How to Maximize Limited Time on an International Trip

Most travelers would love to set off on a several month international trip to visit many different destinations. But the reality for most people is that just isn’t a possibility. Most people in the nine to five workforce only get a few weeks of vacation each year. For many travelers, this could mean a trip to the beach once a year to unwind and relax. Or maybe you don’t live near your family, and you use that time to go back home. Or maybe you’re a little more of an explorer and use that time for a nice long road trip, complete with camping, hiking, or outdoor activities.

But what if you want to travel internationally with only a few weeks to work with? Obviously many would choose the all-inclusive route, but I’m talking about a different type of international travel. A type where you get out and converse with the local people, take part in local customs, and really jump into the local culture. What are your options if this is what you want to do but only have a few weeks to do it?

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The way I see it, you have three main options for an international trip (besides going the all-inclusive resort route). What are the pros and cons of each? What are some tips you can employ to make each one work for you? Since we all travel differently, what is the best option for the way you like to travel?

Option 1 -See as much as possible in the time you have

rushGoing to as many countries as you can and seeing as much as possible seems to be frowned upon within the hard core travel community. The argument is that it’s impossible to really immerse yourself in the local culture and really experience a place if you’re only there for a day or two. Also, traveling like this tends to be exhausting, and you may come home from your vacation more tired than when you left.

While it may be tiring to constantly be on the move, you can still work a beach or rest day in here and there. Travel is what you make of it, so don’t let some holier-than-thou backpacker convince you that you can’t fully experience a place in a couple days. Your experiences will be different than those of someone who spends a month there, sure, but you have to do what works for you.

So how do you get the most out of traveling at a pace like this? First, you need to choose a region that you want to visit and go from there. If you’ve always wanted to see Machu Picchu, build a trip around that and look into other countries in South America. If your dream is to go see an English Premier League game, then start there and look into a Europe trip.  Angkor Wat in Cambodia? Then Southeast Asia it is.

This approach can work well both for a region that you don’t think you’ll return to (why not see as much as you can while you have the chance?) and one that you’re sure you’ll see again (a whirlwhind tour gives you a little taste, so you know where you want to spend your days next time).

If you’re on a really tight budget, look into overnight travel. Every part of the world I’ve been to offers overnight travel on buses or trains, many of which can be quite comfortable and cheap. You save on your budget by not having to spend a night in a hostel or hotel, and you can cover a lot of ground in a 12-15 hour overnight trip. It’s always interesting going to sleep in one country and waking up in another.

Also, look into budget airlines like Air Asia in Asia or Ryan Air in Europe to really move around quickly. When we went to Europe several years ago, finding really cheap flights going to the destinations we wanted to visit actually proved to be cheaper than the Eurorail. This type of travel doesn’t afford you the flexibility of other types of travel, but if you are a good organizer and planner, you can really make this work for you and still get just as much out of your trip.

>> Read: How to Travel More without Quitting Your Job

Option 2 – Choose one country or city to visit, and stick to it

relaxThis type of travel is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum as the first. It is a completely different philosophy of travel than the “checklist” travel described in option one. You may not see very many famous sites and you may lose the travel cred of having been to many different countries, but you most likely don’t care about those types of things anyway.

This type of trip is for someone who really wants to learn about the culture and place they’re visiting. You can actually relax more on a trip like this, and you should come back home well rested and ready to tackle the work week again.

What’s the best way to go about traveling in this manner? The first decision is obviously choosing a place to visit. Have you always wanted to learn Spanish? Or maybe you want to study yoga in India? A trek in the Himalayas? Then your answer should be easy. Go to Buenos Aires and take a Spanish class. Go to the yoga capital of the world in Rishikesh, India and study in an ashram. Head to Nepal for a Himalayan trek.

If you want to go this route, choose a destination that you think will be able to hold your interest over times. Larger cities, or areas with lots of opportunities for nearby day trips (just in case you do want to venture out) may be ideal.

You also have more accommodation options when traveling in this manner. Many times it’s cheaper to rent an apartment in a certain city and make that your home base. Would you prefer to “live” in a place as opposed to visiting it? Then choosing one place and staying put is probably right up your alley. You’re going to have more flexibility with planning, time, and budget by traveling in this manner, so you won’t have to have everything hatched out before you leave, which makes pre-trip planning much less stressful.

>> Read: How to Decide Where to Go on a RTW Trip

Option 3 – Pick a few countries and explore them a little more in depth

cafeThis option is obviously the middle ground between the first two. It’s a compromise that affords you a little more flexibility than seeing everything and going everywhere, but it doesn’t give you the opportunity to really travel on the fly like just picking one place.

This type of travel gives you the chance to see many different sites and famous places while also getting a better feel for the culture than constantly being on the move. This might be a good option or compromise for a traveling couple or friends who don’t have the exact same travel philosophy.

Again, your first task is to figure out where you want to go. If seeing Iguazu Falls is near the top of your list, then look into an Argentina and Brazil trip. You could see quite a bit by going to Buenos Aires, the Falls, then up to Rio or Sao Paulo. Maybe you’re ready to check out an eastern European city like Prague. Build a trip around that and the surrounding countries and go to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Choose destinations that are somewhat near each other, or easily connected, to save time getting from place to place.

You also have more flexibility on how you travel when you go this route. A combination of buses, trains, and planes is a good possibility, giving you the option of traveling like the locals do sometimes while also taking a flight here or there to save you some time.  Maybe you can get an apartment for the week somewhere at the beginning or end of your trip and combine that with hostel stays in other cities you visit. Whatever you decide, this option probably gives you the most choices.

>> Read: 7 Reasons Why the World is Best Explored on Foot

The final decision

How do you decide what the best option is for you? You have to consider what type of travel you enjoy most. If you get bored easily and just frankly don’t care about really seeing the local culture (which is all right, there are no rules to travel), then option number two certainly won’t be for you.

If traveling at a frenetic pace just stresses you out, then don’t even consider option number one. A good mix is obviously the last option, but that may not sound too enticing to some. The best thing to do is know who you are and what you like, research what your options are, and make your own decisions based on what’s best for YOU and your travel companion.

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Photos by Samuel Ronngvist, annais, the guenni

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Leave a Comment

  • Wanderlust Women Travel said at 2011-07-30T12:35:17+0000: All good suggestions but that overnight flight is not all it's cracked up to be........don't care how old you are if you traveling more than 6 hours in any direction, jet lag will get you when you land so your first day anywhere is pretty much shot. I generally make that a "shopping" the because it doesn't require much thought! LOL

Older comments on How to Maximize Limited Time on an International Trip

simonlise
03 May 2010

Well I intended to follow the advice just given but two months in Spain and France turned into two months in Spain and I could have used more time there – Met folks who visited London, Paris, and Spain in 10 days – my reaction was WHAT!!HOW?

mick willis
03 May 2010

doing 8 countries in about 2 months soon and have received a bit of stick over it.Doing about o’nite train trips in that.Thanks for you article,my money ,my travel

suka jalan
03 August 2010

It is do-able, but you’ll have to wake up early, sleep late and have all the necessary bookings (read: long queue lines) done upfront. Advance research and tips from fellow travelers can do wonders!