Short Jaunts, Lasting Memories

Web sites make planning a snap

Feeling frazzled, overworked, or uninspired? Sick of cell phones, rush hour, and power breakfasts? You need a vacation, though you may not think you've got the time. Our advice: Get the heck out of Dodge already--out of town, out of the state, even out of the country--for just a few days.

Sometimes, there's nothing better than a short jaunt to satisfy an itch for sun, culture, or fun. You can preserve your sanity without breaking the bank or wreaking havoc on your work schedule. Skip the heavy planning and advance notice and take a mini-vacation. You won't be alone. Vacations of just one- or two-night stays have increased 13% in the past five years, according to the Travel Industry Assn.

Who can stay away for weeks at a time? Sure, you can always take a laptop along to stay in touch--but then you're not really on vacation, are you? Take a few days, and you may be able to get away with not calling in at all. Choosing a short trip eliminates the nightmare of coordinating weeks away for couples who both work demanding jobs or families juggling school, rehearsals, and practices. A few long weekends several times a year can add a little fun and variety to your life without turning it upside down.

BUSINESS ADD-ON. One way to accomplish this is to tack vacation days onto a business trip. Most likely, your company has already paid for your airfare or car rental, so splurge on posh accommodations or a deluxe restaurant. And short stays mean less luggage--just a carry-on bag, in many instances, which saves time normally lost at the baggage claim.

In fact, this may be the best time ever to take off for a few days. Peak season for most destinations ends on Labor Day. In autumn, fares and lodging are often cheaper, and crowds are thinner. Travel Web sites make booking and planning easier for you while allowing airlines to unload empty seats at lowered fares. A recent proliferation of sites that specialize in last minute, short-term travel will practically do the work for you.

Many of these sites will e-mail you news of last-minute deals from your city to places you may never even have thought of visiting. If you're heading out of New York, for example, and looking for something spontaneous, will send you to Carlsbad, Calif., to fly in a 1920s open-cockpit biplane, put you up in a hotel with a private golf course, and recommend a Mexican restaurant in San Diego's gas-lamp quarter. Sick of San Francisco? Fly to Washington State's Whidbey Island for the weekend. There, according to, you can stay in a seaside inn and sail on the innkeeper's 52-foot boat for about $500 per couple.

Or you can create your own short jaunt. Take a pilgrimage to indulge in a guilty pleasure (such as a Memphis barbeque tasting, page 128), or explore somewhere you've seen only on TV or in the movies (such as Brooklyn, page 132). If you're taking the kids, consider the Big Easy: New Orleans offers much to fascinate the younger set.

If jet lag hits you hard, you may want to stick with your own time zone. But if your internal time clock can handle a little confusion, now's the time to head across the Atlantic for a three- or four- day stay. Airfares to Europe now rival domestic fares, especially from the eastern U.S. Need something a little more wild, such as unspoiled nature? Go hiking through Iceland's volcanoes and lava fields. (Icelandair is offering round-trip fares this September to Reykjavik starting at $448, and runs a package hiking tour.) Architecture buff? Visit architect Frank Gehry's acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and then explore old castles in the surrounding Basque countryside. (Spanair is offering a "Take a friend for 50% off" special from Washington, D.C., until Dec. 10).

GO WITH THE FLOW. One key to a successful short vacation is flexibility. Don't try to cram a week's worth of sightseeing into just two days--you'll be even more tired when you get back to work than when you left. The best way to enjoy a short trip is to just let things happen.

That's what I did last winter when a friend and I booked $300 flights to Madrid for President's Day weekend. The six-hour overnight flight would leave us moderately rested by our 7 a.m. landing, we reasoned--until we boarded and found that we were surrounded by 40 keyed-up high school boys who were on their first trip to Europe.

We stumbled off the plane, caught a cab to Puerto del Sol, the square in the center of town, and suddenly found ourselves magically rejuvenated. The nearby pensions that our guidebook had recommended were all booked, so we wandered up the crooked cobblestone streets until we found an inexpensive room, about $30 a night, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked onto a busy square. We spent the morning roaming the city, stopping at the Plaza Mayor, the Palacio Real, and the Almudena Cathedral, then enjoyed a hearty lunch of cocido, a meat-and-chick-pea stew, along with rioja wine. Suddenly sleepy, we headed back to our hotel for a nap--and were awakened refreshed by the bustle outside our window when the Madrilenos finished their afternoon siesta. Serendipitously, we had aligned ourselves with the city's rhythms.

That trip was such a success that two months later I sprang for a cheap round-trip ticket to Lisbon, where I spent my three days walking up and down the city's seven hills, admiring tiled homes, tasting port in the mountain town of Sintra, and listening to melancholy fados in the dark bars of the Barrio Alto district.

So what are you waiting for? Hit the Internet, pick a destination, grab a bag with a change of clothes--and go.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.