Hannah Schmitz has a secret.
She knows everything about your upcoming vacation: where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and what you’ll be doing when you arrive.
And she’s not going to tell you a thing until the night before you leave.
Welcome to The Great Escape.
I was introduced to Hannah by my friend Molly (whom you might remember from our road trip across the USA, long weekend in Iowa and Nebraska, bachelorette weekend in Virginia, and New Mexico long weekend getaway). Molly and Hannah run in some of the same professional circles in Baltimore, Maryland, and at one of their shared events they discovered a mutual love of travel. Soon, Hannah was telling Molly all about a fascinating and unique girls’ trip that she regularly takes with a group of friends.
As soon as she got home, Molly sent me a Marco Polo to gush about how cool this idea was. I agreed, and immediately resolved – if she was willing – to interview Hannah for Full Life, Full Passport. Thankfully, she was kind enough to oblige me, and I had a great time connecting with her and learning all about what she and her friends have dubbed “The Great Escape.” I have no doubt that as soon as you find out what The Great Escape entails, you – like Molly – will be tempted to call your closest group of friends and try out this unique vacation idea for yourselves!
The Great Escape started in 2013, when Hannah and her friends were on a girls’ trip in Lewes, Delaware. Most of the ladies had met in at Ithaca College, and it was their second Lewes vacation together. As the weekend progressed, full of sun and laughs and wine, it became more and more clear that they needed to make these get-togethers a regular occurrence. They also knew it was going to get harder and harder to find time to get together with everyone advancing in their careers and some beginning to get married and start families.
They needed a plan.
That’s when one of the girls shared about a unique kind of vacation that she had gone on with another circle of friends. The rest of the group were immediately inspired. The wheels started turning, and soon The Great Escape was born.
The Great Escape is essentially a surprise vacation. Roughly once a year, this group of friends shows up for a long weekend trip where only one person – the lone designated planner – has any idea where they’re going or what they’re going to be doing. The destination, activities, and even modes of transportation are all a secret right up until the night before the trip, and then the following morning the entire group embarks on an unforgettable, fun-filled, mystery weekend away together.
The only details agreed upon in advance are the travel dates and a per-person budget. With those pieces in mind, that year’s planner is responsible for figuring out all the trip’s logistics, from choosing the destination and sorting out transportation to planning activities and making restaurant reservations. It may sound like a lot of responsibility, but in some ways being the planner is the best gig of all. Hannah says that the moment when they pick the next planner – done by drawing a name toward the end of each vacation – is one of the most anticipated and beloved moments of each trip.
Although putting the trip together takes work, doing it solo in many ways actually makes the planning process easier. Even in a cohesive, easygoing group like theirs, it can be difficult to come to a consensus. With only one decision-maker, logistics come together comparatively quickly and efficiently, without any relational stress, disappointment, or hurt feelings.
Perhaps most excitingly, though, the planner gets the joy of pulling off the big destination reveal. The night before the trip, she gets to provide her friends with the details of this year’s vacation, reveling in their surprise and excitement.
Hannah’s Big Reveal documentation with instructions for 2019’s Chestertown, MD, trip
The advantage on the other side is that the vacation feels like a treat to the girls who have been left in the dark. They get to simply show up to a trip that someone else has planned entirely for them, and they get to go on it with some of their best friends.
“Once we’re there,” Hannah says, referring to the non-planners, “it just feels like we’re being treated to this awesome vacation.” Each of the girls has her own busy career, and some have families, so it’s a nice change to be able to turn over the reins to someone else and just go along for the ride.
So far, most of The Great Escapes have been on the United States East Coast. This is largely due to cost; to keep things budget-friendly, the planners have mostly focused on places that were within driving distance for the majority of the group members. They’ve gone as far north as Rhinebeck, New York – about halfway between New York City and Albany – and as far south as Miami. Other destinations include Baltimore; Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; and Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Cozy Rhinebeck, New York, made for a perfect Great Escape in 2015
The latter was one of the most special trips, as that year’s planner had spent her summers in Vicksburg growing up. Her friends had heard a lot about the place, and now they got to spend a long weekend seeing it for themselves. They stayed on her family’s property, which had at one point been a working farm but now served as a vacation retreat featuring cozy cabins. In addition to experiencing this special place for themselves, the girls also got to meet the planner’s parents and family friends. They came away with a much better understanding of their friend and where she had come from.
“It was a place that was completely out of my comfort zone, in a way, but also a place that, even if I would have picked Jackson, Mississippi, I never would have found any of these spots or had any of that experience,” Hannah says. “So that was really, really cool.”
Personally, I love that The Great Escape destinations are usually pretty off-the-beaten-path. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic had us traveling much closer to home, these ladies were proving that you don’t have to go far or visit a popular destination to have a great travel experience. Visiting these hidden gems also takes some pressure off the planners, as the rest of the group may not be as familiar with the destination or have a high emotional attachment to it. They don’t have to worry that they’re falling short on someone’s dream trip.
Another favorite memory comes from the Miami trip in 2017, when the group’s budget dictated that the eight girls share a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Miami Beach. The fact that they had a great time in such close quarters speaks to the easygoing nature of the group, but also exemplifies the low-pressure feel of the vacation. Because there’s one planner, a modest budget, and a surprise destination, everyone is just happily along for the ride.
Even though the group members may have different interests and desires for the vacation, they’re largely able to put that aside in the name of enjoying the trip together. Hannah says, “We’re all able to be into the same things. If it’s a really relaxing getaway, everybody’s able to enjoy that. If it’s a really fun, wild weekend in Miami, we can also enjoy that…” She laughs and clarifies, “Within moderation.”
That said, with the group continuing to advance in their respective careers and many now a part of dual-income households, Hannah hopes to one day be able to add some farther-away Escapes into the mix. “I would love to plan an international trip for all of us, but it’s also really fun to be forced out of where you would normally go.”
Hannah’s friend group has also grown increasingly far-flung over the years, with members as far apart as Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Louisiana, and New York City. Each Great Escape has allowed them to strengthen the bonds of their friendship that otherwise may have loosened or frayed due to distance and time. It’s an incredibly special tradition, growing more and more precious as each surprise trip comes along. Now that travel has opened back up, Hannah can’t wait to get the next Great Escape on the books.
If you’d like to plan your own Great Escape with friends, here are a few of Hannah’s best tips:
- Pick a group of people who are flexible and get along well. You’ll be spending a lot of time together, possibly in close quarters, and everyone needs to be on board with the surprise nature of the trip and lack of control in the itinerary.
- Flexibility is key in the planning as well, as there are a lot of moving parts.
- Everyone should agree and understand that spending time together is the most important part of the weekend, not necessarily having your dream trip to a particular destination.
- Be sure to manage expectations appropriately. Differences in travel style or budget may mean that you’re not having the most luxurious vacation or exhausting the list of things to do in any particular place.
- It is helpful if everyone’s transportation costs are shared as part of the overall budget to avoid an unfair burden on any faraway group members.
- The Great Escape planners provide a packing list a couple of weeks before the trip to make sure that everyone has what she needs and knows how to pack for the upcoming trip.
A huge thank you to Hannah for her willingness to be interviewed for this fun post! You’ve been such an inspiration and I hope that I can someday follow in your Great Escape footsteps with my own group of friends! Who’s in?!
All photos provided by Hannah Schmitz.
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