Travel planning – how to quickly put together an itinerary for anywhere
One of my favourite parts of travelling is planning what I’m going to do and see. Whenever I get back from a trip, the first thing I do is whip out some guide books and start planning the next one.
Gone are the days when people went to a travel agent to put together a trip for them, the internet has made travel increasingly accessible, putting the onus on you to put together a great trip.
The problem is that with so much information available, where do you start? You’re probably being bombarded with photos from friends and strangers alike on social media of all sorts of wonderful places to visit both near and far. How do you see through all the noise to pick a great destination for you that fits your interests, time frame and budget?
On this page, I’ll explain how I put together an itinerary, find accommodation and choose restaurants for a trip. None of it is ground breaking or earth shattering, but sometimes you just need a few hints and pointers to get you going.
I don’t use any fancy tools for planning my trips, so you won’t need to download lots of apps, you just need an excel sheet or a piece of paper and access to the internet.
First up, how to get started. I’ll add further steps over the coming days to give you a full, step-by-step guide to planning your trip.
How I get started
1. Setting a time and cost budget
This will depend somewhat on your budget and your travel aims. I’m hoping to visit every country in the world during my lifetime, so I’ve been trying to set a pace of 8 new countries a year. This is quite ambitious and I don’t always manage it when I’m trying to fit trips in with friends and family, travelling for work, or going abroad for weddings.
I set an annual budget of £7,000 for my holidays. For some people this will seem excessive and to others it will seem minimal, it’s just the budget I set for myself each year and you can come up with your own depending on your own financial position. I’ll talk about how I set yearly and monthly budgets for myself in a later post.
I also set myself a travel time budget each year. I get 25 days annual leave from work, plus weekends, 8 bank holidays and I can buy or roll over up to 10 more days up to a total of 40 days a year. So technically I have could have up to a maximum of 152 days a year to play with.
Again, this will depend person to person and I appreciate that I am luckier than some to have that additional flexibility. In a typical year I keep my annual leave somewhere between 30 and 35 days.
I map out my proposed holidays for each holiday year at work (mine runs October to September…I know, weird right?). I try to make as much use of bank holidays as possible to maximise my time away during the year so that I’m only having to take off 4 days to make up a week.
This is how my plans have looked the last few years:
|Bologna & Ravenna||Oct||4||2|
2. Choosing where to go
I’d be lying if I said I had a proper process for this. For most, choosing a destination is usually a combination of recommendations from friends, general travel trends, inspiration from travel and cooking shows, celebrities’ social media posts and your ongoing bucketlist. Oftentimes I have no idea how I ended up fixating on a specific location – Sri Lanka was a good example of this. I was all set to go to Myanmar and then somehow ended up planning a trip to Sri Lanka, I don’t know why, it happens, I went with it.
My holidays are often very driven by my interests. I’m more a city break person than a beach person, but I’m also a sucker for great landscapes and scenery, so the odd immaculate tropical beach sneaks in there sometimes.
There’s still a long list of cities and countries on my list purely because of particular historical sites I want to visit. These are usually Roman, Byzantine or Medieval, which is totally driven by what I studied at university. It’s amazing to visit somewhere you’ve studied or read about extensively, there’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as finally seeing it in real life.
I was completely overwhelmed to finally walk into Hagia Sophia, with all the weight of its long and intricate history behind it. I’d encourage anyone to take this approach to travel, to go to the places you really have an interest or connection with as it does really give you that shiver of excitement.
If you’re planning to travel throughout the year then this might also shape your decision. I’ll usually do a few European city breaks, a longer trip in winter, usually to Asia. Then I might have some medium haul trips thrown in to the Middle East or slightly further flung European states.
Putting together a travel plan
3. The bare bones itinerary
Once I’ve chosen where to go, I’ll start pulling together the rough outline of my itinerary. I’ll typically use the following approach:
- Check out the ‘best of’ and ‘things to do’ sections of my guide books. For a larger trip I’ll use both Rough Guide and Lonely Planet for pointers.
- Check out ‘things to do’ for that country or city on Tripadvisor.
- Google a few search terms like ‘best things to see in X’ and check out a few blog posts and travel lists for ideas.
Once I’ve got my list of top places I want to see, it’s time to fit them into a workable itinerary. This is what I do next:
- Get on Google Maps and start plotting all the places onto one big trip. Here’s an example of a first cut map for Croatia https://goo.gl/maps/gGSAKDQ8as52
- Rearrange my Google Map to put everything in order depending on the relative proximity of each stop and to make a sensible loop or journey to fit with where I’m staying or where I’m going next.
- (Regrettably!) Remove anything that is too far away or won’t fit the itinerary for my length of stay (Pula had to come out of my Croatian plan as it was too far to travel in the time available).
- Cross reference the final order with opening days and times to make sure I can see everything I want to on the days I’ll be there- I’ll adjust my plan as necessary to put everything in the best order to maximise time and opening hours.
- Split up the maps into days to take account of how long I need at each place.
Here’s an example of a finished day-map for Copenhagen https://goo.gl/maps/z1eY0
4. The details – flights, accommodation and restaurants
Once I’m settled on an itinerary and know how long I’m going for, when I’m going and where I need to fly in and out of, it’s time to start booking things!
I usually use Skyscanner to find my flights. I’ll search for my route and date and then I can filter the results using the sliding buttons to find the times I want. I can also filter out the London airports that are less convenient for me to travel to.
I usually book direct with the airline on their website. I prefer not to book through a third party as it can make things more difficult if something goes wrong or you need to make changes.
To choose my accommodation I use Booking.com as my first port of call, using the following process:
- Search for my location on my desired dates.
- Filter the results using the left hand menu to show me only properties with more than an 8 out of 10 traveller rating.
- Filter based on my preferred location and any other specifics (e.g. parking availability if I’m doing a driving tour).
- Sort by price.
- Select the highest rated, cheapest accommodation which fits my parameters. I usually try to go for free cancellation deals to give me some flexibility as my itinerary matures- this has been really useful on a number of trips.
The finishing touches
5. Fill in the gaps
I love this part! This is when I fill in my itinerary with activities and tours and places to eat. I’ll also pre-book any tickets for museums or attractions that I need. I try to keep pre-booked tickets to a minimum to keep the flexibility in my itinerary, but if you’re short on time and you know ticket queues can be long, then for some places it’s worth doing. The Louvre in Paris and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona are good examples of places worth pre-booking to avoid queues.
For restaurant bookings I largely rely on Googling the best places in that location and using a combination of Tripdavisor reviews, blog lists and newspaper articles to find some suggestions. It’s always worth asking friends and colleagues who have been there before as some insider knowledge can unearth some hidden gems.
I’ll usually put a few options that I’ve researched in my itinerary in the local area. I don’t always eat at them as it’s good to go with the flow when you’re away, but it’s good to have some options to fall back on if you’re not sure.
I also like to factor in some proper local gastronomic experiences on each trip, which might include finding a really busy place that locals love and also trying a local Michelin starred restaurant to enjoy a tasting menu. This can be a pricey option, but a tasting menu is a great way to experience lots of different local dishes in one sitting and makes a great first night dining option to relax and orientate yourself.