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By The Way
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How 7 couples got engaged through detour, disaster and other diversions

They pulled off vacation proposals from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the base of the Himalayas

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
10 min

Try as we might, it is impossible to guarantee a perfect trip. No matter how many details you account for or how closely you scrutinize your itinerary, unpredictable changes always present a threat to your best-laid plans. For romantics planning to surprise their partners with a marriage proposal on vacation, the pressure to avoid a travel disaster intensifies.

Not all trips — or proposal attempts — can go off without a hitch, but last-minute switches can make for amazing memories, too. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we asked readers to send in their travel engagement stories. Here are seven we loved, edited for clarity and length.

The completely correct guide to traveling with a significant other

They paused their Himalayan trek for a sentimental picnic

I met Zak while we were both teaching English in South Korea. We fell in love and stayed in Asia, working and traveling for five years. In 2016, our last big adventure before moving back to the States was a 32-day hike to Everest Base Camp.

There are lots of versions of the trek; most people fly in closer to base camp. However, we had time and no money, so we decided to take the scenic route hiking in from Jiri, Nepal.

It was an incredible month. But it was also challenging — two showers total, altitude headaches and frozen toothpaste. We did it together, though, and felt deeply happy. On the second-to-last day, we were in a beautiful green area, hiking and talking. My husband said he had to pee, so I waited while he popped into the woods. A minute later, he asked me to come over, and he had set up a picnic on a blanket we had bought in India. He slowly started to reveal some of our favorite treats from our travels: a can of coffee from India, a pack of instant ramen from Korea, a chocolate bar from Vietnam. I was delighted! (And also annoyed that he hadn’t shared these snacks during the exhausting four weeks when we ate a zillion peanuts as hiking snacks.)

While we were enjoying our treats, a solo European hiker walked by and spotted us. He asked a lot of questions about our trek, including some bizarre ones. When he heard about the route we took, he told us it was crazy, “like drinking your own [urine]!” After he left, we laughed, and my husband got down on one knee. He asked me to share the rest of our adventures together. Our proposal was perfect. But, we always wonder if that hiker knew how infamous his quote would become to us.

— Kate Robbins, a middle school and high school director of English language arts in Nashville

They popped the question from a balloon 2,500 feet in the air

He planted a proposal letter in a Charleston bed-and-breakfast

It started on Valentine’s Day with a card in the back of a picture frame. The note asked Theresa, my then-girlfriend, to ask our boss — we worked at the same place — if she could leave her office early that Friday.

When Friday came, I had Theresa’s work best friend hand her a rose with a card including cab fare and further instructions to go home and pack a bag for two nights. A taxi drove her to Reagan National Airport, where I was standing with another rose. As we ate at an airport restaurant, I handed her a first edition of a book by her favorite author (Kurt Vonnegut) with boarding passes to Charleston, S.C., tucked inside.

Our flight was delayed 2½ hours, but we got to Charleston and checked into a bed-and-breakfast that dates back to 1840. We sat next to its fireplace — one of the only working ones in the French Quarter — and I presented Theresa with a scrapbook I made called “The Story of Us.” At the end was a missing page. I got up and pulled a piece of paper from a nearby bookcase. It was the final page of the scrapbook that read “will you marry me?” made out of Scrabble pieces from the Fremont Sunday Market in her hometown of Seattle.

After toasting with a bottle of her favorite zinfandel and a weekend full of activities, we flew home to D.C. on Sunday. Theresa thought the weekend was over. Nope! Thirty-five of our closest friends (the airport’s limit) met us at the gate with congratulatory signs, including our best friends, who flew in from Arizona and Michigan. The airport gave us a private room to continue the celebration, overlooking the runway. We’ve been married for 10 years!

— Austin Graff, a contributing writer for The Washington Post and D.C. local expert for By The Way

After two foiled attempts, he took a knee in a shaky gondola

Phil’s first attempt at proposing was on a trip to France at the top of Montparnasse Tower in Paris after a heavy rain. It was just us and one other family watching the clouds part over the Eiffel Tower. He started to reach for the ring when my phone suddenly rang. It was our dog-sitter letting us know that our dog broke its leg. The vet said he was fine and that we didn’t need to fly home early, but we were still shaken up. His proposal attempt was aborted.

Second attempt: We traveled to Corsica to meet our friends with family there. We were spending the afternoon at their gorgeous villa overlooking the sea, and Phil asked me for a walk, hoping to steal a moment of privacy to propose.

Just as we were about to leave, our friend exclaimed, “Oh my God, Anthony Bourdain is dead!” We are all big fans, so this came as a great, upsetting shock. The walk was canceled, and we got drunk instead. Phil started to get paranoid that if he didn’t propose soon, increasingly worse things would happen.

Third attempt: The next day we took a ferryboat to visit Napoleon’s ancestral home. The tour was sold out for a few hours, so we broke away from the group to take a walk by the water. In the distance we saw a Ferris wheel (I love them!) so Phil suggested we take a ride.

It looked like it was closed; the place was empty. But nope, an attendant popped out and invited us to go around as many times as we wanted. Just as we reached the top, Phil got on one knee in the shaky gondola and proposed.

— Joana Chu, a real estate agent in Queens

How to savor travel like an Italian, from the woman who wrote a book on it

She had no idea she carried her own ring to Europe

My then-boyfriend had been on a two-month architectural study program in Israel the summer of 1995 while I was working in Vancouver, B.C., our home. We reunited at the Frankfurt Airport that August, and took the train to Bern, Switzerland, where I had family.

Before leaving Canada, he had instructed me to pack a metal tea box in my luggage, which I did and carried over to Europe. Unbeknown to me, it contained the engagement ring that he’d designed before leaving for Israel. He presented it to me while we were sitting on a bench next to the Aare River in Bern, a popular spot for locals and visitors. After being together for seven years, I was surprised and delighted to be engaged, and I said yes.

We proceeded to my grandmother’s house, where we were staying. After congratulating us, she shared that she’d gotten secretly engaged to my grandfather near that very location in the 1930s. My husband and I married in 1996 and celebrated our 25-year anniversary in 2021.

— Claudia M. Laroye, a Vancouver freelance writer.

We asked: Do I have to give a gift if I’m traveling for the wedding?

She wore a disguise to capture their waterfall engagement on the sly

I’m a photographer who specializes in couples’ photography, including proposals. I was going on a trip to Costa Rica when a travel planner connected me with Brandon, a client who was also heading to Costa Rica with his girlfriend, Ebony. He was looking for a photographer to capture his surprise proposal.

We arranged to meet at a waterfall near La Fortuna. To get to this beautiful turquoise wonder, you have to hike down a 500-step staircase through the rainforest. I disguised myself as another tourist visiting the attraction, hiding in plain sight with my camera. We got there early to avoid the crowds as much as possible, so there weren’t as many people around as you would think for such a popular spot. She was none the wiser until he actually got down on one knee to pop the question.

When she said yes, they hugged and kissed and talked for a few minutes. I held back for a while to give the couple some privacy and have the moment to themselves. A few other tourists congratulated them, but for the most part everyone went about their business.

— Kim Hefner, a Colorado-based photographer

He used hotel points for a special stay in Bora Bora

Almost year before I proposed to Emily, I was looking for a romantic getaway and booked a five-night trip to Bora Bora at the St. Regis using Marriott points. As the date approached, it became clear we were ready to get engaged, and this would be the perfect opportunity to propose.

The resort’s wedding team suggested all kinds of wild celebrations, including a helicopter tour with the text “Will you marry me?” written in coconuts. Three months in advance of our trip, I ended up booking us a two-hour photo shoot followed by a private dinner on the beach. It was just us, along with our very own waiter whose family caught the lobsters we ate.

On the flight home, a friend who works for United Airlines heard we had gotten engaged and surprised us with a very thoughtful card signed by the crew, and a champagne toast after we landed in San Francisco. It was such a special ending to a perfect proposal trip.

— Zach Honig, a content strategist who lives in Philadelphia.

Her fear of heights made an Eiffel Tower proposal a surprise

My then-boyfriend and I were traveling in Europe — his first visit — to see my family in England for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My grandmother had given him a ring to propose, and my parents thought he might do it at the party. He had other ideas.

We went to the place where my parents got engaged, and when he didn’t propose there, I thought it wouldn’t happen during the trip. After England, we went to Paris and visited the Eiffel Tower on the first night in the city. I do not like heights, so I was distracting myself watching some young men looking through the viewfinder exclaim that they could see a lady getting undressed. When I turned around, my husband had the ring in his hand. We took our 25th anniversary trip to Hawaii last October.

— Lisa Wright McGrail, a volunteer engagement specialist for a nonprofit who lives in Ashburn, Va.