Fondue, techno and Zaha Hadid: this is what happens when you let a computer plan your holiday

Expedia’s new Surprise Trips feature constructs a city break for you based on nothing more than your budget.

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The Independent Travel

By the year 2050 robots will do your household chores, they’ll probably have taken your job, and experts reckon some people will have started marrying them.

It’s already begun: we have robotic vacuum cleaners, ticket machines, smartphones (though no one’s tried to marry a robot yet, probably). And now Expedia has launched Surprise Trips, an algorithm-based service that chooses your entire holiday, from the hotel to the flight times and the destination – and tells you where you’re going the morning you leave.

Out of sheer fascination, my friend Penny and I decided to give the Surprise Trips site a go.

It was pretty great for a girls’ weekend: no agonising over where to go, which hotel has better wifi, air con or is nearer that gallery. No back and forth over hotel links on WhatsApp. You simply specify your departure airport, dates (you can choose a two, three or four-night stay) and budget (input a maximum cost per person). Booking takes a few seconds.

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What to pack for a secret weekend away? Bikini, woolly hat and high heels (Clare Vooght)

Before the trip: anticipation vs fear

It’s weird to think that your tickets and all the information about your holiday are somewhere on the internet – while you know very little about it.

Here’s the stuff we do know at this point: the dates, flight times, airport and that we won’t be going to Krakow, Berlin or Ireland (you can specify up to three places you don’t fancy going if, say, you’ve visited recently). Paris and Barcelona are off-limits for everyone, presumably because you’re assumed to have already been there.

It could be any of up to 77 city break destinations in Europe, from Biarritz to Zagreb, Cork to Gdansk or Brno to Faro. The hotel will be centrally located and three stars or above, and the flights can be with any European airline, though fares are hand-luggage only (unless your airline includes a checked bag automatically).

The weather report we receive a few days before doesn’t narrow it down: it could be anything from -3 to 9 degrees.

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Can Clare guess where she’s going from the weather forecast? Unlikely (Clare Vooght)

But the anticipation and speculation is pretty fun. People’s reactions range from curiosity to bafflement, but everyone has an opinion.

Penny’s mum is convinced we’re going to Italy, while my Tinder date reckons it’ll be somewhere in Eastern Europe. “It could be somewhere like Budapest,” he says. “There are really great thermal baths there – you should bring a swimsuit just in case.”

So a “just-in-case” bikini was joined in my suitcase by a pair of “massive-night-out” heels, lipstick, morning-after Berocca, a woolly hat and every single piece of spare foreign currency I had.

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Fate expectations: Clare (right) and Penny have no idea where they’re going (Clare Vooght)

The big reveal: we’re going where?

It’s 5.30am when we arrive at Gatwick, as we stand by the check-in desks to open the email: inside is a link to take us to the big reveal on my tiny smartphone screen.

It opens a video of a rolling letter board, spinning through destination names, flicking through Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, then after 18 painful seconds it settles on… Basel. Honestly, it’s not somewhere either of us would have planned to go, but we’re game. And, suitably, surprised. 

When we touch down in snowy Basel and realise that despite packing for what seemed like every eventuality, I’m totally unprepared – standing in fabric, flyknit Nikes, I regret swapping the sensible boots out of my suitcase for heels and Berocca.

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Clare touches down in snowy Basel (Basel Tourismus)

Basel, you’re really alright

We head straight to Walliser Kanne, an Old Town institution, to eat the national dish, fondue – which, it turns out was popularised in the 1930s by the Swiss Cheese Union (yes, there’s a Swiss cheese union) as a way of getting the Swiss to eat more fromage.

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The good thing about Basel: fondue. The bad thing about Basel: the price of fondue (Clare Vooght)

This delicious molten cheese is the best fondue I’ve ever had. But that’s not the only surprise along with a bottle of mid-range pinot noir and two £10 side salads we rack up a bill of £126. Which is when we realise we’ve rocked up in one of the world’s most expensive cities at the behest of an internet-search program.

Crippling expenditure aside, Basel is pretty great. Fuelled by boozy cheese and determined to put that Berocca to good use, we have a few pre-drinks in our hotel – the clean, four-star, centrally located Spalentor, which the algorithm wisely selected for us – and head out in search of Basel nightlife.

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The VitraHaus is a pleasant discovery (Basel Tourismus)

We get a pretty good sense of the techno scene in Hinterhof, a former industrial warehouse with a rooftop terrace, and on the Sunday we embrace the novelty of Basel being in three countries, walking along the Rhine to cross the borders into France and Germany, just because we can.

In a strange, meta twist of fate, over the German border, we end up at the Vitra Design Museum (go for the Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid architecture and the really fun slide). Inside, there’s an exhibition about the relationship between human and machine, exploring the ways in which they are, for worse and for better, taking control of our lives.

But concerns for the future aside, thanks to a search program, we find that we have a pretty great, spontaneous weekend away. Somewhere on our epic walk, we even agree that we’re chuffed we ended up in Basel.

Essentials

Clare travelled as a guest of Expedia. Surprise Trips are tailored to your budget, but generally start from around £150 per person for two nights.

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