How to Plan THE PERFECT Day-Trip

Need help planning the perfect day-trip? Follow this simple guide to make sure you’re making the most of an abbreviated trip.

So… you only have 1 day in a city? Maybe it’s a long layover or maybe you just want to experience a city but save cash on lodging. Whatever the case may be, day-trips are a great way to abbreviate a visit but still enjoy a destination. In my opinion, day-trips require just as much planning as an extended stay to ensure time is maximized.

Let’s be real, not all day-trips are created equally. Some can be fairly inexpensive, others (such as NYC or San Fran) might hit your pocket a bit harder. Some cities are smaller and easier to navigate, while others are large and confusing. These are all things you’ll take into account when you choose a city and set a budget (if you even have one). But here’s the general blueprint I like to use to keep me from being reckless with my coins:

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Step 1: Plan Mode of Arrival/Departure

Pick one!

Car: I usually avoid this, but a trip is a lot more laid back when you control your arrival/departure time. If you don’t mind looking/paying for parking, then renting or driving your personal car is good bet.

Train: Trains are a practical mode of transit depending on what geographical location you’re in.

Plane: Lots of airlines have cheap flights with quick turnarounds. Most airlines also have flight deals from major cities.

Bus, etc.: If you don’t mind the long rides, go for it!

Sometimes it saves money and gives more time to mix and match. Maybe there’s a reasonably priced early morning flight at 7am, but the 8pm flight out is expensive. However, the train leaves at 10pm and is significantly cheaper. You’ll save money and get more time.

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Step 2: Choose Must-See Sights

The next step is to pick your must-see sights and attractions. It can be difficult to decide what to activities prioritize, but that will require a little bit of research. Do you like history, shopping, food, etc? Rank the sights from “must-see” to “eh, I could go without”. That way, if you have to eliminate any, it’s not difficult to decide. But still keep the “eh” sights in mind for contingencies.

You don’t want to plan so many stops that you can’t slow down and actually absorb the city. You want to enjoy the trip, not hop between photo ops. My rule of thumb for the number of stops is below, but it does change based on the city:

3 hours: 3 stops

3-5 hours: 4-5 stops

6-8 hours: 6 stops

8-11 hours: 7 stops

12+ hours: 8-9 stops

Those stops also include stopping for food and snacks.

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Step 3: Map It Out

At this point, I just put everything into Google Maps and arrange the trip based on what stops are close.

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Step 4: Choose Mode of Transit

Some sights are .5 miles apart others are 10 miles. Decide what’s the most efficient mode for transporting between sights.

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Here’s an Example:

I’ll layout a plan I made for a day-trip to D.C. I’m not a history buff (D.C. is the perfect trip for history buffs); however, I do love sightseeing, people watching, and experiencing a city like a local.

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Step 1: Choose mode Arrival/Departure

Amtrak from Baltimore Penn Station
Amtrak from Baltimore Penn Station

My day trip to D.C. was from Baltimore so it only made sense to hop on the train. I only paid $30 for a round-trip Amtrak ticket. No parking troubles, no traffic, just 40 minutes of coasting. My train arrived at Union Station at 10am and departed at 10pm.

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Step 2: Choose Must-See Sights

Based on my rule of thumb above, I chose 9 destinations. D.C. is perfect for day trips because of the close proximity of so many sights and museums, which meant I could spend a good amount of time at each stop.

Silliness at the Hirshhorn Art Museum
Silliness at the Hirshhorn Art Museum

9 destinations:

Capitol Hill

GW Monument

Lincoln Memorial

WWII Memorial

Art Musuem

National African American Museum

National Portait Museum

Bus Boys and Poets

U street for chili dogs at Ben’s

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Step 3: Map it Out

If I had to eliminate something I would eliminate Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street since it’s out of the way and lower on my list.

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Step 4: Choose Mode of Transit:

So here’s my plan with loose estimates of the amount of time I’ll spend at each:

  • Amtrak arrive at Union Station at 10am
  • Walk to Capitol (.5)
  • Walk to Hirshhorn Art Museum (2 hours)
  • Uber to National Portrait Museum (1 hour)
  • Walk to Brunch at BBP (2 hours)
  • Scooters to GW Monument ( 1.5 hours)
  • Scooters National African American Museum (2 hours)
  • Free bus to WWII Memorial (.5 hour)
  • Walk Lincoln Memorial (1 hour)
  • Train to Ustreet for Ben’s (.5)
  • Uber Union Station for Amtrak at 9pm

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Obviously the plan changes sometimes, but I like to think through the trip so I don’t end up spending an entire day going in circles. Unless you’re purposely trying to go on an adventure and “get lost”, I suggest you utilize this as a guide to make planning more simple.

My next day-trip will be Houston. Although I live in Houston, I don’t think I’ve spent enough time exploring and will be using this same format to plan. Stay tuned to see how that goes!

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