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The Svalbard Archipelago in Norway is just one of many picturesque destinations on offer.

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In January, Vanessa Monterrey Dugré and her mother sat nervously in a taxi on the way to Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International Airport. They knew they were about to fly somewhere, but had no idea where.

Then, with a deep breath, the 29-year-old nurse ripped open a sealed envelope and discovered tickets to Costa Rica.

“It was nerve wracking,” said Dugré. “I doubted what I put in my suitcase. I worried I wouldn’t like the trip. But then it was just excitement, a feeling of freedom and joy.”

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Dugré and her mother weren’t competitors on The Amazing Race. Nor had they won some sort of prize. They had contracted Jubel, a tech-focused travel booking firm, to organize their vacation and keep the destination a secret until the very last moment.

Jubel is just one of a growing number of companies that provide surprise or mystery travel services. As well as giving travellers their own reality-TV moment, these operators offer the chance for people to free themselves from the tyranny of planning and prior expectations.

But unlike the old-school penny-pincher technique of heading to the airport in the hopes of getting a standby flight, the new surprise travel tends to be highly customized. The process begins with an online form or a discussion with an agent about likes and dislikes (scenery preference: plains or mountains?) to make sure the itinerary will suit. Instructions are provided for what to pack. A date is settled. Then it’s off to the airport.

Clearly, surprise travel is a niche, but it’s growing in popularity. When adventure travel giant Intrepid launched its Uncharted Expedition – a one-off trip with a start point, an endpoint and a whole lot of mystery in between – in 2018, over 1,000 travellers applied for a spot. The company had a similar response when it launched a follow-up itinerary for 2020, and plans are afoot for further adventures on more continents.

For some, it seems, surprise travel offers people a chance to reconnect with spontaneity and a sense of adventure that has been lost in a carefully curated, heavily Instagrammed world.

“Social media has made it very easy to share, filter and curate experiences, and perhaps travel can look a bit homogenized through that social media lens, but we still find that travellers from all walks of life want to experience something new and get off the beaten track,” said Michael Edwards, Intrepid’s North American director.

That was certainly true for Dugré, who relished the chance to get out of her comfort zone. “I would never have gone to Costa Rica because my dad is from Nicaragua and it’s so close. But because I didn’t get to choose, I discovered a country that I fell in love with. It’s all about letting go.”

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For others, surprise travel is simply a way of conquering indecision.

“I couldn’t quite decide where to go,” said Sue Rollins, a 58-year-old HR specialist from Belleville, Ont.

“I honestly knew that I was ready to go somewhere again, and at first I was thinking Egypt or India, but I’m getting a bit older now and I was a little bit hesitant. Then I saw an ad pop up on my Facebook feed and the idea caught my interest right away. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

Rollins ended up booking a two-month, six-country solo surprise trip through Central Europe with the Canadian agency Mystery Adventures, only discovering her next destination when she was ready to depart the last one. Not only was it a great vacation, she said, but a chance for personal growth.

“It was a little bit scary for sure. But I did things I never would have. I don’t do subway or local transit normally because I worry about getting lost, but I had no choice. I had to figure it out. And it ended up being spectacular. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

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On Black Tomato's Get Lost experience, travellers are unplugged from technology and transported to remote locations such as Mongolia, pictured here, then left to make their own way in the wilderness.

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Five surprise travel operators

Mystery Adventures

Ontario-based Mystery Adventures offers a range of surprise travel experiences, from weekend getaways in Canada and the U.S. to multidestination international vacations like Rollins’s. Owner Heidi Perrin speaks with every client on the phone or face-to-face before designing an itinerary.

Intrepid

Intrepid’s second Uncharted Expedition will depart Tehran in April 2020 and end in Istanbul 18 days later. Participants have already been selected by a random ballot, but travellers can register for future trips on the Intrepid website. “We hope it will become part of our standard range of trips. They’re fun to do and they’re hugely popular,” said Michael Edwards.

Jubel

This experience-focused online travel agent provides traditional itineraries as well as mystery trips. Travellers fill in an online questionnaire and can expect to be contacted by a Jubel agent within 72 hours. Surprises are also available on a sliding scale: if you’re not ready to completely let go you can choose your destination region, country or even city.

Whisked Away

Spend 10 minutes filling in a survey about your budget, preferences and region of choice and North Carolina-based Whisked Away will design you an itinerary. Founder Charlotte McGhee says many of her clients are couples looking for an unusual or romantic way to celebrate a special occasion.

Black Tomato

If finding out your destination at the last minute isn’t enough to get your juices flowing, luxury operator Black Tomato offers the ultimate travel surprise. On their Get Lost experience, travellers are unplugged from technology and transported – sometimes by private plane – to remote locations such as Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, then left to make their own way in the wilderness. They recommend a stay at a luxury hotel afterward.

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