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]

Photo Of The Day: A Hammock View In Florida

Whenever I start to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, I conjure up a mental image that is very similar to today’s Photo of the Day, taken from a hammock at the Gulf View Waterfront Resort in Marathon, Florida. “This was a great place to take a nap,” says Flickr user Chuck Oliver. Oh, the joys of vacation.

What personal travel photos stroke your wanderlust? Upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day.

10 Extraordinary Islands To Visit On Your Next Vacation

vacation islands

Summer is the time of island vacations. It is time to put as much distance between you and the real world as possible. It is time to stand outside of your everyday life and to see how it all looks from a paradise perspective. Here is a collection of islands for escape – places to recharge, gain perspective and explore. From an island in the land of the gods to a tropical Amsterdam at the edge of an ocean trench, each of these ten destinations provides something extraordinary.

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vacation islands

Santorini (Greece)
Abstract: As legends change hands, the stories transform. Storytellers take liberties, moving to impress wide-eyed audiences with tales of glorious antiquity. With each telling, they speak of monsters that grow stronger, of men who grow bolder, of explosions that tear apart the earth and take along with them civilizations that grow greater. These stories come from places like Santorini – a Greek paradise perched on the thin edge of a circular archipelago where the earth once swallowed a city whole.

Maybe that city was Plato’s Atlantis and maybe it was not, but what it is today is one of the most stunningly gorgeous and unique places on earth. Whitewashed villas adorned with oceanic blue domes cling to volcanic rock mountainsides in the most romantic of settings. Greece is the land of old gods, and Santorini is where those gods likely vacationed.

Highlights: Sailing to Volcano Island, hiking from Fira to Oia, and visiting Red Beach
High end lodging: Oia Castle Hotel
Mid-range lodging: Zorzis Hotel
Get there: Fly to Santorini for cheap on Easyjet from London or Milan. Flying from Athens is also a simple and inexpensive way to reach Santorini.


vacation islands

Gili Trawanagan (Indonesia)
Abstract: Gili T feels like the last party at the edge of the world. And it could be so, perched on the precipice of a trench that tears over 5 miles into the ocean floor, the Gilis are an outpost at the edge of a tectonic plate that tore away from Asia eons ago.

Gili Trawanagan is one of three islands in the Gili island chain. Gili T is known for dawdling sea turtles, plush white sand beaches, reggae jams, and mushroom shakes. Reached by just a short boat ride from the eastern coast of Bali, each island is governed by village elders substituting for a proper Indonesian Police force. An Amsterdamian party scene has developed and thrived in the absence of these formal police forces. The Tropical Amsterdam is like an upstart Ibiza with all-night parties and hung-over beach rehab. After partying all night, catch a ride home via horse taxi as no motorized vehicles are allowed on the islands.

High end lodging: Luce d’Alma or Marta’s
Mid-range lodging: Rumah Kundun
Get there: Take a boat from the eastern coast of Bali over across the Lombok strait with Gili Cat or one of the other transfer services.

vacation islands

Borneo
Abstract: Borneo is an ancient land of wild beasts and peculiar flora. It is one of the largest islands in the world and stocked with mysteries hidden deep within its ancient rain forests. It covers three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and tiny Brunei. There are mysterious cultures like the ex-headhunting Dayak, massive orangutans and some of the best dive sites in the world. It is also one of Asia’s top budget destinations.

Beyond dusk boat rides in search of Proboscis monkeys or long jeep safaris into the heart of the lost world, Borneo also has some unexpectedly nice beaches. Off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, several islands bask in tropical waters with great reefs and nice sandy shores. For orangutan sightings, head to Sepilok nature reserve near Sandakan. The orangutans in Borneo grow to much larger sizes than their Sumatran brethren. This is supposedly due to the evolutionary effect of an absence of tigers in Borneo. In Sumatra, the orangs must take to the trees to stay safe, but in Borneo, the “orange men of the forest” have no need for tree-dwelling. Sadly, nothing can protect them from encroaching humanity.

Highlights: Climbing Mt Kinabalu, diving Sipidan, exploring the lost world of Danum Valley
High end lodging: Bunga Raya Island Resort near Kota Kinabalu
Mid-range lodging: Hotel Eden 54 in Kota Kinabalu
Get there: Flights to Kota Kinabalu are cheap from Hong Kong, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia.

vacation islands

Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)
Abstract: These sun soaked islands in Malaysia once served as a stopping off point for Malaysian traders bound for Thailand. Today, The Perhentians are a jewel in the crown of otherworldly Malaysian beaches. It is the kind of place where you could misplace an entire lifetime, bound to the gravity of simple island life.

The islands are surrounded by seas rich with biodiversity and corals, and it is one of the least expensive places to learn how to scuba dive. The snorkeling here is also top notch and some attest to its superiority over diving. Be sure to visit between April and October, when the monsoons are away. Accommodation is pretty inexpensive across the board, and it is easy to get a room for under $25 a night.

Highlights: Snorkeling with sharks, jungle trekking, and finding an appropriate stretch of white sand to waste a day or three
High end lodging: Perhentian Tuna Bay Island Resort
Mid-range lodging: Abdul’s Chalet (book early as they fill up way in advance)
Get there: Take a speed boat from Kuala Besut, which can be reached by bus from Kuala Lumpur


vacation islands

Tasmania (Australia)
Abstract: One of the last stops before Antarctica, Tassie is Australia’s wild frontier island. With about 40 percent of land being national parkland, Tasmania is a well-protected gem boasting fascinating wine regions, gigantic kelp forests and some of the most perfect beaches in the world.

While visiting, rent a car and explore the Tasmanian countryside. Be sure to spend a few days checking out the Bay of Fires on Tasmania’s northeastern coast. While it is winter down under from June to August, it is possible to enjoy off-season rates. But, if you really want to enjoy the beaches, wait until winter hits the northern hemisphere. After all, the Bay of Fires sandy curves have recently been named one of the best beaches in the world. The crystalline turquoise waters and pillow-soft sand beaches welcome travelers with their unencumbered magnificence and laid back vibe. Inland, waterfalls, mountains and Tasmanian devils await intrepid travelers.

Highlights: Bay of Fires, Tasmanian Devils, and road trips through old forests
High end lodging: Islington Hotel (Hobart) or Saffire Freycinet (Wineglass bay)
Mid-range lodging: Fountainside Hotel (Hobart)
Get there: Fly to Hobart non-stop from Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane


vacation islands

The Maldives
Abstract:
An ethereal water-nation where the highest point is less than 8 feet, the Maldives defy imagination, budgets and reality with their perfect islands and hyper-luxury resorts equipped with private yachts and planes. The islands are the kind of place where work seems unimaginable, and the “real world” feels as though it must, too, be on hold somewhere out there thousands of miles from these sun-bathed atolls.

Few places deserve a distinguished “The” prior to their name, and the Maldives are almost never uttered without the obligatory distinction. This is because they are a place unlike anywhere else. They are THE Maldives.

Highlights: Snorkeling with sea turtles, diving with Manta Rays, exploring Maldivian villages and finding the perfect beach
High end lodging: Cocoa Island Resort
Mid-range lodging: Kurumba Maldives
Get there: Flights are possible from Dubai, Colombo, Kuala Lumpur and London (Gatwick)

Galapagos (Ecuador)
Abstract: Great thinkers and artists throughout time have all had their muses. Darwin had these islands in the Pacific Ocean. Filled with giant tortoises, swimming iguanas and warm weather penguins, the Galapagos are a last bastion of wilderness smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

With new restrictions year after year, the Galapagos will continue to become less accessible and more expensive. As one of the top eco-locations globally, these wild islands hold natural treasures that can be found nowhere else on earth.

Highlights: Cruising around the islands, swimming with sea lions and bird watching
High end lodging: Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge or book a live-aboard tour with Cheeseman’s
Mid-range lodging: Book a cheap live-aboard cruise by arranging a tour locally, though the available boats are generally sub par. Organizing a trip through tour companies in Quito is a good middle ground for value.
Get there: Flights can be arranged from Quito or Guayaquil

vacation islands

Corsica (France)
Abstract: This French island is Europe’s sleeper destination. With snow-capped mountains, white sand beaches, old world citadels and the legendary GR 20 hiking trail, Corsica does many things at once and does them all incredibly well. Known as the island of beauty, it holds up this moniker with particular strength from its sandy shores to the almost 9,000-foot-high Monte Cinto.

The GR 20 hiking trail is a 15-day-long distance trail that takes travelers through some of Europe’s most stunning vistas. Walk through clouds along the backbone of Corsica, passing small refuges and bonding with other travelers. At the seaside, Corsica’s aquamarine waters do not disappoint and boast some of the best shores in Europe, including the beaches of Plage de Saleccia, Palombaggia and Santa Giulia.

Highlights: Calanche Cliffs, the perfect little island of Iles Lavezzi, trekking the island’s interior, and beaches – lots of beaches
High end lodging: Demeure Loredana
Mid-range lodging: Rocca Rossa
Get there: Take a ferry from Nice or Marseilles. In the air, Easyjet flies to Corsica from Geneva, London and Paris.

vacation islands

Palau
Abstract: With more than 250 islands and roughly 20,000 inhabitants, Palau is a sparsely populated gem of an island chain. While places like Bora Bora and Fiji get all the airtime, Palau idles by humbly, welcoming well-informed travelers to its cerulean waters and sandy beaches perched under dark limestone outcroppings.

Thousands of years ago, a bay on the island of Eil Malk slowly closed off to the surrounding ocean. As a result, the jellyfish in the lake changed. Due to a lack of natural predators in their paradisiacal enclave, the golden and moon Jellyfish of the “fifth lake” abandoned millennia of evolutionary adaptation. The translucent beings lost their ability to sting and as a result, you can swim through armies of bobbing jellyfish as though you just ate an invincibility star.

Highlights: Swimming with friendly jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, basking on a sun soaked beach, and buying ornately carved wooden storyboards
High end lodging: Palau Pacific Resort
Mid-range lodging: Caroline’s Resort
Get there: Reach Koror, Palau by plane from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul and Guam

vacation islands

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Abstract: The largest of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix beckons travelers with tales of swashbucklers, golden beaches and old, Dutch charms. Since St. Croix is part of the United States, there is no need for a U.S. passport, and getting in is as simple as flying into Christiansted and finding the nearest beach, in which there are plenty. Beaches along Cane Bay and Buck Island are prototypes for paradise.

St. Croix has a number of old world Dutch Forts and much of the Christiansted area is stocked with preserved colonial gems and abandoned sugar mills. At dusk, take to Salt River Bay in clear kayaks not far from where the Columbus expedition ran ashore in 1493. Due to bioluminescent sea creatures, the clear kayaks become fringed with color as the water glows beneath. It feels like rowing through a microgalaxy. Dive into the dark waters and your entire body glows in the dark.

Highlights: Night swimming in the Bioluminescence of Salt River, visiting Buck Island, and exploring abandoned Dutch forts
High end lodging: Palms at Pelican Cove and The Buccaneer
Mid-range lodging: Hibiscus Beach Resort
Get there: Fly in from Puerto Rico, Miami and Atlanta

[All unattributed photos by the author]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: where paid time off is taken seriously

After a long weekend, have you ever thought- ‘if only every work week lasted only four days?’ Flex time and four 10-hour day work weeks are becoming more common, but most of us are still stuck working at least five days a week.

I wouldn’t advise joining the Foreign Service solely because you want more vacation time and travel opportunities, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these are two of the biggest perks of this career choice. Consider the benefits.

I’m talking long weekends, baby

Most Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) serve between 50-75% of their careers at embassies and consulates overseas where both local and U.S. holidays are observed. This means double the long weekends, or more in some festive locales. There are 10 U.S. federal holidays this year and some countries have even more. For example, the U.S. embassies in Sarajevo, Port of Spain and Port Louis will be closed for a total of 22 holidays in 2012. Bangkok has 21, and in Athens, Lisbon, Colombo, Berlin, Rome and New Delhi there are 20.

The Christmas season is a joy to behold in Orthodox countries thanks to the fact that the Orthodox, bless them, celebrate Christmas in early January. During the five weekend stretch between Christmas and MLK day, embassy employees this year had 4 long weekends.

Obviously many other posts have fewer holidays and in some of the more holiday-crazy countries, the embassy doesn’t actually close for every holiday due to U.S. government restrictions, which are intended to ensure that FSO’s spent at least some time at work each year.

In some fun-loving countries, the government will declare holidays as a spur-of-the-moment treat to boost their popularity. The pretext can sometimes be flimsy- the national handball team placed third in an obscure competition, or perhaps the country’s second favorite poet just croaked and everyone needs an enjoyable long weekend at the beach to grieve. In some developing countries, there may be no pretext at all, just, ‘screw it, we’re not working on Monday.’ But only a truly skillful U.S. Ambassador will find a way to close the embassy for spontaneously declared holidays.Any way you slice it, the benefits are great, but before you rush off to sign up for the Foreign Service Exam, I should mention that congressional delegations (CODELS) are prone to killing FSOs’ long weekends. FSO’s that are posted to places tourists want to visit can count on at least a few CODELS each year during long holiday weekends.

Why? Well, it certainly isn’t because Representative Cletus Bumblescrew and his trophy wife want a junket in Paris during their long weekend. Oh no, it’s because their constituents want them to know much more about the French trade union leaders and opposition politicians they’ll meet in between shopping trips and visits to the Eiffel Tower.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to the holidays, FSO’s get annual leave as well. For those with 3 years government experience or less, it’s 13 workdays per year; employees with 3-15 years service get 20 days; and employees with more than 15 years get 26 workdays per year.

Another nice benefit for the travel addicted is home leave. After the conclusion of each overseas tour, FSO’s get home leave, which accrues at a rate of 15 workdays per year, giving (in theory) FSO’s a very nice 6 week break at the end of a two-year tour and a very sweet 9 week holiday at the conclusion of a 3 year tour. Home leave is actually mandated by Congress and the intention is to hopefully help Americans who might have gone native overseas to re-acquaint themselves with American culture, and spend time with family members.

The State Department pays to send FSO’s and their families back to the U.S., but in reality, there is no one making sure they spend their time eating apple pies, attending baseball games and watching Judge Judy stateside. So if they want to hit Copacabana Beach in Rio, they’re pretty much free to do so. And here’s the really fun part: you can set up your home leave address pretty much wherever you want in the 50 states. FSO’s are supposed to designate an address where they have the most ties, but I know people who simply used the addresses of friends or relatives in Hawaii, because that’s where they wanted to spend their home leave time.

Now Cletus and his wife can’t take away home leave, but an annoying boss can. Many FSO’s don’t end up getting anywhere near as much home leave as they’re entitled to because their next post always wants them to arrive yesterday. Like many things in the Foreign Service, it’s all about how much values their career prospects. An FSO that really values travel and spending time with their family can usually take all or most of their home leave. But if they want the big promotions, they think twice about maxing out on it.

A look at vacation time around the world

In my opinion, FSO’s deserve all the leave time they get. In fact, I find it very odd that even in an election year when politicians promise voters the sun, moon and stars, none seem to advocate more vacation time for Americans. The U.S. is the only industrialized country with no government mandated paid vacation and Americans tend to take fewer vacation days compared to the rest of the world. Here are the statutory minimum vacation requirements in a variety of countries, according to a CNBC report in 2009.

30 days- Finland, Brazil, France
28 days- Russia, Lithuania, United Kingdom
26 days- Poland
25 days- Greece, Denmark, Austria
20 days- Switzerland, New Zealand
19 days- S. Korea
15 days- Taiwan
14 days- Hong Kong, Singapore
12 days- India (thought they have a whopping 16 public holidays)
10 days- Canada, China

Those figures are what’s required by law, but according to a 2009 Expedia survey, some workers taken even more time off. The French average a staggering 38 days; the Brazilians 34; the Swedes 32, the Germans 27; the Australians 19. And the Americans? A paltry 13 days.

With the American economy still a mess, no serious politician is about to propose government mandated vacation time, but I’m not sure that more leisure would hurt the economy. Think about it- when do you spend the most? Certainly not while you’re at work. 70% of the U.S. G.D.P. is based upon consumer spending, so more time off certainly wouldn’t hurt on that score. It’s not likely to happen, so in the meantime, if you want to party like the rest of the world, think about joining the Foreign Service.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via cdedbdme on Flickr.

Budget Vacations 2012: Ghana


For those looking to travel on a budget, Ghana, Africa, is a prime destination. According to exchange-rates.com, as of December, 2011, $1 was equivalent to about 1.63-1.65 Ghanaian Cedis.

It is not hard to travel around Ghana and spend very little money. While taxis are considered the “expensive” form of transportation, you can still get pretty far for $5 or less. The more economical form of transport is the tro-tro, which will allow you to ride locally for $0.10-$0.40. If you’re riding to another city, it is still budget-friendly. A 2 hour tro-tro ride from Swedru to Cape Coast took about 2 hours and cost a little less than $5. A longer ride from Accra to the Volta Region, which took about 5 hours, cost me about $9.

In terms of food and drink, it’s usually locally produced and always affordable. You can get a full meal at a local restaurant for less than $1. Moreover, there are tons of open-air markets and hawkers on the side of the street selling fresh food for a small price. And no need to worry about drinking water, as a 16 ounce bag of water costs less than $0.05.

Budget accommodation abounds in Ghana, and not just for backpackers. While a bed in a hostel will usually cost around $6 a night, like Big Milly’s Backyard in Kokrobite and the Oasis Beach Resort in Cape Coast, there are plenty of hotels that offer budget-friendly rooms, like Hansonic Hotel in Accra for $10 a night and the nature-surrounded Wli Water Heights Lodge in the Volta Region for $16 a night.

[flickr image via Stig Nygaard]