, bullet trains, laptop computers and digital cameras. It was before Disneyland, France, had replaced Chateau de Versailles as a must-see tourist destination. We literally got off the boat, pulled out a map and Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day, and said “Well?” After a decision was made, we put out our thumbs and waited for a ride. The trip was a six-month adventure, never knowing where, when and how. We had, unknowingly, stumbled upon our own island of Serendip.

Fast forward to a recent trip to Spain — times had changed. Our trip was complete with cell phones, digital cameras, internet access, pre-booked hotels, car rentals and tickets to the famous Alhambra in southern Spain.  We even booked, on line, an “authentic” flamenco dance show, complete with “authentic” gypsy dancers.

We’re in a new era, having the ability to pre-book every flight, hotel, meal and tour, months in advance. And, with digital photos and the internet, we can even see just about anything we’re interested in before we take our trip. But is there a price paid  for these technological advances?

This prearranging  syndrome is not just a travel phenomenon, but rather a life dilemma. A recent wedding invitation instructed us to go to a certain website and pick from a dozen gift possibilities. At the website, we found the couple’s special page and list of desirable gifts. We  picked a gift, entered our VISA card number, then pushed a button and the transaction was complete, including a gift card . . . how thoughtful! A few weeks after the wedding, we received a computer-generated thank you card in the mail, unsigned, from the wedding couple.   

The English author Horace Walpole, coined the  word serendipity in 1754. Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained this name was part of the title of “a silly fairy tale he read, called The Three Princesses of Serendip”.

Today, the word serendipity has come to mean, “the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident” or “the act of finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it”. The term is also sometimes used to mean “the randomness of fate.”

Yes, weddings have to be planned. Trips have to be planned. The ins and outs of daily living — from dinners to vacations have to be planned. But... with the growth of the internet, and the need by some (including myself) to have our futures scheduled, we may be inadvertently scheduling out the time and state of mind needed to “make fortunate discoveries by accident.” We may be inadvertently scheduling out serendipity.

Travel writer L. Peat O’Neil suggests that travel writers should “cultivate an appreciation for chance by intentionally getting lost on foot — during daylight — in a nearby city you do not know.” Her idea is that by getting lost, one exercises the internal antennae and perceptions will be heightened — perhaps seeing and experiencing  things in a new light. Thinking back on my own travels, more often than not, it was the unplanned events, chance meetings and spontaneous decisions leading to memories that stand out.

The internet has taken much of the guesswork out of traveling. Arguments can be made — both  pro and con — as to whether or not having so much information at hand is good for the human spirit. That argument, pre-planning versus unscheduled wanderings, will go on until the end of time. In the meantime, there are trips to be taken.

As I finish writing this column, I’m planning a trip to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Yes, the flight and hotel have been booked. And, O.K., I’ve even booked a shuttle from the airport in Leon to our hotel in San Miguel. But, if all goes well, the rest of our time in San Miguel is going to be up to the gods of fate . . . with unscheduled wanderings, chance meetings and maybe even a magical moment or two! 

Robert Ross can be reached at:   

Copyright  2006 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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