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Learning to embrace the unexpected in travel planning

The title might sound a little cliche, but honestly after my trip to Tromso, Norway, everything we didn’t expect to happen did just that: it happened. Let’s face it, people can spend too much time planning their trips, from arranging every stop to creating a whole itinerary. This can take away from the whole meaning behind a “trip,” which is supposed to be an adventure, where you explore something new, but it can be missed out on when you try to plan every step of the way. Don’t get me wrong, some sort of planning should be done, like sorting accommodations and transportation, but there is also something to be said for being flexible with your plans and open to the unknown upon arrival to your destination.

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It was just last winter that I learned to do just that. I was studying abroad in Madrid and three of my friends and I decided to visit Tromso in order to see the Aurora Borealis, (aka: The Northern Lights). We booked a cabin for 3 days and two nights, and our time spent there end up being some my most memorable moments while abroad, teaching me to better balance travel planning with embracing the unexpected adventures to be had.

TIP #1: Do some research and make sure you have proper transportation

Before arriving in Norway, we’d booked a car rental in order to get from the airport to the cabin. Little did we know this was going to be more difficult than it seemed. After signing the contract and collecting our keys (it is almost midnight at this time), we headed over to the parking lot. It didn’t take very long to realize the car was manual, instead of automatic. Being the newbs that we were, none of us actually knew how to drive stick. Sick, dude. I’d only driven a manual car twice, but I was determined to get to the cabin so we could see the lights.

But that was easier said than done, as I couldn’t even get the car out of the parking lot. We ran back to the airport to talk to the rental company. “Sorry, we only have stick,” they told us. Okay, no problem, let’s just try this again. Andddd, fail again. Just when we thought we were officially stranded, a lady from the car rental agency came running in our direction. “We have an automatic car!!” YES. And at last, we were on our way. The road was icy and everything was pitch black at that hour, but we were in a car we could actually drive, and settled in for the 30 minutes we had to get to the cabin before the Northern Lights were expected to appear. 

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TIP #2: Plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Somehow we made it there and everything was so worth it. We looked up to the sky and there they were: neon green waves of lights illuminating the darkness of the sky. It was like being a little boy again, experiencing that moment when you first walk into an amusement park after waiting literally all night and not being able to sleep. Like that, but far more incredible. Nature is truly impeccable and seeing the Northern Lights in person was a true testament to that.

As if that wasn’t enough, the location of our cabin made for a real life winter wonderland. Everything was white, covered in fresh snow. The silence was next level. The crisp air made the silence sharp. I’ve never felt such serenity. 

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TIP #3: Plan to give yourself enough time when trying to make connecting flights

It was an incredible trip, yes, and it ended far too quickly. Once we got to the airport and onto the plane, a blizzard delayed our departure for two hours. We had to catch another plane from Oslo back to Madrid, which we ended up missing. While we were able to get booked on another flight, it didn’t depart until the next day. Being the budget-conscious student travelers that we were, we ended up staying the night at the airport to save on funds.

As we were settling in for the evening, my friend suddenly realized she had forgotten her passport on the previous plane. Cue panic mode. Did I also mention that we both had final exams that next morning? LOL. But that wasn’t the main problem: we weren’t going anywhere without her passport. We ran to lost and found. Nothing. We ran to the police department. “Go to Airline Baggage Area” they told us. We headed back and found someone to talk to, but it was all a blur at this point until we realized that they actually had her passport. Chill.*mini heart attack* We still had to spend the night in the airport, but at least all passports were intact.*Cue pretending to study to pass the time*

By the time we finally made it back, we were running on no sleep and had missed our final exam, but it turns out that all’s well that ends well: in addition to having some incredible memories of the Northern Lights, we were able to retake our exam later that day, which resulted in a good grade in the class.

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All said and done, there’s a one main lesson to be learned here: as much as you want to plan ahead, nothing will ever go as you plan. Which is okay — it’s part of the story and it becomes an extraordinary memory.

What memories of your travels do you have where you had to learn to embrace the unexpected? Share in the comments below!

Authored by Paulo Valdez – STA Travel Student Ambassador

Paulo is an STA Travel Student Ambassador and a student at the University of California, Irvine. He is about to graduate this quarter as a Criminology, Law and Society major. Paulo hopes to continue to travel in the future and capture it all on Snap. Jk. *but actually*