Originally published in Courier Post
It’s a dream come true for road-trippers. You find yourself with a free weekend (or a few days off) and decide to take a last-minute trip.
With limited time for an escape, how do you quickly choose your destination and activities? And do you make arrangements in advance … or simply “wing it” and hope for the best?
Several well-traveled locals who are proficient in planning weekend and last-minute jaunts have shared their tips about choosing a destination for a fun mini-break.
Dana Earley, of Sewell, plans about four to eight weekend getaways a year.
“One of the best parts about living in South Jersey is our proximity to oceans, mountains and wonderful cities – from Washington D.C. to New York – all within a few hours’ drive,” she says.
Her favorite getaways are Annapolis, Maryland; Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, as well as the Hudson River Valley because the drive is less than two hours.
“I also like to go to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a football or basketball game. It is a seven-hour drive, but as long as you have three days, it is do-able. We are Tar Heel fans because our oldest daughter graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014, and we fell in love with the area.”
As a rule, she prefers hotels that offer a free breakfast (such as Springhill Suites, Homewood Suites, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn), as it saves money and time.
“I try to stay at Hilton or Marriott properties, when possible, since I am a member of their reward programs,” Earley says. “I figure each stay brings me closer to a free night, which means an inexpensive getaway weekend in the future!”
Cara Schneider, Visit Philadelphia’s media relations director, recently planned a girls’ getaway with her sisters-in-law to West Chester, Pennsylvania, and found last-minute accommodations through Airbnb.com.
Nearby, they explored the town, found a local market and strolled the wooded pathways at Stroud Preserve. They also spent time browsing the massive volumes at Baldwin’s Book Barn.
“For readers like us, this incredible stone barn bookstore can be a full day’s destination, featuring tons of rare and used books on a beautiful property. You can really build a pilgrimage around it. It’s a book lovers’ paradise,” she says.
She pointed out that organization skills are key.
“It might seem obvious, but I like to keep an ongoing list and a folder of ideas. I’m also a fan of mapping, as it’s important to pick activities close to each other. And call ahead for availability if you are staying at a private home or a B&B, as some websites are not always updated.
“Over the years, I learned there are so many amazing parks with great trails and other outdoor experiences in the Philly area,” she says. “There is an easy bike sharing service in Philly now and the John Heinz natural wildlife refuge is close by – and a great place for a walk and bird watching.”
Jason Dichter, of Medford, says his favorite weekend last-minute getaway is to New York City for brunch and a Broadway show with his wife, Evelyn. They either purchase show tickets in advance or upon arrival in Manhattan.
“We go about once a season,” Dichter says. “We are empty nesters so it’s easy … I really love visiting the city in a stress-free way. Usually, we take the bus from the Mount Laurel … station where there is no cost to park. The bus has free wifi and goes right into the Port Authority in Times Square.”
“Usually, we like Sunday matinees, which typically start at 2 p.m. We take an early bus, so we get to New York with plenty of time to explore, shop, get tickets and have brunch before the show. It’s a perfect day trip and you can decide last-minute. Sometimes, we plan a weekend but hotels and tickets can be pricey.”
For South Jersey residents, the Philadelphia area is an easy choice for a weekend excursion, as it involves a short drive, yet has plenty of cultural offerings, a strong culinary scene and abundance of historical sites.
Greg Stafford, general manager at Philadelphia’s Logan Hotel, believes the city offers a vast array of choices for a fun, easy weekend that requires little preparation.
“Philadelphia boasts a robust lineup of visionary chefs and restaurateurs who have set the culinary standard for today’s restaurant industry, such as Stephen Starr, Jose Garces and Marc Vetri. Additionally, The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Barnes Foundation offer a complement to the plethora of murals and street art. All of this lives within the birthplace of the nation.”
Stafford says many Philly hotels offer special packages, some suited toward locals. He suggests calling a hotel directly and asking about packages – even before booking online. “For example, the Logan offers a ‘romance package’ for couples; a ‘spa package’ for girls’ getaways; and their signature ‘Philadelphia overnight package,’ which includes parking, two bike share passes and a welcome gift.”
Already spend a lot of time in Philly? Stafford offers some shortcuts for travel decisions farther away from home.
“Consult a local before making travel plans. Ask around to see if you have any mutual friends in your destination city to get tips on any go-to spots in the city. Word-of-mouth recommendations and social media are very helpful in addition to tourist websites or city guides.”
Search local social media hashtags and local influencer and blogger accounts to get a preliminary feel for what is trending in the area,” adds Stafford. “This can help with restaurant selection, and learning about new museum exhibits and the like.”
Finally, he suggests making an itinerary. “Before traveling, map out a list of what you want to do. Include restaurants, museums, shops, etc. This way, you won’t be overwhelmed upon arrival and can make the most of your time.”
New York State’s Finger Lakes region is about a five-hour drive from Philadelphia and accessible via public transportation. Known for its history and charm, this rural area offers an abundance of activities, including hiking, kayaking and museums, as well as over 150 wineries situated around the picturesque lakes.
Finger Lakes tourism expert Karen Miltner share her insights on how to make the most of the area.
“My perfect Finger Lakes weekend getaway typically has three components: an outdoor activity that lets me get some fresh air, exercise and incredible scenery and nature; some delicious food; and an after-dark cultural event such as live music, theater or cinema. A few of my favorite activities include: Drinks and dinner on Linden Street in Geneva, which offers several charming farm-to-table options; a concert and hanging out (literally) at Bristol Mountain Aerial Adventures, and racing down the mountain on their zip-line canopy tour.”
“Whenever I indulge in a last-minute getaway, I always ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner? It’s a lot easier than I thought.’
“That is definitely true in the Finger Lakes,” she continues. “Trip-planning information is readily available, the folks who staff our visitors’ centers are friendly and knowledgeable and the memories you bring home go a long way in making you feel like you’ve treated yourself to a great vacation, even if it was only for a weekend.”
It may sound surprising, but if your last-minute trip involves a slightly longer time frame, considering a cruise can be a viable option, as it does not require a major planning investment – and companies sometimes offer serious discounts as the sailing date approaches.
Jason Lasecki, senior director of public relations for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, explains: “The beauty of a cruise for a last-minute getaway is your planning can be kept to a minimum. No need to search for hotels, restaurants, bars, and things to do on your trip. It’s all right there for you on the ship – accommodations, restaurant reservations, activities (on the ship and off) and entertainment.
“When choosing Oceania Cruises, this all comes with the added promise of exceptional service — regardless of where you decide to go.
“Some travelers tend to be under the false impression that planning a cruise is a lot of work,” he says, “but planning a cruise can actually be easier than putting together a typical land vacation last minute. Cruises virtually take care of all planning, making the process much less complicated.”