Destination Unknown – My Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Destination Unknown - My Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Would you book a holiday with absolutely no idea where you were setting off to? That’s the exact idea behind the new confidential trip packages from ATO Tours – and that’s exactly what I did last month when I jetted off on a surprise trip to Dusseldorf with my sister Cheryl. We’d only found out where we were going the day before the trip, so we had no expectations and we’d done absolutely no planning. Compared to the trips I normally take, it felt like a real adventure. Here’s my write up of our surprise trip experience…

Disclaimer – my trip was kindly covered by ATO-Tours, but all words and opinions in this post are mine. As always! 

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

No Idea What to Expect – and that’s the Point!

My sister and I are both big planners. She’s much worse than me (she made a spreadsheet for her Disney holiday) but we can both be a little obsessive when it comes to looking planning a trip.

So with my ATO Tours surprise trip, I felt a little bit adrift. It’s hard to read every blog about what to see and do in your upcoming destination when you have no idea where that destination is. But – as I soon discovered – this is exactly the point of these mystery holidays. Not knowing where you’re heading adds to the excitement of the trip, because it puts the anticipation back. And there’s more than the trip itself to be excited about – because you also have the discovery of the destination to look forward to.

Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Enjoying a massive pretzel in Dusseldorf !

I often arrive at a destination with my head full of Instagram-tinted expectations of beautiful empty beaches or stunning streets, only to feel a twinge of disappointment at the crowd-filled reality. Thanks to my mystery trip, I arrived in Düsseldorf completely free of expectations – ready to simply explore at my own pace and discover the city. It made a real change, and really added to the excitement of the trip for me!

Booking my Surprise Trip

One of my favourite things about the ATO Tours mystery holidays was actually booking it. The whole process is very mysterious, and actually pretty fun. On the website, you fill out a simple questionnaire to tailor your trip – and ATO do the rest.

As well as the basic info, like travel dates and who’s going, you can also select a couple of holiday “Must Haves”. Tailor your trip by choosing from options like “arts and culture” or “natural beauty”, and even setting a minimum temperature. So you still get plenty of control over the style of trip – but the rest is a complete surprise.

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

It all takes just a few minutes – and then it’s totally out of your hands. I had mixed feelings about giving up all the control like that. But on the other hand, it was exciting to have no clue where we were going, and quite nice not to have to think about anything else until the day of the trip actually arrived.

Discovering my Mystery Holiday Destination

A thick manilla envelope was waiting for me on the mat when I arrived home one day, not long before we were due to set off.

I genuinely felt a little nervous as I opened the package. It made me think of Christmas when I was young, looking longingly at a pile of presents with absolutely no idea what I was about to unwrap. It’s a long time since I’ve been that excited about receiving a piece of mail!

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

From inside my “Private and Confidential” envelope I pulled out a piece of paper revealing the destination – Düsseldorf! Also inside was our hotel voucher, a map and directions, and a few useful things like city guides and a travel card. It was so fun opening up a mystery package to reveal all our tickets and trip info – and the destination was a total surprise!

My Surprise Trip to Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf probably isn’t a destination I’d have chosen for myself. I’d be much more likely to pick a more famous city break destination in Europe for a weekend away. But the surprises didn’t stop at the big reveal. The city itself constantly surprised us: as a welcoming, pleasant destination that was perfect for a couple of days of relaxed sightseeing.

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Without having read any guidebooks or blog posts, there were no “must-sees” in our minds; no lists of the “36 best cafes” or “where to eat the best bratwurst”. Instead, we set about exploring the old fashioned way – on our own. We spent two days wandering around the city, stuffing our faces (pretty standard for me) and doing whatever took our fancy! Even though it was busy, it felt like a much more relaxed trip than many of the city breaks I’ve taken recently. And I think that’s because the pressure to see and do everything was lifted by not knowing what we were “supposed” to see and do.

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

We discovered Spaghetti Ice Cream thanks to a tip on social media!

Exploring Düsseldorf

We kicked things off with a city walking tour to give us some bearings and find out a little more about Düsseldorf. It’s such a nice, small city that the centre is very walkable, so we saw plenty. Our local guide showed us a few of the top foodie spots – and we even braved a shot of the local spirit, Killespitch (at 11am!).

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Pastries and artisanal chocolates from Pure Pastry at the Carlsplatz Market

Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Sugared almonds from Gagliardi’s – a must-try in Dusseldorf

Art, Architecture, and Everything in Between

Even without planning our time or downloading a 48-hour city guide, we managed to pack a lot into our two days in Düsseldorf. It’s a very arty city, well known for architecture and photography. We explored the city’s famous art gallery, Kunstpalast, and I got a glimpse of the Photography School that was the focus of many an essay back when I was studying photography at uni.  It was really nice for me to see the place I learnt so much about – and to see the Rhine in person, after having written so much about Gursky’s famous photo of it (the most expensive photograph ever sold).

We headed to the contemporary MedienHafen district to explore the quirky architecture and to soak up the views from the top of the Rhine Tower. It was definitely my favourite area of the city – right on the water, with loads of cool buildings to look at.

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

View from the Rhine Tower

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

I loved exploring the MedienHafen

Dusseldorf Surprise Trip with ATO Tours

Funky architecture by Frank O. Gehry in the MedienHafen district

I also loved visiting Little Tokyo. It’s not a very exciting area in terms of architecture or things to see, but it’s rammed with Japanese restaurants, and at Takumi we gorged on some of the best ramen I’ve had in ages! Düsseldorf has strong business links with Japan, so the food in this part of town is amazing. Great ramen in a German city – yet another surprise!

Would you Book a Mystery Holiday?

Not knowing where we were going was hard, but I’d definitely book a surprise trip again. It was such an interesting experience and I really enjoyed the build up and anticipation, waiting for my 007-esque package in the mail to finally reveal the destination!

But would you do it? I’d love to know your thoughts, so scroll down to leave a comment! Are you a control freak who couldn’t give up the decision-making to someone else, or a holiday-spreadsheet-maker like my sister? Or do you think the idea behind mystery holidays is intriguing and enticing? Let me know what you think below!

What it's like to take a surprise trip with ATO Tours

About Emily Luxton

An award-winning writer and travel blogger on a mission to explore the world through deeper, more intelligent travel. Seeking out adventure, cultural exchanges, food experiences and more as she attempts to get to know the world. Lover of the great outdoors, sunsets, good food, and the odd bit of luxury!

10 Comments

  1. I hope that you tried Dusseldorf sausages. It is the tastiest appetizer for German beer

  2. AndysWorldJourneys

    i love the concept. any idea how much it would cost? and can you choose the length of your getaway?

    • You can set your own budget, there’s a sliding scale on the questionairre. Click through to the ATO site and have a play, nothing gets booked until you get to the end and click submit so you can play about to see what it’s like :) And yep, you choose the dates, the length, everything – if you want to fly or train, stay in a hotel or an apartment etc. They just find the perfect trip based on your choices!

  3. A surprise trip must be interesting and value for money!Thanks for inspiring!

  4. Surprise trip sounds cool! Might also give it a try some time.

  5. toptravelsights

    I would definitely book a mystery holiday! I think it’s very interesting not to know where your next trip goes and it sounds like a lot of fun to only find out one or two days in advance. And it always reminds me of the stewardess I talked to on one of my last flights. She had shown up at work that day, thinking she’d be going to China – but then she was sent off to Lima. That’s a bit extreme, but I still love the idea of a mystery holiday.

    I am happy to hear that you enjoyed your trip to Düsseldorf. I went to school in that city (my parents lived in a city next to it) and never saw the place as a tourist. When I went back a while ago with a friend, I had no idea on what we could even do in Düsseldorf, because I had only been to the city centre with friends when we wanted to go shopping.

    Oh, and spaghetti ice cream is one of my favourites! I would really love some right now!

    • It’s sucha cool idea isn’t it? I definitely want to take another mystery trip – such a fun idea and a great way to mix things up.

      Dusseldorf was a very cool city – we found lots to do. And we were very lucky with the weather, I think that helped! Spaghetti ice cream is amazing, I’d love some more. I’m surprised it’s not become popular in the UK, I feel like it should be the next trendy dessert!!

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