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Published January 24 2013

Benshoof: The best laid plans ...

Airfare is a fickle beast.

Despite all the rules of thumb for when to buy (Book three weeks ahead of time! Book on Tuesdays!), nothing seems to make much sense.

You could purchase a fare a few months ahead of time and think you got a good deal. Yet, a similar ticket bought two weeks out might be just as good, if not better.

For those who are desperate to get out of the recent deep freeze, it can be maddening.

That’s the position I recently found myself in. I had taken some days off next week but hadn’t actually planned a trip. It seemed unlikely I’d find a good ticket a week away, but on Tuesday I took a look online anyway.

Instead of the usual airfare search engine, I tried something different. Some websites, like Kayak.com’s Explore, or Google’s Flight Search, let you search with an open destination in mind.

In other words, you can see what the prices are for various flights from Fargo on any given date. That way, you can compare fares for different destinations to find the best fit.

Using those tools, I was able to discover a surprisingly cheap trip to sunny Santa Barbara, Calif., which I quickly purchased.

After a quick visit to Priceline.com for a beachfront hotel, I had a vacation ready just seven days out.

Of course, planning any trip just a week away is not always that easy. What’s more, some people just feel safer having their trips arranged in advance.

In my experience, the sudden, unplanned trip can be the most rewarding.

Take, for example, the time I was living in Macedonia and decided on a whim to take the 13-hour bus trip to Istanbul.

On the long trip back, I had a unique seatmate: A Turkish man who appeared to be smuggling cell phone batteries, if one can smuggle such a thing.

At first the man tried covering his loot inconspicuously with my newspaper. Not long after, he decided to open all the batteries’ packaging and hide them throughout his and his son’s luggage.

The guy seemed pretty nervous about the whole thing, and I can only imagine the four-hour delay at the Bulgarian border did nothing to calm him down.

At the time, that delay, the trip’s length and the man’s shenanigans more than irritated me. I was left wishing I had planned ahead and bought an airline ticket, which would’ve made the trip considerably shorter and easier.

But afterward, it was that bus ride and my interaction with the smuggler that ended up being the story I tell. It was that unexpected part of my trip that was the most memorable for me.

After all, despite all the planning any single person could possibly do, it’s as Robert Burns said in 1785: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley.”

They can go astray, in other words.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535