Welcome to my newest series, The Wanderland Guide to Travel Planning. This is the third post in a multi-part series!.
Part Three // Creating an Itinerary
Once I’ve nailed down my destination(s) and transportation, my next travel planning step is to start a rough itinerary. For short trips, this can help me get organized in case I want to, for example, make hard-to-get dinner reservations or nab a ticket to a show. For long trips, it helps me organize my time and make the most out of my travels. My first move? Grabbing a guidebook and binging on travel blogs!
• Guidebooks: If I’m still in the trip contemplation stage, I’ll sometimes take a guidebook out of the local library, but once I’ve committed to going I’ll usually buy one to take along on my travels. I’m on the Lonely Planet mailing list, and whenever they’re having a sale — usually a few times a year — I snap up guides for all my upcoming trips. My favorite feature? Being able to purchase a single downloadable chapter at a time online, or buy both a physical and digital book together at a discounted bundled price. Personally I think the more specific the better (I’d rather carry both California and Arizona guidebooks than buy a regional one for the Southwest USA).
I’m not always Lonely Planet loyal — I occasionally branch out to other guides. Moon does off-the-beaten-path stuff (my friend Kyle wrote their guide to Maui!) and I love the full color versions of Fodors, especially for regions like the Caribbean, which Lonely Planet doesn’t cover very comprehensively.
• Travel blogs and websites: I start by heading to all my favorite bloggers site’s and checking their destination pages to see if they’ve been where I’m headed. If not, I simply Google “[Destination] travel blog” and see what comes up. The New York Times travel section has a series called 36 Hours In that I always check the archives of when I’m researching. And if I’m heading to anywhere in Southeast Asia, I make sure to take a long hard look at Travelfish — if anyone knows of a similarly comprehensive resource for other parts of the world, I’d love to hear it!
• Maps: If you or your friends or family are AAA members, ask them to go grab you a free map! For some trips I like to have one just for fun and photo-ops, but for others — like road trips in which cell service is spotty — they can be lifesavers.
• Forums: Sometimes I’ve exhausted all research options and still have a question about something related to my trip, or I just want an opinion on a part of it I’ve been weighing up in my mind. Travel forums can be a great place to go get those answers. Tripadvisor’s forums are my favorite, though the audience tends to skew more tour bus than public transit. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum is another go-to. While a little less frequented than the Tripadvisor forums overall, they’re definitely a bit more backpacker oriented. For Southeast Asia, Travelfish forums take the prize again, while for diving trips Scuba Board forums can’t be beat. Remember that what goes around comes around — if you got an answer that helped you out, try to see if there’s someone you can help out with info about a destination you already know and love. Also, follow the first commandment of forums — thou shalt search previous threads before asking thy question.
Once my head is spinning with ideas and inspiration, I take pen to paper and make a list of everywhere I want to go. Then I start prioritizing. Personally, I’ve tried to adopt the “less is more” manifesto when it comes to destinations as I need time to work on the road, and I find that I’m happier after spending more time in less places. But even if you’re off on a pure vacation, don’t forget that you’ll want time to relax and unwind! Build in time to linger in cafés, read on beaches or park benches, and, you know, do laundry.
Sometimes I print out blank calendar pages and start penciling things in to get a pragmatic picture of what I can see in what time I have. Sometimes I take a map and circle the places I want to go and start building a route from there.
For example, when I was in the daydreaming stage of my recent two-week trip to California, I considered hitting up Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs, Anaheim, Santa Barbara, and even flirted with the idea of a side-trip to Tijuana. In the end, after booking my flights in and out of Los Angeles and sitting down with a calendar and a map of SoCal, I stuck with the first half of that list and dropped the second. There’s always next time. And don’t forget to be realistic about how much time it can take to transit between various cities or even hotels!
What you do with that itinerary is up to you. When I arrived in California last month, I had accommodation booked and I was on a locked schedule. That was great. When I arrived in Central America last spring, I had four months, a notebook with a list of cities I wanted to visit and a rough idea of the order in which I might do so. I didn’t have a single bed booked, not even for the night I landed. That was great too. One traveler, two different tips, and two different moods!
Next up: Booking accommodation, activities, and more!