Vacations may not seem like the time to enforce a strict itinerary but as far back as I can remember there hasn’t been one without the other. My papa used to plan our family vacations from the time we had to wake up to the time we went to sleep back at the hotel, which, if not for a keen ability to adapt throughout the day, could have been intense. Not surprisingly, I am also a planner by nature and, honestly, I’m glad. I tend to choose “vacations” that are active and jam-packed with things to do, opting for the city and its surrounding hiking trails/mountains over lounging on the beach. If I weren’t able to plan out my days accordingly, I would miss out on so many things in each location.
1. Decide on the activities you most want to do in a given city. TripAdvisor is a great resource to start your “to do” list, but if you want to do things that are a little off the beaten path don’t forget to look for travel blogs or articles written by locals.
2. Once you have your list, place them on a map along with the location of your hotel. Google Maps works well (if you don’t have too many locations) or you can use a program like Trip It. This step is most important if you plan to walk or ride public transportation from place to place rather than taking a taxi.
3. Divide your activities across the days of your trip after you finish mapping. Here are some things to keep in mind when doing so:
a) Walking (and how fast you walk) or transit distance (which lines arrive at the right times and where they cross) from each other as well as from your hotel.
b) The weather – no one wants to be hiking in the rain and browsing museums in the sunshine.
c) Hours of operation. Museums are typically closed on Mondays and many restaurants won’t open until mid-afternoon. Always, always, always check before you plan a day around an activity you won’t be able to do.
d) Don’t plan them down to the minute. Be realistic about how long you expect to spend at each place, but make sure to leave room for something to surprise you. You wouldn’t want to miss an impromptu concert in the park because you don’t have enough time in your day.
e) Add any restaurants or eateries you might want to hit up so you have their locations available wherever you are, whenever you’re hungry. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to go to those places or you should avoid others, but it is nice to have some sort of direction when you’re starving.
f) Clothing. It sounds silly to plan around what you’re going to wear, but when you have a limited amount of clothing and a day full of activities you don’t want to have to return to the hotel to change. In other words, don’t plan to go to three museums, hike, and then see a symphony all in the same day – unless, of course, you don’t plan to do anything else.
4. Map each day out and save it to your phone. You can use the TripIt app or Google Maps screenshots saved to your image gallery. Now, you could just GPS each location when you get overseas if you have international service, but I have found that it is much easier to just have the map saved to your phone with each location. This way, you don’t have to announce to everyone that you’re a tourist with a paper map, you don’t have to worry about not having service, and you look like every single other person on the street staring at your phone when you’re really using your map to get around. That said, try to look up and around you as you walk from place to place using the street signs to guide you – you don’t want to miss the street art on the sides of buildings or the sculptures done into the sidewalks because you’re looking at a phone screen.
5. Once you know where everything is located and the distance from one location to the next, you will know whether you can walk it or if you will need to use public transit. If you need to use transit look into city passes that also give you access to museums and other things that might be on your list for a discount – some cities are worth it, some are not. The Berlin Pass, for example, was not worth it for us because it did not include the museums we actually wanted to go to whereas the Museumpass did (even though it didn’t include public transit, the cost still ended up being much less). More information on budgeting for travel will come in a later post, so make sure to check back.
-M. Ray Hall