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7 Hacks for Making the Most of a Short Vacation

Insider Guides Budget Travel
by Matthew Meltzer Aug 19, 2019

Vacations, it seems, are getting shorter, if people take them at all. Last year Americans left 200 million vacation days on the table, and nearly 70 percent of millennials didn’t use all of the days they had allotted. A more recent study found that 57 percent of Americans didn’t take a vacation longer than four days last year, making the most popular trips what Allianz Global Assistance — the authors of the survey — dubbed a “micro-cation.”

This may be partly due to the millennial preference for trying a lot of things for a little while. Or just because workers feel vacation shamed. Whatever the reason, people taking short trips need to make the most of them. As one who is on the road two-thirds of their life, balancing a teaching schedule, a full-time job travel writing, and visits to extended family on the opposite coast, I’ve found a number of ways to pack the most into a short span of days. Here are seven things, dare we say hacks, that will help you maximize a “micro-cation.”

1. Use time zones to your advantage.

You might think only having a weekend to get away means you’re pretty much restricted to the US and Canada, maybe Mexico if you can get a direct flight. But remember, visiting a far-off land doesn’t necessarily mean leaving your time zone. If you find an overnight flight to South America you can literally leave after work on Wednesday and give yourself a full, four-day weekend in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, or Lima. Flights from southern US international hubs like Miami and Dallas will often leave around 10:00 PM and arrive mid-morning.

A few months ago I did exactly this, leaving Miami on a Wednesday night and arriving in Santiago, Chile, early the next morning. I caught a connecting flight to Punta Arenas around 11:00 AM and was in Patagonia by dinner time. I reversed it on the way back Sunday and arrived back in Miami on Monday morning. It was a long way to go for a short time, but can be done if you time it right.

2. Fly east to west when leaving.

Along the same lines, if you’re looking to change time zones you’ll get the best benefit by going east to west, since the hours you gain will be fun hours instead of work hours. This applies mostly to people in the Eastern or Central time zones going to the West Coast, but really can be applied anywhere. Leave your home city in the morning, and you’ll probably still arrive in the morning. Then you can get a full last day in your destination before returning home on a Sunday redeye.

My family lives on the West Coast so I find this one especially useful when going to visit them. Typically I’ll take a morning flight from Florida to California and get in just as my nieces are getting out of school, so I get lunch and a full afternoon with them. Then I’ll typically take a midnight Sunday flight home, giving me all of Sunday for barbecues, pool time, or whatever else it is people with kids do on a Sunday. Mondays are brutal, but it’s worth it for the extra time.

3. Help yourself sleep.

All of these time-zone hacks, however, are contingent on your ability to sleep on airplanes. Which is no small feat. That said, there are plenty of non-medicinal ways to make sure you’re at least minimally rested when you get to your destination.

First, wake up a couple of hours earlier than usual on your departure day, so you’re naturally sleepy when the flight rolls around. Second, choose a window seat so you can crash out on the bulkhead and not have beverage carts bumping you every time you doze off. Soothing music or white noise on your phone tends to drown out the crying babies and other noises of an airplane. And as silly as they look, sleep masks can make the difference between four hours and two hours of sleep on cross-country redeyes. Especially during the summer when the sun comes up early.

4. Go to hub cities.

If you live in a hub city already, you may take your abundance of nonstop flights for granted. However, if you don’t live near an airport with daily nonstops to 200 cities, you’ll make the most of your time by spending your long weekend somewhere that does. And the list isn’t all that bad. Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Phoenix are all hubs for major airlines. And, hey, if you’ve ever wanted to see what exactly there was to do in Charlotte, this is your perfect excuse.

Flying to hub cities also lets you take advantage of “hidden city” tickets. Because airline pricing makes about as much sense as a German art film, you’ll often find that buying a ticket from, say, LA to Cleveland with a stop in Houston is cheaper than just buying a ticket from LA to Houston. So if you buy the ticket all the way through to Cleveland, don’t check a bag, and have a separate return ticket, you can just leave the airport in Houston and save some serious money. It doesn’t work for round-trip tickets because missing your connection cancels your back half, and the airlines don’t like it. But there’s nothing illegal about it (though be warned, some airlines do try to crack down on it) so if you want to visit a hub city it’s a fantastic strategy.

5. Pick a hotel for proximity rather than luxury.

Unless riding the local metro is part of your ideal vacation’s “cultural immersion,” your best bet is to prioritize staying as close to your activities as possible. This could mean staying in a hostel near the city center, or selecting a smaller Airbnb in an older, more historic neighborhood versus a luxury condo in a newer part of town.

On a recent long weekend trip to Cartagena, I was staying at the Selina hotel in the Getsemani section of town, and needed to find an Airbnb for my friend to rent as my hotel was sold out. Though the gleaming towers of Boca Grande were tempting, they were also a 15-minute ride away. We instead opted for a tiny Airbnb nearby, giving us about an extra hour or so a day in gained travel time.

6. Unplug.

Once you’re on the ground, it’s important to make the most of the time you have. That means not laying in bed and scrolling through your phone for three hours because you’re sucked in by the social media tractor beam. It also means not letting the infamous email creep seep into your mind while you’re supposed to be traveling. Few things are worse than not leaving your hotel before noon because you felt the compulsion to check your email.

Typically, I put my phone on airplane mode when I get on a flight for vacation and leave it there. This not only saves money on data roaming, it also means you can’t bury your nose in your phone out of habit. When I am on Wi-Fi, I limit myself to one picture posted a day, and try to avoid emails completely if I’m not traveling for work.

7. Take a day trip.

Admittedly, sometimes you just flat out don’t have the time — or money — to get away for a long weekend. But there are likely places within an hour of wherever you live that can seem like a world away. Going to another part of your state early in the morning, spending the day there, and driving home at night can often feel like a complete vacation, even though you barely lost a day.

For example, in Florida one of my favorite things to do is drive out to the Everglades and take an airboat ride, maybe 75 minutes from Miami. From there I’ll pop into Everglades City which is a universe unto itself, and have a beer with the stone crab fisherman and former marijuana smugglers that make up the swampy outpost. Then I’ll continue half an hour to Naples and watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, then eat dinner there and be home by 11:00 PM. Granted, this is a uniquely Florida thing to do, but the concept of a staycation is possible pretty much anywhere.

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