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My friend and I went to the airport without tickets or a plan and ended up in….Madrid!

by Alison Qualter-Berna

In early January 2016, I went out to dinner with Allison, my closest friend and business partner, and she presented me with an idea. What if we picked a week halfway between our birthdays, went to the airport without a plan and let fate decide our destination? What if we could finally go on a “mystery trip” together?

Within minutes, we blocked out 3-4 days a few months later and promised that no matter what came up in our lives, we would stick to the plan. The only two things you really need for a true mystery trip are firm dates and an adventurous, open mind. We had both.

As mothers of three children each who spend countless hours running our national franchise business, songs for seeds, it seemed impossible to stick to the dates. Everything began to come up. A cello concert for one of our kids. A bake sale for the charity we work with. A birthday dinner for a girlfriend. Each opportunity tempted us to move the date by a day or two (an option when you don’t have a ticket to anywhere), but we didn’t change a thing. It’s easy to be lured by the pull of life’s demands and cancel a trip for yourself, and to no particular destination, but we stuck to it, and prepared to roll the dice.

The night before we called each other from our closets, glass of wine in hand, and discussed what to pack. Our best guess was one of everything.
Bathing suit? Check.
Winter gloves? Check.
Hiking clothes? Check.
Most importantly…passport? Check.
It was raining in Scotland, freezing in Finland, and sunny in Belize. We wanted options for all of it.

We dropped our kids off at school on opposite sides of NYC and called each other to meet up. Right then and there (being Jersey girls), we decided to go to Newark Airport.

Amateur move number one: don’t arrive at the airport looking for an exotic international flight at 9:30am. Rochester, Cleveland and Saint Louis weren’t exactly what we had in mind. We wanted to leave the country. We wanted to be transported. We wanted an adventure.

After pondering the various flight boards, we saw Panama City pop up, almost at the very same time. “Panama City, Florida?” we wondered. But it was not, it was indeed the country that connects Central and South America and we had a winner. It passed our three primary rules we had set for our Mystery Trip - 1) neither of us had ever been there before, 2) the price of the ticket was in our budget (3 digits…not 4), and 3) it was out of the country.

Panama was an ideal location, delivering us a few super fun days each with a diverse experience – we visited a rainforest to hike, a remote island beach to relax, and the Panama Canal for a bit of history.

We stayed in an up and coming area of the city called Casca Viejo and ate at the most incredible restaurants, getting shout outs from our most “foodie” of friends. Having no agenda means having no expectations and we wondered if this was the magic ingredient. The spontaneity and newness of everything, including where to stay or eat (not knowing where to stay or eat!), made our mystery trip a true adventure. On our way home from Panama we set our dates for another mystery trip, one year later, and nothing could stop us.

In year two we ended up in Iceland which was similar to landing on the moon. Epic in its raw beauty, we found ourselves exploring so much of the country in only a few days, from the Golden Circle to the entire Southern Coast….and with a new friend from Germany we made on the airplane!

The puffy coat and gloves we shoved in at the last minute under bathing suits came in handy, but the bathing suits did too! Who knew you could swim in geothermal spas after climbing on ice glaciers? Not only were we seeing the world with adventurous, wide open eyes, we were bonding even further as friends, sharing so much together.

Our Mystery Trip in year 3 was a tough choice, standing in Terminal 5 at JFK, we whittled it down to Dublin versus Lisbon, ticket prices being equal and weighing the benefits of both. We decided to let the weather app on our iPhones make the final call – rainy in Dublin and clear skies in Portugal. Portugal - here we come! After doing my celebratory handstand at the western most point of Europe, we filled our days with the historical beauty of Lisbon and took side trips to the surfing town of Cascais and the castles of Sintra (admittedly hoping we’d run into Madonna).

We made friends in Lisbon too – and quickly found ourselves having drinks at our tour guide’s mother’s home. We are still in touch. Not having a plan means you ask more questions, stay open to new ideas and meet more locals. Those benefits made me wonder if I ever wanted to fully plan a trip again.

In this year, 2019, we updated a Mystery Trip rule. We could now visit a country we had been to before as long as it was a city we had yet to see. This widened our options, having had the good fortune to travel so much of this planet, and so at 3:15pm when I picked Allison up to head to the airport, we moved closer to JFK and our excited laughter began.

We had yet to decide which terminal and so our taxi driver decided for us. We got dropped off at Terminal 3, where we asked strangers their opinions on places to go. We excitedly ran from board to board, looking up at the destinations and times. I don’t think there was a minute that passed that we were not smiling, and I’m convinced that the anticipation of the experience is as much a part of our bonding, as the adventure itself.

We ran our way through Terminals 3, 4, 5, 7 (who knew there is no Terminal 6 at JFK?), and we tried to beat the clock knowing that the closer we moved past 6pm, our options would become fewer and fewer as we needed 2 hours advance time, at least enough to check in, get to the gate, and let it all sink in.

In Terminal 7, we whittled our choices down to two options – Warsaw or Madrid? I had always wanted to visit Warsaw to see the Jewish Museum and also to experience this city with Allison, who is of Polish descent. We had both been to Spain, but never to Madrid. Once again, our virtual coin was tossed and we threw it out to the universe to decide, while taking into account price, availability and what our friends on social media might think!

Neither one of us is great on social media. Our kids might say we are clueless. This is where the beauty of Facebook and Instagram come in, the intentions of these networks to connect us and expand our horizons, help us learn more and even do more. As soon as we posted our final two choices, we had countless suggestions and friends who came out from the woodwork of our past, high school friends suggesting we go to Warsaw and call an aunt. College friends offering a list of tapas restaurants to try in Madrid. People from the past surfacing in our joy-filled moment, sharing in our anticipation and offering to help. Every year we experience this. Our Facebook and Instagram friends join us on our travels to a certain extent…they offer to help us choose, they recommend places to stay, they suggest the newest restaurants or nightclubs, they even provide local phone numbers of family or friends to call for support. It’s an energy that is hard to describe in words. It connects a universal energy with the energy of friends, old and new, and it’s the very thing that make these Mystery Trips so special.

Booking our flights with Iberia Airlines reminded us of the three years past where the people working the airline counter get just as involved and excited for us. Every year, we are met with an angel who tries to give us a deal, bump us up to better seats, remove the baggage fee, or suggest things to do in their country. The people standing on line behind us are always a bit baffled and we challenge them to one day try to roll their own dice. Very often our same day plane tickets end up being less than if we purchased them months earlier. And no one could possibly hold the anticipatory energy we seem to exude to everyone we meet.

I believe in the energy of the universe and if it was trying to give me a message that evening, one saying Allison and I had made the right choice, it did. While eating dinner, after making it to our gate, I saw a woman from across the restaurant walk over to a table nearby. I should not have seen her as she sat way on the other side of the space, and I was deep in Condé Nast Traveler’s website with Allison, following up on hotel recommendations from friends. The last time I was in Spain was in Barcelona in 1992, when I traveled from Florence, where I spend a semester abroad to learn Italian and a bit of art history. And the woman I saw in the airport restaurant? My friend Lauren who was from that semester abroad program and someone I explored Europe with in this same adventurous way, decades earlier! I tend to “run into” people all of the time, I keep a list of these synchronicity moments, and this sign was indeed a good one. After hugging Lauren as she head off for Iceland, I looked up and thanked the universe for having our backs.

We landed in Madrid without a hotel or plan. We had a slew of hotel options from my kids’ Spanish teachers, from a colleague, and from old friends. We ended up at the Only You Hotel in Atocha, thanks to Allison’s friends Luis and Melissa. It was the perfect choice. It bordered the gorgeous Retiro Park, was across from the train station and was within walking distance of both the Prado and Reina Sofia museums. We immediately checked in, skipped the nap our bodies craved and set foot on a walking tour of the city, led by maps and social media messages of things we needed to see. As we wandered to the other side of the city on foot, we felt so much gratitude for this experience, while wondering how long our bodies could go without sleep. There was just too much to see!


When we got home after our first day, one of my Facebook messages was from a friend in my beloved Costa Rica. It was from Erick, my kids’ amazing surf instructor from the jungles of Santa Teresa. Erick saw a post that we were en route to Madrid and told me his brother Ruy lived there and I had to call him. Ruy said he’d show us around… and so this is how it goes. We found ourselves exploring the city with Ruy, Javier and other locals, eating tapas in four different restaurants along Jorge Juan in one night (and of course, like a local, at 10pm). We made countless conversations with people about the way they work, live and love. Our Mystery Trips always become a deep dive into culture, history, music and food, all through the eyes of new friends. If I could bottle these experiences - the way a stranger becomes a friend through a mutual connection - I would. The irony is that Facebook and Instagram are what bring us these very human moments, fostering our connections and enabling friendships that will forever remain.

Allison and I already have Mystery Trip dates set for 2020, year 5, and nothing will stop us. Having just returned from Madrid, it will be a difficult city to beat. Will our next destination have a city as clean, red wine as delicious, art that could wow us as much as Picasso’s Guernica, and a town quite as stunning as Toledo nearby, and really…what can beat Manchego cheese?

But there’s something that we know after doing these Mystery Trips for so many years. We know we will see and try new things. We know we will soon have friends we have yet to meet. We know we will see a city through the eyes of a local and use the recommendations of friends from our present and past. We know we will carry our adventurous spirit in the 360 days that live between our Mystery Trip dates and that alone brings a vitality to our lives that becomes contagious to others. This makes an entire year of waiting for our next unknown adventure worth the wait.

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