By Simon Vaughan, Senior Editor & Special Travel Advisor
North Americans are renowned for having some of the shortage vacation allowances in the world. Whereas Europeans regularly enjoy 3-4 weeks of vacation as soon as they start a new job, all too often we can expect a maximum of 2 weeks in a new position. As a result, we have to be a little more selective with our choice of vacations to maximize our limited time off.
For those of us with 10 vacation days a year, we usually choose between blowing it all on one annual trip, or taking a week and then spreading the remaining days out for long weekends, family events or to extend statutory holidays.
Not only must we consider where we’re headed, but also how we’re getting there. Flying is obviously the quickest way to most places, but to take full advantage of every moment, it’s important to put as much effort into selecting the transportation as it is the accommodation. Direct flights are generally quicker than connections, but even there, all things are not equal.
Some airlines offer day flights to Europe from eastern Canada as well as the more customary red-eye or overnight flight. The benefit of a day flight is that after arriving in Europe in the evening, heading straight for your accommodation and getting a solid night’s sleep, you start fresh the next day thereby taking full advantage of your time.
The disadvantage is that you have spent the precious first entire day of your trip travelling. An overnight flight allows you to work all day, head straight to the airport from your office, fly out that evening and – although perhaps a little the worse for wear – celebrate the first day of your vacation actually at the destination.
If there are multiple flights to choose from, it goes without saying that we usually want to depart home as early as possible and return home at the last possible moment to ensure the maximum amount of time away. As most accommodation have check-in times that are usually no earlier than mid-afternoon and check-out times no later than mid-morning, it’s a good idea to plan where to store your luggage in the interim to leave you free to sight-see, shop or lounge on a beach.
Hotels and hostels usually allow bags to be left for a few hours and many railway and bus stations still offer lockers. If you look into this before your trip and plan ahead you can save yourself precious time on your arrival and departure days.
Many cities that offer high-speed airport railway connections — like Kuala Lumpur — often have airline check-in counters at a railway station. You can arrive there hours before your flight, check-in and drop-off your tagged bags with the airline, before continuing to wander around the city encumbered by nothing more than your carry-on. While airports often tend to be in the suburbs well away from anything of interest, occasionally some do have worthwhile attractions nearby.
One such example is the International Antarctic Centre located just a five minute walk from Christchurch Airport in New Zealand. The museum offers displays on the Great White Continent and an insight into polar research. They also kindly have lockers located outside where bulky bags can be left during the visit which means that you can continue your sightseeing right up until it’s time to clear security and enter the departure lounge.
If you have a few hours to kill in a major city before a flight home and you’ve succeeded in leaving your bags at your accommodation, one of the best ways to spend that time can be in museums and art galleries. Often offering free admission, many such places tend to open earlier than stores and also have reasonably-priced cafeterias to grab a bite before heading to the airport.
Ultimately, no matter how wise you are with your flights and your travel days, there’s not much you can do about time zones. A trip to Europe immediately sets you back 5 to 7 hours in time difference before you’ve even left the ground, while heading to Asia or the South Pacific involves crossing the international dateline and the loss of a day on the way over (though you gain it back on the way home).
Time differences also mean jet-lag, which can leave you moving at half-speed for the first few days of a holiday, so for shorter vacations, try and look for places in similar time zones.
How to get the most out of your 1, 2 or 3 weeks of vacation:
FOR 1 WEEK: Every minute counts. Try to minimize travel time and jet-lag and maximize time at the destination by keeping flights below 5-6 hours.
Beaches: Sand and surf are plentiful throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Florida and Hawaii, but if you want to try somewhere a little more off the beaten path, try Nicaragua, Panama or a less-visited island like Dominica.
Culture: Cuba has great music, vibrant arts and a distinctive culture, but if you have your heart set on Europe, restrict yourself to one or two countries or cities. Try combining London with Paris or Belgium using the Eurostar; Rome, Florence and Venice are only a couple of hours apart by train; or opt for Barcelona and Madrid. Make sure you don’t make your trip unnecessarily busy by including too much domestic travel: a lot of a little is better than a little of a lot.
Adventure: Canada’s Arctic and far north, the Rockies and Alaska offer some of the best hiking, sea-kayaking, mountaineering and rock-climbing in the world and all close to home. For mountain biking and trekking, look at Utah, Wyoming, or New Mexico. Belize and Costa Rica offer jungle, birdlife and lodges comparable with the Amazon but with less travelling time.
Budget: Europe is one of the most expensive of destinations when it comes to accommodation and eating, although both can be reduced by using hostels, bed & breakfasts or pensions and grabbing food in markets instead of restaurants. Fortunately, these expenses can often be somewhat off-set by competitively-priced air tickets. Because of the number of flights available, there are many options for flying to Europe which help keep the overall cost down a bit. Even so, a week in Europe may well end up costing the same as a couple of weeks elsewhere, but if you do your homework, one week won’t break the bank.
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FOR 2 WEEKS: The extra time allows you to look a little further afield or to travel further within the destination, but it doesn’t quite give you the world … so don’t get too carried away with those additional days!
Beaches: You could just spend those extra days on the same beach, but how about devoting an extra day on crossing the Atlantic and trying the beaches of the Canary Islands, the Azores or Tunisia for a change? When you’ve had enough of the sand between your toes, you have the bonus of being able to towel-off and enjoy some original sightseeing, sampling the local culture and great cuisine. Western Canadians can try Vietnam or the Philippines, while easterners can head west to Hawaii as an alternative to the Caribbean.
Culture: Brazil’s Bahia has a unique Portuguese/African vibe with mouth-watering cuisine and hip-wiggling music…and enough time leftover for the classic sights of Rio or a trip to the jungle. Or combine the history, food and architecture of Croatia and the Dalmatian coast with newly independent Montenegro or newly-opened Albania.
Adventure: Never thought you had enough vacation time for a safari? Many East African safaris last 10 days. Add in travel time to Nairobi or Arusha and you’ve filled your two weeks. Try combining an Inca Trail trek to Peru’s Machu Picchu with a stay in a jungle lodge, or trekking among Thailand’s hill tribes.
Budget: Flights to Latin America are often comparable with or slightly higher than those to Europe, but the costs once in-country of accommodation and food — unless heading to the Galapagos or a nice jungle lodge which have significant costs attached to them — are generally less expensive. If you’ve got two weeks and a reasonable budget, take a look at South America.
FOR 3+ WEEKS: The world is your oyster, so go shuck it up! Cross the equator, span the hemispheres; climb a mountain and lie on a beach…go wherever you want and take your time.
Beaches: The South Pacific has some of the best beaches in the world. “Flake’n’Bake” in Vanuatu, Tonga or Samoa, and enjoy a weekend in Australia or New Zealand on the way home, or try the Indian Ocean paradises of the Maldives, Seychelles or legendary Zanzibar with a quick safari thrown or Gulf States stopover thrown-in.
Culture: The Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan tightly restricts the number of visitors admitted each year to prevent a loss of identity and a watering-down of its ancient culture. Combine it with neighboring Mustang or a visit to Nepal. Tour Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, complete with a beach stay, or a few cooking classes.
Adventure: Try some serious jungle trekking in Papua New Guinea, staying in lodges amid one of the world’s most diverse bird populations. Or for the truly eclectic adventure, combine two very different faces of Africa in one trip: fly via Cairo and engage in a gorilla trek in Uganda’s mountains, followed by a multi-day felucca trip along Egypt’s Nile.
Budget: There are some reasonably-priced flights to the main Asian cities, and if you’re going for three weeks or more, the additional travel time and inherent jet-lag are certainly manageable. As long as you don’t want five-star luxury and white-glove service, places like Thailand and Vietnam have eminently affordable accommodations, and awesome street eats. Your biggest expense will be your flight, but divided over a longer period, it becomes positively reasonable!