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Mystery tours are putting the thrill back into packaged travel

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    An online questionnaire with Magical Mystery Tours helps travelers hone in on where their mystery tour could take them, like a beach in Cancun (seen here). (Magical Mystery Tours)

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    Travelers get the notice that their mystery trip is to Puerto Rico. (Magical Mystery Tours)

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    You can even plan a mystery tour for your own wedding, like this couple did to Ireland. (Magical Mystery Tours)

Last year, when my sister, Leah Murr, told me she was booking a weekend getaway, the obvious question was where. 

“I don’t know yet,” she said. 

“But you already booked it?” I asked. “I’m confused.”

"Our culture has so much instant gratification. And I think some people miss and crave mystery and excitement.”  

- Jenifour Jones, travel agent for Go Get It Events & Travel

Turns out, she and her husband, who both live in Rome, had purchased a mystery trip through a popular Italian travel website, glamoo.com, to who knows where to do who knows what.

Here’s what they knew: They’d be flying to a destination that Alitalia Air flies, and they’d be staying for two nights. All of the destinations (London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Vienna, to name a few) appealed to them, and the price ($400 per person) was right; so they went for it. 

Three days before the trip, they found out they’d be heading to Istanbul and staying at a hotel within two blocks of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, two top attractions they wanted to see. 

“The excitement of not knowing where you are going until the last second was totally worth it for us,” she said. “You don’t know if you will be packing a bathing suit or a parka.”

Surprises, when done well, can be thrilling, even when it comes to something as personal and complex as travel. And, as my sister can attest, the building anticipation of mystery travel oftentimes gives adults the feeling of being kids on Christmas Eve. Not to mention, it nixes the stress of actually planning a vacation. 

“I have clients call me in tears saying they cannot bare one more moment of online research,” said Jenifour Jones, a travel agent for Go Get It Events & Travel. “Having an expert step in and take the burden off you is huge.

With the growth of online travel booking sites, the roles of traditional travel agents are shifting—or disappearing altogether --as services get outsourced to the consumers. Yet, the area of mystery travel is a growing niche.

From large corporate travel agencies to small boutiques, there are a host of places that can customize affordable mystery tours.

"Our culture has so much instant gratification,” Jones added. “And I think some people miss and crave mystery and excitement.”  

With Go Get It tours, travelers find out the destination when they arrive at the vacation spot instead of via e-mail like my sister did.  

“I have organized a mystery trip where we chartered a cruise ship for 100 people, and no one but the event organizers knew where they are going,” Jones said.

The invitation tells guests how long they will be gone and what kind of climate to expect, but beyond that--nothing. Better yet, this particular group took a private plane to Athens, Greece, so they didn't even know where they were going while flying there.

How does it work? 

Most travel operators ask travelers to fill out a questionnaire with dates, budget, travel preferences and such. That way they know if you despise cold-weather destinations, prefer an English-speaking locale or are prone to getting seasick. 

“It's really important to us to be able to zero in on how someone likes to travel,” said  Denise Chaykun at Magical Mystery Tours, a small Washington-based agency that specializes in surprise-travel trips. “Knowing whether someone wants a hostel or the Ritz is a big deal.”

With the details in hand, Chaykun’s team starts by pulling up Google Maps to pinpoint the best location based on your likes and personality. Travelers set their own budget. The majority of domestic trips start at $1,500 while most international trips start at $2,500. Recent trips the company has planned include a 10-day mystery honeymoon to Turks and Caicos with a snorkeling excursion and a private yoga lesson; and a 6-day trip to the Oregon Coast that included hiking and brewery tours. 

“For a lot of people, you read their questionnaire and the perfect place just jumps out at you,” Chaykun said.  

After that, Magical Mystery Tours provides travelers with a weather report for the mystery destination about a week out, so the guessing game can begin. Then, travelers get an envelope with the details a few days before departing. 

You could scope out the trip at that point, but “most travelers take our suggestion and wait until they get to the airport to open the envelope,” she says.

What else you should know

Surprise travel has gained steam over the past few years, but it’s not right for everyone. Forking over money to have someone else envision a vacation for you can be tough for those who have limited vacation time, are concerned about getting the most value for the money, or want control of planning their vacation. There’s always the chance that the agency will send you to a destination that you just don’t care for. 

“A lot of people hear about the concept of a mystery trip and say, ‘Oh no, I could never do that,’ though at the same time, we have a lot of travelers who really use mystery trips to get out of their comfort zone,” Chaykun said. “We also work with a lot of couples where one person is really spontaneous and the other person is much more of a planner. This seems to be a balance that works for everyone.”

It pays to research the company you are booking with. As with any hot travel trend, there are fly-by-night agencies that should not be trusted. Many prefer to stick with small agencies that have established a good reputation or well known names like American Express, which offers the Nextpedition, a customized mystery travel trip (U.S. trips start at $1,000, and international mystery vacations start at $2,500) that come with 24/7 assistance.