You’ve done it. You’ve scoured the globe and chosen the next magical place to adventure to, but now you’re stuck. What do you do when you get there? You could go without a plan and wing it, you could plan out a detailed itinerary, or find a balance between the two.
We find that the last approach works best. Some planning is essential so that you don’t miss out on amazing experiences just because you failed to book ahead. But having a rigidly planned itinerary for each day leaves little room for spontaneity. If you’re a go-with-the-flow kind of traveller, then this article probably isn’t for you. But if you need some tips for planning an itinerary, keep reading.
1. Get ideas
A good place to start is by looking at itineraries for guided tours at your destination, as these usually indicate the highlights of a place with approximate timelines. Popular websites include Intrepid Travel, National Geographic, G Adventures, and Contiki. Aside from this, simple Google searches like ‘2 weeks in Vietnam,’ ‘1 month in South America,’ or ‘a weekend in New York’ will also give you a good idea of what’s do-able in your available time.
Another thing to research is ‘things to do in …’ as this gives a good overview of the most popular landmarks and activities in the city you’re visiting. For example, try searching things to do in Marrakech, and see what pops up. WikiTravel, TripSavvy, The Culture Trip, Pinterest, and travel blogs are easier to digest since there’s often a wealth of information out there, that’s difficult to sift through without becoming overwhelmed. Once you’ve narrowed it down to things that interest you, check out reviews on TripAdvisor to get tips for specific places. For lesser known and interesting attractions, always look up your destination on Atlas Obscura as well.
2. Pick up a travel guide
While we don’t always do this step, travel guides are good resources that you can use to plan your trip. They are often expensive, and most, if not all, of the information they contain can be found online for free. But it’s sometimes useful to have all the information you need in one convenient place. Just make sure to read a relatively recent version, as some info gets outdated very quickly.
You can often find travel guides at lower rates at second-hand bookshops, and if you prefer e-books, these are usually available for downloading onto your tablet with extra add-ons as well. The most common ones are published by Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Frommers, Rick Steves, and Rough Guides. This is a handy guide to picking which guide will work best for your needs.
3. Research transportation options
Rome2Rio is great for telling you how to travel between destinations. It will give you information for a range of options, including flights, trains, busses, or private vehicle rentals. Look up the distance between places on Google Maps, and then you can decide if it makes more sense to drive or fly. Sometimes, flying seems like the quickest option, but after you factor in the time it takes to drive to the airport, clear security, fly, and do the same at your destination, it sometimes makes more sense to drive or take a bus. Trains and driving can also show you glimpses of the countryside that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, with the added bonus of not having to weigh your luggage and clear security.
Aside from transport between destinations, look up public transport options like trams, subways and busses. Also check if there are day passes available as these can save money, such as the Jazzy Pass in New Orleans which has a flat rate per day, or the Oyster Card in London which has a daily cap and you can keep riding for free after that. Some of these work on multiple modes of Transport, such as the Istanbulkart which can be used on trains, trams, busses, ferries, funiculars, and even a cable car!
While Uber is the most popular ride-hailing service, it doesn’t work in all countries so find out which service applies (such as Lyft, Grab, etc.) and register for it. This will help if you find yourself beyond the public transport zone, or just need to get somewhere without the hassle. Be aware of local attitudes towards these services, as there are disputes between them and traditional cab companies which can often end up in violence.
4. Narrow it down
There’s always the temptation of trying to fit too much into a small timeframe. After all, you’ve spent so much time and money to travel to beautiful, far flung destinations, that you want to see everything it has to offer. But that’s never possible, and narrowing down your list is a vital part of itinerary planning. Highlight the things you absolutely cannot miss, but keep track of the other options as well. When you arrive at your destination, start off with things that interest you the most, and then you can start doing things from your maybe-list.
It’s also important to leave room in your itinerary for the unexpected. There are hidden gems that you’ll stumble on, or local favourites that you’ll find out about from a fellow passenger on a train. Leaving some breathing room will give you the space to wander around and get to know a place, outside of its tourist offerings.
5. Book your transport
After settling on the things you want to do, you’re ready to book your flights, trains, busses, and/or boats. Since these are not always on a regular schedule and might sell out, it’s best to book these first. This will provide peace of mind that you’ll actually get to your destination on a certain day, and you can start confirming accommodation and activities thereafter. Aggregators like Google Flights, TravelStart, or Kayak help to find available options, but always check the airline website directly as they are sometimes cheaper. Also clear your cookies between searches to make sure you get the best price.
6. Find a place to stay
Now that you’ve decided which city/cities to visit, what you want to do there, and what transport options are available, it’s time to find accommodation. Start off by looking up the best areas to stay in. You can save money by staying further out of the city centre or away from the tourist sites, but once you factor in the time and cost of getting back to the hub each day, the costs often even out.
We prefer staying closer to the action, as it gives you more time to explore and less time is spent commuting. Also keep in mind, that aside from hotels, you can look at alternatives like Airbnb or hostels to keep costs down, while still staying in popular neighbourhoods. Look up accommodation on sites like booking.com or hotels.com, and read reviews there to get an idea of what to expect. But also check the hotel websites directly, as you can sometimes get a better price there. Don’t forget to read the fine print as many properties have stated adding city taxes or resort fees, which eat away at your budget quickly.
Things to consider when deciding on a neighbourhood:
- How close is it to the landmarks you want to visit or activities you want to do?
- If you’re not hiring a car, is there public transport or ride sharing services available?
- Are there suitable (halal, kosher, vegan, vegetarian, etc.) restaurants, supermarkets or cafes nearby?
- Is it safe? You probably don’t want to stay in an area where you can’t walk around freely at night.
- Does it fit into your budget?
7. Reserve some activities
While you’re researching, take note of attractions or activities that require advance booking, and secure these as soon as you can. For example, the Inca Trail has a limited capacity and spots fill up months in advance. Or if you’re visiting a town for a specific festival, hotels fill up fast and if you leave it for too late, you’ll have limited choices that are usually much more expensive than they’d have been had you booked beforehand.
Okay, that’s it. Well done, you’ve planned your itinerary and are almost ready to go on your trip. To keep track of your itinerary, you can use apps or record it in a journal. Another option is to set up a spreadsheet, which is particularly useful if you have a complicated itinerary. Drop us an email and we’d be happy to share our template with you…