The 4 Elements that Make an Awesome Trip

The 4 Elements that Make an Awesome Trip

What makes an awesome trip? Why do we come home sometimes and need a vacation? Or feel empty? Why are some trips so special that even the thought of it brings a smirk to you face?

For us Ireland was a magical trip. I had lived there before we were married, Clark had come to visit me during that time, but we were very distracted. When we returned as a family we weren’t distracted. This trip had all the makings of the perfect trip; adventure, nostalgia, connection to the local community and awesome scenery. Maybe that is why our pictures turned out. As we looked over our photos to analyze why we liked them so much I also started thinking about what elements make a truly amazing trip.

When Clark and I met and before we were dating and before the Cliff, I had decided to spend a year in Ireland. I was going to help a church establish their children’s program in the south of Kerry in Listowel. I had to raise my own support and Clark was a fundraiser. He developed a plan for me, we implemented it together and as the day drew close and the money I needed was falling into place, we were getting close too. It quickly became a serious conflict of interest!

Although I thought, more than a few times, that I should scrap the trip and just stay home with him. I did go. Clark and I built a great foundation for our marriage, long letters, long phone calls, and time to learn about each other, not just another movie together. It was tough. I loved the work I was doing in Ireland and I grew very close to the people there. I became a part of the fabric of the community. I even acquired a bit of an accent! But I wanted to be home with Clark. I wanted to be married and start our lives together. So while I was there I couldn’t fully enjoy it.

Fast forward 6 years….married, 18 month old son and in the middle of our cross-country road trip. Ireland was calling. I had made great friendships during my time there, but they were growing stale. I had changed so much and so had they. It was time for some face time. So with the money we saved staying with relatives, we scraped together enough for plane tickets and we were off.

We stayed at the church on an air mattress in the sunday school room. Jackson slept in the nursery. We had the whole place to ourselves except for the occasional surprise Wednesday morning women’s exercise group! (Good thing our room wasn’t in the line of sight from the front door!) They also let us use a car while we were there. We ate with old friends and were treated like honored guests. It was really special.

We also were tourists, we went to Blarney Castle, Waterford, Limerick etc, but we also found so many hidden gems. Off the beaten path, not in any guide-book or on Yelp, but spectacular. People stopping in the road for sheep crossing, old tractors going 2 miles per hour with a line of cars and no honking, picture postcard perfect views of the ocean and hills without another soul around.

There was balance, we felt connected and free at the same time. So how do we create this perfect scenario on a trip?

There was a day on the trip that we were clicking on all cylinders. We started in Waterford, which was a big let down. The Waterford Crystal factory tour is now shut down, the town felt dirty and a bit unsafe, so we were heading out and back to Kerry. We decided to take all the tiny country roads. They are small too. One lane or less mostly. We had a great map that showed each twist and turn.

We saw stopped in one small town, Dungarvan. A quaint, beautiful seaside town where there was a food festival going on and in the castle ruins a petting zoo and crafts for kids.

Back on the road we found the Skelligs Chocolate Factory that was an old house converted and they made amazing candy. We sat on an old concrete pier outside a pub that was packed and watched the world go by with an old friend. Ended the day at Blarney staying in a room at the Muskery Arms above a pub. Fantastic rooms, no credit card needed, just a signature in a large book.

Here is what I came to. When these 4 elements come together it awesome.

  1. Realistic Expectations
  2. Connection to the local culture
  3. Margin Time
  4. Adventure

Here is how these elements practically worked out for us.

Realistic Expectations: We had already been to Ireland. I had spent a lot of time there so we knew what we were getting into.  We had a good idea of what we wanted to do and see, but it wasn’t a character of the place.  So when we went to Killarney we didn’t expect Christmas music and knickknack stores, we knew to take a carriage ride around the park, have tea at the Killarney Royal Hotel, and finish the day at a local pub, it was perfect. We didn’t have everything planned, but we had real expectations.
Connection to the local culture: Our connection was easy. We had friends and people we viewed as family throughout the country, but there are other ways go beyond being a tourist. Check out local off the beaten path eateries, go to church, attend a festival, and above everything try to interact with the locals. Be friendly and try to engage them. Most people are friendly and will open up if you take a real interest in them and their lives.
Margin Time: We have written before about how allowing time in your vacation for unexpected, unplanned moments to occur will take your trip to the next level. It is essential. You can’t plan for everything anyways so embrace the unexpected put margin time into your agenda.
Adventure: Every trip needs adventure. Be it kissing the Blarney Stone, driving a car that doesn’t have a starter (which was our car there. We push started it across the whole Island!), or just saying yes to eating in someone’s home, you need adventure. Think outside your comfort zone and try something that stretches you. It will be a memory that you always remember with a smile on your face.
Not every trip is off the charts, but with some planning your next trip can be. It is more than a tour bus and a check list of things to see. Get in and experience a new culture, get to know people and do things that you never thought you would be brave enough to do. Those are the trips that when you see the pictures you can’t help but smile.
  • So true. For us realistic expectations and margin time are the big two. I research where we are going and often read the bad reviews just so I am aware! Then I allow loads of time for changes in plans or just rest days where the kids can swim in the pool and relax. My best example of realistic expectations was visiting Ayers Rock. All the photos show this amazing deserted landscape and all the colours of the rock at sunset. One site had a series of photos where they panned out to show the 800 people right behind where the photo was taken!! They were enjoying a BBQ lunch at the rock. It had never occurred to me that we might meet a crowd! The day we were there, no less than 14 bus loads of tourists were in the same viewing area along with any number of private cars and campers. I was so glad I knew to expect this ahead of time!!

    • Tracey,
      That is the perfect example. That would be a huge bummer if you were expecting a solitary experience and arrived to tour busses and throngs of people.

      Reading reviews is a great way to get realistic expectations. There is such a great rewarding feeling when you travel to a place that is just what you expected.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • Love the local culture! That is the whole reason for travel.

    I love that you guys slept on the church floor.

    And realistic expectations are key! That’s a good point. You overdo it, or underdo it – you lose!

    • Justin, I heard someone talking about their time in India. Another couple asked whether it was dangerous or they felt overwhelmed by the poverty. He said, “no, we were taken care of the whole time. We had chauffeurs that picked us up at the hotel and the hotel was surrounded by guarded walls and you went through a big gate. Once you were at the hotel it was like being at any nice anywhere in the world!”

      I felt lilke telling him that’d he could have had the same experience and saved a lot of money if he’d just gone down to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel and gone out to an Indian restaurant!

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  • what a great post. i believe your four elements are so on target. when we get those four in balance on the road, life is really, really good. we don’t feel frazzled and really enjoy all the world has to offer us. and when we lose them, ahhhh, those are the moments when we wonder why travel the world. in our equation for success- i must add ‘down time’ too. it lets us breathe, and be.

    • Gabi,
      You are right about down time. Travel is work. It is exhilarating and exhausting to be in new places. Allowing for downtime will make your “uptime” so much more enjoyable.
      THis is even more true if you are traveling with little ones!

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  • Great list! For me the toughest one is the realistic expectations. I am working on that and it is getting easier as more time goes by. Also allowing time I think is so important. We are slow traveling which works best for us, the kids, and our budget. When we are rushed it seems to lead to disappointment and exhaustion. Some days you just need to stay at home and relax. I think another important one is that you cannot see everything, it goes hand in hand with the expectations I guess!

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  • I kept saying yes, yes, yes, when I read this post! I feel the same way about what makes a great trip. For me, I’d just change the first thing from setting realistic expectations to setting no expectations. This one has been really hard for me because I love to plan and I have a huge imagination. I basically take the trip in my head before we’ve even driven out of the driveway! But I’ve learned that if I go into the trip not expecting anything (not about how great an attraction will be, how much the kids will love something), than I’m usually surprised at what things I do come to love about the trip. Even things that I might have seen as slowing us down (like your starter example) turn into an adventure.

    • Christian,
      I like that…no expectations. That is when the best things happen. Like you said though it is impossible if you plan at all. I think my best hope is to hold my expectations loosely!

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