How fast can you do Rome? There are the must-sees: the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Sistine Chapel. It would be nice to catch the Mouth of Truth, though you can skip the tradition of sticking your hand in its maw. Trajan’s Column? It’s on the way to St. Peter’s, so you can snap some shots from the Uber.
It might happen after the third or the fifth or the seventh tourist-packed photo opportunity, but you’ll eventually realize you’re exhausted and can’t remember what you saw that morning.
How much can you possibly absorb if you’re trying to see it all?
“We’re always trying to talk our guests into slowing down,” says Gwen Nicol, a travel consultant at the Scott Dunn travel agency. “They’re always trying to see everything and do everything.”
The dawn of a new decade is bringing with it an emphasis on slowing down. Rushing along at Guinness World Record speeds is out. In its place: a more relaxed style of travel, with time to breathe. In the same way that yoga and meditation have become emblems of a calmer everyday life, travel experts are advising globe-trotters to proceed with intention.
The benefits of slower travel are manifold. You soak in a destination and appreciate its unique qualities. A leisurely pace maximizes the experience, whether it’s taking in natural scenery, vibrant local culture or the simple spirit of a place. And travelers who go more deliberately are less likely to burn themselves out.
But taking it slow means you can’t do everything. You have to focus on what you really want to experience — and do a little planning.
First, find out when tourist season is. Some locales are quiet year-round, but others change drastically when travelers flood in. “Iconic destinations are almost always going to be swarmed,” explains Brian Fitzgerald, chief operating officer at Overseas Adventure Travel. “You really have to target off-seasons to avoid overtourism. It might not be ideal weather, but it’ll be a quarter of the crowd.”
Next, take stock of that year’s popular destinations and be open to alternatives. Croatia is having its moment right now, Nicol says, and is packed in July and August. If you’re set on a late-summer trip, consider neighboring Slovenia, which offers a similar experience with fewer visitors.
Once you know when and where you’ll travel, Fitzgerald suggests zeroing in on what you really want to see. “Highlight what it is that drew you to that destination,” he says.
Jessica Silber, director of global sales at the GeoEx travel agency, recalls one traveler who wanted to see the African wild dog, a deeply endangered and famously mercurial animal. “It’s a real thrill to see them,” she explains, but “you do need a little time and a little luck.”
When seeking such a must-have experience, build extra time into your trip — perhaps three or four nights instead of two — to maximize your chances of success. (The traveler managed to see the wild dogs.) That extra time can help you unpack and decompress.
“I’m thinking back to a scouting trip I took in India,” Silber remembers. “In the morning, we took this incredible boat ride on the Ganges at sunrise in the city of Varanasi. That night, we did a walk that went from about 8 p.m. to almost midnight, and saw the city just bustling and alive.” The empty afternoon was critical to ensuring she enjoyed both events. “I would never have made it through the day if we hadn’t buffered in some time.”
Another guideline: Don’t overbook. Devote enough time to do what you want, and make sure you’re giving every experience the time it needs.
“We all have this mindset that ‘we should be able to do it in seven nights.’ Well, not really,” Nicol observes. “In a seven-night trip, I would recommend going to only two places, and two places close together. Any more than that and it starts to feel like a tourist hamster wheel.”
She adds, “It’s kind of like the advice we used to get about packing: Put everything in, then take half out. It’s the same way with travel.”
Fitzgerald says his agency typically plans trips of 10 to 14 days. “Pacing is something that we look at very closely,” he says. “How we construct our trips is based on excellence, but also on pacing. We want people to really immerse themselves in their destination.”
And when you’re at that destination, there’s a surefire way to make the best of the trip. Talk to the locals, who invariably know the area better than anyone else. It’s easy to meet residents, Fitzgerald says: “Grab a coffee, go to a bar. Walk in somewhere public, strike up a conversation. You’ll find more authentic experiences that way.”
Nicol adds that professional guides are often full of good tips. “If you have a guided experience on Monday, talk to them about what to do on Tuesday,” she suggests. “Find out their favorite locations, find out what they like to do.” And if all else fails? Get off the beaten path and see your destination in a new way. “Take a bike. Walk. Take a kayak. A different mode of transport will give you a different perspective.”
The above article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine. Photo: People hike in Norway. Courtesy of Scott Dunn.