It’s possible to travel, have new experiences, and live an adventurous life while pursuing a career, education, or other dreams. I believe this, live this as much as I can, and it’s the vision behind my blog. My trips over the last few years have ranged from 3 days to 3 weeks, and I’ve loved every single one. I’ve learned a lot and come up with all kinds of strategies to make the most of these trips. In this post, I’m passing these on to you!

Every strategy that I use to maximize a short trip is in this post.

Chances are, if you’re like most people then you’re not aspiring to a globe trotter existence or van life. Travel can be a passion without being the only thing you do! My trips up to now have all been in between semesters of University (I just finished my H. B.Sc in Neuroscience, yay!) – and if you’re here, then you’re probably travelling in between classes, work projects, or some other important aspect of your life, too.

Which means you don’t have infinite time for travel, and you want to maximize your time in a destination once you arrive. Well, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s start planning your next adventure!

Planning a Short Trip

1. Choose Your Destination

The destination does matter when you have limited time. If you’ve only got a weekend, a 24 hour long flight there and back definitely doesn’t make sense. The farthest that I’ve travelled over a weekend was from Ottawa (my home) to Orlando, Florida, so that I could spend a weekend at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was fantastic, and totally worth it. What Harry Potter-themed trip isn’t fantastic and totally worth it, though, really?

Things to Consider

  • Travel-time: If you’re flying to the other side of the world, I do think it’s good to stay for at least a week. That’s a long trek, and probably an expensive flight so do get your time and money’s worth. 
  • Time zones: Particularly if you know that you’re prone to jet lag, make sure you won’t loose too much of your trip to exhaustion. Personally, I prefer not to change time zones by more than 2 hours for a weekend trip, or by more than 5-6 hours for a week. If you have 5 full days or less, stay within a 3 hour time difference. If you have a week or more, go up to a 6 or 7 hour difference if you want. Once you hit 8 hours, that’s a two week + trip (at least in my book).

2. Prioritize Your Activities and Sights

This is the biggest, most frequent question that people ask me. How do you decide what to see and do when there are so many amazing options?

I always start my sightseeing-plan the same way: a Top 3 list.

What are the 3 things you absolutely, most-definitely, can’t leave without seeing or doing? Hypothetically, let’s say you’re never going back again… what are the things that you really, really want to see? And for those of you who think you probably will return so you want to save a few highlights for a future trip, don’t worry about that. Wherever you go, you will always discover other things to do that you didn’t originally know about that will make you want to return.

Here are a couple examples from my own trips:

  • Philadelphia: Eastern State Penn, City Hall Observation Deck, and the Beyond the Bell Women’s History Tour. (2 Days in Philadelphia)
  • Montreal: a Food Tour, Old Montreal Walking Tour, Mont Royal Observation Point. (3 Days in Montreal)
  • New York City: Top of the Rock, Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge.

Travelling with another person? Perfect, get their list as well. There’s often cross over, because most cities have particular places and attractions they’re known for, but it’s ok if there’s not.

Make an “others” list, too. What other things would be great to see, time permitting? I typically do this on one piece of paper. The column on the left is my Top 3, and the column on the right is others.

Tips for Choosing What to See and Do

Overwhelmed? There are so many choices, depending on where you’re going. Here are some tips for choosing:

  • Pick experiences and sites that are unique to that place: what can’t you do or see someplace else in the world, that is unique to the place you’re visiting? Depending on where you live, some of the major attractions in a place you’re visiting might actually be things you can see, or have seen the equivalent of, elsewhere. Consider whether a museum you’re thinking of, for example, will be very similar to another museum you’ve been to. This is particularly true of science and natural history museums, in my experience! The Titanic Museum in Belfast on the other hand, is only in Belfast. That’s something you can’t see elsewhere.
  • Choose things that can’t just be seen online: it’s worth doing a little bit of research and finding out if there’s more to a place then just the view you’ve seen on Instagram. If you really want to go somewhere, go – but know that in some places if you’ve seen a photo, you’ve seen it all. Top of the Rock in New York is actually a really good example. If you love photos and want your own photo there, go. The photos you’ve seen already are it though. There’s nothing else there (though it is a cool view).
  • Go for variety: to get a feel for a new place, it helps to see it in different ways. Doing and seeing different types of things on your trip will make it more memorable, and feel as if you had more unique experiences. Going to see churches, castles, iconic buildings, or anything else that there are multiple of one after the other can feel repetitive. Spice it up! I often like at least one walking tour or place to walk around, a museum or historical site, and a great view!

One of my previous examples…

  • Philadelphia: Eastern State Penn (historical site), City Hall Observation Deck (great view), and the Beyond the Bell Women’s History Tour (walking tour).

3. Research Suggested Itineraries

The things on your Top 3 list have already been on someone else’s. There’s probably a blog about it (maybe even on this site)! Take advantage and let some planning be done for you. I always look up suggested itineraries and guides that contain the specific places that I want to see before I travel, because these often give recommendations within the same area of the city, restaurants that are nearby, other places to see, and so one.

Google: the beauty of Google is that you can look up blog posts and website that contain the specific places that you want to go. Just structure your search! When you type a term in to Google, the search engine will give back results for that term, and closely related ones. If you add quotation marks around a term in your search, only results containing that exact phrase will come up. Combine both to find sample itineraries that contain specific places. Here’s an example: 4 day London itinerary + “Tower of London”

This way, Google knows that it’s ok if there’s a spin on the words “4 Day London Itinerary,” so it might also bring up London in 4 Days, or Weekend in London. Whatever variation of an itinerary it brings up, the term “Tower of London” will definitely be included in the post, because you put quotation marks around it.

Pinterest: much like Google, Pinterest is a search engine. The only difference is that the results are visual, and the posts included were actively added by Pinterest users (whereas Google indexes websites itself). Pinterest is a great place to find blog posts, and these are going to come mostly from fellow travellers, and not include big travel websites. Itineraries and activities are best found on Pinterest by searching for your destination, then clicking or typing in one of the suggested sub-searches. Examples: London -> Itineraries

City Pass and Tourism Websites: Whether or not you’re purchasing a City Card or Sightseeing Pass (to be honest, I do recommend at least one day using a pass of some sort if you’re short on time) these websites often have suggested itineraries for different areas of a city that can be helpful for your planning. On multiple occasions, I’ve followed pass itineraries to a tee and been very happy with it!

4. Plan With a Map.

Ready with your Top 3 list? Perfect, pull up a map! If you’re only visiting for one day, you might have already planned the entire day by making a Top 3 list, but if you’ve got 2 or more days it’s time to add more activities by using the map to find out what’s nearby.

How many days do you have? If it’s just one, then you’ve nearly planned your entire trip. Got 2 or 3? You can do one or two per day. 4 or more, and you’ve got lots of space to plan. While you’re planning, pull up a map. There’s no sense in darting back and forth across the city everyday if you don’t have to. 

Start by looking up your Top 3. If they’re all within walking distance, you’re all set for a day. Otherwise, put one per day (if possible). The good things about cities in particular is that major attractions typically revolve around the downtown cores so you’re often within walking distance of great activities. 

Once you’ve found your Top 3, take a look for anything that was on your “other” list. I often do this by using the “get directions” buttons from one of my top 3 to another, or to something on the “others” list. Compare distances and start to build your days around different areas.

Buckingham Palace, for example, isn’t that close to the Tower of London. It’s close enough that if both were on your Top 3 list and you only one day in London, you could easily get from one to another on the tube or a hop on and off bus tour. However, they’re not walking distance. Buckingham Palace is walking distance to Westminster Abbey, though, and the Tower of London Near Tower Bridge and St Paul’s. The more that you can build your itinerary for a day within one, walking-friendly area, the more you will be able to fit in to that day.

On Google maps, if you zoom in close enough to major attractions, other nearby ones will often appear, too. This is a great way to find out what’s nearby to your chosen sites, and maybe discover some you weren’t thinking of.

5. Leave room for last minute changes and additions.

There are always things that have to be booked in advance, but wherever possible leave your plans a little bit open ended. I recommend having an outline for every day, but if you don’t have to finalize a booking before you go then you can leave some days open for potential changes.

The reality is, you’re not going to see everything anyways. There will have to compromises, always. It’s better to have a plan that you can change than to have no plan at all.

Make sure you research when to book attractions, though. I didn’t get to tour Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, for example, because it books months in advance. Kilmainham Gail in Dublin typically needs to be booked 3 days in advance. (There’s a theme here, eh? Let’s keep it going.) Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, however, needs no pre-booking for regular access, so you can just show up.

Here are a couple examples of last-minute changes that I’ve made:

  • Powerscourt was on my Ireland itinerary, but I went to Belfast instead.
  • The Botanical Gardens in Puerto Rico were closed the day we planned to go, so off we went to El Yunque Rainforest
  • I planned a museum day in Iceland using the Reyjavik City Card, and actually wound up doing that. We bought the passes at a Tourism office the night before.

It’s not unplanned, it’s just a flexible plan. I think it’s good to leave things flexible about 25% of the time. On a 2 day trip, leave at least an afternoon. Got 4 days, leave a day, and so on. 

6. Plan the Logistics

There are a couple of logistical decisions that can go a long way in being able to see and do everything that you want to!

Stay somewhere central or on a major route: The more you can reduce time spent traveling around once you’re at your destination, the better. That said, the most central accommodations are not always available or feasible. In this situation, make a point of finding somewhere that is on a major transit route so that you have a clear, direct route to all the action.

Do a Grocery Shop When you Arrive: This tip may or may not work for you depending on how you feel about trying new foods. I like to eat out once or twice on a trip, but the rest of the time I pack my own lunches. Plan time to stop at a grocery store on your first day, and grab snacks and lunch foods. If you need a snack, you can pull a granola bar and banana out of your bag and munch while you make your way to your next stop. No wandering around deciding where to eat or waiting in line ups when you could be exploring.

Pre-Plan Your Transportation: Take a good look at public transit, trains, or the maps for driving around once you arrive at your destination. When I arrive at a new destination, I’ve already got a few maps in the screenshots of my phone and notes for the bus routes.

planning a trip

4 Replies to “Planning a Short Trip: A Step by Step Guide to Getting the Most out of Travel”

  1. I often wonder if City Passes are worth it as a lot of time can pass at one site and you may not have enough time to see the others on the list! That happened in London. That puts me off from buying them.

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