The Survivor’s Guide to Traveling on A Tight Time Scale

One of the downsides to being a working girl with just 25 days holiday a year to play with is that time isn’t a luxury I have when traveling. Thankfully, I’ve never let this get in the way of doing the one thing I love – exploring the globe, discovering foreign lands, and meeting new people.

As a great believer that travel is tantamount to education when it comes to broadening the mind and understanding the world, I like to make the most out of my short stints of traveling, and over the years I’ve learned to make the most out of each of my mini back-packing adventures.

By taking a few simple steps I’ve managed to make my trips as rich and enlightening as those stretched out journeys enjoyed by round the world travelers.

Plan, plan and plan a bit more

A round the world trip is a bit like that perfect first dinner date. You warm up over a few drinks before settling on a starter, teasing out tidbits of information as you tuck into your food. You might gently poke and prod for more over the main before going in for the kill during dessert. Then, as you’re sipping on your coffee, you can digest it all before carefully making up your mind.

Mini back-packing, on the other hand, is the drawn-out date’s speed-dating sister, where you have two minutes to garner all the information you need. To make this work, planning and preparation is key. You need to come armed with questions you want answered and a clear idea of what you’re after. Then comes the clincher, and that’s executing your operation with as much precision as possible.

The same can be said of short trips, where being able to explore your surroundings at a snail’s pace is well and truly off the agenda. If you’re mini back-packing, it pays well to do your homework to shave off those wasted days spent hunting down a hostel or nights spent sleeping uncomfortably on a train station floor after failing to pre-book a ticket during peak season.

In an age of mass-information, there’s a wealth of knowledge out there. Delving into guidebooks, trawling the Internet, and seeking advice on forums is usually a good way to find out about a country’s quirks and where is going to suit you best, as well as fuelling the excitement about your forthcoming trip.

Don’t think too big

Time restrictions make it impossible to explore a country in depth all in one go, so settling on a specific region or area is essential.

We’d booked our return flights to India and had three weeks to play with. I’d always dreamed of standing in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, hanging out with hippies on Goa’s palm-fringed shores, being an extra on a Bollywood set in Mumbai, and exploring the winding streets of Old Delhi before kicking back on a Keralan houseboat.

It didn’t take long to discover there was about as much chance of this as me sacrificing the next holiday I’d already started planning in the back of my mind. Despite desperately wanting to take in all of the tantalizing treats India has to offer, quality wins down over quantity every time, and I slimmed down on my trip.

Deciding I wanted to defrost after a bitter British winter and enjoy some down-time on the beach, I hit the sunny south west coast, combining the chaos of city life in Mumbai with the laid-back vibes of Goa, before taking in Kerala with just enough time to appreciate each place’s intricacies without running myself ragged.

Like a drug, my trip kick-started my love for this curious country and left me desperate to explore more. Two years later and I was on a plane heading further north to carry out the second half of my dream. This time I discovered Delhi, Jaipur, and Chandigarh, with a whistle-stop trip to the Taj thrown in.

While not everyone enjoys precision planning, when travelling on a tight timescale, you have to be prepared to throw away a certain amount of spontaneity. If you prefer to float like a feather in the wind, then it’s worth investing in a few light weights and at least plan a rough route and consider how you’re going to get from place to place and book a few nights’ accommodation.

Make the most of transport

It can be tempting to hop on board a plane to save time. Why waste 18 hours on a train when you can be there by air in an hour? But if for you traveling is more about experiencing a country? There’s a lot to be learned from land travel while saving a fair wad of cash.

Exploring the world in bite-sized chunks means seizing every opportunity you can to discover customs and cultures. Boarding a train bursting to the seams with passengers hungry for information about you and your country is the perfect place to learn firsthand about the traits and traditions they live their lives by.

During an overnight train trip from Goa to Kerala, I learned more about the culture and customs of India than I had during the seven weeks I’d spent there in total. Keen to quiz me on my religion, profession, education, house, car, hobbies, marital status, pets, parents, siblings – the list goes on – the inquisitive Indians were more than happy to reciprocate.

As the wafts of food lingered in the stuffy air for long after the wallahs who swarm the train at every stop to sell fried bananas, samosas, and onion bhajis had hopped off, I was showered with a fountain of facts that can’t be found in any guidebook over endless cups of steaming, sickly-sweet chai.

As well as giving you the chance to mingle with locals, catching a train or bus also provides the perfect place to learn from like-minded travelers. During a slow and bumpy bus journey across Cambodia, I met a couple who had been traveling the world for four years. As we pulled up to the dusty bus station in Siem Reap hours later, having picked their brains on their travels, I’d added the Galapagos Islands, Beppu in Japan, and The Plain of Jars in Lao to my bucket-list.

By the time I was cracking open a cool beer with a Swedish couple on the ferry from Trat to Koh Chang after swapping sweat while sitting next to them in a cramped minibus traveling across Thailand, I was armed with ideas of what to do on the island, restaurants to tantalise the tastebuds, activities to avoid, and the best way to spend the final two days of my trip in Bangkok.

Check in for some down time

Unfortunately, one of the cons to mini back-packing is that instead of returning rested, relaxed, and ready to tackle another 12 months of work, I’m shattered.

On the upside, more often than not you’ll have a bigger budget than round the world’ers, so don’t be afraid to splash a bit of cash on a nice hotel and check in for some down time. To round off the perfect trip, I try to check into somewhere special and spoil myself in a half-baked bid to stave off the dark clouds beginning to gather about the impending flight home.

Don’t feel guilty if you want to spend a few days reading a book around the pool or chilling on the beach. You don’t have to spend every second immersing yourself into new cultures. I always make sure I spend at least three days relaxing in a beach hut doing nothing or catching up on some sleep before coming back home to real life.

A smile goes a thousand miles

Go armed with a smile and an open mind, and you’ll reap the rewards no matter where you are. While it’s vital to keep your wits about you and be wary of strangers – yes, always trust your gut – some of my most treasured moments have been born out of baring a smile to a stranger.

In Nepal, we watched as a friendly waiter walked to the kitchen deflated by the sharp prick of rejection he’d been dealt by a table of tourists who had ignored his bid to strike up conversation as he cleared their table. When it was our turn, he looked surprised as we eagerly answered the questions he fired at us at bullet-speed, scared in case we interrupted to shoo him away.

The next day, we found ourselves sat cross-legged on the stone floor of the stuffy room he called home. Govind proudly showed off his six-month-old daughter Siddhika while translating questions from his brother and sister as his wife huddled over a stove in the corner, cooking us up a feast.

To this day, I’m still blessed with a life-long friendship, and Govind stays in touch as often as he can, rushing to an Internet cafe to check to see if we were okay after hearing about last summer’s London riots on the news or to send us photos of his daughter, and most recently, his son.

So with all this talk of travel, I’m off to start planning my next trip to Vietnam.

To read more about and from Marissa Carruthers, check out her author bio.

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Photo credits:  Yann, fradaveccs, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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