Skip to main content

When you travel, your time in these novel locations is limited, and it’s natural to want to maximize that time. But overscheduling can make a vacation abroad feel like a particularly bad work week: you’re so worried about getting through all the things you “have to do” that you can’t enjoy the here and now. There’s nothing worse than scurrying past charming street markets and grand old churches because they’re not on your to-do list. And often unplanned contingencies—weather, metro delays, getting lost—will complicate your plans anyway. You’ll save yourself much heartache if you can view these situations as opportunities rather than impediments.

On a recent trip to France, my friend and I were strolling the streets of Paris, angling at a particular church we’d wanted to see (now I don’t even remember which one!), when we got caught in an absolute downpour for which we were utterly unprepared. We dashed down several blocks and into the first cafe we spotted. It wasn’t in an area of the city we’d wanted to spend time in, it felt a bit touristy, and it was on the corner of a fairly busy intersection—not the ambiance we’d hoped for. But there we sat for the next four hours, consuming a bottle of wine, eating our way through a pile of cheese, making friends with our waiter, journaling, chatting about art, and generally having a wonderful evening. Did we get where we were going? No. But what we ended up experiencing was unplannably wonderful, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Of course, some kind of plan is essential—otherwise, you’ll wander around aimlessly finding yourself in ugly parts of town, eating terrible fast food, and essentially missing this place you’ve flown so far to see. So here’s a list of tips for how to prep for your trip, aimed at finding a happy medium between rigid structure and shapeless spontaneity:

01. Have a three- to five-item list of must-sees/must-dos per city.

More than that will overwhelm you and ruin the pleasure of just walking through a city. It’s good to have lots of other secondary interests—things you’d be happy to see or do, but don’t have to. That way you can see them if and when you have time, but won’t feel like you’ve failed if you miss them. (Note: the three to five range will obviously vary based on how long you’re spending in a city. If you’re in Paris for a solid week, you can probably up that number. But in my experience three to five is a good number if you’re somewhere for only a couple of days.)

02. In light of that, it’s helpful to “favorite” things on Google Maps.

Seeing where things are in relation to each other can help you prioritize your activities and plan your days with the perfect combination of efficiency and enjoyment. (Side note: I recently learned that you can download a portion of Google Maps that remains active and searchable even when you don’t have Internet or cell service. This was a lifesaver on my most recent trip: not only could we easily navigate the city, but we could also track down the various things we’d favorited back in the States because all that info also stays available.)

3. Spend at least a day orienting yourself by walking.

Many cities have wonderful skylines and streets and street styles that you’ll miss if you efficiently metro right away. After you’ve really met the city by walking, you can “maximize” time by metroing, Ubering, biking, and the like. We did this in Paris on my most recent trip; after spending the first two days walking the city, we felt comfortable using the metro to hit the last few must-sees on our list.

4. Plan ahead to make sure you can see the must-sees.

I don’t know if there are any really universal “must-sees,” but it’s nice to know the major attractions a city has to offer. If you’re traveling with a buddy, it can be nice to take turns doing this research (I’ll do Granada, you do Seville) and making any necessary reservations, and then together you can build the rest of your time around those planned elements. This is a good way to make sure you don’t leave Granada without seeing the Alhambra, for example, but still leave yourself time to wander the streets of the Albaicín quarter.

5. Pencil in a day or a morning that’s activity-free.

You’ll likely find yourself wanting to return to places you’ve already seen in the city—whether it’s revisiting that courtyard you liked so much, hitting up last night’s cafe for this morning’s breakfast, or taking a second trip to see that painting, give yourself time to revisit the things you found yourself loving. And if you don’t have any re-sees, use that free day to do more wandering or to check things off your secondary list.

Happy spontaneous but structured travels to you!