How To Get The Most Out Of A Short Vacation

Americans have never been ones to take long vacations. That’s not exactly surprising – after all, the average employee only gets 14 days of paid time off each year. Still, the amount of time we spend on vacation has been dwindling over the years, and now our average vacation is just 3.8 days long.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to take more than four painfully short days off in a row, but if not, never fear. You can still have an amazing getaway as long as you know how to maximize your time. All it takes is a bit of planning and preparation to ensure your short vacation feels like a long one. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Don’t fly too far. It goes without saying that if you try to fly half way around the world, you’re going to have next to no time to actually enjoy your destination. If you only have a few days of vacation, you might want to stick to domestic cities (or nearby international ones, like Montreal). The longer your break, the further afield you can venture.

2. Don’t cross too many time zones. Unless you want to spend your entire vacation feeling groggy and jet lagged, avoid crossing multiple time zones. This means only going short distances in an east-west direction. However, if you travel in a north-south direction, you won’t have any problems. This makes destinations like Central and South America ideal.

3. Travel carry-on only. Who wants to waste precious vacation time standing at baggage claim? Or worse, filling out forms and hunting down essentials because your checked luggage went missing? There’s absolutely no reason you can’t live out of a carry-on bag, especially on a short trip.4. Take internal flights. If you’ll be visiting multiple cities during your vacation, consider taking domestic flights to get from one city to the next, rather than buses or trains, which tend to be cheaper but slower. You’ll have to do the math to see which option is better (since flying involves arriving at the airport early enough to go through security), but don’t rule out flying altogether.

5. Take taxis. Once you’re at your destination, don’t waste time being lost or trying to navigate complicated bus routes. You’ve only got a short time to enjoy your vacation, so spend a few extra bucks on a cab and get to your sights and activities faster.

6. Eat quickly. Eating is one of the great pleasures of travel so I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your meals. However, if you’ve only got limited time, don’t waste it on a three-hour lunch when you could be out sightseeing instead. Make breakfast and lunch quick meals and save the long, leisurely feast for dinnertime when all the attractions are closed for the day.

7. Group your sightseeing. A little bit of research can go a long way towards saving you time when it comes to sightseeing. Figure out what you want to see in advance, locate those attractions on a map and then group sights and activities that are located close to each other. By visiting one group of attractions at a time, you’ll prevent yourself from running back and forth all over the city.

8. Book tickets to popular sights in advance. If there’s one thing popular attractions have in common, it’s a long line at the ticket counter. Don’t be a fool and waste your short vacation standing in line. Many museums and galleries will let you book tickets ahead of time so you can bypass the long lines and head straight inside. Check the attraction’s website to see if this is an option available to you.

9. Get outside and meet people. Don’t spend your entire vacation in museums. Talk to locals, wander down side streets, and really see a place without the tourist goggles on. It’s the little adventures you have that you’ll really remember once your trip is over, so try to have as many as possible.

10. Allow time for relaxation. It’s tempting to see and do as much as possible but remember that the point of a vacation is also to get some R&R. Make time to do something relaxing each day, whether it’s a massage, a soak in the jacuzzi, or a cocktail by the hotel pool (there’s nothing like a drink with an umbrella in it to make you feel like you’re on vacation). By working some downtime into your schedule, you’ll give yourself the chance to recharge before the next round of sightseeing.

[Photo credit – Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

Magic Equation: How Much Vacation Can You Afford?

Everyone dreams of the absolutely perfect vacation. A whole year away. Sampling amazing cuisines every night. Five-star hotels everywhere. Screw the cross-country bus, you’ll take the bullet train!

All of that can be yours, at a cost, of course.

Planning a vacation is all about balancing variables. Think of it as a triangle between cost, time and luxury – you can have two, but never all three.

So:

  • If you want a yearlong trip in the lap of luxury, that’s fine … you’ll just have to sacrifice your budget.
  • If you want a luxurious trip without spending a ton, that’s fine, too. You’ll just have to sacrifice duration, like staying just one night at a fancy resort.
  • Want to go away for a long time without blowing all your cash? Great, it looks like you’ll be backpacking and staying in hostels for a while to come.

This is particularly important in the planning stages of your trip, when you’re deciding where to go and for how long. After all, if you planned for two weeks in an expensive country and realize halfway through that you’re going to go over budget, it’s a little too late, isn’t it?

The key to staying on budget is to figure out how you’ll allocate your resources by working the ratio of those three factors: cost, duration and how much you’ll spend on the ground. Think about what matters most to you and then hold yourself to it as best you can.

Based on personal experience as both a traveler and a personal finance writer – and a significant amount of number crunching to make sure my calculations make sense – I’ve come up with an equation to figure out just how much trip I, or you, can afford.The beauty is that the variables are just that: by understanding your travel situation as a give and take, you can tweak one variable to make more room for the others. Do this math:

Total Budget – (Airfare + Souvenir Budget) – (Estimated Cost Per Train Or Bus Ride x Total Rides) – [(Daily Food Estimate + Nightly Hotel Estimate + Daily Entertainment Estimate) x Total Days]

Then take a look at the number you get. Here’s how to decode:

Zero = You are precisely on budget, without a lot of wiggle room.

A positive number = That’s how much extra wiggle room you have in your budget. Toward the end of the trip, you might as well spend it on something fun! If you have a huge positive number, you have a lot leftover. You might even want to rethink some of your plans or calculations. In one direction, you can bring this closer to zero by adjusting your expected budget and simply spending less on this particular vacation. Maybe let the leftovers seed your fund for the next vacation! Otherwise, you might choose to go away for more days or up the quality of your accommodations (therefore increasing your nightly hotel estimate). Once you change a variable, remember to compute again to make sure you’re on track!

A negative number = You’re over budget, and you haven’t even arrived at your destination yet. Something in this equation needs to change. If you’re just a little in the red then you might be able to get away with tweaking a small component of this equation, to avoid altering your travel plans. For example, you might just give yourself less cash to spend on souvenirs, or eat a little more frugally while you’re away.

If you’re severely over budget, however, something’s gotta give. In some cases, it helps to go back to square one and rethink your location. Will you have to pay for expensive plane tickets? Even if the cost of living is cheap where you’re going, that only matters if you stay for a long time. So, for a short trip, maybe you can go somewhere closer to home to reduce the cost of getting there. For a longer trip, maybe you need to go somewhere cheaper, or reassess your travel style. And, of course, one of the fastest ways to knock this number down is to reduce your total days away, since, as you can see, that gets multiplied out.

If you are having trouble knocking down any of your estimated costs, it goes without saying that you can also balance this equation simply by increasing your total budget.

It’s never fun to hack away at your dream trip, but whatever you decide, remember the give and take between money, luxury and time. By choosing which of those three is most important, you’ll be able to craft a trip that’s just what you’re looking for, in the end.

[Image credit: Flickr user epSos.de]

10 Pieces Of Travel Advice To Ignore

friends As someone who has traveled solo to dozens of countries, I’m often given “helpful” advice from well-meaning friends and family. The problem is, much of this advice can actually hinder your trip experience. Think twice when you’re given these common travel tips.

Don’t Talk To Strangers

This is probably the most common piece of advice I receive before going on a trip, especially as I’m often traveling solo. For me, talking to strangers is one of the most important steps in getting to know a culture. I stay in hostels so I can hangout with other backpackers, or I’ll do a homestay to immerse myself in the daily living of locals. Additionally, I pepper cab drivers with questions, ask bar tenders to help navigate me to offbeat attractions and invite tour guides out for drinks. I’m not saying to put yourself in dangerous situations where you’re completely alone with a total stranger; however, having conversations in public spaces can enhance your trip. If I could revise this tip, I would say “talk to strangers, but have your guard up.” There’s a difference between chatting and spending some time with someone you just met, and believing there’s no way you’re new friend could rob or harm you. Use good judgment, and you’ll be fine.Hostels Are Dirty

I’ve stayed in at least 100 hostels in my life, and I can only think of one that I considered dirty. Off the top of my head, I can think of two hotels that were less-than-pristine, even one that had a dead frog on the floor. Yes, in a hostel you’ll often be sleeping in a room with at least three other people, so the level of tidiness you’re accustomed may be compromised. However, clothes strewn about the room does not mean there are cockroaches or rats. Most hostels are clean and safe while still embodying a character of their own. I’ve stayed in hostels where the walls were covered in vibrant graffiti to reflect the local streets, themed like a medieval castle to show the city’s history or just extremely laid-back with bean-bag chairs and a barefoot philosophy. The only thing that’s really ever compromised is your privacy, although many hostels now offer private rooms.

You Must Be Rich To Travel

Along with being a writer, my job titles have included waitress, cashier and telemarketer. I’ve never had a particularly high-paying salary, and I’ve always managed to be able to take extended trips. Just because you can’t afford to stay in five-star hotels and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants every night doesn’t mean you need to stay home. Use some budgeting tips, and you’ll realize a little cash can go a long way. Travel during shoulder season, stay in budget hotels or hostels, travel to countries with favorable exchange rates, avoid restaurants with English menus, take public transportation or walk instead of cabbing it and travel slowly instead of hopping between 10 different cities. While you may not be living in the lap of luxury, you’ll still experience a new culture and enjoy the benefits of travel.

solo travel Females Shouldn’t Travel Alone

It’s odd to me that – as a young female who has traveled solo numerous times through countries many wouldn’t visit in a group – people still tell me I “can’t travel alone as a woman.” I, along with countless other solo female backpackers I’ve met on my trips, am living proof this is false. I’ve backpacked solo through Thailand, China, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Morocco and most of western Europe, and have never so much as been pick-pocketed. Use your brain and listen to your instincts, and you’ll be fine. Don’t walk alone at night, don’t flash electronics and expensive jewelry, stay out of dangerous neighborhoods and always be alert to your surroundings, and you should be fine.

Planning Out Your Trip Is Essential

I’m a firm believer in planning a trip without making plans. While you may want to have a rough itinerary and know your flight dates, planning every single detail of a trip can make it difficult to go with the flow. Before arriving to your destination, you have no idea what you’ll encounter and what opportunities will arise. Keeping your itinerary loose and your options open helps you experience more. Know country entry and exit requirements, do some research on the culture and leave the rest to chance.

You Can’t Travel To (Input Lesser-Known City)

I’m not saying every city in the world is 100% safe, but the popular school of thought seems to be if a person hasn’t heard of a city or doesn’t know anyone who has been there, it isn’t safe. Many times, this actually ends up being inaccurate on many levels. For example, when traveling through Ecuador I visited Vilcabamba, Cuenca, Banos and Quito. One friend of mine commented, “I would love to travel through Ecuador. Although I’d only go to Quito, not those other places I haven’t heard of.” The truth is, Quito was the most unsafe by far of the four cities. Just because a city is more popular than others in terms of tourism doesn’t mean it’s safer. And, just because you don’t know someone who’s been to a certain place, doesn’t mean you can’t pave the way.

paris Don’t Visit (Insert Popular Site) Because It’s Too Touristy

In order for a trip to be well rounded, you should include a mix of touristy and off-the-beaten path fare. Many travelers believe visiting touristy sites is, well, too touristy, and will omit these points of interest from their itineraries. Would you really want to visit Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower? Or Rome without visiting the Colosseum? New York without the Statue of Liberty? These sights are iconic, and for good reason. A site doesn’t become touristy because it’s got nothing to offer; in fact, these places usually hold much historical and cultural significance. While filling your itinerary to the brim with tourist sites can leave little room for surprise, not including them at all will lead you to miss out on important knowledge.

Eating Street Food Will Make You Sick

This is a tip I often get from concerned family and friends. Everyone’s heard one horror story of someone getting food poisoning from street food in foreign countries. To counter that, I’ve actually gotten sick from dining in upscale New York restaurants. I know many people who eat street food and at small local eateries religiously when they travel, and have never had a problem. Eating at these places will not only give you insight into local culture, you’ll be consuming the most fresh and delicious food in the city. Bonus: you’ll be saving a lot of money by avoiding the touristy eateries.

You Need To Know The Local Language

While knowing some useful phrases is helpful, you don’t need to be fluent in the local language to visit another country. Depending on how long you spend in a place, you may actually pick up on language just from being immersed in it. I become an expert in charades and hand gestures when traveling, and always bring a pen and paper to help draw or write down words I can’t pronounce. You’ll find a way to communicate. And when in doubt, you can always look up how to say something.

puebla Mexico Isn’t Safe

Sure, there are places in Mexico travelers should avoid; however, this doesn’t mean Mexico as a whole is unsafe. For example, on a recent trip to Puebla, I felt more than comfortable with my surroundings. Not only that, but my friends took a trip to Mazatlan to take part in some adventure sports and had a great trip with no problems. Moreover, taking a road trip through Baja California will introduce you to some of the country’s best wine in a relaxed setting. Don’t believe everything you hear. Also, realize one person’s idea of an unsafe city may differ from yours. A friend once deemed Playa del Carmen unsafe for travel because “a friend of a friend’s girlfriend got sick after drinking and was probably roofied.” If that’s all it takes to scare people away from a city, I’m surprised they even leave their house.

[Images via Jessie on a Journey]

How To Plan A Trip Without Making Plans

open road After reading a title like that, you’re probably wondering how such an oxymoron could be possible. If you’ve never traveled without a plan before, it is one of the greatest ways to take a vacation; however, even when going on a trip without an itinerary, there is still a bit of pre-departure research that is involved. Use this guide to help you successfully plan a trip without making plans.

Why You Should Travel Without A Plan

The thought of traveling without a well-structured plan can sound extremely scary to those who have never done it.

“But, where will I sleep? How will I know where to go and what to do? What if I run into trouble?”

Don’t fret, as these questions all get answered along the way. You’ll realize it’s easy to find hostels, get recommendations and use common sense to keep yourself safe. The beauty of traveling without an itinerary is you can live in the moment and change your plans as you go. Before departure, you’ll have no idea what you’ll encounter. Maybe you’ll get an opportunity to volunteer with an interesting organization or do a homestay and live with locals. Or, maybe a music group you like will be coming to town or a unique festival. You may even find a new friend you would like to travel with, or possibly even your future husband or wife (you’d be surprised).One of my first solo backpacking trips was a summer in Europe. Before going, I planned out every single detail, down to what trains I would take each day. I booked 90 nights of accommodation in advance, signed up for tours and wrote down restaurants and bars I wanted to check out. After about a week of this tightly scheduled trip, I realized I hated the commitment. In Amsterdam, I met a guy I really liked, and would have stayed longer with him if I hadn’t pre-booked my train and hostel in Bacharach. In Paris, I missed out on a huge summer music festival that was happening the day after I was leaving. And in Rome, I met some of the greatest people I’d ever met in my life, but only got to spend three days with them due to my rigid schedule. Moreover, I missed out on free and discounted tours through my accommodation that offered the same itinerary as the ones I had pre-booked.

valle los lobos I had quite the opposite experience when backpacking South America, where I planned virtually nothing. First of all, by not booking accommodation and tours way in advance, I had the ability to show up to a place and ask other travelers, locals and hostel owners what was worthwhile to do in the area. Using this tactic not only forced me to interact with locals, it allowed me to discover some lesser known hikes and sites. For example, when in Ushuaia in Patagonia I knew I had to visit Tierra del Fuego; however, I discovered two hikes I enjoyed even more but had never heard of, Martial Glacier and Valle de Lobos.

Along with discovering new sites, I was also able to visit lesser-known cities I hadn’t expected to end up in. For instance, when I arrived in Lima, Peru, I figured I would head straight to the lazy beach town of Mancora afterwards. That is, until someone in my hostel showed me their photos from a hike in Huaraz. I left Lima early, a city I expected to love but wasn’t that crazy about, and spent almost a week in Huaraz trekking and taking in the unique natural scenery.

Lastly, too much planning can actually cause stress. When you’re locked into certain dates and itineraries, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you hear about something more interesting or a better deal along the way, you’re stuck with your plans unless you don’t mind forfeiting money and going through the hassle of rescheduling bookings. Arriving somewhere without a plan will allow you the freedom to enjoy as many activities as you want. And when you’re done, you can hop on a bus and move on to the next city.

What You SHOULD Plan Ahead Of Time

Now, when I say you shouldn’t plan ahead of time, this refers to you itinerary. You should allow yourself freedom and openness to unexpected adventures by not locking yourself into a day-to-day plan. However, there are a few things you should always plan before embarking on a trip.

vaccine The most important thing to research before a trip is what steps you’ll need to take to be able to exit your home country and enter the one you’re visiting. Make sure your passport isn’t expired and research what visas and/or documentation you’ll need. Moreover, call a travel doctor and find out what vaccinations are necessary. Keep in mind these doctors can be pricey, as they’re often not covered by insurance. If you’re only going to need something small like malaria pills, see if you’re regular doctor can write you a prescription instead.

Moreover, you’re not going to be able to go anywhere unless you book the first leg of your flight. Know at least when you want to travel outbound and where you want to go. Personally, I like booking my round-trip ticket in advance, simply to save money. This doesn’t mean I plan an itinerary, just a starting and ending point. It can also be wise to book your first night’s accommodation, simply to ease your initial culture shock.

In terms of safety, I like to enroll in the U.S. government’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. If there is ever an emergency where you needed U.S. assistance, this makes the process easier. Moreover, I do some research on the first city I will be visiting to get an idea of what areas are known to be safe and unsafe. Of course, always ask your hotel this same question, and have them provide a map to show you exactly where you can and can’t go. Because the staff lives there, they will know the best answer to this.

Finally, decide who you will be traveling with. Personally, I usually skip this step because I enjoy traveling solo; however, there are many people who would rather travel with a companion. Choosing the right travel partner is important, unless you want to end up with the travel partner from hell. Make sure you’re on the same page about budget, the types of activities you enjoy, preferred accommodation styles and how often you’re okay with doing things separate from each other to help ease conflict on the road.

computer mouse How To Become A Non-Planning Travel Planner

There are two ways you can go about becoming a non-planning travel planner. The first – and scarier – option is to just do it. Literally, book a plane ticket to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, get your visas and vaccinations and just show up. You’ll be forced to be spontaneous, and to see just what you’re capable of. And truth is, if you really hate the unplanned aspect of the trip, you can always spend a day in an Internet cafe booking hotels and tours for the remainder of the vacation.

The second option is to ease your way into it. Maybe on your next trip you pre-book your hotels but not your tours. Then, on the following vacation you can forgo both with only an itinerary of city names. After that, you probably won’t ever need it again. Another way to do this is to do an unplanned trip close to home. Go somewhere domestic or get on a train and go to a nearby city you’ve always been curious about, not making any plans but just letting yourself discover the area organically. Most likely, you’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy yourself.

[photos via erm., Jessie on a Journey, USACE Europe District, Si1very]

Are Woody Allen Movies The New Trip Planner?

woody allen Think movies are just a way to enjoy a night in with friends? Apparently, not. According to tourism boards in European cities that have been featured in Woody Allen films – such as “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “To Rome With Love” – these films have boosted travel to these destinations. In fact, Adrian Wootton, the CEO of FilmLondon, says studies have shown 1 in 10 visitors to the United Kingdom come because of movies they’ve seen. This type of tourism generates about 2 billion pounds per year.

Cities are catching on to the trend, and running with it. For example, FilmLondon, who has used footage, photos and quotes from Woody Allen’s London-based movies to help promote the city, partnered with VisitLondon to create a “Match Point” map for tourists.

“He loves to shoot in these iconic locations, and he often films them quite beautifully,” explains Wootton.

In fact, Allen shoots his films so wonderfully, tour companies have begun offering city tours allowing people to follow in the footsteps of the lead characters. For instance, Icono Serveis offers a “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” tour via their “Barcelona: The Movie Walking Tour,” while Paris Underbelly features a “Midnight in Paris” tour. According to the operators, these are their most popular tours, with clients often making plans to go to other cities to taken Wooden Allen movie-themed excursions.

Has a movie ever inspired you to take a trip?

[Image via Colin Swan]