Notes: The Value of Spontaneous Travel

With a little legwork, last-minute adventures can be joyous and inexpensive

I went to Barcelona last weekend with $116 in my checking account. I knew I’d need five of those dollars to pay for the AirTrain from JFK to the Howard Beach Station, so I had $111 in reality. I do not have a credit card. I am fortunate enough to have nominal back-up resources if something goes wrong, but that wasn’t the point. I was going to survive in Barcelona on what I had in that singular checking account. Full disclosure: my hotel and airfare were comped. Again, that isn’t the point. What was my version of Barcelona can be anyone’s last-minute trip almost anywhere. As a suburban child, sometimes it was a relief to drive two towns away and now, as a restless New Yorker (who is very in love with his home city), travel keeps me inspired and sane—especially when it’s last minute.

I have a sinking suspicion that most people my age go to Barcelona to party. Dinners can start at 11PM and dancing can go until the afternoon of the next day. That wasn’t what I was looking for, though clearly the city could have accommodated those needs. In a way, a lot of what I was seeking overlapped. I was there to test out the recommendations of the cultural concierge app Porter & Sail. I was there to build a map of the city in my head. And I was there to relax. (If one can relax in Barcelona, one can relax anywhere.) I had been to the Spanish city once before, years ago. Names like La Barceloneta and Plaça Reial circulated in my vocabulary, but they had lost meaning. I wanted to remember. Again, this is applicable to any city—ones that I’ve been to or that you’ve been to or ones that we dream of.

As a creature of whim, with very little organizational capacity when traveling alone, I knew the key to survival was plotting out everything that I wanted to do. I drew two handfuls of recommendations from the app. I cross-checked those with tips from friends and supported the ultimate list with memories and research. On one folded sheet of printer paper, I wrote down touch-points. I did loose mental math on how much I could or could not spend at each place, and then I was off. I had committed to a whirlwind weekend. I would be on my own and free and exploring. It would not be my home, but if the impact was strong enough, perhaps I would be left with that pull to return that one feels when they’ve connected so deeply to something new—so deeply that you want to share those secrets you’re often afraid will deter fresh faces in your life.

I can’t stand wearing headphones when traveling through a new city. It is not our place to build a soundtrack to a new experience while living it. Cities themselves provide this: sirens are different, accents intrigue or confuse, local bar music is in fact local bar music. Chopping off a sense while walking the streets of someplace away feels inhibiting to me. Perhaps because it is. That is a tangential piece of advice, but here’s something more valuable: there’s no Uber in Barcelona. I learned that at the airport when I was trying to figure out the cheapest way to get to my hotel in Eixample. They do, however, have a service called mytaxi, and with a quick Google, I learned that there was a 20€ discount on your first ride. So I used it and after tip, my entire ride cost $11.

Now here’s where the rest of the money went. It costs 15€ to enter Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família if you purchase tickets online. You really must do that anyway, because arriving and expecting to get in will result with dismissal. Tickets are sold in limited quantities. Even if the facade of the building were not under construction, it’s worth stepping inside. It costs 7€ to enter the monuments of Park Güell if you purchase online (again, highly recommended). Remarkably, the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona—a stellar design museum with a permanent collection and shifting exhibitions—is free on Saturdays. So, everything else I had went to food and drink.

I didn’t utilize any mode of transportation again until taking the bus to El Prat airport. And this was the immense joy of spontaneous travel. A trip planned in a week with an itinerary planned the day before and a city to take on foot. On the other half of my sheet of printer paper, I wrote the best way to walk if I were to encircle the city based on some of the recommendations (keep in mind, it is such a shame that the Google Maps app only lets you put in one destination and one starting point—no full itineraries can be built within it). And then I spent some 12 hours one day walking from one to the next.

A day before I had no idea what I would see. A week before I didn’t know if I would be going. And there I was traversing a city, building my own map, placing monuments beside bars, pairing tapas and custom cocktails. I made it to every stop on my list. More importantly: I diverged twice. There is a street in El Born called Carrer dels Carders. I walked passed it but then turned around, entered and followed it from start to finish. For an American, there’s nothing quite like a tight, winding European street. All of it was liberating. All of it was powerful. It rained both mornings, lightly, and the skies were overcast, but as I embarked upon an hour-and-30-minute walk up and up to Park Güell, it didn’t matter. I was elsewhere, headed to something Seussian.

In a rather uncommon move, I didn’t make any friends this time around that I would keep in touch with. I spent hours chatting to two bartenders at two different venues—one of whom ended up comping my drinks that night (which, of course, alleviated some financial stress). But traveling alone and last-minute always opens the doors to potential friendships. This time, I conversed with the streets and the architecture and the food. I thanked the sun. I plotted my course. And I couldn’t be disappointed—because I was somewhere else. I encourage you to do the same.

Images by David Graver