Updated: Oct 17, 2021
Hello finally from my home in Florence! This is a great time to be in Tuscany as the savage heat of the summer has eased and now there’s a cool breeze wafting through my apartment. Gone are the "dog days of summer” -- so named not because dogs would suffer from the oppressive heat but due to the position of Sirius (called “the dog star” since it’s part of the constellation Canis Major, or Latin for “big/greater dog”).
The ancient Greeks had already noticed that the hottest part of summer was around the time when Sirius rose and set with the sun, then the Romans carried on the tradition and called this period the dies caniculares or “days of the dog star.” By the 1500s this was known in the English-speaking world as the “dog days.” So now you know!
I'm enjoying a brief rest at home before my next trip (Greece!) so thought I'd offer my top tips for a successful "stopover" after my fabulous side-trips to Lisbon and the Azores last month. Hope you find it helpful!
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The Value of a Layover
We normally look for the most direct flights when planning a big trip and nobody wants a long layover in some distant airport. But too short a layover is stressful and runs the risk of missed connections and even longer delays. One way to solve this problem is to turn your layover into a stopover, where you actually spend a few days visiting that stepping-stone destination. It's a great way to add more fun to your journey and also takes the stress out of a multi-leg trip. So here are my ten top tips:
1) View your Stopover as a Research Trip:
Don't feel you have to see and do everything. You're just there to get the "lay of the land" and determine whether you'd like to go back again, and think about how best to do it. Some cities are too busy and claustrophobic and maybe 2 days are enough, while others might entice you to go back and stay for a week.
You can only tell once you’re there in person and feel the vibe for yourself. I often transit through Bologna since it has low-cost flights or alternate connections I can't find here (and it's only 35 mins by train from Florence vs. 1.5 hrs to get to Rome). It's nice to add an overnight so you can explore this beautiful city.
2) Choose a Centrally Located Hotel for your Stopover:
It doesn't have to be the perfect hotel, but it should be convenient. If you choose something that's hard to access you'll lose a lot of time in transit. Maybe also choose something with a reception desk so you can get information upon arrival (and a paper map!). While you’re there you can scope out better hotel options for a potential return visit.
On my trip to Lisbon, for example, I stayed at a cute little hotel that had a nice rooftop deck, but it was located up a very steep hill and was a bit far from the center of town, so every excursion required a bit of walking. It would have been nice to just pop out my door and be closer to things.
3) Get both Paper and Digital Maps to Improve Navigation
We have the whole world in our phones now, but there’s still no substitute for a good ol' paper map. paper map. Here are a few reasons why I still love paper maps:
· It’s easier to get your bearings, to situate yourself with respect to other landmarks
· You can draw on it and mark your route
· You never have to worry about the map running out of batteries. 😉
(Seriously: how many times have you gotten confused on Google maps since you couldn't tell which way you were pointing?!)
That said, definitely get Google Maps on your phone. You can use it even if your data is turned off and it's a life-saver for navigating around a new destination. It can tell you how long it will take to walk somewhere, and it can even give you public transport options in real time. You just have to select "public transport" in the transportation options.
4) Use Public Transport to Curb Expenses
I usually have the rule "Taxi in, Bus out." I allow myself the cost of a taxi to get to my hotel from the airport to soften the fatigue of the journey, but then I try and save money by taking public transport when I go back to the airport. Sometimes the airport bus takes the same time as a taxi, or in Florence there’s now a tram that can be quicker than a cab if there’s a lot of traffic. And in Athens you're better on the metro if it's "rush hour."
5) Get a Case with a Lanyard or Strap for your Phone:
I use my phone A LOT when I'm traveling alone. I use it to take pictures, to navigate my way around, to look up opening hours and book restaurants, so it's great to have your phone within easy reach. It’s especially useful when transiting an airport as you can have your boarding pass (and now, Covid “green pass” and “passenger locator form”) handy. There are lots of brands that make these types of cases; I got mine from Bandolier.
6) Get an External Charger for your Phone:
Since I'm so reliant on my phone, I tend to run out of battery pretty quickly, and the last thing you want while you're traveling is to lose your map, your "camera," and your internet all at the same time! I ALWAYS travel with an external charger and also bring the wall-plug part with me too so I can "emergency charge" while having lunch or getting a drink somewhere. They make them in all shapes and sizes nowadays.
7) Don't be Afraid to Get Lost (in all senses)!
Remember, this is a reconnaissance mission so it's okay to wander and get off course (sometimes you find the best things that way!). You might lose time but that's okay. We can learn as much from our mistakes as from our successes; in other words, we also learn what NOT to do the next time we visit a place. It's also okay to feel a bit "emotionally" lost: where am I? What am I doing here?
For this brief moment you kind of disappear: nobody knows you, maybe you don't understand the language, maybe you feel like you're just floating through the experience, and that's okay. In a way that’s the whole point of traveling -- at least it is for me. Once I transited through Copenhagen and spent a surreal evening wandering around a city I knew nothing about... and it was great!
8) Check out the Local Scene:
Do a bit of research on the local cuisine and see if you can find a good place to try it, or try to find a bar where the locals hang out. Since I'm a vegetarian I don't always go to the most traditional restaurant (no steak or seafood for me!) but I will try and find a good vegetarian restaurant, something that uses local produce or has something special from the region. Try the regional wine, or grab a local brew (I did my part in Belgium, Cambodia, and Corsica). 😉
9) Make a New Friend:
This is obviously something you can't force into reality, but I find that I'm more open and talkative with strangers when I'm on a solo adventure. If you meet someone you like you can stay in touch via social media so you have a human connection to your newest destination. Here are some people I've met on my travels (from Crete, Turkey, and Jordan):
10) Stay Curious:
One of the greatest parts of travel for me is the amazing sense of discovery: I love trying new foods, walking down new streets, seeing new vistas and learning about new cultures, so when I have a few days in a new place I just want to open my eyes wide and get a sense of what's there. I had only four hours in transit in Brussels but spent most of them in the eye-popping Grand-Place (Grote Plaats or Grote Markt in Flemish) and wished I had had more time:
As I’m exploring a town I’ll also think about a possible return visit: where's the best place to stay? What time of year should I come? What things did I miss that I really want to see next time? Or, maybe is this a place I can check off my list and say "it was swell but I may not be back"?? In the case of Lisbon I've only just scratched the surface, and there's a ton more to see in the Azores, so I need to return to both (check out my blog posts on Lisbon and the Azores if you missed them).
Not everyone has the extra time (or money) for an extended stopover, but sometimes you find a cheaper flight by routing through another city, and it's an easy way to "piggy-back" one adventure on the back of another. Some ideas for stopovers could be:
* Barcelona or Madrid for anywhere in southern Europe
* Vienna for destinations in Croatia
* Rome as a stepping stone towards Athens or the Greek Islands
* Or of course any of the major hubs like Amsterdam, Paris or London en route to anywhere
* Frankfurt makes a nice stopover if you're there for the winter Christmas market:
I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on stopover travel, and do let me know if you have a tip I didn't think of (there are, of course, many obvious ones: pack light, use only carry-on luggage, etc.). If you'd like to help fund my continued research into foreign beers, drop a few coins into the tip jar (or just buy me a beer next time you see me 🙂). Click here to go to the "donate" page, or click on "tip your guide" at the top of the page.
Cheers, and see you next time!
(below is a much younger me enjoying a cold JulBrew, brewed with pride in The Gambia!)