For five long days, the envelope seemed to be staring Kelly Bemmes down, daring her to peek. Inside were the destination and itinerary for a weekend trip that the 22-year-old was taking with her mom, Kim Bemmes. It took some effort, but she resisted. The mystery and anticipation was, after all, part of why the two booked the trip for $650 each via Pack Up + Go in the first place: The travel agency specializes in "surprise" vacations.
When her dad dropped them off at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport early on a Thursday morning in August, Kim did the honors. She opened the envelope and read where they were headed: Philadelphia. Both mother and daughter were thrilled.
Kelly said she decided to book the trip after reading about Pack Up + Go on Facebook. She hadn't traveled much, and loved the idea of someone else planning her getaway.
"I just knew I wanted to go somewhere, and it would be cool to be a surprise because I was going to make the best out of any situation," she said.
They spent the plane ride poring over the envelope's contents: a $50 Uber gift card for airport transportation; reservations and a $100 Harp & Crown restaurant gift card; confirmation for two nights at the Logan Philadelphia, Curio Collection by Hilton hotel; and maps with suggested itineraries that included the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Eastern State Penitentiary, the Mutter Museum, gardens and other spots.
Over the three days, they hit nearly all of the suggestions. Kelly said that even though the trip was short, it was one of the best she has taken, because there was no stress involved.
"I hate planning. Nobody wants to check for their flights and hotel online," she said. "And I just liked the surprise, because I knew it was going to be somewhere I had never been and I didn't really have anywhere in mind that I would prefer to go."
Her mom loved it, too — so much so that she plans to do another surprise trip using Pack Up + Go with Kelly's dad for their 23rd anniversary.
Pack Up + Go is one of a handful of surprise vacation travel agencies that aims to add a suspenseful twist to trips. It works like this: Travelers go online and fill out a survey, which asks questions about recent trips taken, upcoming trips planned, vacation preferences (action, relaxation, culture), hobbies and interests, dietary restrictions and other inclinations. Travelers opt for a road trip (starting at $400 per person) or a flight, train or bus (starting at $650 per person), then the travel team gets to work planning a domestic three-day weekend shaped by the survey. A week before the traveler embarks, the company emails a weather report and packing tips (such as bring a bathing suit or hiking boots). The envelope with the destination, maps and confirmations arrives via mail.
Pack Up + Go founder and chief executive Lillian Rafson launched the business in 2016 in Pittsburgh after first hearing about surprise vacations while traveling in Eastern Europe.
"I met two sisters who were on a surprise vacation from a European agency. And I just thought: 'That is the most fun idea; I'm so jealous,' " she said.
With Pack Up + Go, she decided to focus on planning trips in the United States to encourage domestic travel. "I was in Riga, Latvia, when I first heard of this, but at that point I had never been to Charleston, South Carolina," she said.
Initially, she assumed that clients would be like her — easygoing millennials with some disposable income and limited vacation days. What she found was, well, another surprise.
"We have had an 80-year-old celebrating a birthday. We've had parent-child trips. We've had three generations go on a trip together. We've had 50th anniversaries celebrated. We've had 18-year-olds who just graduated high school. It's turned out to be a much broader range than I had imagined," she said. "I think it goes to show that everyone loves a surprise. And there are so few times in life when you can really genuinely be surprised together."
The Vacation Hunt is an agency that adds an additional twist to the mystery vacation game: Travelers receive clues leading up to the trip. Jeff Allen and Roshni Agarwal, the husband-wife team behind the District-based business, comb through books and sift through trivia to try to find clues that are challenging enough that clients can't just Google the answers and spoil the big reveal. (A recent clue: "Visit the unforgettable cafe at the edge of the world. Grab a drink and watch the divers jump off!" Destination: Negril, Jamaica, Rick's Cafe).
They decided to start the company after Agarwal planned a surprise 30th birthday getaway for Allen. She loved how the hints along the way built excitement for the trip, and it was fun for both of them. The couple has ventured around the globe, and thought it would be exciting to be able to put their travel knowledge to use and plan mystery trips for others.
Agarwal said that most of the Vacation Hunt's clients are working professionals — many of whom are honeymooners, exhausted from wedding planning — who "have more money than time to do something like this," she said. And, she added, they like the idea of some kind of adventure.
Agarwal and Allen get to know their customers through an online survey, email, a phone consultation and their social-media accounts. The Vacation Hunt's surprise vacation package (starting at $750 per person in the United States or $950 per person internationally) includes flights, accommodations and at least two preplanned activities (such as a walking tour, dinner reservation, brewery tour or museum visit) along with a suggested itinerary with dining and transportation recommendations. Travelers receive two or three clues by email; an envelope with the destination, confirmations and itineraries comes by mail a few days before the trip. Alternatively, if someone already has a destination in mind, the Vacation Hunt offers a trip-planning service (starting at $150 for a weekend) and can create a surprise itinerary.
In Britain, a cruise company is about to launch its first luxury mystery cruise. The Secret Sailaway, by Bolsover Cruise Club, will embark on March 9, 2018, and sail to six cities over 16 nights (at a price just under $16,000) from an undisclosed starting point.
"All I can tell you is that guests will fly business class out of the U.K. to meet the ship in a mystery location," said Michael Wilson, managing director of Bolsover Cruise Club. To build suspense, riddles are available online for passengers to try to decipher. (They can also request the answers after booking). Or they can await the big reveal as they sail into port.
Like the other leaders in the burgeoning surprise-vacation industry, Wilson said that the goal of the cruise is to add a little thrill to the adventure.
"It is a completely different way of seeing the world, simply taking a leap of faith and seeing where you end up," he said. "The thought of arriving at the airport with no idea where you are heading until you check in is so exciting."
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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