“Wow, that sounds exhausting. I think I’d rather just spend more time at one place,” she replied after hearing my itinerary.
I responded with a knowing nod. I understood why she felt that way. For many people, a vacation is all about slowing down, about relaxing. It means sleeping in, having nowhere to be, and taking one’s time.
The concept of slow travel is generally revered among travelers. Countless books and blog posts extol the virtues of slowing down so as to “authentically” and intimately experience a specific place. And there’s a lot to be said for that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach; immersive travel is an amazing way to experience new places.
But it’s not always the best approach for everyone. In fact, the push for slow travel as the single “best” or “right” way to travel seems a bit disingenuous. Like most people, I don’t have gobs of time available to devote to a single destination. I simply have too many restraints on my travel opportunities—and faaaaar too many places I want to visit—for slow travel to be a viable strategy for each of my destinations.
In practice, many people don’t spend the extra time they might devote to a destination to truly getting to know that place, anyway. Instead, they might spend much of it cooking a more elaborate meal at the campground, drinking for hours by the campfire, or just reading a random novel in a hammock. Each of these can be a fun way to spend your weekend, but they’re often totally devoid of place. After all, you could be doing them just about anywhere, and they add nothing to further experiencing a specific locality. In effect, those travelers have traded time they could have spent seeing something they’ve traveled great distances to experience for the opportunity to cook bacon and eggs and lounge around camp in the morning.
To me, fast-paced travel is about seeing and experiencing more of the places you do visit, or visiting more places than you otherwise might. It’s about considering the opportunity costs at play and deciding in favor of seeing more of the unique places you can’t easily otherwise see, rather than spending that time doing something that’s routine or commonplace. It’s about maximizing your opportunities to experience places, not shortchanging them (as it’s often portrayed). What motivates me is that, by traveling fast and efficiently, I can sometimes even add bonus stops to my itinerary, or have extra time for spontaneous or unexpected activities.
“You can’t see Yellowstone in a day and a half,” she denounced. “Wouldn’t you rather just go when you could visit for a whole week instead?”
“No, you certainly can’t see it all. But you can sure see a lot of it, and that’s vastly better than seeing nothing,” I responded. That’s always been my philosophy, at least.
After all, waiting for the ideal trip is often a fool’s errand. You may never have such an opportunity. They say there’s no “right” time to have a baby. Similarly, there is unlikely to be a perfect time for a specific trip. Perpetually postponing travel for a mythical ideal opportunity in the future usually means that the trip in question simply never happens. Instead of focusing on what you can’t accomplish during a short visit, consider what experiences you can have. You’ll be surprised at the good time you can have just popping into a national park along your route for an hour or two. At the very least, it might be enjoyable enough to inspire you to prioritize a return visit.
So just go and see what you can, when you can, even if it’s not exactly the absolute perfect visit.
What I’m not arguing
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strategic when scheduling or planning trips. If you can legitimately postpone a visit until a substantially better time—one that’s actually likely to happen—then it probably makes sense to do so. I’d much rather visit Death Valley National Park for four days in February than for a single day in July—but only if that February trip was actually something that was likely to happen. After all, an abbreviated trip to the scorching hot park—even in the dead of summer—is better than never getting there at all.
Similarly, if I have three things I absolutely want to see in the Philippines and I’m unlikely to get back there anytime soon, then making sure that I schedule enough time to visit those three things during my trip is entirely appropriate.
I’m also not arguing that you should ensure that your trips feel overly rushed. That’s not the point, either. The goal here to increase your travel efficiency so that you can maximize the amount of time you spend seeing stuff you want to see—not simply so you can rush through every possible experience.
That said, I often do employ the 80/20 rule when it comes to my travel activities. That is, the things that bring me 80% of my joy during a trip tend to come from about 20% of the time I spend in various activities. As it becomes more obvious what activities that 20% includes, I strive to do those things more frequently. For instance, if I’m touring yet another historical house from the early 1900s, I might move more quickly through interpretative displays (of concepts I’m already familiar with) in order to spend more time learning about the specific historical figures that lived there. For me, the 80/20 rule helps ensure that I’m spending my time wisely.
Benefits of traveling fast
You get to see more places
This one is the most obvious benefit—and probably the most important one, too. It’s pretty simple, really. By not wasting time on inconsequential things, you get to spend more of your time visiting other places. I’ll gladly forgo a sit-down meal in favor of a quick sandwich if it means I can add a stop at that petroglyph panel that’s not far off our planned route.
You get to see more of each place
Traveling fast isn’t just about getting to stop at additional destinations. It’s also about making more time for the destinations you’re already at. But ensuring that you prioritize the time you spend actively experiencing places, you’ll naturally get to spend more more time enjoying each destination.
You’ll be better informed for future trips
Even if you don’t get to spend as much time as you’d like at a destination, a short visit can often help better inform a return trip. You’ll have a better sense of the place, usually have access to additional materials (like maps and brochures) and can often inquire for some recommendations. Quick drop-ins to help scout a destination can really help you plan a better, more complete return trip.
A few tips on how to travel faster
There are a variety of strategies for getting the most out of your trips. Here are some of the ones I most often employ; while many of these are roadtrip-centric, the underlying strategy can be applied to other types of trips, too. Pick and choose which ones might be the most effective for your own travel.
Prepare an itinerary
One of the best reasons to prepare a rough itinerary is so that you don’t waste time researching what to do after you’ve already arrived. Knowing what you’re interested in doing before you get there is a great way to save time. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be spontaneous. Indeed, having prepared a rough itinerary can actually aid in being flexible, as you already know what you’ll be giving up or how to reconfigure your trip to allow for this new activity. Best of all, you won’t end up standing in a visitor center negotiating with your travel partner what you should do first.
My trip itineraries often include what I like to think of as “bonus” items—destinations or activities that aren’t part of my planned itinerary but can be added (or substituted) when appropriate. That allows me to quickly add an additional stop if I’m running ahead of schedule, or to easily shift to a better activity if bad weather thwarts my original plans. Since I try to overestimate how much time I’ll need at various destinations, I often find myself adding several additional stops during road trips. It’s a great feeling to have extra time to add even more fun stuff than you had originally planned. Keeping track of these places using a custom google map makes the whole process even easier.
Keep things simple
Keeping it simple is often good advice no matter how you’re traveling. But it’s especially useful when you’re trying to reduce wasted time during a trip. You can apply this strategy in a variety of ways. For me, I tend to focus in on food and gear. That means choosing meals that are relatively easy to prepare and require fewer ingredients and cookware. That way, I’m not spending excessive time preparing complex recipes and washing countless dirty dishes.
For me, it also means only bringing gear that I’m actually likely to use, so I don’t have to spend extra time managing stuff I never end up using. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared for possible weather conditions, or that you can’t bring a luxury item that you might not get a chance to use but really want anyway. But if you’ve brought your GoPro on your last five trips and never gotten around to powering it up, maybe it’s time to leave it (and its countless accessories) at home.
Prep what you can before the trip
As much as possible, I try to prep food and other gear before I leave my house. For instance, I’ll often get future meals prepped ahead of time by chopping any vegetables I’ll need, measuring out ingredients, and putting everything together in a ziplock bag. That makes cooking both quick and easy while also limiting the number of dishes I have to clean, too. Similarly, packing your daypack ahead of time for that first hike will save you from pulling apart the car to assemble what you need when you get to the trailhead. Putting together activity-based kits, such as a grab-and-go bag of everything you need to shower at a campground, is also a simple way to prep for your trip. Best of all, once you get these things organized once, it’s easy to keep them ready-to-go for future adventures, too.
This item probably goes without saying. The more organized you are, the easier it is to travel quickly. For me, being organized is all about having systems that work for how I travel. It’s one of the reasons I love having a camping bin, why I try to pack my vehicle the same way each time, and why I create detailed trip docs with all of the relevant trip information listed on one master google doc. Each of these helps keep me organized, which means I waste less time managing my stuff or figuring out trip logistics while I’m on the trip. If you’re a bit deficient in this, check out the Skills category for more tips.
Consider the trade-offs
The most important tip in this post is to consider the trade-offs you unconsciously make during a trip, then to choose the option that lets you maximize the unique experiences you can have while traveling.
For instance, I recently had only 1.5 days available to spend in Yellowstone National Park during a road trip. Even though my buddy and I had brought plenty of food to cook and were trying to travel cheaply, we opted to eat dinner at the park. By doing so, we were able to spend three additional hours in the park instead of heading back to camp to cook when we got hungry. Having three more hours to visit the geyser basins was worth the extra $9 we spent on food that day. Similarly, instead of spending an hour cooking and eating breakfast and then cleaning up afterwards, we opted to grab a quick fast food breakfast sandwich on the drive instead. Sure, it was less enjoyable of a meal, but we were more than willing to trade that subpar breakfast for some extra time enjoying the geothermal wonders of a park we so rarely get to visit.
Now, the point here isn’t to inspire you to order more crappy fast food, but it’s to think about what trade-offs you’re making and what’s most important for you. In our estimation, eating a quick $5 burger and getting an extra hour in the national park easily outweighed enjoying the breakfast we would have cooked for ourselves. Your mileage may vary, of course, but consciously considering these trade-offs is the important thing.
Arrive late, leave early
I’m referring to your accommodations here, not your intended destination. Arriving too early at your campsite or to your hotel room means you’ve left some valuable time unused. Since I try to soak up every ounce of daylight seeing things that matter to me, campsites or hotels are mainly just places to sleep and shower before I’m off on the next day’s adventures. For instance, I couldn’t tell you the last time I turned on a hotel room television. Why would I? I arrive well after dark and head to bed quickly, then depart as soon as I’m ready in the morning. I can watch tv any time I want at home, but I can’t spend that time enjoying a distant national park.
Set up camp in the dark
I regularly hear people say that, above all, it’s important that they set up camp “before it gets dark.” I wholeheartedly disagree. Unless you’re searching for dispersed camping, setting up camp in the dark is no big deal. Indeed, in virtually every developed campground you’ll find, it’s a virtually identical endeavor as setting up in the daylight. The only difference is that you’ve traded precious daylight you could have used adventuring for time spent in what’s likely just a run-of-the-mill campground. Today’s tents are incredibly easy to set up; you’ll do just fine using a headlamp.
Skip time-fillers that you can do anywhere
While I’m traveling, I try to reduce the number of activities I could otherwise do anywhere else—like watch tv or read a book. If it’s not something that is adding a new experience—especially one that I can only have at my destination—then I do my best to skip it. Now, that’s not saying that you shouldn’t brush your teeth in the morning, or take a shower unless you’re doing it under a backcountry waterfall. But if the choice is between watching another Law & Order rerun in your hotel room versus staying out an extra hour to hear the Yellowstone wolves howl, well…I’d choose the latter.
Drive at night
I do my best to time the long drives between major destinations for after the sun has set. That way, I’m not wasting daylight in the car just staring down the highway when I could otherwise use it to enjoy a canyon vista or watch some elk graze in the meadow. There are sometimes additional considerations here, especially for areas with high deer populations or for those who struggle with night driving, but the general strategy here is to minimize the amount of useful sightseeing time you spend stuck in a moving car.
Make good use of time in the car
Most trips require substantial time in either the car or in a plane, train or bus. While it’s easy to see this solely as “lost” time, there are a variety of ways to help pass the time while improving your trip. You can do this by researching what activities to prioritize at the next stop, researching other nearby destinations you might want to add to your itinerary if time allows, creating shopping or other task lists for your next stop, deciding where you might want to eat dinner, or revising other trip logistics. It’s also a great time to complete any tasks that might otherwise subtract from your available time or attention at future destinations, whether that’s posting to social media, providing updates to family members, or catching up on critical work emails.
“This all sounds exhausting”
I know, I hear you. And truth be told, sometimes traveling fast is.
Sometimes that’s just the trade-off I’ll happily make to see and experience as much as I can during a trip—a trip that’s rarely as long as I’d like it to be. Traveling fast is all about maximizing the amount of time you have available for seeing new places (or returning to your old favorites) during the limited time most of us have available for travel.
I’m not here to convince you that this is the only way you should travel. It’s not even the only way I myself travel. I’m simply arguing that it’s a viable approach for many, and one that provides some great experiences that can’t easily be duplicated. Even if you’re still a bit skeptical about parts of this, I hope you can glean a few tidbits that will enhance your next trip.