I Tested Expedia's New "Surprise Holiday" Deal With A Trip To An Unknown Destination

“That sounds like the worst idea ever!” exclaimed my friend Mel, when I explained that I was going away for the weekend, but I didn’t know where I was going. “What if it’s not hot?” she cried.

Although less outraged than Mel, my other friends voiced similar concerns when I explained that I was beta testing a "Surprise Trip", the new offering from travel website Expedia, where customers pay for a two to four night holiday to a mystery city in Europe. The idea is that you set the budget, the date and duration of the trip, as well as the departure airport, but you don’t find out where you're going until about three hours before the flight. Included in the package are return flights (never more than 3.5 hours each way) and minimum three star accommodation with transport to the city centre.
This idea might sound like a gimmick, dreamt up by a competitive travel agent as a creative way to sell holidays to the shrinking pool of people who can still afford to go on breaks abroad, but according to Expedia, Surprise Trips is actually a direct response to market research. Apparently, “a quarter of people who book their holiday months in advance, say the excitement of travel gets lost due to an overload of information available online,” and “81% of travellers admit to enjoying being surprised.”

Despite some cynicism, I liked the idea at first; I thought it sounded fun, so I invited the guy I was seeing, and he was enthusiastic too. Wondering about where we were going was exciting, as was the idea of having to improvise and figure out what to do when we got there. But then again, we didn’t have a lot to lose as we weren’t actually paying for the trip – this was just a test. I’m not sure that I can relate to having such bad information-overload that I would actually choose to pay a travel agent to withhold the name of my destination until the day of my holiday. I mean, of 77 possible destinations, you can only veto three, but there were definitely more than three places I really didn’t want to go to (Luxembourg!), or worse, had been to before.

If I was on the fence about my Surprise Holiday, soon a personal disaster dampened my enthusiasm for the whole thing: I found out that the guy I was going to take with me had cheated on me with his ex-girlfriend. And his name was already on the ticket. Shit. I asked Expedia if I could take someone else instead, but they said it wasn’t possible to make changes to the booking. This seems like a bit of a flaw to me, as people have to drop out of holidays all the time, not just because they turn out to be a dickhead, but also because they get sick, or something comes up at work or in their personal life. If you don’t know the destination, you don’t have the ability to argue with Easyjet about name changes, or book a different mate a last minute ticket.

Instead of changing the name, Expedia tried to placate me by sending over the weather forecast for where I was going. It backfired: I did a bit of cheating, and used the weather and the departure time and airport to work out that I was probably going to Geneva — a city I feared was so expensive (especially with post-Brexit vote exchange rates) I wouldn’t even be able to afford to get drunk in a half-decent place. By the time I left for the airport at 7am on a Saturday morning, I was tending towards agreeing with Mel: this was the worst idea ever.
On the train, I got an email from Surprise Trips — I could now find out where I was going. I clicked the link, feeling nervous, even though I was already sure I was going to Geneva and that the holiday was a write off. I had thoroughly ruined this part for myself, but I imagine it would be really thrilling and fun if you hadn’t cheated, and you were with someone who hadn’t let you down, and you were both hyped up to go on holiday. Luxembourg flicked up on screen, but didn’t settle. Score. And then Geneva came… and went. Turns out Surprise Trips had outsmarted me: It was Krakow. I was delighted; I have been to Krakow before, but this just meant I already knew how nice it is.

As I arrived, memories of the city came back to me, and I felt more secure being alone in a city I had already visited. However, the relationship breakdown warped a really good destination into a bit of a sad thing. I really liked the guy I was meant to go with, and he really likes Poland — especially Zywiec — and when I arrived I got this Sliding Doors feeling, where I saw the holiday through a mirror, as it would have been with him. I wished that I been able to bring my mum, or that I could have chosen a holiday destination more suited to my mood… like, say, my bed.
On the second day, I felt better, though. It helped that I had slept well: Surprise Trips had booked me a really nice hotel in the centre of Old Town, with a kingsize bed that I now had all to myself. In the spirit of spontaneity, I decided I could adapt to the change of fate and make the most of the holiday on my own. I walked down the cobbled streets, among the fairytale horse carts, crowds of tourists, castle, and relatively expensive, characterless restaurants of the Old Town. It felt quite liberating not to have planned an itinerary that I felt the need to force myself through.

I decided to do things that I like doing on my own, so I did some googling and made a quick plan. There was a flea market ending in an hour in Kazimierz, the town's Jewish district, and a flooded quarry just outside of the centre where locals go to swim and cliff jump. I like second hand shops, I love wild swimming, and I figured I could walk between the two and catch Pokémon on the way.
The market was ok, but Zakrzowek, the quarry lake, was brilliant. Technically, you're not allowed to swim because it’s deep, there isn’t a lifeguard, and apparently, because it flooded unexpectedly when miners accidentally hit the water level, the lake bed is a mess of submerged machinery and jagged rock. The entire perimeter of the lake was fenced off, except for at one point where a private dive school operates off a small pier.

Fortunately, the rules don’t stop anyone; the fence is full of holes and from the top of the cliff I could see a few dozen people swimming at the bottom. I slipped through a hole and a woman in hiking gear who was making a beeline for the shore showed me exactly where to put my feet in order to climb safely down the lowest part of the cliff.

The water was very blue, very clear, and full of fish, and floating on my own in it I felt utterly content. I was far more pleased with myself for having successfully adapted to the situation and enjoyed the day than I would have been on a normal holiday that had gone to plan. It was kind of reassuring, to know that I could adapt and find something to enjoy anywhere.

But would I pay to go on a surprise holiday again? Maybe. It was fun, but I’m not sure if I could afford to. This trip would have cost £600 for myself and a friend, for two nights, for the flight and hotel alone. That’s already quite a lot, but almost all European cities are a lot more expensive than Krakow once you get there. At the moment, if — like me — you can’t afford a weekend in Zurich or Geneva, the complete surprise element means that a surprise holiday might not be the best idea, even if you could manage fine in Poland.

And despite the realisation that I could probably enjoy a holiday anywhere, I’m still really glad it wasn’t Luxembourg.

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