Lonely Planet Writer

Cram travel: is it worth it?

'I’m only in [X destination] for [Y not nearly enough time], but I really, really, really need to see [Z famous landmark]. It seems like it might just be possible given my very tight schedule and my confidence in my ability to bend space-time to my own advantage. Is it worth doing it?'

Questions like this come up in a variety of forms with some regularity on the Thorn Tree travel forum; you might have been asked a similar question yourself from eager visiting friends and family. For lack of a better term, I'll call this ‘cram travel’: the travel equivalent of a frenzied last-minute attempt to study for exams, often with famously bad results. It’s checklist travel – like an episode of The Amazing Race but without the whiff of a million-dollar prize.

Is it worth it?

Speed of light

After consulting with numerous well-traveled colleagues, the answer is a qualified ‘no’. Plan well, and this question never needs to come up in the first place. If something is truly a high priority in your travels, it deserves more than a superficial glance, right? Time on a trip is a valuable and limited resource, and there are better ways to spend your time than getting to point X by whatever uncomfortable, stress-inducing, speeding-ticket-risking means necessary.

However, most travelers have been faced with a similar choice at some point, and, despite the conventional wisdom, a spontaneous, mildly ridiculous, badly planned side trip can be the highlight of your travels. It might also leave you starving, stressed out, stranded, poor, and could very well end your current romantic relationship in one 24 hr period – but hey, at least you got to see Mt Rushmore for five minutes.

If you do opt to take on a cram travel experience, do it with your eyes open: do it for the sake of the mad quest, the adventure along the way (not to mention the risk of missing your flight if you’re not back in time). Don’t do it merely to tick a destination off your bucket list - you'll just be booking a ticket for disappointment.

Cram travel can (and does) happen worldwide. In the US, certain destinations seem to inspire cram travel fantasies (ranked below in order of increasing silliness):

1. Key West day trip from Miami – 160 miles, 3.5 hr drive (one way).

Getting to Key West and back in a day is certainly doable, and the drive itself is almost worth the trip alone. But the Keys are a place to relax and take it easy, stop and enjoy the vistas, explore the quirky micronation of the Conch Republic, and try out your best Hemingway impersonation. Put a lime in the coconut and take your time; high speed and the Keys just don’t mix.

2. Yosemite day trip from San Francisco – 190 miles, 4 hr drive (one way).

A drive into Yosemite Valley and back out again does not a trip to Yosemite make, and you’re more than likely to feel a bit burned by the $20 entry fee followed by the prospect of a long return drive. The park covers over 3000 sq km (bigger than Luxembourg, if that helps) of granite-studded, waterfall-covered, majestic high Sierra wilderness. It takes getting out of the car and heading up a trail – even for a short walk – to truly get a feel of the grandeur of Yosemite, and you'll be hard-pressed to manage this in a short day.

3. Grand Canyon day trip from Las Vegas – 275 miles, 5 hr drive (one way).

Leaving Las Vegas in search of natural beauty is a perfectly logical thing to do, but few visitors realise how far away the Grand Canyon really is. You can book airplane and helicopter tours from Las Vegas, but for a closer, cheaper option, try the Valley of Fire State Park: otherworldly red rock desert landscapes worthy of any of the Southwest national parks, but with a fraction of the crowds and a minimal entry fee. Plus Captain Kirk died there; can the Grand Canyon boast that?

4. Niagara Falls day trip from New York City – 410 miles, 7 hr drive (one way).

Don’t do this one by car. If you want to see Niagara Falls in a day from New York City, in can be done relatively comfortably by air from several tour operators. By car, a day trip is borderline insanity, involving at least half a day of driving to and from NYC and allowing you no time at all to enjoy the falls, which are themselves somewhat challenging to fully appreciate from any of the typical vantage points. From Toronto, a day trip to Niagara Falls is a perfectly reasonable thing to do; but if you find yourself with an extra day in NYC, you’re better off staying put.

Are you a cram travel veteran? Was it worth it? Would you do it again?

[Photo: Speed of light by John Talbot]