The Benefit of No Expectations

Quick! What’s the best travel movie ever? Before Sunrise, Roman Holiday, um The Beach?

My favorite is probably Yes Man, a mostly forgettable 2008 film in which a troubled Jim Carrey vows to say “yes” to everything. But it warrants mention for the scene where he and Zooey Deschanel do an “eeny meeny miny moe” thing and buy tickets aboard whatever plane is taking off next.

They end up in Lincoln, Nebraska.

What ensues may be the most fun travel experience ever shown on the big screen. Carrey and Deschanel goof off with oversized phones at the tiny Telephone Pioneer Museum, go skeet shooting, don corn-head hats and face paint at an Nebraska/Oklahoma football game, and get stuck in a barn. An arrest by TSA agents at the airport notwithstanding, they have a fantastic time.

What better travel lesson can a film possibly offer? Say “yes” as much as you can (even to two tickets to Cornhusker Central) — and go not with low expectations, but with no expectations.

I saw this credo in action recently while traveling with a couple dozen millennials on a train across the U.S. As luck would have it, the sleeper hit of the weeklong trip was Omaha, another Nebraska hotspot. My fellow travelers and I walked the cobbled streets of Old Town, practiced yoga at local studios, visited painted grain elevators, biked to Malcolm X’s birth site, mingled with soccer players soaking in a tub, and drank a Bud in a dive bar straight out of the ‘70s.

“I never knew Omaha was like this,” was something I heard the rest of the trip. Despite time spent in headliner cities like San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and D.C., Omaha left the biggest impression.

This hardly surprised me. When you’re on the road, the most memorable experiences happen when you’ve thrown your expectations out the window. This doesn’t mean you should deliberately pick places you think will be boring; it simply means that you should be “open” to whatever, wherever you go.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who spoke about the human tendency toward optimism at a TED event, noted that “some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations… If we are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy.” But au contraire, mon frère. “It’s a good theory – but it’s wrong,” she says. “Research shows…people with high expectations tend to feel better.”

I guess that’s how some successful athletes or politicians say they can will success in the same way an NBA player like Kobe Bryant can see the three-pointer-shot swish before the ball even leaves his fingertips.

But travel’s not really like that. It plays out much more subtly.

A 20-something Portlandia local recently told me that her travels often come up short – that she never seems to find “authentic experiences.” Her example was a quest to find write-home-worthy breakfast tacos in Austin that had gone astray thanks to a local’s recommendations.

The problem, I told her, lies in setting up an experience with such a win/lose scenario. The tacos are either good and tasty, or they’re not. There’s no in between.

Instead, I suggested she follow a recommendation to explore a neighborhood in Austin, perhaps even by bike, to see what’s there, and maybe find some tacos. If that’s the goal, you’ve already “won.”

The last time I viewed travel as some sort of Greco-Roman wrestling match was on my first visit to Thailand nearly 20 years ago. After a year living in Vietnam, I needed a break from street hassle, crazy traffic, maybe even the noodles. I began my two-week Thai vacation armed with the highest of expectations and despite the elephant treks in Chang Mai and glittering Bangkok temples (or the con-artist tuk-tuk drivers), I didn’t love it. At all.

After resigning myself to the fact that Thailand just wasn’t what I had expected, I said to myself: “Thailand, you beat me. I can’t win this trip.”

As soon as I threw my expectations out the window, and started appreciating the country for what it was, I realized I was having a great time.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.


  1. Kerry Ascione
    United States
    January 12, 2014, 7:10 am

    I agree too. On a recent trip to Provence, I did not love the famous city of Avignon; but I loved the unknown city of Salon. It has a lot to do with expectations, I’m sure.

  2. The Muskie Traveler
    November 13, 2013, 4:38 pm

    I’ve always had the desire just to pick a random location, book a flight, and go just for fun.

  3. Marie
    November 7, 2013, 8:16 am

    Great post! This especially holds true for safaris – arrive with no expectations and every animal sighting is exciting.

  4. Hector Cortez
    Lyon, France
    November 7, 2013, 5:02 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve had the most memorable experiences in my life travelling like this.


    October 24, 2013, 1:26 am

    Absolutely true. Working in travel industry for more then 10 years I see this every day. In post travel conversations it turns out that most excited memories are not about Eiffel tower in Paris, Colliseum in Rome etc, but about minor places people haven’t heard before, but discovered thmeselves on the spot.

  6. XploreAsia
    October 24, 2013, 1:12 am

    Her Robert! Just wanted to say thanks for putting this together. We bring aspiring teachers over to Thailand to teach English and some of them come with high expectations. Part of our job is you bring them back down to reality and show them how to change their mindset so that they will be successful teachers. We’ve shared your article via our Twitter and Facebook.

  7. Burcu Basar
    October 23, 2013, 1:34 am

    Great post. I agree with you and also think anywhere you have not been to before is an exciting place to be not matter what.