The best travel advice for independent travelers

Over the years, we’ve gotten on a tour bus once or twice. We took a coach from Queenstown to Milford Sound, hoping to take a helicopter back. But the weather didn’t cooperate. And we did a shore excursion — our first and last — to Ephesus years ago.

Not a lot of time on organized tours, but enough to convince us that we’d be miserable on a coach tour for any length of time. So we almost always travel independently. To get where we’re going, we’ll either take a train, rent a car, or hop on a boat. We make virtually all the arrangements ourselves. And we spend tons of time at travel sites doing research before we go.

But no matter how much you plan or how many arrangements you make in advance, independent travel is harder than just getting on a bus. You usually end up carrying your bag yourself – which isn’t that fun when you’re running for a train. Driving abroad can be pretty stressful. And you have no advocate when things don’t go exactly as planned.

We’ve learned from our experiences. So we don’t make the same mistakes we once did. And the biggest one – the absolute worst thing you can do when planning a trip for yourself – is to bite off more than you can chew.

Our first trip to Europe was a long time ago. And like everyone else back then, we bought “Europe through the Backdoor” by Rick Steves and started making plans. And what plans they were – eight cities in 18 days. We flew into Amsterdam, caught a train the next morning for Heidelberg, went to Paris, then took an overnight train to Rome.

By the time we got there, six days later, we were absolutely exhausted. Our immune systems said “enough,” and we caught colds. Our three days in Rome were spent in bed. And there was still Florence, Venice, Lucerne, Brussels, and Amsterdam to go.

We spent most of our time packing and unpacking, getting to train stations, and riding trains. Fortunately, we ignored Rick’s travel advice and reserved our hotels in advance. Otherwise, we’d have spent our remaining time in Europe looking for places to stay.

We’ve taken dozens of trips since then, and each one has gotten more leisurely. Where two-night stays used to be the norm, we now try to stay at least three nights wherever we go. And very rarely do we schedule a one-night stand.

The other thing we’ve done is shorten the distance between destinations. On our recent trip to the South of France, we stayed in Arles, Avignon, and Aix – cities which are less than a couple of hours from each other, but all distinctly different. We really enjoyed not having to get up at the crack of dawn on travel days, having a long, leisurely lunch in one of the towns en route, and still arriving in the next city in time for a glass of wine on the plaza.

There’s plenty of travel advice and trip planning tips on this site. But if you only take away one thing, make it this – the more places you try to see, the less you’ll enjoy your vacation.

Pick a compact area that interests you. Spend several nights in each place. And let yourself sleep in, putter in antique shops, and linger over meals.

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