Mystery trips: Travelers gobble up chances to take vacations to the unknown

For some, spontaneity is the spice of life.

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This may even include vacation time, according to some travel businesses and thrill-seekers that are aiming to shake up the industry.

The West Virginia Tourism Office is just one organization that tried its hand at a surprise vacation this fall, which involved a mystery trip campaign to the Mountain State. Vibrant pixelated ads were plastered on bus shelters, billboards and banners throughout Washington, D.C., to attract entries for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. There were also ads online that encouraged viewers to journey to the unknown location.

The West Virginia Tourism Office's pre-reveal "Destination Unknown" campaign. (West Virginia Tourism Office)

“In just 10 days, nearly 500 people entered to be a part of a weekend trip to a destination they knew nothing about,” Sarah Schmidt, vice president of ad firm BVK, told FOX Business about the campaign.

Entrants shared tidbits about themselves and their daring exploits on FallDestinationUnknown.com in exchange for a chance to claim a seat on the Destination Unknown bus on Oct. 5. On the big day, 33 winners left Washington, D.C.’s, Union Station to the mystery location – Canaan Valley.

The West Virginia Tourism Office's post-reveal "Destination Unknown" campaign. (West Virginia Tourism Office)

“We were looking for a unique way to get people excited about fall in West Virginia,” said Chelsea Ruby, a director at the state’s tourism office.

“Our fall foliage is second to none and our mountain towns are marvelous hosts, but a lot of travelers still don’t think of us as a fall destination. This event lets us cut through the noise of everyday advertising and get our message out: Come see West Virginia this fall!”

- Chelsea Ruby

Rebecca Didio, who was selected as a winner for the mysterious travel giveaway, said she had a positive trip.

“West Virginia was simply amazing. The experiences I had were unforgettable and I'm already planning my next trip back,” she said.

When asked why she partook in a mystery vacation, Didio said, “I'm an avid adventurer and have been couch-surfing for years as well as taking part in the sharing economy. Going on this trip just made sense. I trusted the process.”

However, she wasn’t aware that mystery travel was gaining traction before she went to West Virginia. Nor did she know that trips to the unknown are garnering enough demand to sustain surprise travel agencies.

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These unconventional travel services take over the vacation planning process and keep clients in the dark about their destination until it’s time to venture out. A pre-trip questionnaire narrows down the likes and dislikes for the travel agents at these businesses, which helps them determine which locations and itineraries would be most fitting.

A few days before departure, clients are typically sent weather forecasts and a list of recommended items, so they know what to pack for the duration of their trip – however, accommodations are left out. Depending on each traveler’s budget and specified preferences, the surprise trip can be a domestic or international excursion.

For travelers that are aiming for a surprise weekend escape, Pack Up + Go may be a viable option with its strong social media following, which is nearly 50,000 strong on Instagram at the time of this article. Travel agents at Pack Up + Go can plan two-night, three-day trips that are a short drive or flight away, and have worked with budgets that vary from $400 to $5,000 per person.

"Since launching in January 2016, we have sent over 15,000 travelers to 90 destinations nationwide. Our travelers range from families with young children to millennials, to retirees. Pack Up + Go's fearless travelers prove that surprises are not just for kids," Lillian Rafson, CEO and founder, shared with FOX Business.

Ilana Curtis, one Pack Up + Go traveler, went on a surprise girls' trip with her mother and sister. The trio, who each live in a different state, chose Pack Up + Go so they could avoid “bumping heads” and enjoy a stress-free weekend.

“It was such a short amount of time though, like no matter where they sent us, we knew that it would be fun,” Curtis explained further regarding why they reached out to a surprise travel agency.

The adventurous group of women ended up in the beautiful coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, where they walked around and took in the sights while also fitting in a beach day at the suggestion of Pack Up + Go.

Since it was only a weekend trip, the Curtises had a conservative budget that didn’t lock them down to excursions before their arrival. However, there was no shortage of activities in the Peach State.

“Pack Up + Go made a reservation at this restaurant that's really famous in Savannah called The Olde Pink House. It was very traditional and Southern-based. That was a nice thing because we wouldn't have done it on our own and just being really fun,” Curtis said. “They also gave us a bunch of recommendations. So, that was a huge plus. We went to this really amazing local bakery and rented bikes from the hotel, which Pack Up + Go arranged for us. And, that was, you know, eating yummy, buttery, fluffy biscuits.”

With all things considered from the trip, Curtis believes the game show-like destination reveal was the best part.

“Opening the envelope is such an exciting experience. I mean you're never really presented with a scenario where you don't know what could happen in a good way.”

- Ilana Curtis

Charlotte McGhee, the founder of Whisked Away, told FOX Business she started her surprise travel agency less than three years ago. The ambitious startup tends to be pricier than weekend-focused getaways since her agency book trips that are one or two weeks in length.

In her own words: “The type of people that will take the leap on a longer surprise vacation are pretty specific. It's either people celebrating life milestones: honeymoons, anniversaries or birthdays, or they’re very seasoned international travelers.”

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Solo traveler Kelli Young sought out Whisked Away’s services for a surprise trip last year. She needed an extended getaway to refresh her mind after a breakup, and lucky for her, she ended up in Aruba.

“My mom, I’m still her baby. She said, ‘I need to know where you’re going,’” Young noted, regarding safety concerns. However, Whisked Away was flexible enough to reveal her location to Young’s mother without ruining the surprise.

Young only found out her destination when she opened an envelope containing her travel documents at the airport.

“Whisked Away planned three excursions for me. I had the perfect mix of being a beach bum and exploring Aruba. I didn’t stay in the resort area. I was in downtown Oranjestad. It was nice to more so be by the locals and away from the commercial or touristy things.”

- Kelli Young

Young told FOX Business she has another surprise trip planned with Whisked Away and that this time she will go somewhere in Europe.

For some travelers who think the surprise element is not enough, luxury travel agency Black Tomato has travel agents available that can curate a tech-detoxing vacation at a mysterious remote location with its Get Lost program.

Adventurers who opt for this style of trip can choose what type of environment they want to get lost in, such as polar, jungle, desert, mountainous or coastal. However, Black Tomato’s travel agents do the rest of the planning based on participants' reported fitness levels, hobbies, diet, desire to relinquish control and so on.

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Get Lost is designed to challenge travelers by getting them to disconnect and explore tough terrains. Participants have ventured into the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the Bolivian Salt Flats, Morocco, Mongolia, Svalbard and Guyana.

“In terms of interest, at our initial launch in September 2017, we had sold three trips of this kind to clients and in 2018 we sold 24 and this year we're on track in 2019 to increase that number by 20 to 25 percent given increased interest,” a representative for Black Tomato told FOX Business.

Rob Murray John, a Get Lost travel expert and head of operations at Black Tomato, believes travelers who are interested in surprise trips are eager to throw themselves into the unknown.

“For a successful trip, the client needs to wholeheartedly trust us [Black Tomato] that we are keeping them safe and supported throughout their journey even though our guides will be out of sight to provide a feeling of solitude. We also must trust the client is being upfront and honest about their level of physical endurance, outdoors experience and comfort with hiking and extreme terrains, or else the trip may turn out to be a bit shocking and unpleasant for them.”

- Rob Murray John

Although surprise and mystery vacations are opening up the market for creative travel companies, some industry insiders aren’t convinced that this method of seeing the world will take over.

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"While there may be something exciting to having a more hands-off approach to vacation planning, we have found that our customers like to plan their stay on their own and have more say in the process,” Bruce Rosenberg, president of the Americas at HotelPlanner.com, told FOX Business.

“Many Americans may get one or two real vacations each year, and it could be a risk to put your trip in the hands of a surprise agency,” he explained for those who are planning family vacations. “In previous surveys, we've found that respondents usually prepare for their trips several months in advance, suggesting that they prefer a more predictable and hands-on approach.”

Rosenberg doesn’t doubt the allure of surprise travel for some vacationers.

He noted: “It could appeal to risk-takers and those that don't have responsibilities such as children where they need to have more control in the planning process."

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According to AAA, nearly 100 million people will go on family vacations in 2019 – slightly higher than last year.