You could – as many do – think of the upcoming Labor Day weekend as the unofficial end of summer and all its vacation time. Or you could look at it the way a savvy traveler does: as the beginning of the best season for three-day weekend getaways. After all, with so many people going back to work and school, autumn is a great time to travel if you want to avoid crowds and find great values.

So how do you plan the perfect long-weekend trip? Below, Sara Benson, who authors books for Lonely Planet gives Straight Talk some tips on how to get the best return on your three-day weekend investment.

Great Autumn Values

“Airfares, and especially accommodations, are cheaper in the fall,” Benson notes. Beyond that, “One of the best things about fall getaways is that there’s just more availability. Whereas if you’re planning a summer trip, you might not even be able to find availability, let alone better prices.”

For Benson, visiting one of the many U.S. national parks makes for a great trip over a long weekend in autumn. “Now that the busiest season, summer, is over, there are a lot of good values at national parks,” she explains. “And at many of them, during the shoulder season, the weather’s still good.” Benson also recommends the Southwest desert areas – where temperatures drop from summer scorching to autumn moderate – as well as the east and west coasts. “In California and Oregon,” she says, “September and October are actually sunnier months than July and August in some places, so fall is the perfect time to travel on the west coast.”

Planning Your Itinerary

Benson notes that three-day weekends may require more planning than a traditional, long vacation “because you want to make sure you don’t waste your opportunities for such a short trip.” The most important planning element, according to Benson, is not trying to cram too much in. “The temptation,” she adds, “is, it’s only a three-day trip; I want to do and see everything.”

Instead, Benson continues, “I think you want to have a good mix of activities and downtime. As a rule of thumb, I try to plan one activity for the morning and one for the afternoon or evening and just leave it at that. I also try to make just one restaurant reservation for each day. We find that if we book ourselves too solid, we end up canceling and feeling like we’re having a schedule we have to chase.”

Benson recommends going into your long weekend with a plan, but one that’s flexible. “I think over-planning is when you start getting down to an hour-by-hour scheduled itinerary,” she says. “That’s not going to be any fun for you. You’re not even letting yourself be open to what you find when you get to the destination.”

Resources to Optimize Your Weekend

To help you make the most of your long weekends, Benson recommends relying on the right mix of resources. That could mean using a guidebook, an entry from The New York Times “36 Hours in…” column or a local publication from your destination. “Local alternative weekly newspapers are usually very good at covering arts and entertainment, no matter what your destination,” Benson notes.

Digital tools can also help better your getaway. “There are a lot of good city guide apps,” says Benson. “You might want to see if the local tourist board has any free apps – they’re usually very good for finding events.” Benson recommends supplementing these tourism apps with ones that appeal to your “niche interest. For instance, if you’re very interested in microbrews, you probably already know about apps like Untapped, where you can find user reviews of brew pubs across the country.”

Limiting Your Travel Time

“People often spend too much time getting to and from the destination,” Benson notes,” and that eats up too much of their short trip.”

So how much travel time is too much? While Benson says the answer depends on your tolerance level, “I would say for a weekend, it’s hard for a travel time of more than four hours to really make sense unless you’re leaving late the night before and coming home very early the morning of your return. If you’re just doing a classic three-day getaway, you don’t want to spend more than half a day on either end traveling to and from your destination.”

Choosing The Best Time to Travel

Because so many travelers start their three-day weekends on Fridays and return Sundays, “You’re going to run into crowds” if you follow suit, Benson says. “Personally, I like to travel Saturday through Monday. Monday is going to be a cheaper travel day if you’re flying and you’re going to avoid the crowds coming home. Plus, for accommodations you can probably get some sort of discount on Sunday night staying through Monday.”

Thinking Small

To get the best from your long weekend, Benson recommends that you “concentrate your trip in a small area or take a road trip close to home.” She adds, “It’s probably not worth taking a three-day getaway to a really large area from which you’re going to come back and feel like, ‘I didn’t really see it.’ For example I’ve had friends who’ve gone to the Maui for three days. And while that’s great and romantic and beautiful and relaxing, it’s going to be a place that they’re going to want to go back to because they missed a lot.

“That’s why I think cities are such great perennial weekend getaways,” Benson continues. “They’re always changing and you can go back to New York and Miami every year and you’re going to see different things because cities change so fast. Cities are a great return on investment.”

How do you make the most of a three-day weekend getaway? What’s your ideal destination?