Where to start?
Assuming you have already chosen your country of destination, you will most likely be conditioned by the options to travel there and back from your home. Unless you travel by car, choosing your means of transport will be your first step.
My tip is: you can always consider multiple-leg flights or internal aeroplane/train/car trips, so keep your options open until you have decided on the broader strokes of your plans.
For a quick way to get a rundown of what you are supposed not to miss, you can either check a travel agency brochure or a travel guide. I have been trusting the “Guide Vert” from Michelin for a few decades now (tip: you can find the highest rated attractions for a certain location on their website listed for free). Of course, you will still need to understand what you actually would like to visit and what would bore you to death. All in all, a travel guide is a great place to start. Some time ago I wrote a post “Travel guides: love them or ditch them?”.
The web has offered you a lot of resources to get authentic reviews and get an unbiased (?) view from your fellow tourists. On the early days, I used to go to the “VirtualTourist” forum, but they closed. So now I tend to value “TripAdvisor”, although I have found that it social hacking has made it virtually useless for certain destinations where local agencies have filled it with non-legit comments and reviews.
Blogs such as this one are also a great source of info, although the opinions are sometimes biased by that person’s viewpoint, past experiences, expectations and personal tastes. But they are still a great authentic source of information.
Friends and family
How well do you know your friends/family? Travelling is a personal experience. Some people say that you can only really know someone after travelling with them. So, the first hurdle is to actually know you share the same tastes.
The second hurdle is the wow factor! It will chase you before and after your trip. Usually, people tend to like their holidays. I have heard/met very few people who say they didn’t like a destination or attraction. Most of the people come from holidays with the need to say that everything was not great, but fantastic! Or absolutely amazing!
Even the tips of a friend that actually lives in that country can lead to disappointment. Just think how well do you know your city, moreover your country?
Getting the most out of your time
The shortest trips we have done have been some of the most interesting and memorable ones. I reckon that comes from the sheer compression of amazing experiences into a short period of time. But in order to achieve that, you have to do plan in advance, know your own limits, and slash out what doesn’t matter.
Arrive early morning or the day before to get the most out of the first day of travel.
That’s a classic and a pretty obvious tip, but I might say it hasn’t always come to me as obvious to start a week trip on a Friday night…
Combine things in order to save time and reduce costs.
If you can find a means of transportation that can serve as accommodation, you’ve hit the jackpot! Taking the night train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, the night bus from Canada to New York or the night flight from Lisbon to Wien have not all been the best choices ever, but they saved us time and gave us memorable experiences!
Travel early morning or at the end of the day.
Museums and other attractions are usually closed after 5 or 6 pm, so that’s a great time to take a fast train or bus to your next city. Just buy a takeaway meal before you board and enjoy the view. If you are an early bird, the same thing is valid for the early mornings. Although you might find it harder to get a comfortable seat due to rush hour, you should be able to enjoy better views.
Look for after-hours openings of museum and attractions.
While usual opening hours will be 9 am to 5 pm, some cities open their museums until the late hours on certain weekdays or weekends. You can even be lucky enough and find a new exposition opening after-hours.
A music concert or poetry recital might take place in a museum or attraction might also be a great way to combine two things you enjoy, and they usually also take place after-hours.
Let yourself go
If time is not of the essence, or you don’t like to be on a tight schedule during your holidays, roaming around has its own perks. Getting lost in a city has its charm and can lead to real off-the-beaten-track experience.
If you do so, you can get opinions or suggestions from your hotel/accommodation, from the local restaurant waiter or from tourism information offices.
Travel guides will be a good help if you are planning on the go, or travel forums/websites if you have internet access. Beware, you might, at some point, find out that everyone around you has the same guide as you… It’s not a bad find necessarily, but it might deter you, as it did me.
If you ditch them altogether, you will certainly miss out on one or two not-to-miss attractions, but that won’t be the end of the world. Remember: you can always come back a later time.
Get the real deal
Most travellers who choose out of travel packages and travel agency tours are trying to get a more authentic experience. Travel guides and websites can help you get the most out of your trip, but, with the massification of tourism, it is increasingly more difficult to find authenticity.
We have used the free local guides in the Hague and Tokyo. First and foremost, note that you will not get a guided tour of the city. But it’s a great opportunity to get in contact with a local, hear their own experience of the city and get an insight on whatever questions you posed yourself. Etiquette varies, but I would expect you to at least pay for the trips and food costs during your time together.
Getting the same thing from a friend or a friend of a friend will be a close experience. The fact they don’t do it often enough might be a drawback, as they might not know the place as well as you would expect them to.
Watching travel TV series on the destination of your choice will widen your horizons and give you some insights. We usually watch Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows, as we love trying local food, but also some others such as “Des trains pas commes des autres” or good movies that take place in that country or city. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” was another life-changing movie that helped shape our trip.
As I wrote above, the internet is full of the same travel information, so don’t expect to find something off-the-beaten-track online, but do use it to get a grasp of what you can do or find. Plus it’s a great way to get up to date information on transport’s timetables and restaurants or attraction’s opening hours.
Time-saving tips (and beyond)
- Smartphone apps, working offline or online, will speed you up going through public transports and bringing you other vital information to your fingertips. Read our articles on apps to use while planning or on the go.
- Eating early or later than usual meal-hours will save you time to visit around, but be careful not to go too late or you can find the kitchen has closed.
- Book a table at the restaurants you don’t want to miss out and save time waiting for one. In most cases, it’s free to do so…
- Combine good restaurants with the attractions you want to visit so that you don’t need to travel more than you should.
- Using public transport as your overnight accommodation will leave you with a backpack or several pieces of luggage to haul around with you. Some train and metro stations have luggage lockers you can use to lighten your load during the day. The same thing happens in some museums and attractions.