Last year, hubby and I went on a 10-day trip to China. The itinerary included three days in Beijing, two days in Shanghai, two days in rural Guangxi, and three days between Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Too much for just 10 days? Well, it depends on whom you are asking. If you are looking to become a connoisseur of Zhejiang cuisine, hike half of the length of the Great Wall of China, or master the ancient art of Chi Kung, then a 10-day trip spanning four locations might not be right for you.
If you are anything like me, however, and you are interested in getting a taste for a destination by taking in the main sights, experiencing local cuisine and exploring some off-the-beaten-track locations… then read on. And remember… with the right preparation, any trip is possible.
As a self-confessed travel junkie, I often find myself fighting against my own tendency to pack a lot (some would say too much) into my trips. I jot down a list of places, study maps and flight timetables, only to conclude that I am in over my head. But this never lasts long, and my wanderlust has the better of me.
It then becomes an exciting challenge for me to organize a “difficult” trip, one that includes several destinations and requires a number of transfers in a relatively short period of time. But I find that the reward is always far greater than any effort. To stick to the China example… I had waited 30 years to visit the country, and I was not going to travel all the way to the Far East just to see a couple of cities.
So, if this sounds like you, here are 9 secrets to organize a full short trip.
1. Have a clear idea of what you want to see
I always find it useful to produce a list of sights and destinations that I intend to include in my itinerary. I normally start with the must-see places: for our China trip, these were Beijing and the Great Wall, Shanghai, Guilin and the surrounding area, Xi’an and Hong Kong. Sometimes I jot down a second list, with the nice-to-have places that I would gladly add to the itinerary – if possible.
2. Use reason
If after a preliminary exploration of your options, you realize that you are indeed packing in too much, be smart and scale back. In my case, I realized we wouldn’t have the time to do both Guilin and Xi’an and eventually decided that rural, mountainous landscapes trumped the Terracotta Army, at least this time.
You might want to see as much as you can, but it’s important to avoid having to catch a flight each and every day of your trip. Whenever possible, spend at least 48 hours in each of your locations, to enjoy them as much as possible and to ensure you don’t come back from your holiday more exhausted than when you left.
3. Research, research, and research some more
Once you have a solid list of destinations, plan your trip reading as much as you can about each of the places online. What is there to see in Beijing? What activities are not to be missed in Guangxi? What can you see in Hong Kong in two days? What section of the Great Wall of China do we want to visit?
This is not the kind of trip where improvising pays off. For our Chinese adventure, I researched for weeks, mulling over several options and trying to come up with the itinerary that made the most sense. Google Maps was constantly open in my browser, as was Skyscanner.
Get into as much detail as possible to try and avoid surprises. For example, I read a lot online to find out how long it would take to travel from our hotel in Beijing’s Dongcheng district to the Great Wall. We visited this incredible sight on our third day in Beijing, and had to catch a train to Shanghai at 4.30pm, so knowing the distance and duration of the trip would be critical to get back on time.
4. Pick your flights and transfers carefully
If possible, book your return flight from a destination different from your port of entry into your destination country, so that you can avoid wasting time getting back to base.
It’s also a good idea to try and book early morning or evening flights (or other transfers) to maximize your time in each of the places. For example, we arrived in Beijing from Europe early in the morning on day 1 and left at 11pm of day 10 on the Swissair flight from Hong Kong. Every transfer in between was early in the morning or later in the evening.
5. Carve out time to improvise
The fact that you are putting a huge effort into organizing doesn’t mean that every minute of your trip must be planned. Once you have seen the main sights (a must-see list is useful for each of the destinations you visit, too), you want to have time to just wander, sit at a café, lose yourself in a market or simply follow the recommendation of a local. These will be some of the most incredible moments of your trip.
6. Contact local tour operators
Arranging private tours with local operators is a great way to ensure that parts of your trip run smoothly. During our time in Yangshuo, Guangxi, for example, we had a wonderful guide and driver who showed us the region for the whole day, picking us up in Guilin and leaving us in Yangshuo at the end of the day.
More importantly, what may seem a crazy itinerary to a fellow traveller might end up being completely feasible when you are in the hands of a local professional. Case in point? Most visitors to Guangxi take a six-hour cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, which normally ends up taking most of their day. We wanted to visit the Longsheng rice terraces, which are located three-and-a-half hours north of Yangshuo. Visiting them on the same day as the Li River cruise seemed impossible, but after researching a bit I realized that the most spectacular part of the cruise is the final one, which lasts around 90 minutes. We then arranged for a tour operator to pick us up in Guilin in the morning, drive us to Longsheng and from there to Yangdi, where we got on a private bamboo raft down the Li River in a warm, golden afternoon light. We had the whole place to ourselves!
7. Risk it if you have to
Shit happens, but this shouldn’t prevent you from arranging the trip you want to have, no matter how ambitious it may seem. We had a three-hour traffic jam on our way to the Great Wall, and a seven-hour delay on our flight from Shanghai to Guilin (which put us in our hotel at 5.30am). Luckily, neither incident spoiled the experience – although they were rather nerve-racking at times. Take a risk with your trip… most times everything will be running smoothly. If it doesn’t… well, at least you tried.
8. Ignore naysayers
Internet forums are great. They burst with information and are a valuable tool for anyone who is organizing a trip. What I find annoying, however, is that – at least in my experience – many of the people who post on forums sound a bit snobbish when it comes to dispensing travel advice to ambitious travellers like me. Ask a question like, “Can I travel from Longsheng to Yangshuo in a day?” and you will be met by a deluge of useless answers saying how rushed you will be and how should plan to spend at least 8 days in Yangshuo to “really appreciate the place”. I normally just move on…
9. Accept you won’t become a local expert
Of course, two days are not enough to make you a city expert. You will not be able to unveil a city’s many secrets and explore its many facets, but you will be able to get a sense for it. As in everything else, there is a trade-off when it comes to short trips: if you want to know a place in depth, you will have to shorten your itinerary considerably; if you want to see more places, you’ll have to give up some of the time in each of them. No approach is better than the other. They are just different. I personally like to visit different places, while trying to make the most of them by getting as much local knowledge as I can. If I fall in love with a place, as I often do, I can always go back – which I will at some point.
So, there you have it! With a little preparation and clear expectations from the outset, arranging an action-filled, packed itinerary that makes sense is not always possible… it is also fun!