I remember being a teenager in the movie theater watching Yes Man with Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel on the big screen. They’re at the airport, and they tell the employee at the check-in counter to book them on the next ticket out to anywhere. In that moment, they learn they’re going to Lincoln, Nebraska. What might sound like a lackluster destination on the surface turned out to be anything but. That flight to Lincoln was about the journey, not the destination. It was about being a “yes man.” That is the instantaneous moment that I, too, wanted to be a “yes man.” It sparked an inevitable desire. I wanted to travel somewhere without knowing where I was going.
Fifteen years later, the opportunity finally presented itself. I saw that Competitours, a mystery trip tour company, had some slots open for their European summer 2023 trip. My birthday was coming up (mark your calendars, people, it’s July 20th), and I wanted a way to tackle my inevitable birthday anxiety. While some people might become apprehensive at the thought of joining a mystery trip with a group of strangers, to me, it sounded like the perfect way to tackle those b-day blues.
All I knew going into this trip was that it started in Innsbruck, Austria, ended in Brussels, Belgium, and was 10 days in duration. That’s it. The reasoning for knowing where you’re beginning and where you’re ending is because travelers must know where to book their flights in and out of, as arrival and departure flights are one of the few things not included in the initial price. Price points for a trip are typically between $4,000 and $4,500 and include all hotels, transportation between mystery locations, breakfasts and excursions done as a group.
While there are plenty of mystery trip tour companies out there, what separates Competitours is it’s all about “sight-doing,” as opposed to sightseeing. Forego your average city tour and instead be prepared to embark on immersive mini challenges. These might include something like herding sheep in the Netherlands or learning to play an instrument from the Salzburg philharmonic. It could also mean something more low-key, like making Belgian pralines with no instructions or simply taking a quiz on where you think the group is headed next. With each challenge, you and your teammate or your respective travel partner compete together, and the winning team gets points. In the end, the team with the most earned points earned during the course of the trip wins a cash prize.
Competitours prides themselves on being like the “Amazing Race for everyday people,” but don’t worry if your preferred pace is slow and steady; the mini challenges are anything but a race. Don’t expect to be judged on being the best or the fastest, but instead on your mental stamina of dealing with unexpected twists and turns. For example, one day, our challenge was a pop quiz related to cultural references of our respective location. Our tour leader asked us 10 rapid fire questions, and my teammate and I had absolutely zero idea what the real answers were. Wanting to still participate, we made up the funniest responses we could think of and managed to still score some points simply for making him laugh. Safe to say, there’s flexibility in the grading system, and 85% of the teams are still in the running for the grand prize up to the last day of the trip (even if they’re in last place).
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When I tell people of my sporadic nature of joining a mystery trip, the immediate question is, “Where did you go?” Because no Competitours itinerary is ever repeated, I suppose it’s only fair to share. My trip started in Innsbruck, Austria, where we stayed for two nights. At the end of our second night, we were told to pack our stuff and be prepared to check out in the morning because we were going to our next destination. After Innsbruck, we got on a bus with all of our belongings and still had no idea where we were going. About halfway through the route, we were told we were going to Salzburg, Austria.
This pattern would repeat itself during the course of the next 10 days. From Salzburg, we went to Halbturn, Austria, where we spent one night in Schloss Halbturn, a literal castle. Admittedly, I was frustrated we were still in Austria, and knowing that we were ending in Brussels, I was confused as to why we were going east (Halbturn is on the border of Hungary) — that is, until I zoomed in on Google Maps to see we were a 40-minute drive from Vienna International Airport. I knew we had to be flying somewhere next, and while I strongly assumed it would be impossible to complete this trip without spending time in Germany, I turned out to be incorrect. Well, sort of.
I was right that we were flying, and I was somewhat correct about Germany because we flew to Düsseldorf, but we didn’t actually spend time in Germany. Instead, a bus driver was waiting for us at the airport to bring us to Maastricht in the Netherlands, a place I had never heard of but quickly discovered they make a mean street kebab at Musti, right outside of the train station. After Maastricht, we headed to Rotterdam where we had the opportunity to ride along the canals and tandem bike the city. My partner and I weren’t too confident in our collective biking skills, and while it was part of a mini challenge, we skipped it to go grab a beer at one of Rotterdam’s many pubs instead.
We finally ended in Brussels, where, at the end of our final challenge, the winners were announced. The night prior, the unbeknownst winning team was confident they would lose, so it was a joyous moment for all of us to witness as their names were called. What struck me the most about the journey was that we almost entirely avoided major cities. It gave even me, someone who has extensively traveled for the better part of the last 10 years, a chance to explore places I likely would have skipped otherwise.
So, who thought of this wild and wacky concept? The company’s founder, Steve Belkin, started Competitours in 2009. The goal of the company was to transform passive tourists into active travelers who are able to think quickly on their feet in immersive, quirky situations. It wasn’t without trial and error, though. While the first Competitours trip did offer a cash prize like they still do today, the monetary amount was much larger than it currently is. It made trip-goers a little less friendly to each other than Steve would have liked, so he decided to lower the monetary amount for future trips, which helped ease the tension.
When Steve was getting ready to retire, the timing worked out that his comrade, Ari Charlestein, had just sold his points and miles business, First Class and Beyond. Steve offered Competitours to Ari, and Ari gladly accepted.
“I took over the company because it was serendipitous,” Ari says. “Steve is a dear friend of mine, a mentor. He basically said to me, ‘Listen, I’ve been running this company, you’ve been involved, I’m going to stop paying for hosting on the website; are you interested?’ For me, it was absolutely a no-brainer. The rest is history.”
While the general concept of the trips remains the same, Ari is implementing some changes in Steve’s model of Competitours. Steve’s itineraries were strictly in Europe, but Ari is expanding the company to other continents. Next summer, they’ll host their first U.S. trip, starting in Philadelphia and ending in Little Rock. This winter, they’re headed to Latin America, beginning in San Jose, Costa Rica, and ending in Guatemala City, Guatemala. The trip expands over New Year’s Eve, and I can confirm that spending a holiday with a group of strangers in a mystery destination is the way to go. I would know — on my birthday this year, I woke up near Austria’s Lake Neusiedl, built a boat out of sticks, went on a treasure hunt and popped Champagne, all before noon, mind you.
Regarding who should be signing up for this type of trip, the answer is simple: people who are willing to be gently nudged out of their comfort zones. You’re never going to be pushed out of an airplane, per se, but you have to be okay with getting a little uncomfortable — like yodeling in the Austrian Alps in front of a group of strangers, or pretending you’re on a catwalk when you’re actually on a via ferrata.
“This is about the memories,” Charlestein says. “This is about really unique experiences that you haven’t had before and you likely won’t have again. To me, that’s the greatest gift, that I gave you an experience that you can share with your kids or your grandkids with a huge smile on your face.”
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