Category Archives: Backpacker Q&A

How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.

“You Went Alone?” “Yes.” “REALLY?!” “Yes!”

Part 1 of a series of uncommon answers to common backpacker/ round the world questions

Solo traveler in Mostar, Bosnia- get used to asking someone to take the picture for you!

If I’m going to start going through all the questions people ask me about my travels, this is far and away the most common thing people are amazed by.  Lots of people travel solo long term and lots of travelers are women, but putting the two together?  It’s just not done by many, which is interesting because more women travel than men in the first place (just usually with a girlfriend, spouse, etc) and plenty travel alone for shorter stints.

Now to be fair I did meet a fair share of friends and family along the way, and wasn’t doing the rest of my time solo because of a huge urge to be antisocial or anything.  I did in fact invite more than a few people to come a-traveling but no one took me up on the offer for a myriad of reasons.  But what was I supposed to do, not go because no one else could come?  That would have made an awesome story for the grandkids someday!

The reason so few women travel solo is because it’s not considered safe- sounds obvious, but when I did a survey of my male counterparts they all pretty much agreed their questions focus more on the “don’t you get lonely?” angle than the safety one.  Which is a rather odd perception when you start to think about it- if you think it’s perfectly fine for me to live and wander alone in Cleveland like I do now then what’s the issue with the rest of the world?  An American city is far more dangerous than most places a traveler will ever go in the rest of the world, and I’m not in the habit of wandering down dark strange alleys at 2am.  Theft, by far the most common crime travelers experience, usually stems from a moment of opportunity that has next to nothing to do with gender- in fact the one time someone stole some money from me I was in a group of women, and someone from the group stole it!

Harassment is another thing people often worry about, particularly in some countries, though honestly most was from touts who just harass everybody anyway.  Unsavory comments can always be minimized by learning how the local girls dress and following through, but honestly the few I got anyway were so uneventful I’m having trouble remembering them.  In short, nothing I didn’t get used to being the only girl in my physics classes!  I never even had to make up a story about a fake boyfriend and I think the “fake wedding band” advice is a legend akin to that of Americans sewing Canadian flags on their backpacks as I never met anyone who did this (ie pretty darn rare).

Friends made in Queenstown, New Zealand on my first solo trip!

So if you’re a lady looking for an adventure and can round up your friends that’s cool, have a good time and send me a postcard!, but if not that shouldn’t mean the end of the journey.  The world isn’t half as scary as we make it out to be and you’ll meet a lot of awesome people you never would have otherwise, and your future grandkids will be glad they’re not subject to yarns that start out “and then a new Netflix DVD came in the mail…”