How long to stay in each city? Itinerary tips and tricks
Whether you are the type who loves pre-trip research, or the type who prefers to just wing it upon arrival, the issue of how long to stay in each place is a major one. We all want to maximize our time in the better places when on multi-stop trips, but figuring out which those are isn't quite so obvious on your first visit to any part of the world.
Some of the best and most famous tourist cities on the planet are actually best visited in one well-planned day, while many others require 3 or 4 days to even feel like you are scratching the surface. Having been around the world a couple of times while studying these places as I go, I've sorted out some “best practices” on itinerary planning.
And lately I've been answering dozens of questions for readers in both the Europe itinerary planning and Eurorail Pass articles, so hopefully this will be of use for those going through the process soon.
How to figure out how long to stay in each city
If you are forming an itinerary for a multi-stop trip, the tips below should help you confidently make a plan you'll enjoy.
Move as slowly as you can allow yourself to
For the longest time I was tired of hearing seasoned travelers preach about slow travel and its virtues. I even wrote a response about the benefits of fast travel, which I still stand by. But while helping people sort through their proposed itineraries lately I can't deny that the most common mistake continues to be trying to see too much in too little time.
Many of the specific reasons are outlined below, but to sum it up, you'll have a better time if you remember that it's supposed to be a vacation and not a race. If you try to visit a major city in only a day or two you'll mainly be left with the knowledge that you ended up skipping a long list of worthwhile things. Most likely you'll have future trips to see the next set of cities, so it's unwise to plan as if this is your only chance.
For major cities, 3 nights is a minimum, and 4 or 5 is better
So with the above in mind, you should already be crossing stops off of your itinerary, but when you get down to adding up days the first rule is to allow at least 3 nights in major cities, and especially the spread-out ones. In Europe, the major cities include London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona, and Istanbul.
Most other cities deserve a minimum of 2 nights (although 3 is often better). As we'll discuss below, your travel days will almost never be fruitful sightseeing days, and traveling every other day gets tiring in general.
For compact cities, 2 nights can be long enough
Again, discussing the minimum duration to make a visit even worthwhile, quite a few of the world's best tourist cities have one central core that can be walked across in an hour or less. In these cases, you can actually see a lot in just two days, especially if you choose a central hotel or hostel as well.
European examples of this include Dublin, Edinburgh, Cologne, Munich, Nice, Copenhagen, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, Naples, and most cities in France and Spain except for the largest ones. There are dozens if not hundreds more just within Europe, and you can often tell which they are when you look at a map of hotels or hostels and discover that most of them are clustered within a couple square miles or so in the center.
A few famous cities can be done in 1 night, but only if you plan well
Another popular rule of itineraries is that you should never travel on consecutive days, meaning trying to see a city in one day or less. While this is a good rule, there are a few interesting exceptions to it, but only if you've planned it in advance. My favorite example of this is Venice, but it also works for Rothenburg, Germany, or any of the other compact medieval cities.
Cities like these tend to be insanely crowded from about 10am until 6pm because they are filled with day-trippers on bus tours. Some of them, most notably Venice, are also very expensive, so most budget tourists stay outside of the city if they stay in the area at all.
So the one-night strategy is this:
Arrive early, hopefully by noon, and check into a hotel or hostel in as central a location as you can afford. Then see the sights for a few hours until you tire of the extreme crowds, and go back to your place for a rest. About 6pm, head out again to discover you will soon have the city almost to yourself, and walk around enjoying the scenery before dinner and maybe a couple drinks into the late evening.
The following morning, wake up early and see whatever leftover checklist sights you missed the first day, and come back to check out of your hotel when it gets too crowded again. By noon or so, you are off to the next place, where you can catch your breath and slow down again.
Day trips to small and/or expensive places are good strategy
Continuing to focus on Europe because it's both popular and compact, there are many interesting and worthwhile towns that are 90 minutes or less by train or bus from larger cities. Depending on the specifics, it's usually better to stay in the larger city and see the others as day trips rather than spending a night or two there. It's wise to take train or bus fares into account, and if a round-trip seems to expensive and you are moving in that direction anyway then it might be better to change cities.
Famous examples of this are seeing Monaco and Cannes (both expensive) while staying in relatively inexpensive Nice on France's southern coast. You can visit Pisa (which is only worth a couple hours) while staying in Florence, and you can visit many interesting places while staying in Paris. The point is, when places look close together on a map, investigate the day-trip strategy.
Mix shorter stays with longer ones every week
As long as your whole trip is at least two weeks (and I hope it is), you'll also want to take general pacing into account. If you line up a bunch of cities that look like they can be visited in one or two days each, it's still not wise to move so quickly. A general rule could be to limit your travel days to no more than 3 per week, or 5 in two weeks.
One time I had a Eurail Pass and I did 11 cities in 17 days (including stopping in Munich for 6 hours during Oktoberfest on my way to Innsbruck), and it was ridiculous. As relaxing as trains can be while they are moving, being on them several times per week gets exhausting, and flying is even worse.
Research flight or train durations before adding too much
Another of the more common mistakes people make in Europe in particular is not realizing how long it can take between some cities. While most of the major cities are 5 or fewer hours apart by train, there are many that take 12 or more hours and might require a change along the way. A night train could be a good strategy for those, or flying, of course, but however you do it you'll need to factor that into your trip.
So whether it's a 12-hour train ride or even a 1-hour flight where you have to get to the airport two hours early and then take another 2 hours getting into town after you land, days like these can be pretty much written off for sightseeing. By the time you arrive you'll be disoriented and exhausted, so having dinner near your hotel or hostel might be all you'll be capable of. The point is, on flight or long train ride days, add another night in order to see the new city properly.
If money is an issue, check our price indexes and plan accordingly
It seems like most of us are trying to keep expenses low while we travel, and this is one major reason I created Price of Travel in the first place. Not only should it be helpful to know about how much each city costs (at least relative to the others), but it should help you sort out an itinerary where you maximize time in the cheap-great cities while hustling through the expensive-great cities.
Hopefully you are already aware of the Backpacker Index, which calculates typical expenses for budget travelers and backpackers. The Europe Backpacker Index ranks 47 cities by price, with the cheapest only costing a quarter as much as the most expensive. There is also the Europe 3-star traveler Index, which does the same thing for mid-range travelers. The Asia Backpacker Index ranks the most popular destinations on that continent, which are also the cheapest in the world.
Don't plan itinerary stops just because you've heard of a place
Another mistake that seems common is that people plan stops in cities just because they've heard of them or maybe they are the next major city on the map. Now, a travel purist might argue that every city has its own charms to be discovered, which is true (sort of), but remember our goal here is to maximize time in the great places and minimize time in the duds.
You might even ask yourself, with each city on my list, can I form at least a sentence or two on exactly why I am going there? Do you know of specific attractions you don't want to miss, or is there a certain local food you've been intending on trying? If you can't come up with something concrete about each place, it's time to research and consider cutting it. Good examples of cities like this are Frankfurt, Brussels, Rotterdam, Dresden, Bratislava, Belgrade, Zagreb, and even Milan. I've stayed in all of those, but I wouldn't recommend any of them for a first visit to Europe unless you have particular reasons.
If you plan to move quickly, better to wing it than lock it all in
So, you are still planning on visiting 10 cities in 21 days. You might actually pull it off exactly as planned and you might love it, but I'd be willing to bet that along the way you'll realize you are spending too much time moving and too little time appreciating what you've come to see.
The best favor you can do for yourself if you want to try something like this is to lock in the first 2 or even 3 destinations with hotel reservations and transportation, and then evaluate the rest of it as you go. In other words, please don't buy airline or train tickets all in advance for such a wild itinerary. If by Day 11 you're really enjoying your 3rd or 4th city, you don't want to have to keep racing to the next ones just because it seemed like a good idea when you were at home a few months before.