When you’re putting together a trip, it can be a real challenge to design the ideal itinerary. For some, it’s one of the most enjoyable elements of travel planning. For others, it’s no fun at all. Therefore, I thought I’d try to compile a few recommendations or strategies that I have found useful in hopes that something might prove beneficial to others contemplating post-pandemic travels.
1. Number your itinerary in nights instead of days
Okay, this doesn’t really qualify as a “guiding principle”, it’s more of a tip, but a practical one in my opinion.
It would seem natural to count your days in each location. That’s fine if you’re talking about full days, but often people simply describe their itinerary by saying 5 days London, 4 days Paris, etc. without accounting for travel time between cities. And it’s not just the hours on the train or the plane – you must also consider the time it takes to pack up, check out, get to the train station or the airport, wait to board, get to your accommodation, check in and get settled.
Hence, it’s better to organize your trip in terms of nights and full days. Think of the leftover time on travel days as a bonus and give yourself some flexibility on how to use it. This leads into the next point…
2. Assume your travel days will go wrong
This might seem a tad pessimistic, but I’m merely suggesting that you avoid planning anything of importance on days when you’re on the move. You never know when things will go awry and the possibilities are endless.
Weather delays in air travel are not uncommon and technical problems occasionally crop up. I’ve also been at the gate about to board when the pilots went on strike and I’ve been delayed over an hour after boarding waiting for food to be loaded. In Poland our train stopped for an extended period before pulling alongside another whereupon all of its passengers transferred to ours. My parents and I once missed a train connection on our way to the Scottish highlands out of Edinburgh due to a mechanical issue. (The rail company actually paid for a taxi to take us all the way from Aberdeen to Dingwall. The driver asked if he could stop and pick up his wife since neither of them had ever been up there but unfortunately she was too busy to join us.)
Remember to keep a close eye on flights involving multiple layovers. My last trip to Europe involved connections in Boston and Zurich, the second being a tight one. While waiting at the gate in Halifax, I checked the Boston arrivals and saw that the plane coming from Zurich was going to be late which in turn would mean a delayed departure for us and a missed connection in ZRH. When we arrived at BOS we went straight to the check-in counter where they put us on Lufthansa to Munich and we arrived at our final destination not long after the original time.
3. You won’t miss a place you didn’t visit, but you might regret not having more time in one you did
You can’t see it all. Focus on your top picks.
This is probably the hardest thing to accept when you start planning a trip. It can be agonizing to cut out something or somewhere you really want to include even though leaving it in will make your trip too rushed. Trimming down an itinerary to concentrate on the priorities is something you learn after a while, but it doesn’t get much easier.
That said, optimal itinerary pace varies with the individual. There are folks for whom being on the move is a very enjoyable part of the travel experience. Their enthusiasm for the next stop outweighs the reluctance to depart the previous one. You need to figure out where you fit on the spectrum and plan accordingly.
If you’re travelling in a group, it’s even more vital to keep the schedule manageable. Each additional person brings their own preferences, quirks and qualms. I remember sitting at breakfast in a B&B chatting with two couples who were on an ambitious six week multi-country trip to Europe. It was obvious who the organizer was – she had an impressive binder and an enthusiastic attitude. After she dashed back up to the room, her husband asked us where we were headed next. When we told him we were flying home the following day, he said he wished he was as well, but unfortunately he had “two more weeks of hell” …just as his wife walked up behind him.
4. There are no truly “must-see” sightseeing attractions
Some might disagree, but in my opinion there are no absolutely obligatory tourist activities. The important thing is to familiarize yourself with all the options at the destination and see which ones appeal to you personally. Don’t just follow the crowd without doing a little research of your own. Many of the iconic landmark attractions are expensive to visit so you don’t want to regret shelling out the cash if it turns out not to be your cup of tea.
Conversely, don’t avoid something popular just because it’s a tourist magnet. If you read reviews and discover a significant number of comments from people saying it far exceeded their expectations, maybe you should give it a go. I didn’t bother with Alcatraz on my first trip to San Francisco because it seemed a little too pricey for an old prison, but the next time in town I decided to go and learned that it’s actually quite fascinating and well worth the ticket cost.
5. Know what’s going on at your destination
Go on a googling frenzy to find out what events are being held while you’re in the area.
Check what’s on at the concert hall. Find the tourism board’s website and look for upcoming festivals. You might even alter your itinerary to include a place where something especially appealing will be happening. And sometimes it’s not the well known events that make the biggest impact but those in small towns and villages popular with the locals.
A few memorable highlights for me have been a gala concert featuring the Swiss alphorn in Lucerne, an opera in Copenhagen, the March of the Dachshunds in Krakow, a 1940s weekend in the Yorkshire Dales and the Doors Open event in Ottawa.
On the flip side, it’s also wise to make yourself aware of things occurring at your destination that could negatively impact your trip. A major trade convention could send the hotel rates sky high so check conference calendars for the city you’re visiting to avoid those dates. Closer to your trip, stuff like transit strikes or impending inclement weather can interfere with your plans so try to stay on top of the news if possible.
6. It’s okay to divide and conquer
If you’re travelling with other adults, there is no rule that you need to be together the whole time. It’s quite likely that your interests will diverge and it’ll make sense to split up occasionally. If you want to spend hours at the British Museum and your travelling companion prefers to hit up all the shops on Oxford street, you really need to go your own way. Just make sure everyone is on board with this plan before you book the trip together.
I love travel planning even though it can be extremely challenging to pare it down to a reasonable agenda. Over time I have learned to relax the pace and to prioritize more carefully. The purpose of the trip is to have an enjoyable experience, not to tick a bunch of boxes. As you daydream about future travels, ponder what destinations call to you the most and start thinking about what your trip will look like. Gather tips and read trip reports but tailor your itinerary to your personal interests and remember not to bite off more than you can chew.