From Tourist to Traveler- 10 Steps to Making the Most of Your Vacation
The response to what I'm going to say is predictable so I'm going to say it for you: “Yeah, but you spend at least a month everywhere you go, so how can you say that?” OK, now that we have that out of the way, and you're spared having to reply, let's talk honestly about that whirlwind trip you're planning and why there is a different, better way to travel so you don't end up thinking, “I need a vacation from my vacation.” Grab your tea/coffee/mineral water/beer/wine, and let's talk.
Do You Actually Need to See EVERYthing?
If I believed that I would never see Ireland again and I needed to see everything Ireland had to offer in one go, then I would probably not book a one, or even two week trip to Ireland. That's not how Ireland, or (insert any other destination here) works. But if you only have one or two weeks to go to Ireland, then figure out what you really DO want to see and make it reasonable. Ticking off a “must see” list that outpaces your vacation days is simply impossible, so choose the things and places you really want to see, make it reasonable, and take your time. You'll enjoy your trip so much more and feel like you really explored the area you paid so much to see, rather than ticked off a “saw that” box. Plus, you have you “next time” agenda all sorted!
Pack Lighter to Travel Faster (and Easier)
You honestly don't need nearly as much as you think you do. Promise. If you plan for every contingency, you've over planned and, as a result, over packed. So spare yourself the back pain and the worry and pack only what you need. Here's a little secret, I'll let you in on: virtually everywhere on the planet sells contingency items. No, it's true! If you have a headache you can actually go to a chemist anywhere and get a pill for that headache. If you get a hole in your sock, not only does “every place” sell socks, they also sell needle and thread in case you'd rather darn than replace that sock. It's shocking, but it's true. And yes, umbrellas are available everywhere. You heard it here first.
When You Can, Bulk Your Vacation Time Into One Big Trip
It's not always possible to be sure, but when it is, expand that week into two or three or even four to make both the time and the money count. One flight with a return over an extended period of time is much cheaper and more worth your while than the same price for a very short cram session. Figure it this way, if this is a big trip you're probably skipping through several time zones. That means you will have necessary jet lag recovery time before you can even think about speeding off. So you've already lost between a day and two days. On your last full day, time is limited because you will have to go back and pack up your (hopefully) limited stuff and all those souvenirs, so now you've lost between a day and a half and three days. If you're planning a one week trip, nearly half your trip is taken up with unpacking, recovery, and repacking. Why do that to yourself?
Don't Go During High Season
Summer really does feel like the perfect time to go almost anywhere, doesn't it? You know who else thinks that? The entire traveling planet. Everyone comes out of the woodwork in summer to invade otherwise lovely, peaceful locales. You know who else knows that? Airlines, tour bus companies, cruise ship lines, hotels, and major attractions. If you want to travel in summer you'll pay a premium on everything and you'll stand in line to do it. We prefer “shoulder season,” the times from late February to early May, and again in late September to early December. Even better, we love going places in winter! If you're worried about perfect weather, you might consider staying home and enjoying your own backyard; it's much less costly and less crowded. If you're concerned about getting the most from your vacation, avoid the crowds and the exorbitant prices and let the tourists (aka amateurs) have the summer to themselves.
Map Out Your Trip to Avoid Doubling Back
Any American road tripper knows this trick, but it's transferable no matter how you travel. You've gotta get out the map and plot it out. We always travel to our furthest destination first- we make that first trip that longest one when we have more energy and haven't been worn down by travel yet- and then we work our way back with a few reasonable jumps. By the time we've reached our penultimate destination, we know the potentially shortest hop is the last one, when we're most worn.
Avoid Tour Buses
I can't hate them enough, I really can't. They roll up, cough out the sanitized American tourists and take up space while the sanitized American tourists take up the tourist space. Frankly, it's embarrassing and why Americans have such a bad rep in many parts of the world. That said, if your favourite way of seeing sites is by tour bus, let me just provide some food for thought. First, a tour bus is designed to take you to as many places as possible in the shortest amount of time possible and usually not at the most reasonable rate possible, though they'll tell you otherwise. I know someone who booked a tour from London to Bath, Stonehenge, and Windsor Castle...in one day! The only way that was possible is that he got to spend about an hour in each place. I can personally attest that each one of these great spots is an all-day event. By skipping the tour bus he could have spent the same amount of money and seen two of those sites over two days at his own sweet pace. Europe especially is a transport heaven; it's built to carry the masses. Take advantage of local transport where possible, take the small amount of time necessary to figure it out (we've never run across a locale yet whose mass transport system wasn't easily mastered in about an hour). The most you'll see on a tour bus is the inside of a tour bus.
Eat Out, Then Eat In Or Away From the Tourists
Regional cuisines are the bomb and usually the most fun part of the trip. Eating out for every meal will also quickly become the most expensive part of the trip, so we eat out only occasionally to get a good feel for the cuisine, then we challenge ourselves back at base camp by learning to truly replicate the cuisine. That's the best souvenir one can take home: knowing how to authentically cook the cuisine. Not staying where there's a kitchen? Save some money, be more authentic, and dive into the region much deeper by avoiding eating in the tourist areas. They know you're coming, they're ready for you with overpriced, watered down food. Walk a few blocks further, away from the madding crowd, and that's where you'll find the locals, eating real food at friendlier prices. Trust the locals, not the tourists.
The Eiffel Tower Isn't the Only or Maybe Even the BEST Thing to See in Paris
Want to see the Eiffel Tower? Great. Did you know that thing is visible from most of Paris? I'm not knocking one of the world's most touristed sites but that's also the point I'm getting at: everyone and their dog has visited the Eiffel Tower. There isn't a picture you're going to take from any angle that is going to be any different from the millions of other photographs out there, except perhaps your face included in the frame. But like I always say, I took the photo, I know I was there, I don't really need to prove it to anyone else. What I'm really getting at is, see what you want but recognize what makes a city really tick. In Paris, it's not the Eiffel Tower. It's the cafes and the people and more locally famous places like the Centre Pompidou. Also, the Centre has one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower..a twofer!
Plan to Travel, Not Tour
I've been told this is a hard habit to break but I'm telling you that if you do, your whole outlook on your vacation will change drastically. Every place we've gone, someone we know has been there. The question we get asked most is, “Oh, did you see the....?” It's the one question that makes me want to scream. The question implies that if one doesn't see the tourist brochure items, one hasn't truly seen the place. It simply isn't true. Vienna's palaces were great, but we had much more fun playing in the Prater with the local dogs and their humans, improving our German, and learning about the local haunts. Europe's largest cave system was amazing, but we reminisce much more about hanging out with our new friends on the Ljubljanica riverfront, planning where we would meet up next. And Juliet's Balcony in Verona was...overrated...but the hike with Sabrina and Alex through the hills and cow fields of Bosco was unbelievable. Were we so busy with the tours, we would have missed the real treasures of the travel.
Plan for Your Return
We stay at least a month everywhere we go and guess what: we leave every single place having not seen everything. It's never happened, and if we're lucky, it never will. We soak up the culture, take in the atmosphere, make good, lifelong friends, and have a reason to return. We stupidly went to Slovenia last year- a very small country- assuming that if we took the month we had given ourselves and got after it, we'd get that country “checked off” our list and not return. Guess where we're going first when we get back to the continent... What we didn't expect was that we'd meet folks who would become some of our closest friends, that we really want to go back to a few familiar haunts, and that a month in a tiny country wouldn't be nearly enough time to see what we wanted to see. So we left last September knowing we would be back. And that's the point: you're never going to see everything, and if by chance you did get to check off everything on your “must see” list, you probably had no quality time at any of them, and you certainly missed the best parts of what makes a place, a “place”- the people, the culture, the every day, the little hideaways known only to locals... So take your time and plan to return.
If your goal is to check off “have seen that” boxes then you'll have no need for this blog, so enjoy! However, we have learned that to really get the most out of your time away, wherever that may be and for however long it may last, letting up on the throttle a bit will create more lasting memories and you won't need a vacation from that vacation ever again.