In my personal Google drive, there lives a folder. And inside that folder, titled “Trips,” is a trove of spreadsheets that are among my greatest works. The oldest one, “Eurotrip,” is the first one I made, in advance of a trip to, you guessed it, Europe, in 2017. The impetus for that trip was a wedding in Biras, a tiny country village about 5 hours south of Paris. If we were going to go all the way across the Atlantic, I wanted to travel in Europe a bit. The only way to figure it all out (How would we get to middle of nowhere, France? Where else would we go? Where would we stay? How much would it cost?) was to map all the options and permutations in a spreadsheet, so I could compare them.
This took forever. The record reflects that I worked on it pretty much non-stop for an entire weekend, and then off and on for the next week. But the result was well worth it: an elegant plan for a 10-day trip beginning in Bordeaux and ending in London, all mapped out in spectacular detail. The top row listed each of the days we would be there. The left column listed Morning, Afternoon, Evening. In the corresponding boxes, I put in our relevant flight information, and driving directions. I made reservations for a boat tour in Paris and Sunday Lunch in London. I highlighted our flights in orange. I created lists of sites to see by hand, and then whittled the possibilities down by looking up logistics and reviews. When something made the cut, I placed it in a time slot that would make the most sense. Before we left, I printed my Google sheet and kept it in the front pocket of my bag like a treasure map.
On our trip, it became a joke: “What does the spreadsheet say we’re doing for lunch?” my boyfriend would ask, and I’d read it out like it was preordained (because it was.)
The experience was so successful, our trip so seamless, that today, I make a spreadsheet using that same template for every vacation. There’s one for my mom’s 60th birthday in Las Vegas, for trips to Cartagena Colombia, and Sydney, Australia. I even have one for a holiday weekend “trip” in New York City (where I live), when some friends came to visit me.
Is this a symptom of my diagnosed anxiety disorder? Perhaps. Is it yet another sign of my deeply Millennial nature? Definitely. Like a lot of millennials, I literally don’t know how to relax.
So it makes sense that when we do press pause on our work, we are most comfortable if those vacations also have at least the patina of achievement. We even turn to the same suite of tools we use at work — Google docs, spreadsheets, Powerpoints — to meticulously plan out every hour of our time away, like we’ll have to bill someone for it afterward.
“My worst nightmare is wasting time on a trip,” explains Grace Lee-Niosi, 22 a student based in Westchester, New York, whose travel-planning medium of choice is Powerpoint. “If you don’t at least have a little bit of a plan. You have to spend time figuring out what to do. I want to make the most of the time that I have while I’m there. I don’t like relaxing while I’m on trips.”
Turning your vacation into an orchestrated production is in some ways just a necessary side effect of a much-desired goal: Millennials require that everything we do be imbued with meaning. Millennials don’t “vacation,” we “travel” or we “go on trips” and we place greater importance on experience versus ownership. “There is an underlying trend away from purchases of things towards purchases of experiences,” says Marguerite Fitzgerald, a managing director specialising in the travel sector for Boston Consulting Group. “A lot of millennials have separate savings accounts just for travel. And because its a bigger budget item it makes sense that there’s more planning involved.”
This is also just a function of The Way We Travel Now. With Google (and Kayak and Tripadvisor and Yelp and…) available at our fingertips wherever, whenever, millennials have grown to expect seamless travel experiences. “When I did my first European trip I had to go to a travel agent to get my ticket, and I didn’t know where I was going to stay until I got there,” Fitzgerald says. “Now, that doesn’t exist. You can do everything from your phone. You would never turn up at a [hostel] without knowing there was a bed for you.”
Elise Schloff, a recent grad from Norfolk, Virginia, is a girl after my own heart. She has her own Eurotrip documents for a Spring Break trip she took while studying abroad in Paris. Aside from the detailed travel itineraries, organised by date and city, and activities, she also included foods she wanted to try. For Venice under activities, she wrote “Gondola ride (duh), Guggenheim.” For foods in Istanbul, her list included “Salep (warm orchid and cinnamon drink)” and “manti (ravioli type thing).” The process took an entire weekend.
Today, Schloff has a full-time job and the limited holiday days that comes with, but her approach to travel hasn’t changed — it’s only intensified. The Google doc from her last trip was way more detailed: “Something I discovered before my trip to Scotland was that you can make custom Google maps by dropping a bunch of pins. So it will show you where everything you want to see is in relation to where you will be,” she says. “I also plan my outfits, based on activities for the day.”
“My mom made fun of me like, Oh if you go missing I can tell them you’re in your black turtleneck and black slip dress,” Schloff continues. “I always plan way in advance and spend a lot of time doing it. But I like to plan because I like to know.”
Likewise, Jenifer Calle, 26, and her boyfriend are both big planners generally— they also use Google sheets to track the books they read. They travel together often, roughly every four to six months, she estimates, and they always make detailed plans using Google Keynote. When they took a trip to Montreal last fall, they took things to the next level by using the programs her boyfriend uses at his job at an architecture firm to create a shareable presentation that includes colour-coded maps in addition to the daily itinerary.
It’s not like you have to stick to everything on the list, Calle explains: “We want to enjoy our time, but we want to see a lot. Sometimes we’ll overplan it, so we’ll have options,” she says.
Is all of this a lot of effort? Yes, but it’s worth it, says Hannah Schneider, 30, a marketing professional in Brooklyn. “I see it as a creative process—it’s a rare opportunity to completely design days for you and the people you travel with. It’s a chance to create the experience, the mood, and the kinds of memories you’ll make,” she says. “I literally love it.”
The fact that this can be viewed as a kind of “creative process” might also be why we planners of the world cherish the documents so much, even long after our trips end. “They become souvenirs for sure,” says Dan Koday, 34, a travel writer who estimates he travels about 26 weeks out of the year, half of which he spends traveling with his husband, Yves. “You can sit in front of your computer looking at it thinking, this time last year I was in Provence and it was amazing.” Even better: Whenever Koday’s friends and family ask for recommendations, he just digs into his archive and shares them on the appropriate doc. That they’re kept and are so easily shareable makes them both a time capsule and a kind of guidebook.
Of course, there are downsides to all this choreography as well. For starters, if you’re not even relaxing on your vacation, when are you relaxing? Beyond that, there’s a very fine line between a perfect plan and overplanning. “I really try not to overplan,” says Schneider. “But sometimes I do get a little too obsessive about checking everything off the list. I’ll catch myself feeling stress because something changes and it’s like okay, but if we don’t do this hike today like we planned will we be able to fit it in somewhere else?” There’s also something a little sad about losing that unknown aspect of traveling, Schloff says. “I do sometimes worry I’m not leaving myself open to spontaneity and may miss out on things as a result.”
But in the end, these are all things that can be managed. Schloff says that she’s never actually ended a trip feeling like she missed out, because she’s relatively chill about changing plans if need be. And at the end of the day, the efficiency of such coordination creates makes it all worth it. “Is the risk of overplanning really a downside if I know that without a spreadsheet I’ll just be even more stressed?” Schneider asks.
Just last weekend I was in the Blue Ridge Mountains for a wedding with my oldest friends, all of whom were also at the wedding in France in 2017 and all of whom live hundreds if not thousands of miles away from me. We got to talking about our next big trip together, settling on a backcountry trip to Havasu Falls in Arizona next summer. We talked about the sprawling beauty we’d get to experience, and how fun it will be to be on an adventure together again, when someone brought up the question of gear. Not only will we need to coordinate schedules this time, but we’ll need to share equipment: tents, camp stove, etc. “We can just make a spreadsheet!” I said, a little too excitedly. There was some ribbing about my penchant for taking control, but everyone knew I was right: The spreadsheet is the only way to go.