Creating an Itinerary: A work of Art, Science and Luck
Planning an itinerary is like directing an orchestra, brewing a beer, or cooking a dish to perfection. Like artwork or science, building it requires knowledge, precision, and a measure of luck. Additionally, the process of creating a masterpiece can be tedious at times as well as exciting.
Most people enjoy dreaming of a travel experience but chafe at the idea of creating a framework for their journey, in other words, crafting the itinerary. They prefer not to spend hours making contacts, trolling through travel blogs, websites and guidebooks, checking reviews, and booking the logistics while contending with different timezones, currencies, and seasons. Luckily for the planning-shy, there are people who do enjoy travel planning! (eh hem…shameless plug for The Traveling Advisor). There are also travel planning websites like Unanchor, Spotted by Locals, SideTour, Tripzaar, and TripIt with local itineraries or planning tools.
However, for those who love to plan and have time and patience, building an itinerary can be one of the most rewarding parts of the travel experience. Why? Because time and money (and vacation days!) are precious assets and when put in the position to decide how to prioritize time and money in an unfamiliar setting, we tend to think more carefully over our choices. This allows us to understand more about what is actually important and to define what our goals really are.
No matter who you are, the following guidelines are useful for crafting a unique and realistic itinerary.
Gather information before creating a schedule, even if you have set dates.
It is likely that as you talk to other people about their experiences and read up on your destination your priorities will shift and change over time. Attempting to calendar anything in the early stages is like trying to build a house without all of the materials. You will have to stop and start over a number of times. Also, in this stage it is important to keep track diligently of your research using online bookmarking tools or the more traditional method of keeping a planning notebook. If you get lazy and lose track, you will also lose important details in the mountain of information.
Plan within your budget and leave room for error.
It is almost a guarantee that you will spend more money than you planned because either you encounter something not on your itinerary that you can’t pass up (see point #5), there are hidden or unpredictable costs, or like all travelers you make mistakes that cost you money. For international travel, be sure to account for the foreign exchange rate and fees associated with using your credit card and ATM cards outside of the country. Click here to view and download a free guide for creating a budget for international travel.
Schedule pre-booked items first and then add activities and free time around it.
For example, start with the airfare and ground transportation, then add housing, and finally sites, activities, and events. Avoid simple mistakes like double-booking, overloading the calendar, or assuming incorrectly that it only takes X amount of time to get from Point A to Point B by placing anchors in your itinerary and building from there. Planning for down time (doing nothing) or free time (unscheduled time to figure out something on site!) is important, particularly for travel longer than 3 days.
Have a Plan A and a Plan B.
There will always be unplanned opportunities as well as unforeseen challenges on the road. However, creating a flexible itinerary means you can be more flexible when you need to be. For example, if the main point of your journey is to attend a music festival, plan so that the event falls in the middle or towards the end of your journey. Why? So that if your flight is delayed or cancelled due to weather you will not be stressed out because you already took that possibility into account. In Plan B you arrive a little later than expected but can rest assured that you will not miss the most important event of the trip. If everything goes as planned, you simply have more time to recover from the jetlag and check out additional sites before the main event!
Understand that you cannot and should not plan everything.
In fact, allowing yourself to deviate from your original plan is sometimes the best decision you can make because you will experience something you never could have dreamed up, researched, or scheduled in a million years. Additionally, as luck and fate would have it, weather and other events often thwart our carefully laid plans and if you accept this ahead of time you can avoid the travel blues and be ready to make the most of whatever moment you find yourself in.