Stopovers are getting easier than ever to add to your travel plans. But how can you only see a place if you’ve only got one day in it? Here are some tips on how to plan a stopover trip so you can see more of the world without the stress of running out of time.
It can be extremely easy to add a short stopover in another country on the way to your final destination. There are several ways to do this: you can use a third-party flight search engine to find different options with multiple stops, you can use the airline’s own website to search for multi-stop flights, or you can talk to your travel agent, who will likely know the best way to accommodate an extra destination into your plans. But how do you plan a stopover once you’ve booked it?
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing 24-hour city breaks on many occasions, mostly when I was an international flight attendant, but also on personal trips. While it was great to be able to see places I had only dreamed about, it was also a challenge to fit everything into such a short amount of time, but eventually I figured out a good system. Here are some of the stopover planning tips I’ve learned over the years.
Decide what you want to see
This is what I call the “dreaming” stage. I like to research a place online and save all useful info to a private Pinterest board. While Pinterest works for me, there are many other ways to do this, like writing down info in a notebook or bookmarking pages on your web browser. Think about any attractions you want to see, places you’d like to eat & drink, hotel ideas, general tips about the country and anything else that might be useful for your trip. Then decide which things are most important and make a list.
Map everything out
Take everything on your list and mark it down on a map. A great way to do this is with the Google Maps app or ‘My Maps’ on desktop, which also allows you to use customizable pins and categories. I also recommend marking the location of the airport and any metro stations in the areas you plan to be.
Once this is done, you’ll be able to see how close everything is from each other and it will help you decide how to make the most of your time. Having an idea of the distance and travel time between attractions is an important step in planning a stopover.
Create an itinerary
Make a schedule. Factor in transportation timings, possible waiting times for attractions, opening hours, hotel check-in/check-out times and your flight arrival & departure times. It might seem like this takes the excitement out of traveling, but it can make short trips even more enjoyable since you’ll have a better idea of the time frame you have to work with, especially if you want to make any changes to your trip later. You can even make several different itineraries in case plans change. Remember to keep things as flexible as possible because you might want to change things up once you arrive.
If you can, try to pack everything you need into a carry-on. If you can’t, then at least try to pack everything you need for your stopover into your carry-on. This will save you time digging through large suitcases for the things you need. Also, in the rare but unfortunate event that your checked luggage doesn’t make it to the same city as you, you’ll at least have everything you need with you anyway.
Try to pack items that have multiple functions, for example a scarf can be used for religious sites, as a beach cover up, and to keep you warm in a chilly environment. A maxi dress can be tied casually at the bottom to keep you cool during a hot beach day, and later paired with a sweater or blazer for a dinner in the city. I also recommend checking out the Travel Fashion Girl website – she gives you tons of advice on what to pack for many different destinations, as well as tips for minimalist packing.
Consider taking a tour
Some companies offer full- or half-day tours around a city or region. These are a great way to see a place in a social setting, and can often save you the cost and trouble of organizing your own transportation. Many cities also offer hop-on, hop-off bus tours, which stop at all the popular landmarks & attractions and can be a great way to see an entire city in a short amount of time.
If you’re into something a little different, see if the place you’re traveling offers any unique walking tours. Depending on the city, you might find tours specializing in food, history, art or culture.
You might also want to look at hiring a driver for the day, which can especially be affordable if you’re traveling through certain countries in Asia or Africa. Be careful with private drivers, as well as group tours – most companies are great, but there are many scams out there so make sure you read reviews of the company before you book.
Don’t try to do too much
You may be tempted to put everything you want to do into your itinerary when you’re planning a stopover, but you might not be able to do it all. And that’s okay. It took me 4 trips to Beijing to finally get to the Great Wall of China and I went to London 9 times before I was able to catch a West End show. I still have an entire bucket list of activities and experiences for places I hope to someday return to. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Leaving something for a future visit will give you a great reason to go back.
You also want to respect your physical limitations. Traveling can be exhausting and pushing yourself when you’re already overtired can have a negative impact on your enjoyment of the experience and your health.
Prepare as much as you can before you leave
Convert some money to the local currency before your trip. Download offline maps so you don’t need to rely on wifi. Charge all electronics. Pre-purchase tickets online for the attractions you want to see. Learn a few phrases in the local language. If you’re taking public transportation from the airport, make sure you have a general idea where to go and how to buy tickets.
There is a vast amount of information on the internet – take advantage of it while you can because you may not be able to connect when you land in a foreign country, and every hour counts when you have a short time to explore.
Don’t forget to have fun!
This is the most important thing of all. Don’t get so stressed about trying to do everything that you miss the beauty of the experience. As mentioned above, you may not get to do some things you want, so try to be okay with that.
On my first trip to St Petersburg I wanted to visit the Winter Palace, and even bought my ticket in advance, but by the time I got into the city I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to do it so I walked around for a couple of hours instead. I tried the local food, chatted with a friendly Russian couple, and got wonderfully lost gazing at the beautiful buildings and canals of the city. I’ve been back to St Petersburg a few times since then but my favourite memories are of that first trip – even though I didn’t actually see what I had originally wanted to see, I experienced so much more.
Think of your stopover as a way to get a taste of a new destination. If you really love it, or can’t do everything you want to do there, it will at least give you a great reason go back!
Ready for your trip?
I’ve created a printable travel planner that can help make planning stopovers a breeze. This 7-page PDF features spots to fill in hotel and flight details, emergency info, must-do activities and more. It is available as an instant digital download in the Onwards + Upwards shop.
Whether you’re in a new place for a day or a week, it’s important to prioritize your health and safety. I’ve written a post on how to avoid food poisoning when you travel, with useful tips on what red flags to look out for and advice on what to do if you get sick abroad.
You can also check out my big list of the best free travel apps, which can help you plan every aspect of your trip. This useful post also includes some basic information on travel SIM cards and VPNs.