Our new travel planning heuristic: the 4:1 rule

The other day I was calculating the number of days I’d spent in the US during 2011, because Amazon wanted to know. Obviously.

Although I never did find out what my travel patterns from two years ago had to do with publishing a book, it did make me realise something: wow, our vacations used to be short!

In fact, in 2011 we went on our honeymoon, and made it our longest vacation ever: a whole thirteen days to take in Vancouver and Seattle. (We also only took one laptop between us, which is a decision we still can’t condone or explain.)

These days, we feel a bit pushed for time if we’re only staying in one place for a month. So what gives?

Our travel isn’t a vacation

Of course, the difference is that our travel isn’t a vacation anymore: we work as we go.

And while we work from cafes as much as possible and get to feel part of the culture / antagonise the locals by taking up a table all day, our exploring time is drastically reduced.

And we’ve been feeling guilty about everything we miss out on as a result.

Frequently, someone who’s just been to Budapest for a long weekend will reel off a list of sights we didn’t get to in our two-week stay, or they’ll tell us how they “did Bulgaria” in a week while we barely made it from our apartment into the centre of Sofia during that time.

The problem is that we often forget that we’ve got all the time in the world. We rush from country to country, trying to tick off everything we’ve not done yet, as if we’re packing everything into our dwindling number of vacation days.

Other times though, we remember and overcompensate – spending too much time based in a place that really doesn’t warrant it.

But I think, finally, I’ve found a solution.

The 4:1 ratio

Because we’re working while we travel, my new heuristic is that we need to take the amount of time most people spend in any given place, and apply a roughly 4:1 ratio.

So if people typically go for a weekend, we’ll need a week.

If the best amount of time to go for a vacation is a week, we’ll need a month.

And if a holidaymaker goes for two weeks, that means two months for us.

Travel planning clarity

Since coming to this realisation, it’s brought some much needed clarity to our travel planning – and helped us to understand where we’ve been going wrong.

So when we spent a week in Madrid, loved it but saw practically nothing, no wonder: that was our equivalent of a less-than two-day trip. To make up for it we’ve booked to go back for a month, which should equal a normal week.

When we were looking for somewhere to go for a month earlier this summer, we considered Valencia which Wikitravel said was perfect for a long weekend. Would that work? Nope! Because that equals a week or two for us, meaning we’d be bored for the second half of our time there.

And how much time will we need in Bangkok on our next trip to Thailand? Well, most people stop off for 4-5 days, so a few weeks should do it for us.

Find your own ratio

Your ratio might vary, depending on your working patterns and how deep you like to get into the tourist attractions and culture when you visit a new place.

But the point is that with experience, you can develop your own heuristic. There’s no way of shortcutting the mistakes you’ll make at first, but when you’ve thought back over your previous trips and worked out the patterns, everything will click into place.

The other conclusion is, as we’ve said before, that there’s no right or wrong way to travel. You might be happy bouncing to a new place every couple of days, but that’s not necessary to be a “proper” digital nomad. If you’d rather spend six months or more really getting under the skin of a new location and learning the language, that’s fine too.

One thing’s for sure though: we’ve got no intention of going back to those thirteen-day vacations.