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TravelMystery travel is having a moment – here’s how to do it,...

Mystery travel is having a moment – here’s how to do it, and what to expect

It’s 7am in Copenhagen airport. The departures board lists the destination for my 9.25am flight as ‘unknown Schengen’ while my boarding card, when I get it, lists the destination as ‘fictitious’. I have a suitcase full of probably the wrong clothes, and a few concerns, but I’m still excited for a trip into the unknown.

I’ve joined SAS’s inaugural ‘Destination Unknown’ trip, a voyage where the final destination is a closely guarded secret and the 180 passengers boarding the flight have no idea where we’re going. All we’ve been told is it’ll be 20C and we should pack swimwear.

‘In the old days, travel was an adventure,’ said Alexandra Kaoukji, Head of Media Relations at SAS. ‘But these days it has become a commodity. So how do you make it special again?’

SAS decided to offer a mystery trip to their EuroBonus members. Flights were purchased using EuroBonus points, racked up through being a frequent flyer, and included contributions towards biofuel; hotel accommodation was arranged for an extra cost. It instantly proved popular: 6,000 applied for the four-day trip. Even before the trip, SAS considered adding mystery travel to their range of options – after the success of the debut, they’re planning to run the trips regularly.

What is mystery travel?  

Mystery travel is a rising trend in Europe and beyond, where customers – whether as part of a group or as individual travellers – purchase (or win) air tickets and travel packages without knowing where they’re headed. 

In an event that went semi-viral earlier this year, Wizz Air gave 35 customers the trip of a lifetime to an unknown destination, which turned out to be Antalya, Türkiye

https://www.tiktok.com/embed/v2/7344087597104287008?lang=zh-CN&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timeout.com%2Ftravel%2Fwhat-is-mystery-travel

But you don’t have to be an airline superfan or a lucky winner to do this kind of trip. If you’re able to fly from Frankfurt or Munich, Lufthansa runs Lufthansa Surprise, where you can book a random flight according to your favourite travel type; Opodo’s mystery break section offers cheap flight or flight plus hotel options to an undisclosed location; luxury travel company Black Tomato invites intrepid explorers to head out into an unknown wilderness with their ‘Get Lost’ package, and srprs.me offers a range of mystery city breaks starting from £240 for a 3-5 day trip somewhere in Europe, flying from the UK.  

In LondonJournee offers individual mystery travel trips, where customers answer a questionnaire detailing their preferences. You’re asked everything from whether you’re an outdoorsy type to how much you’re into historical sights, charming villages and art galleries, and you’ll also get to state your real red lines. Won’t be seen dead on a Segway? Hate a distillery tour? Are spa treatments with physical contact a firm no? You can even rule out whole countries. They then match you with an unknown-to-you destination, arrange a flight plus hotel and offer suggestions of things to do.

’Destination Unknown’ sign at airport
Photograph: Laura Hall for Time Out

‘The founders set it up because they shared a frustration in seeing people going to the same destination, doing the same thing and missing the real wonder of travel,’ explained Journee’s Anna Clark. The demand has been so strong that Journee launched mystery travel options from four US airports at the end of 2023, on top of their UK options.

What’s behind the rise in mystery travel?

‘I just want my time back,’ said Anne-Mette Petri, one of the SAS passengers when I asked why she applied. The biggest appeal of the trip was how it maximised her most precious commodity. 

The rise in interest in mystery trips speaks to how onerous booking a holiday has become. At last count, the average traveller browsed at least 141 web pages before they travel: with endless options at our fingertips and limitless places to research, what used to feel like freedom to choose now feels like an endless maze where you can never be satisfied. Post-pandemic travel feels more stressful and complicated than ever; this information overload paired with overwhelm in all directions doesn’t help.  

The mystery makes you feel like maybe there is a final frontier to discover after all

On top of this, when you carry the world and all its influencers in your pocket, there’s very little new territory to discover. For curious travellers, the mystery makes you feel like maybe there is a final frontier to discover after all.  

What if you don’t like the destination?

I hoped for Florence; others thought Malta, Montenegro or Ibiza, so when I found out mid-flight we were headed for Athens, I was disappointed. I had expected somewhere more unusual than a capital city, and an already very popular one at that. But I was in the minority: I heard few complaints, not even from the mother and daughter who had been in Athens the previous week.  

Optimism and a positive mental outlook are essential: sure, you might be disappointed, but that is the risk you run – you just have to make the best of it. While many companies like Journee do try to match travellers to their preferences, you can’t be married to a destination or trip type. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you like to be in control, this is not the style of travel for you.

If you like to be in control, this is not the style of travel for you 

I had a free day followed by a day of optional activities with the rest of the group, and found it disconcerting to be in a new place without any context or plans. The feeling disappeared once I realised that was the point of it all. I browsed Time Out Athens briefly then set off to stroll the National Gardens, spying parakeets in trees laden with oranges, and wander the whitewashed streets at the foot of the Acropolis. Not having a plan made me feel like the cats I found stretched out in a patch of sunshine: strangely decadent, with only myself to please. The day was mine to waste.

A farm outside of Athens on a sunny day
A farm outside of Athens | Photograph: Laura Hall for Time Out

Mystery travel has attracted some criticism for its lack of focus on sustainability: it promotes flying and doesn’t offer customers a choice when it comes to sustainable decision-making. Without knowing where you’re going, you can’t prepare yourself well, orient yourself to the most authentic option, or even understand what a sustainable choice looks like. For me, that’s a big drawback. Despite our touristy location, we were booked into a hotel with a sustainability profile and had excursions arranged to under-the-radar spots, which I appreciated.

What should you pack for a mystery trip? 

Most companies and airlines who organise mystery trips will give you an idea of what the weather’s looking like and provide some packing tips. In general, it’s best to pack for all eventualities – consider the season you’re travelling in and bring layers, as you would on any four-day trip. In any case, there will likely be shops wherever you’re going, so you could just buy your way out of it. In the end, I went for a city-break wardrobe: trousers, comfortable shoes, and layered clothes.

Would I do a mystery trip again?

Sat around a long table under string lights in a farm on the outskirts of Athens, I chatted to Kim, a Danish academic who had taken the trip with his daughter. We talked about how this trip felt like the package tours we’d taken to Ibiza and Mallorca back in the day, and how we’d forgotten how fun group travel was. It was like being on a school trip, in all the best ways; perhaps most remarkably, nobody was on their phone. I had not expected that. Perhaps that’s what happens when you give yourself over to the act of discovery.

Doing this mystery trip reminded me that too much pre-trip research can take you away from the thing you need the most when you’re travelling: the pure fun of being somewhere new. I’d relish the chance to do it again.

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