INDIANAPOLIS – If you could jump on a flight to an unknown destination at 5 a.m. tomorrow, would you do it? If you had to pack your belongings in one backpack, not knowing anything about the weather or destination, could you?
Brittany Smith did.
Smith, 25, has an extreme case of wanderlust. As the senior community manager for Yelp.com in Indianapolis, she travels regularly for work and has visited more than 30 countries on her own. She loves traveling so much that she and her boyfriend took a train ride from Chicago to San Francisco for their third date.
However, this game of Travel Roulette was played with her best friend, Joanna Brenneman. The two spent a semester at sea together in college and try to take one trip a year together.
At 5 a.m. one Friday in June, the two arrived at Indianapolis International Airport with one backpack each.
They had three rules: Spend no more than $300 on the flight, book a flight within one hour of arriving at the airport, and no researching flights in advance. There were a few things they had not anticipated.
The good news: There weren’t many flights to choose from at that hour. They narrowed it down to a flight to Denver scheduled to leave within the hour.
We thought maybe people had done this before; airports see all kinds of things, right? Turns out not. They’re like, You want to do what?’ They kind of freaked out a little bit, Smith told the Indianapolis Star.
The women were eventually able to buy a ticket to Denver on Frontier by calling the airline while standing at the check-in counter. Thanks to the kindness of a few strangers who let them cut in the security line, they were able make the flight just before the doors closed. The process took 45 minutes.
It’s a fairly uncommon thing for leisure travelers, said Carlo Bertolini, a spokesman for Indianapolis International Airport. Advanced purchases typically help you save a lot of money, so it’s rare for someone to purchase a ticket at the airport day of.
Some airlines and websites encourage last-minute travel with lowered fares or choose-your-own adventure features like the Explore option on Kayak.com, where visitors can search for flights filtered by time of year, price, weather conditions and even activities.
For less spontaneous travel, Bertolini advises booking flights 14 to 21 days in advance.
But truly last-minute adventures aren’t impossible. About three hours after arriving at the Indianapolis airport without a ticket, plan or destination in mind, the women arrived in Colorado.
The next obstacle was getting a rental car.
I’d been to Denver quite a bit, so I knew the places we should go, but we needed a car to get there. The counters in the airport were all closed at that time of day (It was about 7 a.m. Mountain time). That ended up being the hardest part of the trip.
After riding shuttle buses among rental car stations, a car was eventually found and they were off.
The weekend consisted of exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, then dinner at a bison farm in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It wasn’t glamorous – one night was spent at a Super 8 in Laramie. Lunch the next day was a picnic of finds from the Boulder Farmers Market. There was more hiking, and the next evening, a lucky find of an $80 room in a nice hotel in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
Jo and I had both secretly hoped that Colorado would be it. But we could have ended up anywhere from Cleveland or Orlando – you just have to roll with it, Smith said.
But there was one thing she would have done differently.
I wish I would have bought a paper map. Phones are great, GPS is great, but nothing beats a paper map. We wouldn’t have driven 30 minutes to stay at a Super 8 in Laramie for no reason had we looked at one, she said.
Certainly, Smith and Brenneman had the summer season working to their advantage. It’s easier to pack a backpack for an unknown destination during the summer than the middle of winter.
But forever the challenge-seeker, Smith said she’d like to try the experience when it’s cold.