An overnight stopover can become a highlight of your trip
Sometimes getting from point A to point B takes a bit too long to do all in one go—or too long to do in an enjoyable way. In these instances, we need what the British call “a break in the journey,” or an overnight stopover. Done right, these can become highlights of your trip. I’ve memorable stopovers in my travels, including most recently an overnight stopover in Zadar, Croatia, on my way to Zagreb from Split (and before that a stopover in Dubrovnik, Croatia, en route from Kotor, Montenegro, to Split).
I thought that I’d share some things I’ve learned about what makes stopovers enjoyable in my travels to help you make the most of yours. The first part focuses on planning your stopover and the second part on maximizing your enjoyment on your stopover. Please share your pointers below in the comments!
An overnight stopover is different from a day trip
While similar to day trips (or overnights, for example the one I took to Sintra, Portugal), an overnight stopover is different for one very simple reason: you aren’t going back to your original destination. This poses practical considerations you’ll need to make before you decide on a destination. There are, of course, famous overnight stopovers like spending the night in Iceland in between Europe and North America, that require quite a bit of planning. Others however, can be booked almost at the last minute, especially if you’re traveling during shoulder season or off season.
Tips for planning your overnight stopover
When you’re planning a trip that includes at least two main destinations, there’s a chance for an overnight stopover! I deliberately built them into this trip, checking out on the last day of the month from my original destination and then having an overnight before heading to the next one on the first. Partly I did this for the simple reason that it was a haul to get to my new destinations (I didn’t want to fly for environmental reasons, and also, it’s a pain). However, I wanted to add a little more adventure to my trip with my overnight stopovers, and they delivered.
Here are things to consider in planning your stopover trip.
1. Pick a practical distance between the two points
This one is rather obvious, but still worth stating: unless you’re doing a stopover for the sheer giggles, it’s a good idea to choose a destination that’s at a practical distance between the two points. That way, you’ve divided up your travel time in a way that won’t leave you exhausted at either end. I didn’t necessarily stick to equal distances on my current adventure, but it was within reason. I traveled a couple of hours the first day and nearly four the next. Still, though, I didn’t pick, say Budva in Montenegro or Trogir from Split.
Keep in mind that a practical distance might not be as obvious as looking at a map and picking a spot in the middle. While Zadar doesn’t necessarily look like the most practical destination if you’re looking at a map between Split and Zagreb (Zadar is still on the coast), because it’s a transit hub, it actually made the most sense. When I did an overnight between Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, I stopped in Mendoza, not because it was exactly halfway between the two points, but because it was a transit hub (in addition to being an amazing destination in its own right).
If you’re driving, you have more flexibility, of course (though you will have to deal with parking). Had I been driving on this trip, I might have planned my overnight stopover at the Plitvice Lakes instead.
2. Pick a destination easy to get to and get away from
When it comes to stopovers, unless there’s a destination that you have your heart set on and this is your only chance to see it, don’t make it hard. Pick someplace that’s easy to get to. This is generally a hub of some kind. This is practical for two reasons—first, you’ll get to stop traveling and start exploring faster, and, second, you’ll be able to leave easily.
Zadar’s bus station is a quick ride from Old Town—had I not had luggage for a three-month stay, I might have even walked it. This minimized stress and gave me as much time as possible at my destination.
3. Opt for something different in your overnight stopover
A good stopover gives you something different in your trip, something a little interesting. Maybe you’re going from the country to the city. Or from a very modern place to a historical one. Or, maybe there’s a really great art museum. Whatever it is that your stopover destination offers, make sure that it adds a little something to your trip.
As the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, Zadar sounded interesting to me, with its Roman ruins and Venetian palazzos, mingled with perhaps somewhat unfortunate 20th century architecture. I wanted to see a coastal town that wasn’t a museum piece, and Zadar fit the bill. Plus, that Sea Organ? I needed to witness that for myself. I’m so glad I did (check out this Instagram Reel—the music made by the sea is so cool!).
4. Decide what you really want to do ahead of time
You aren’t going to have time to do it all, so it’s time to put your editing skills to use. For example, in Zadar, I really wanted to see the Sea Organ at sunset, the Roman forum, and the Land Gate. None of this was very hard, but it did mean that I didn’t go to the archaeological museum.
You can always change your mind once you’re there, but better to have something of a plan when you have so little time.
5. Double check what’s open and have a backup plan
There’s nothing worse than getting to a destination, only to find that the thing you had your heart set on is closed that day. Check websites for opening hours to make sure that you’ll get to see what you wanted to see. Having said that, things happen. Have a backup plan for something to do if something unexpected comes up.
6. Make sure you have enough time to enjoy yourself—do you need two nights?
While stopovers are by their very nature quick visits, you don’t want to wind up having only enough time to sleep and leave again. When planning my stopover in Mendoza, the length of my travel days, plus the destination made me decide on staying two nights. However, while I would have happily spent another night in either Dubrovnik or Zadar on this trip, I didn’t feel deprived.
7. Make the journey part of the adventure
I highly doubt that anything will ever top my bus ride over the Andes, but there are better ways to get ot a destination than others. I very much regret that I wasn’t able to take the ferry to my coastal destinations. Alas, it rained the day I traveled from Dubrovnik to Split, and the ferries do not run past September between Split and Zadar. Hopefully you’ll have all of the options available to you! Even though I was disappointed about the ferries, the bus rides were stunning in their own right. I made sure to sit on the side that let me see as much of the coast or mountains as possible and sat in the windows.
Do a little homework before you book your transportation and see if there’s a way to get there that will add to the fun! Sites like Rome to Rio can help get the creative juices flowing.
8. Keep your destination plans flexible if possible
If you’re able to do so, keeping your plans flexible can let you do something even better. Sometimes you’ll hear about a better option from locals or other travelers. I booked a stopover in Dubrovnik while I was still at home, because I knew that I’d feel sad if I didn’t see it at all, but I kept my October stopover option open and decided on Zadar only a week or so before I left Split.
I picked Zadar in part because it was still going to be unseasonably warm and sunny, and I wanted just one more day of endless summer before heading north. Had the weather been different, I might have decided on something different.
Unless you need airline tickets or are traveling during a very busy time, book your transportation later (something else might come along) and try to book hotel stays where you can cancel or change plans if necessary.
9. Stay close to the things that interest you
Once again under making things easy, book your hotel close to the things you want to see. You’re only there for a short while, so try to cut down on how much you need to travel while you’re there. You don’t need a luxury room for a stopover, just something clean, safe, and comfortable, so sometimes you can find something a bit more humble closer to the action that will do for the night.
10. Opt for hotels for overnight stopovers over Airbnbs
I’m a big fan of booking apartments for trips—it lets me experience life in my destination more fully. However, I don’t think overnights are the time for Airbnbs. Hotels are almost always more conveniently located and offer things that apartments do not. You can find ones with character—my room in Zadar was in a funky old building, but it also had the conveniences that come with a hotel and was right in the middle of the Old Town. I didn’t need to strip the bed or take out the garbage, and coffee was included.
11. Ask for an early check-in or luggage storage if you need it
Especially if you aren’t there during the high season, you may find that hotels will be flexible about check-in times and stowing luggage. I got an early check-in in Zadar and luggage storage (and an arranged ride to the bus station) in Dubrovnik. If you can avoid lugging your stuff all over creation, you’ll have a better time.
12. Pack with your overnight in mind
Packing for a stopover might be different from the way that you pack to head home. Pack what you need for your overnight in one place, and you won’t have to rummage through everything for your toothbrush and next day’s outfit.
Tips for having fun on your overnight stopover
So, you’ve planned your perfect overnight stopover. You’ve arrived, and now it’s time to have fun! Here are some tips to help you maximize your fun on your stopover.
13. Get yourself organized
Chances are, you have a lot of stuff in the bag that you usually carry around with you (or, if you’re like me, you’ve packed your camera bag). Maybe you’re wearing your boots instead of your regular walking shoes. Get what you need to go exploring comfortably. Hopefully if you’ve packed accordingly, this doesn’t mean unloading all of your possessions onto the bed.
14. Eat something
For someone who loves food as much as I do, I often forget to eat when I’m in a new place. I walk around forever, and, by the time I realize how hungry I am, I am tired and cranky and nothing looks good—and usually far away from anything good to eat. So, I have a practice. I get someplace, and I either go get lunch (or dinner), or I figure out where I am going to get lunch or dinner before I set out to explore.
Here’s the thing about tourist areas: it’s rare that they have good food right where the action is, and the food is almost always expensive. This used to make me angry until I made peace with it. Now I just do my best. If you have a guidebook, pick a restaurant from that and go. If you’re in Zadar, try 4Kantuna (bonus: the food is actually good). I find a nice setting helps to offset less-than-perfect food on these things.
Now that you’re settled and fed, your destination is your oyster. Let’s go explore!
15. Be realistic about what you’re going to do on your overnight stopover
This is where planning for one or two activities for your overnight stopover comes in handy. Unless your destination is tiny, and sometimes even if it is, you are not going to have time to “do” the whole thing. So, pick the things that interest you the most (maybe it’s just wandering around and getting lost, and, if so, you are my kind of person) and do them. In Dubrovnik, touring the City Walls would have taken up all the time I had, so I decided to skip it and climbed up just below the walls to look down at the red rooftops and then went to Buža Bar at sunset instead for ocean views.
16. Be aware of your energy levels
Here’s something else to keep in mind—a stopover like the kind we’re talking comes in between one leg of a trip and the next. You’re likely to be a little tired. Or maybe absolutely wrecked. That’s OK. When I was in Mendoza, I was exhausted. Instead of doing wine tours and going to a hot spring that sounded like a good time, I mostly just wandered around the city and had amazing restaurant meals. Do I wish that I’d seen more of that area? Yes. But that’s a reason to go back, not to regret the time that I spent there.
Be gentle with yourself and your energy levels. Get a coffee or a glass of wine on a terrace and watch the world go by. Maybe take a cab where you might have walked. Call it an early night, if you need to (you can always wake up early and explore some more—fewer people that way and better photo opportunities).
Take good care of you, and I promise that your memories of a place will be sweeter than if you pushed yourself and wound up cranky and exhausted.
17. Don’t forget the next morning
A nice thing about an overnight is that you often have the next morning to explore. I often find this the best part of my trip. In Zadar, I woke up early and took a long walk and got myself to the Land Gate, which I didn’t have time to visit before sunset the night before. Between it being the off season and the early hour, I had the place nearly to myself. I loved it. You might, too. Get a coffee on a terrace. Enjoy the extra time.
What are your tips for overnight stopovers?
What about you? What have you found that helps you get the most out of your overnight stopovers? Let us know in the comments below.