Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
Are you the kind of traveller that embraces the unknown, competing to win, enjoys making new friends, and loves the idea of a surprise vacation? There’s a new movement afoot in the vacation space that is taking a different approach to travel. A big reason why we travel is because we want to have see new places, gain new experiences, try new things, and learn something along the way. However, in today’s age of Instagram and Google, some of that travel lustre is taken away because you’re hunting for the perfect shot and everywhere you go from place to place just seeing and not doing. Enter the world of challenge-based travel and surprise vacations.
What if you didn’t have had to surrender control of where you were going? What if you could experience a place by competing against others as a traveller and not a tourist? And what if I told you that you didn’t have to audition for a reality-TV spot and anyone can do it? If any of that excites your wanderlust, you’re going to want to learn more about surprise trips with an Amazing Race spin to it.
A surprise trip is one where you have no idea where you’re going until the start of the journey and you let someone else handle all the logistics in terms of what you’ll be doing, where you’re staying, and how you’re getting from A to B. There are a number of these in the market already but what we’re focusing on today are the ones that have a slight action-oriented edge that brings a little competition into it just like in the TV show.
Mystery trips are gaining favor because it’s too easy to ‘Google delight away.’ – Founder of Jubel via The Wall Street Journal
Surprise Vacations – From Balanced Fun to Seriously Hardcore
What attracts many people to these types of mystery trips or surprise vacations is that often times when we travel, we are looking to maximize every single possible day – squeezing every last ounce of what we can fit in to feed our FOMO (fear of missing out). We’re “compulsive researchers” as Jaime Kurtz, author of “The Happy Traveler” explains. I’m totally guilty of this.
This is going to sound like a foreign concept because it’s so out there but what if we surrendered that control and let someone else figure it out for you? Instead of obsessing over every detail and being overloaded with so much choice, put your travel hands in someone else’s genius mind. Just reading that, does that give you more or less anxiety?
What if that was layered on with travel in a group of other unsuspecting travelers wanting to do the same thing? You’re in it together, and even if you’re not a seasoned traveler, you have a great support system. Sound a little better?
Now take all of that and instead of robotically walking from pinned dots on the map to another, throw all of that out the window and engage in local activities that have a little extra oomph behind them because you’re competing against your fellow travellers? Interesting, right?
Challenge-based surprise trips (eventually someone will come up with a better name) is basically what this is all about. It’s for anyone seeking a different way of travel that ironically allows you to wander more freely and and gets you to engage with your destination in a way you never thought possible.
There aren’t many companies out there doing this but here are a few that you want to look into.
Modelled after the idea of mystery trips built on challenges, Competitours is truly the “Amazing Race for normal people”. It’s similar to the hit reality TV series in that you’re travelling with a group of people, you’re in teams of two, you compete in challenges, and there’s a cash prize at the end. Typical trips have 10 teams of 2 jaunt around Europe over the span of 7 days and takes place in the summer.
However that’s where the similarities stop because if it was exactly like the show, you’d get into fights and you’d try to sabotage other teams at every turn. That’s why, every “season” of Competitours takes the approach of everyone having an equal opportunity to score points. Age isn’t a factor and physical strength is taken out of the equation as well. And while winning is a primary goal, it never gets cut-throat because it’s the bonds and friendships you make on an trip that end up being more meaningful. A large part of that is due to the fact that teams don’t get eliminated and the founder and host of each trip comes up with wild and whacky ways to give everyone a chance to win all the way up until the end.
Oh yes and did I mention the prize? Fine, it’s not quite a million bucks but a portion of your trip fee ($150) goes into a pooled fund so up to a $3000 grand prize will be split between top 3 placing teams( 50% 1st place, 30% 2nd place and 20% 3rd place). Everyone has stake in the game so it certainly makes things very interesting.
Examples of activities include cooking challenges in Italy, alpine coasters in Switzerland, canal scavenger hunts in the Netherlands, and building Lego in Denmark.
For any of you that follow Going Awesome Places, this is trip that I personally went on with a good friend of mine and was absolutely blown away. With nothing more than a GoPro on a gimbal, I recorded an impromptu vlog series on Competitours that gives you an inside look into what it’s like.
The trips are so popular that there’s even a documentary about it now called Tripped Up.
What You Need To Know
Price: Winter 2018 – $2875 USD, Summer 2019 – $2975 USD
Inclusions: Inter-Europe transportation, accommodations, breakfast, activities, prize pool
Dates: Winter 2018 – December 16 -23, Summer 2019 – July 14 – 21
Who is this for: Families, couples, friends, and inter-generational teams. This is for people that love meeting new people and trying new experiences. Someone who is looking for that perfect sweet spot where you only need to take 1 week off from work.
Who is this not for: Those that like to travel solo or do things independently. It is also not for those that would rather sip in Mai Tai’s by the beach or go sightseeing.
What you need to know:
- Flights to Europe are in addition
- Double occupancy rooms for each teams of two
- One checked luggage per person included for flights
- If solo, can be paired with another random solo if available
- Lunches are independent and not included
- Free time – Usually only one dinner is part of a challenge, the rest of the evenings are free for you to explore
- The prizes are for the team and not the individuals of the team
Global Scavenger Hunt
If there’s any trip that follows The Amazing Race closely, it’s Global Scavenger Hunt. This is a winner-takes-all adventure that leads 10 to 15 two-person teams around the world including Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas over 23 days and 10 secret destinations. Contestants are literally battling it out to win the title of “World’ Greatest Traveler”.
It’s similar to the TV show because there’s an extensive application process where thousands apply and only a few get in. There are typically 5-8 legs in each race and they could be as short as a 6 hour layover challenge or an in-depth leg that lasts 5 days. On average though, you’re only in each country 48 to 72 hours. While no teams are eliminated, the team with most points completing scavenges win the leg and the more legs you win, the higher chances you have of winning the event. Some scavenges are worth more points and some are worth less if they’re easier. It’s very much a calculated risk teams have to take to balance out difficulty with reward.
This is the brainchild of William Chalmers who started this company in 2000 with the first event being the GreatEscape2001 which was planned for October 2001. Needless to say, the world changed after 9/11 and the inaugural trip was pushed off to spring of 2002 and was aptly renamed GreatEscape2002. With more than a decade of trips under their belts, their focus is to run events for great travellers, bringing their contestants to extraordinary destinations and experience extraordinary things.
In previous years, there have been tasks such as asking three Danes to explain what hygge culture means to them and take the Marrakesh Express from Casablanca and purchase some babouches in the ancient souk and be wearing them at check-in time.
New to 2019 is the upping of the ante to $50,000 USD so there is definitely a lot at stake.
This is the kind of surprise vacation where you’re expected to be pushed outside your comfort zone and be a true test of you travel skills. With that, you can tell that this is a much more intense type of trip. While the experience is no doubt once-in-a-lifetime, the same type of stresses you see on TV translate into the Global Scavenger Hunt. With so much money on the line as well, teams are bound to get competitive.
What You Need To Know
Price: $12,500 USD
Inclusions: All international airfare to and from North America, hotels (double occupancy), 40% of meals, transportation from each airport, two major hospitality event, and swag
Dates: April 12 – May 4, 2019
Who is this for: Teams who are serious about winning and willing to commit a large budget for this trip. Designed for independent travellers interested in a surprise vacation.
Who is this not for: Someone who can’t take 23 consecutive days off, looking to truly make friends with other teams, hope to have down time in cities they’re in.
What you need to know:
- North America centric in that the start and ending point will be in North America
- Account for $75 to $125 USD a day for out-of-pocket expenses – if you look at what they cover, they don’t include public transportation and scavenge costs
- Unclear if flights once out of North America are included or not
- Single entries are possible but it depends on availability and whether there is a match with another single participant
The Headlands Gamble
Looking for an immersive weekend experience for 2 or 4, The Headlands Gamble is a mystery story through California’s northern coast. It’s like a murder mystery except it’s a surprise vacation for just you two and you’re going to real locations, uncovering clues, and meeting characters as you drive through Marin County, north of San Francisco.
All you have to do is show up somewhere in San Francisco or East Bay on Saturday morning and you’ll be whisked away to a secret location to pick up your custom car and that’s when the story starts. You’ll have an interactive tablet dashboard to digitally augment the experience and guide you through where you need to go.
What sets this experience apart is that it is this interesting blend of travel with experiential theater. It’s as if you’re on the set of a movie and you’re living you’re own action-thriller.
Directed and written by film, theatre, and television star Satya Bhabha, you’ll weave through the story with decisions you make before ultimately coming to the climactic conclusion.
What You Need To Know
Price: All-inclusive ($3,750 USD for 2, $5,050 USD for 4), Perfecta ($4,950 USD for 2, $7,450 USD for 4)
Inclusions: One night stay in Marin County, vehicle, all food and drink
Dates: June to September (two weekends each month)
Who is this for: Those that are looking for a weekend getaway in San Francisco and interested in doing something very different and engaging.
Who is this not for: Probably not something you’d fly a long distance to do on its own but a great companion activity if you’re thinking about doing the west coast US.
What you need to know:
- The Perfecta package upgrades you in terms of accommodations, vehicle, private chef dining, improved/bonus beverages and snacks, and more tailored experiences along the way
- Booking is cancellable for full refund up to two months ahead of your date
- Dietary constraints can be accommodated
- For groups of 3, there can be options. Doesn’t sound like something you could do solo but doesn’t hurt to ask
Kudos Life Experiences
Lastly, there’s this “experiential luxury travel game” under the Kudos Life Experiences brand that is called Kudos OneLife Game of Antikythera with Hublot. Yes, that’s quite the mouthful.
Kudos Life Experiences which primarily focuses on bespoke luxury trips to Greece runs a unique trip that brings in participants to uncover the secrets of the Antikythera shipwreck while discovering and experiencing the country across 7 days.
Its a personalized gamified travel experience that involves puzzles and clues while also challenging participants mentally and physically. Lifted straight out of a Bond movie, expect to be whisked to new locations by chartered planes, helicopters, and yachts in search of the “missing” artifact.
At the end of it, you get to actually participate in real-life underwater archeological excavation and pilot a 3D underwater drone to see the shipwreck. As a prize, every participant receives a replica of the mechanism the game sets out to find made by the watch company Hublot.
A neat bonus is that part of the proceeds from the experiences go to fund the ongoing excavation for all the treasures that are still buried in the Greek Sea off Antikythera Island.
What You Need To Know
Price: Roughly 100,000 EUR for a family of 4
Dates: April to October
Who is this for: An ultra-luxury and private experience that gives you a chance to explore Greece in a fun and engaging way
Who is this not for: Travellers on a budget
What you need to know:
- This is a custom tailored experience for your group (typically group of 4) so pricing and itinerary will vary
- Reach out to Kudos Life Experiences to get additional details
Every single one of these options are very different however if when you put them side by side and think about what’s the surprise vacation that gives you the best balance of price, experience, timing, and challenges, Competitours comes out on top every time.
What I’ve come to appreciate about the Competitours experience is that it’s an inclusive experience. Teams of any age can do it, there’s no complicated application process (you want to go? you’re in!), it’s a trip designed to encourage interaction between teams, and it won’t bust the bank.Bea
At $2875 USD per person, you’re looking at $410 per day which covers unique challenges that you can’t even book if you were travelling on your own, custom-booked transportation, accommodations, and possibly flights depending on the day. While winning is a driving force, ultimately what drives teams to come back again and again is the camaraderie that’s built between the teams across the 7 days. That said, it’s not to shabby if your team is able to take the $1500 top prize.
I’m unashamed to be a just a tiny bit biased here but seriously it’s a hidden gem in the market that deserves more attention but for now, I’m totally okay to keep this a secret between you and me.
Lastly, keep in mind that these are competition-based surprise vacations. If you’re looking for just a basic surprise trip, there are other companies out there to look into such as Jubel, Pack Up + Go, Black Tomato, Brown + Hudson’s, Magical Mystery Tours, Vacation Hunt, and Rustic Pathways.
So would you do it? Have you ever thought about doing a mystery trip or gone on a vacation that was challenge-based like in The Amazing Race? Drop a comment below!