Interview with Lillian Rafson
Photos by Pack Up + Go
Lillian Rafson, founder and CEO of the travel agency Pack Up + Go, brought the concept of surprise-destination travel to the United States from Europe seven years ago. She shares how this type of vacationing works and why you might want your next vacation spot to be a mystery until the day of your trip.
Photo taken in Denver, CO
What are the basics of a Pack Up + Go vacation?
Our trips start at two nights and go up to ten nights. The average is three or four nights, and you can depart any day of the week. We offer four different types of trips: you can fly to your destination, take a road trip, drive to an outdoors destination, or enjoy a staycation. You just choose your budget and how and when you want to travel, then complete our pretrip survey. On the survey, we ask about past trips you’ve taken, upcoming trips, places you visit frequently, and locations to which you don’t feel safe traveling. We also ask about your hobbies and interests, what you like to do when you travel, and if you have any dietary or mobility restrictions. Our team reads through your responses and uses them to choose your destination, book your travel and accommodations, and curate your trip recommendations.
How does a trip begin?
One week before you leave for your trip, we email you where and when to go for your trip departure, plus the weather forecast and packing tips so you know what to bring with you, such as a bathing suit, clothes for a night out on the town, or hiking boots. We then mail you an envelope that we encourage you to keep sealed until the day of your trip. The morning of your departure, you open that envelope to discover your destination and receive all the information you’ll need for your trip, including your travel plans, your accommodations, and all our recommendations for what to do during your stay.
Are all your trips based in the United States?
They are. I love that we get to support destinations that people don’t often consider for a leisure vacation, like Pittsburgh, where I grew up. The city has so much to offer, such as amazing museums, beautiful natural spots, and wonderful restaurants.
Photo taken in Austin, TX
Are all your destinations a surprise?
They are except for our staycations. With those, you tell us where you want to go, whether it’s the city where you live or one you want to visit. We’ll then book a surprise hotel and activity and curate itinerary recommendations for you.
Do you book everything for your travelers, or is it mix and match?
It’s a little bit of both. We provide some structure so you know what to do when you arrive, but we also allow flexibility to choose your own adventures. We guarantee dinner reservations, and most trips have one or two prepaid inclusions, but it’s dependent on your budget. Everyone stays in four- or five-star hotels like the Omni Hotels & Resorts or the Four Seasons. For our outdoors vacations, we book unique glamping locations, cabins, inns, or bed-and-breakfasts in outdoorsy-focused locales. You won’t be roughing it and sleeping in a tent or an RV.
What kind of person is surprise vacation planning best suited for?
I love this question because the answer is unexpected. When I started my company in my early twenties, I thought I would be its target demographic since I had a big sense of adventure. But we’ve found it’s actually much broader. For instance, we help parents of young children who want to get away and reconnect but don’t have time to plan, and we provide trips for families to enjoy together. Far-flung friends who want a reunion trip but don’t want to handle logistics like finding flights that land at the same time also find this type of travel useful. We’ve learned that surprise travel really is for everyone.
Photo taken in San Diego, CA
What are the pluses of this kind of vacationing?
It’s a fun way to go on a trip. There are few times in our adult lives when we are genuinely surprised in a positive way. Last year, I went on a Pack Up + Go vacation for the first time, to Charleston, South Carolina. What I loved most about it was that it was so easy. I didn’t plan anything. It can be a big time-saver. It takes on average about twenty hours for an individual to plan a trip but just twenty minutes to sign up for a surprise vacation.
What are some of the destinations you’ve sent travelers to?
We’ve planned trips for more than 30,000 travelers to more than 300 destinations around the country, including small cities like Savannah, Georgia, and Portland, Maine, and bigger ones like Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, DC. For our outdoors trips, we’ve sent people on glamping excursions to Moab, Utah, and to the newest national park, the New River Gorge in West Virginia. I love that in a country as big and diverse as the United States, there is an experience for everyone.
For more info, visit packupgo.com