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Surprise, this is your holiday

Companies are catering to travellers who do not want to know where they are going until the 11th hour

NEW YORK • Instead of choosing your next holiday destination, what if it were a surprise?

Travel agencies, tour companies and airlines - Priceline, Hotwire, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand and Germanwings - have long offered discounted hotel rooms, car rentals and flights to travellers willing to roll the dice and learn what they are getting only after they pay, like slipping a quarter into a vending machine for a mystery toy in a capsule.

Tour companies, such as Voyages Traditours in Canada and Magical Mystery Tours in Washington, D.C., have for years been creating itineraries for travellers who do not want to know where they are holidaying until the 11th hour.

That list has grown over the past year, thanks to a new crop of "surprise" services from travel companies as varied as CheapCaribbean.com, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Brown & Hudson, a London-based agency.

In some cases, travellers are allowed to pick their destination, but the hotel is a surprise.

In others, the destination is a surprise until a few days before departure, then travellers can choose a hotel.

By focusing on why you are travelling instead of where, travel can play a therapeutic role.''

MR PHILIPPE BROWN, co-founder of travel agency Brown & Hudson

The most elaborate services ask clients questions about their passions, then design personalised surprise itineraries, including flights, hotels and activities based on their responses.

CheapCaribbean.com, which specialises in bargains to Mexico and the Bahamas, as well as the Caribbean, last year introduced a programme - Seas The Deal, since renamed Deal Of Fortune - that allows travellers to book rooms in upscale, all-inclusive properties for less.

Travellers can choose the place they wish to go to, such as Jamaica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but the hotel is a surprise - it is revealed a week before the trip.

For instance, a recent search turned up a four-night trip to the Riviera Maya in Mexico, including airfare and lodging, starting at US$699 (S$983) a person based on double occupancy.

For each Deal Of Fortune search result, CheapCaribbean.com provides a short list of potential hotels, one of which will end up being yours.

For the US$699 Mexico deal, possible hotels included Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort & Spa; Iberostar Paraiso Lindo; Azul Beach Hotel, by Karisma or Barcelo Maya Palace Deluxe.

In its "travel vanguard" feature this year, travel magazine and trip-planning site Afar called surprise travel "the new luxury" (although it is not a new practice) and highlighted the Brown & Hudson travel agency.

Last year, the company posted details on its website about "a journey where even you will not know where you are going".

"When we first started exploring this idea and talking about it with clients, we didn't talk about surprise travel because it felt too faddy," Mr Philippe Brown, a founder of Brown & Hudson, states in an e-mail message.

Instead, he calls his concept "A Journey With No Destination". The tagline is "Sometimes, you're better off not knowing where you're going".

Mr Brown says that often, the only thing clients talk about is how they hope to feel after a trip.

"They tell us about family challenges or exhaustion, a need for inspiration, relationship issues," he says.

"By focusing on why you are travelling instead of where, travel can play a therapeutic role," he says.

To determine what sort of holiday might accomplish that, Brown & Hudson asks big-picture questions about your personal development goals and how you want to feel when you return home. Additionally, the company asks where you have already travelled to and, as the website puts it: "anywhere or anything you definitely don't want to do and how risky or intrepid you dare to be".

The destination may be revealed when you check in at the airport or, if you are flying privately, not until you arrive.

While travellers do not know where they are going, Brown & Hudson ensures they know what to bring.

Most of the clients for whom Brown & Hudson designs such trips are experienced travellers, although there are exceptions, such as the honeymoon couple who thought it would be an interesting way to begin their marriage.

Mr Brown says the idea appeals to millennials, who tend to want the unusual, unexpected and unique, as well as to older clients seeking different ways to see places they have already been to.

There is a non-refundable trip-planning fee, usually a minimum of £1,500 (S$3,209). However, the total price varies greatly, depending on factors including where you are going, for how long and what you will be doing.

Travellers can establish a budget in advance, though, so there are no surprises in that regard.

Also, last year, Dutch airline KLM joined the ranks of carriers offering blind getaways with its Monday's Mystery round-trip tickets starting at €99 (S$152).

Each Monday, for three weeks, the airline featured five destinations on its website, one of which would end up being your weekend trip.

So, you would buy a blind ticket on Monday, find out where you are going on Tuesday and fly there on Friday.

If you would prefer to choose your own holiday, you can still inject an element of surprise into the planning process with websites and apps such as Google Flights and Booking.com.

Rather than pick your destination and then look for flights, you can let your destination reveal itself by searching Google Flights for desirable criteria, such as affordable business class fares to Europe or select the "places travellers love" link on Booking.com and discover destinations by interest such as "nature" or "friendly people".

Or you can simply do what travellers have done for ages: Spin a globe.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Surprise, this is your holiday'. Print Edition | Subscribe