Making the Most of Your Short City Break
Over the last decade I’ve turned making short trips into a mini art form in my life: I rarely go away for more than a week and I love hopping on a plane and heading off for a 3- or 4-night break to some vibrant city – often somewhere I know well and like to return to regularly (Venice or Amsterdam) but sometimes a pasture new (an upcoming trip to Bilbao and San Sebastian with my friend Annie).
I’m fortunate to live close to Heathrow airport and thus have to give over very little of my travel time to getting to and from my home airport. Early morning, a cab will get me to Heathrow in about 20 minutes; coming home, I’ll just jump on a 490 bus, which brings me direct from the terminal back home – a little more slowly than a cab but almost to my door.
I’ve been writing the blog for nearly 5 years and it’s interesting to see which of my posts have gone on being popular and the 3rd most popular of all time, with a total of 7,442 views, is Travelling Light: 10 Essentials for Hand Luggage Only from April 2012. I’d probably write it a little differently now, but I think the ‘essentials’ would be almost the same. However, I thought it would be fun to now write a more general post about what I’ve learnt about getting the most from my short trips. In general, I don’t like to have too detailed an itinerary, planning out every hour, but to be free to follow my fancy and slow down when I fancy a break, but when you’re somewhere for a limited time a bit of pre-holiday organisation can pay dividends and make the most of your time away.
1. Time Your Flights Well
Turn 3 nights into 4 days by careful timing of your flights. Usually a short break holiday is fairly close to home with only a 1- to 2-hour flight; of course there’s always the Eurostar too if you prefer to go by train to somewhere like Paris. By flying out early morning and coming back in the evening you’ll feel like you’ve added an extra day. However, I’m not keen on VERY early flights, which mean I have to get up in the middle of the night and then feel so tired I can’t enjoy my first day. My close proximity to Heathrow helps me here. When I went to Amsterdam in January I caught an 8:30 flight out arriving 10:50. With the fast train connection from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station, I was in the city centre by midday, dropped off my bag at the hotel and was sitting in my favourite café for lunch with a whole afternoon and evening ahead of me.
2. Always Travel Light
Since writing that ‘Essentials’ post back in 2012, I’ve updated my small suitcase. There are some wonderful, incredibly light ones available now. I bought a brilliant Samsonite one that meets cabin luggage requirements for both BA and easyJet. I could have bought a slightly bigger one for just BA but wasn’t going to limit myself. See the earlier post (click here) for what to pack. The really important thing is that you don’t want to waste time waiting for luggage to come through at the other end nor have to allow time to check in a suitcase on the way home. When time is limited, you want to get off the plane and head straight through the Exit door.
3. Where to Stay?
If you’re having a city break then you don’t want to spend a lot of time travelling to all the places you plan to visit or the best areas for eating. It’s nicer to operate on foot as much as possible and feel everything is easily manageable. For instance, in my roundup post about my trip to Nice last year – Nice: Five Nights in Nice – Eat, Drink, Do – I pointed out that the Promenade des Anglais is 4km long so a hotel based on it or near it isn’t necessarily a good thing if you’re at the wrong end, far away from the Old Town where you’ll find the most interesting restaurants and it’s the nicest place to be. There are buses but how much time do you want to spend on your short break waiting for a bus? Give a bit of thought to what you want to do and where you’re likely to spend most of your time, then book accommodation in that area.
4. Map Out Your Area
Since a rather disastrous arrival in Aix-en-Provence (click here) three years ago when the shuttle bus from the Eurostar station (not actually in Aix, although that’s the name of the stop) dropped me at the edge of the town where there were no signs and no one to ask directions from, I’ve been very organised about maps. I use Google Maps to locate my hotel, or wherever I’m staying, then print out a series of maps so I can get a general overview and then zoom in to my destination and am able to read all the nearby road names. I also check where the train or bus stations are, depending on how I plan to get to my destination from the airport, and use Google’s Directions to highlight a route from where a bus/train terminus or stop is to my hotel. This also gives you timing and distance so you can judge whether it’s walkable or you may need to catch another bus or taxi. I find the maps useful during my stay too as sometimes the maps hotels give you, or you pull out from guidebooks, don’t give you close-up detail with all the road names for where you’re staying. If this seems a little OCD it’s all about not wasting time when time is fairly limited and there are far more exciting things to do than standing lost on a street corner.
5. Ask For Help & Advice Before You Arrive
Most of us are used to asking advice once we’ve arrived at the hotel: speaking to people in reception about where to eat, how to get to somewhere we want to do a day trip to, or whatever. But don’t forget you can ask before you arrive too. When I went to Bologna a couple of years ago I had a helpful exchange of emails with my hotel (Hotel Porta San Mamolo) before I arrived about the best way to get there from the airport and recommendations of restaurants; they booked one for my first night having given me a choice with details first. For my upcoming trip to northern Spain, I’ve got details from our hotel about the best way to get to them from the airport and the name of the bus stop where we should get off, telling me it’s less than 10 minutes walk from there.
I like to go with plenty of cash – which usually means euros – for my short break and I get it before I leave. That’s mainly because it’s the cheapest option – my bank charges outrageous amounts for me to get cash out of an ATM abroad. Back home, I can go to my local Thomas Cook – which I’ve found recently to have the best exchange rates – and exchange cash pounds for cash euros. I generally take enough money to buy bus and train tickets, museum tickets, coffees, small gifts, cheapish meals, etc. I of course always have a credit card to hand for more expensive items but depending on where you go, it’s often easier to have cash to hand. Especially if you’re heading to some markets!
7. Book Ahead
If you’re planning to go to a major museum or gallery, like the Rijksmusuem in Amsterdam or the Uffizi in Florence, avoid wasting time in long queues by buying tickets in advance online. I’ve already bought our tickets for the Guggenheim in Bilbao for the afternoon Annie and I arrive there in a couple of weeks’ time.
8. Consider a Tour
I’ve never been particularly keen on anything that contains the word ‘tour’ but since doing a wonderful food tour with friends Linda and George in Istanbul two and a half years ago (click here), I’ve seen it as a great way to get to know a place quickly, enabling you to make the most of your short stay. Thus I did a half day’s food tour in Nice (click here) and one in Amsterdam too in January. The Amsterdam one was disappointing, but the one in Nice was brilliant and made a great difference to my finding my way around to good places during the rest of my holiday. Do a bit of research before you go and preferably book a tour for your first morning. You don’t of course have to do a food tour but most big cities offer a variety of tours to match your interests.
9. Frequent Flyer Schemes
If you’re going to be jumping on and off planes and taking short breaks regularly then don’t forget to take up the opportunity to join a frequent flyer scheme. It’s surprising how quickly the points can mount up and soon you’ll have enough for another short trip. I’ve used my British Airways Executive Club points to book a few of my flights. You earn points from the flights you pay for and there are various other ways of adding to your account. Eurostar also has a frequent traveller programme.
10. Pace Yourself – It’s a Holiday!
A hazard of going on a short break – especially to somewhere new – is that you want to fit masses of things into your stay. But it’s really important to pace yourself and remember it’s a holiday. You don’t want to go home exhausted and realistically, if you go to a big city you won’t fit everything in no matter how hard you try, but if you like the city a lot you can always go back another time! It’s one of the reasons I so much like returning to favourite cities and then I can combine going back to favourite restaurants and sights while each time trying to add a new experience. Having said all that, one of the most relaxing short breaks I’ve had was in Istanbul with Linda & George and we were on the go every day from breakfast to midnight. But it was such a fabulous and exciting place to be, and so much fun with two good friends, that it proved the old adage that ‘a change is as good as a rest’!