When planning this year’s trip to Spain, I faced a dilemma. Flights were not only expensive, but the connections between the U.S. and Ibiza were so bad that our choices included either very long layovers or switching airlines to make it to the islands within a 24-hour period.

Switching airlines means collecting baggage and battling security a second time — something I knew wasn’t an option with two cranky kids and no sleep. So our clever travel agent made a suggestion: Forget about making the trip in one day and embrace the inconvenience by spending a day somewhere en route.

We chose Barcelona, one of my favorite cities in Europe, because I knew it would be a hit with my kids. The result? A magical 24 hours, and the beginning of a new family tradition: the extended layover.

Here’s a few tips on how to transform an inconvenience into a great experience: 

Casa Milà, or La Pedrera, was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí in the early 20th century. (Photograph by Rob Shenk, Flickr)

Casa Milà, or La Pedrera, was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí in the early 20th century. (Photograph by Rob Shenk, Flickr)

1. Choose your home base wisely

A 24-hour layover is not the time to neighborhood hop. With only a day to visit, it’s best to focus your activities in an area that has a good mix of sights and activities as well as places to eat. My personal rule: if we can’t walk there, we’re not going. For Barcelona, we focused on the barrio of Eixample, where we could take in Gaudí’s fantastical architecture, eat great food, and have our pick of hotels.

2. Pre-book your hotel

When you’ll barely be spending any time in your room, staying in a five-star resort doesn’t make sense. But pre-booking to ensure you can access your room immediately upon arrival is crucial to preserving everyone’s sanity. (For this trip, I booked an apartment at the Hotel Murmuri.) My children barely sleep on a plane, which means I pull an all-nighter every time we cross the Atlantic. Upon landing, we eat breakfast, then take a three-hour siesta — no more — to force ourselves onto the local schedule. It’s tough love, but it works.

3. Book everything else in advance

When we arrived in Barcelona, we already had our car service from the airport booked (I’d recommend Barcelona Airport Transfers for great service, charming drivers, and brand-new car seats) and every restaurant and activity planned. Long waits are the pits — even when you’re not suffering from jet lag. These days, you can buy tickets to most attractions online that allow you to bypass lines. I’d already booked an afternoon entry to the famous Casa Milà, but when we saw the around-the-block line at the Sagrada Familia, I was able to purchase the no-line variety on my iPhone, and we walked right in.

4. Make it fool-proof

Once you’ve set your itinerary, write it down, print it out, and email it to yourself just in case you lose the paper version, because you’ll want to make the most of your time on the ground. While having just a day to explore might sound limiting, the time constraint somehow makes the time you do have that much more exciting. You won’t want to waste a minute of it.

If you’re headed to Barcelona with your family, here’s my recipe for 24 hours of bliss: 

Morning: Touch down, transfer to hotel, eat breakfast, and nap.

The food outshines the modest interior at  Restaurant Sant Joan.  (Photograph by Garrett Ziegler, Flickr)

The food outshines the modest interior at Restaurant Sant Joan. (Photograph by Garrett Ziegler, Flickr)

Lunch: Walk to Restaurant Sant Joan (Passeig de Sant Joan 65), a casual eatery just blocks from the Sagrada Familia with diner-style interiors but food worthy of much finer digs. The proprietors are a welcoming husband-and-wife team that will fuss over your kids and invent something they’ll eat if they’re not into what’s on the menu.

Afternoon: Gawk at the soaring ceilings and twisted statues at Sagrada Familia before walking back to the hotel — pausing for ice cream along the way, of course. Change into swimsuits for a refreshing dip in the rooftop pool at the Majestic (our reservation at sister property Murmuri granted us access) where the kids can see the magnificent cathedral they just toured from a different perspective. Clean up and head to Casa Milà to see Gaudí’s playful take on city living. Trust me: the architectural master’s curvy rooms, undulating facade, and ferocious chimneys will be a big hit.

Dinner: Stroll down the Paseo de Gracia and stop by Casa Batlló (if you have time) to complete a Gaudí trilogy (sticking with a theme can also help keep the kids focused), then head to Ciudad Condal, a classic tapas joint with a large outdoor terrace. Dinnertimes tend to be on the later side in Spain, so tapas are the way to go when everyone’s hungry and read for bedtime. Sleep, then it’s on to your next destination mañana.

New York-based travel writer Henley Vazquez has lived on three continents, but she’s happiest when she’s hitting the road with her husband and two kids. Follow her story on Twitter @HenleyVQ

Comments

  1. Sachin@Planning a trip to India
    July 24, 2013, 7:47 am

    thanks for the guidance Henley. Will use this tip whenever I get stuck next, which usually do while planning a vacation.

  2. Hannah
    http://blogintaiwan.wordpress.com
    August 1, 2013, 1:18 pm

    Great advice! I ended up with two twenty-four hour layovers on a recent flight from Peru to Taiwan – both of them unexpected due to weather and cancelled flights, so I hadn’t planned in advance. I certainly enjoyed my spur-of-the-moment vacation days in Santiago, Chile and in Sydney, Australia, plus I had less jetlag when I arrived because I had a day in each city to help adjust to the time zone. I love your suggestions to make the most of the layover!

    • Henley Vazquez
      August 2, 2013, 12:08 pm

      Sounds like a marathon trip! But what good luck to get stuck in two amazing cities, and that you had such a good attitude about it. It’s great when travel hassles can be turned into fun experiences.