Over and over again, I hear people saying they find it so hard to start planning an itinerary that it is overwhelming. Confusing. Eventually, they get there.
But your mind can be fraught with questions. Did I miss something? Is the itinerary going to flow? What if I don’t see everything?
What if there was a much easier way to get started? And be confident when you finish creating your itinerary?
Often at the start of the planning process, we chose a destination with a purpose in mind. We might then look at flights and try to decide the best time to travel. Then we might look at hotels, things to do, where to eat, and the list goes on. What area should you stay in? What is the best value tour?
What is happening is that we are trying to fill in the details without having a plan. It’s hard to decide on the details when the plan is non-existent.
Here’s the thing. You can keep going around in circles, as I did for many years, until you are so confused. Then you decide to either join a tour or hand the whole thing over to someone else to plan for you.
And that can work. Or, like me and my past experiences, those trips become a compromise at best. At worst, they are poorly planned and are not a good use of my valuable travelling time.
Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of good Travel Planners and Travel Agents out there. If you have one, do not let them go because they are invaluable. Putting together an excellent itinerary that maximises your time, flows well from one day to the next, one destination to another, and even activity to activity is a skill that not everyone possesses.
But if you want to learn how to do it yourself, then learn to create a plan first and research the details later.
This post teaches you how to create an Itinerary Template using my unique planning formula AND then filling it with the details.
You can use this method for extensive and complex itineraries, short stays, day trips and even half days. The plan or itinerary template keeps your research focused instead of researching a bunch of stuff that may or may not work.
So, on that note, let’s get started.
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Overview of Creating an Itinerary
Listed below is a brief overview of the steps you will follow to create your Itinerary Template.
Decide on your destination. Knowing a bit about your destination will allow you to choose the components of your itinerary more easily.
If you plan to visit multiple destinations, I suggest you create an Itinerary Template for the first destination and replicate it for the others. Then, once you start researching, you can easily adjust each component to suit the destination.
Work out how long you have for your trip. Or in each location you plan to visit.
- Does that time include travel days?
- How many nights will you be in each location (not days)?
Create your Itinerary Template – you can find full details on how to do this below.
Research and fill in the components of your itinerary template:
- Activities and Tours
- Transport – transfers, trains etc
- Other – restaurants, additional things to do, festivals etc
Decide if you will book your trip yourself or take your itinerary to a Travel Agent.
Don’t Make These Mistakes when Planning
Too Much Crammed into your Itinerary
One mistake I see people making time and again when planning their itineraries is cramming too much into them: too many destinations, too many things to see and do.
Here are things you need to remember:
- Travelling from location to location wastes precious travel time and adds costs.
- Travelling is exhausting and if you don’t slow down or factor in downtime you run the risk of getting sick or being constantly tired.
- Things usually take longer than we anticipate. For example, you might think travelling between one destination and another will only take a couple of hours. Here is how it usually goes:
- Time to pack up and check out of accommodation
- Getting to the train station, bus depot, airport
- Arriving and getting to your accommodation
- Checking in and settling into your new accommodation
- Taking time to find your way around another new location
- Running from one activity to the next allows no time to take in your surroundings.
More often than not, the magical moments of travel happen when least expected and in unplanned moments.
Like friendly interactions with staff at a local café you visit daily, or a chat with a local on an early morning walk or driving off the main road and seeing where the path will take you. Taking time over coffee and people watching. You never know when those moments will come. But if you over-plan your time, there will be no opportunities.
Take time to breathe and take in the beauty and daily life of your destination.
Don’t treat your destination like Disneyland, a place to tick off all the rides. Instead, be mindful of the people who live there.
Another factor to take into consideration is the area where your accommodation is located.
Often cheaper accommodation means it is in a nearby town or the suburbs. (Or it’s terrible.)
That means you will need to use public transport (or taxis or Uber) every day to sightsee and join activities. Or walk more than you anticipated.
Of course, you may want to experience life in those areas, and that’s perfectly fine. Just be mindful when booking.
On my last solo trip, I stuffed up. I found a B&B that had good ratings and was very reasonably priced. It was a 15-minute walk from the centre of Verona, which I thought would be fine. But it proved too far each morning and afternoon, and I certainly didn’t want to do it again at night to go out for dinner. I thought the B&B would be better being a solo traveller. I won’t make that mistake again.
When booking my accommodation, I open Google Maps on one screen and the booking search engine on the other (I like Booking.com) to easily see the location of my accommodation. Most booking platforms include a location map for easy reference. You can use the search engine filters and narrow down your search if you know which area you prefer. If you don’t, read some articles and familiarise yourself with a map of the town/city.
Creating your Itinerary Template
I didn’t even realise I used a formula until an attendee of my Italian Afternoon pointed it out. I had been telling everyone how I plan my itineraries. We called it the 4 x 4 formula—four days with four components.
Let me share my unique Itinerary Planning Formula with you. You can download the formula here if you want to have it as a reference.
The planning formula is based on a four-day stay, but it can be used for any amount of time from weeks to days to day trips and even half days. I chose four days because it is the least amount of time I stay in a location, and I feel I have had enough time to explore. And know if I would return or not.
The formula components are:
- Day Trip
Here’s how it works.
Important Note – Every itinerary, including day trips, has a Discovery component. Discovery is the only component that is fixed.
The other components are interchangeable, or you can leave any of them out and duplicate other components to take their place.
The Discovery Day or component is all about getting to know your new destination. That could mean joining a free or paid walking tour, jumping on a hop on hop off bus, or simply following a self-guided tour. One of the best ways to feel familiar with a new location fast is to get your bearings and be able to navigate your way around.
It doesn’t mean you will be proficient in navigating your way around by any means. But you will have confidence when heading out to explore.
The other thing a “discovery” or orientation tour does is point out places of interest along the way that you can go back and visit either on your Interest Day or Free Day.
Often, people will bounce from one main attraction to the next and never really see a place. By incorporating a Discovery component into your itinerary. You will be more inclined to wander without getting too lost (although getting lost is fun too). If you join a tour, you will also be learning about the location, an essential aspect of travel.
The Interest Day or component is all about you and what you like. Your interests.
You might love food, so your Interest Day could consist of you joining a food tour, or joining a cooking class, or finding all the fresh food markets in the city.
You might love art and find a painting class to join or create a list of all the artworks you would like to see in that location.
Take your passion, your interests and find out what you can do in that location. Combining what you love with your travels will make your trip even more memorable. And meaningful. Travel with a purpose other than just seeing the most popular tourist spots.
I joined Maria from Florentine Shopping Experience on my last trip to Florence for a combined food and artisan tour. It was fabulous! I am creative. I love art and especially loved going behind the scenes and watching mosaic artists practising this ancient craft. The food markets were incredible, the tastings were enough to fill me for lunch, and the people I met were funny and welcoming. That was my Interest day, and it ticked all the boxes and more.
I see it all the time. People running to see major attractions only to be disappointed. They hear all the hype and think it must be fabulous. But let’s face it, if you don’t like or appreciate art, you can stare at the Statue of David all you want and still not understand what all the fuss is about (it’s a shocking thought, I know!)
Think about what you love and do some research. You never know what you will find.
The Day Trip component doesn’t have to be a whole day. It can be a morning or afternoon/evening. Like the afternoon/evening trip to San Miniato Truffle Festival I attended.
But for now, let’s talk in terms of a whole day.
I am a lover of Slow Travel. That means I like to stay in one location for longer. I know a lot of travellers think they will become bored. But I don’t.
One of those reasons I love slow travel so much is I can unpack once, sleep in the same bed and become familiar with my surroundings without having to pack up and move every few days.
I can explore all I want during the day and come “home” at night. In addition, it means I get to try a variety of restaurants in my area and become familiar with shopkeepers and café owners — a nice bonus when you stay longer.
To keep exploring different locations, I do day trips. That means I have the best of both worlds – familiarity and convenience combined with exploring new locations.
Visiting a town or city for only one day could seem the opposite to why I love Slow Travel. However, these day trips give me a good idea if I would like to come back and explore more or include them in a future itinerary. Or I choose smaller towns that I probably wouldn’t stay in for long, so a day to explore is fine.
I don’t visit a location if it is more than a two and a half-hour train ride. I don’t like to waste a lot of time travelling; I prefer to explore. It’s different if you organise an all-day tour. There will be stops included along the way most of the time, not only at the end destination.
I make sure I head out early and take as much time as possible while there. This planning formula can be used to plan out your Day trip, too, except for the Day Trip component, of course.
Plan in hourly blocks instead of days. For example:
- Join a walking tour upon arrival to discover the area
- Explore museums, stores or other places of interest to you
- Spend free time relaxing in a café or restaurant
Of course, you don’t have to include a Day Trip in your itinerary if you don’t feel like it. That’s the beauty of this planning formula. It’s flexible.
And last but not least is the Free Day or component. For me, this is one of the essential components aside from the Discovery Day.
The Free Day allows downtime. But, if you need it, it also enables you to visit the places you have missed so far. Or revisit places you loved.
It is a day that remains unplanned before your departure and can be used for whatever you like once there.
Travel can bring unexpected opportunities. Unfortunately, it can also bring jetlag and exhaustion.
Whatever comes your way, a Free Day in your itinerary allows for the flexibility you might need. And if you don’t want it, plan another Discovery or Interest Day or another Day Trip.
Assembling your Itinerary Template
Apart from the Discovery Day, which I highly recommend doing first, every other component is flexible.
You might like to join tours that double up on your components. For example, when I travelled to Bologna for five days, I joined an all-day Food Tour to Modena with Amazing Italy. The tour served as a Day Trip and an Interest Day.
Let’s start putting together your Itinerary Template –
Write out the number of days and the components you want for each day. Remember, these are flexible, and you can change them anytime. The other thing you might like to keep in mind is only to plan your Discovery Day ahead of time and leave the rest until you get there.
It’s up to you. Some people like to plan everything in advance. I like to do a combination. I book the tours I like before I leave, especially if they are popular or I travel in the busy season. The rest I like to plan as I go along.
Start with your Discovery Day. This could even be an afternoon. You might arrive at your destination around lunchtime and then join a walking tour in the afternoon or evening. Or you could wait until the next day and join a tour first thing. Remember, you can plan a self-guided walk yourself if you are on a tight budget.
When you know your arrival times and the location of your accommodation, start planning your Discovery component. Allow enough time to find your accommodation, check-in, freshen up and find the meeting point of your tour if you plan on joining a tour soon after arrival.
Please don’t do what I did and only allow 15 minutes to run through Florence to find my tour group somewhere I had never been. I made it! But only in the nick of time. AND I was exhausted after travelling for over 30 hours.
Create an Activities list of all the things and places you would like to do and see, including museums, restaurants, markets, exhibitions etc.
Then create a second list of Must-See Places and Activities, or highlight these on your first Activities list. This is what you will work from first so that you don’t miss anything important.
If you feel you need to book ahead of time, then please do. I was so disappointed I missed seeing the Last Supper on my day in Milan because I had left it too late to book.
These activities should be included in your Interest Day. Add all the activities to your Daily Schedule (see next step for download link). Don’t forget to add travel/walking times between activities.
Once you have some solid bookings and plans in place, you can download my Daily Schedule and start entering the details.
You will be able to see how much time you have left available each day. Avoid cramming in too much. Better to leave space that you can easily fill when you are there than over-commit and find yourself stressing to get from place to place.
There will be large gaps of time in your schedule. Use your Activities to fill the gaps. Personally, I would wait until I was at my destination and plan accordingly.
I found myself exhausted for days after my arrival. Two long haul flights and two train rides will do that to you! So, when I found some free time in my schedule, I took the opportunity to rest. I didn’t want to get sick, so a bit of self-care went a long way.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: What NOT to do When Planning Your Itinerary
Researching Your Trip
Each part of your travel requires some degree of research, from the accommodation, flights, transport, tours and things to do.
Even if it is only to find opening times of a museum you want to visit.
I know a lot of people organise things as they go along. However, I also see many people who stand in line for hours waiting to buy tickets they could have purchased ahead of time with a bit of preplanning.
Don’t waste time standing in line. If you know the things you want to do ahead of time, go ahead and book them; however, if you are like me and travel in the off-season, you can be more flexible. There will be fewer crowds.
During my time in Florence, I booked my train trips and museum tickets while I was there. I could more easily gauge how I was feeling, the times I had available and do what I felt like doing. There were certain things I thought I would see, but when I was there, I didn’t feel like it.
Even though I like to plan and organise, I don’t want to over-plan my schedule ahead of time.
Before you start planning and researching your trip, I suggest downloading my Itinerary Planning Guide and Checklist. This will guide you through the planning and research process and provide links to download my handy Travel Planners and more.
In summary, this is how I research my trips:
- Decide and prepare how you will store the information you will find during your research. Will it be a notebook, saved to Dropbox or Pocket or recorded in the Travel Planners?
- Start researching the different components of the trip. I like to use:
- Facebook Groups
- Pinterest (to find travel blogs)
- Store the information I have found in an easily accessible place (see step 1)
Building your Itinerary
Take your Itinerary Template, your Daily Schedule and your research notes and start building out your itinerary.
- Use the Itinerary Template you have created as a guide to show you what days you will be what things.
- Use the Daily Schedule to plan out your activities for each day. I use specific tools to plan my travel times between activities and destinations. See below for a list of the tools I use.
- Allow time for travel between airports, accommodation, tour meeting points, driving between destinations, train travel, buses etc.
- Remember to check your check-in times, the time you need to arrive at the airport and to allow enough time for connections of flights and trains.
- Allow more time than you think you will need. You can always fill in time, but you cannot gain more if you find yourself running late and trying to navigate your way through an unfamiliar city, airport or train station.
We haven’t discussed your Travel Budget. I think that’s a whole other blog post. However, I do talk about your budget and cheaper alternatives in my Itinerary Planning Guide and Checklist.
Travel Itinerary Planning Tools
Here is a list of my favourite research and planning tools. There is a link to each one (you will find some are affiliate links and others are not – see note below blog post regarding affiliate links). These are my favourites, but I am always on the lookout for new tools and resources, so if you have any you recommend, I would love to take a look.
- Airbnb (use this link to receive a discount off your first stay)
- Google Maps
- Currency Converter
DO NOT LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT!
I see far too often someone asking if Travel Insurance is worth it. Yes, it is. I hope I got my point across. The saying is, “If you can’t afford Travel Insurance, you can’t afford to travel”.
Don’t get caught in a medical emergency that could send you into debt. It is simply not worth it. And if the worst does happen and you become sick or injured, you do not want the extra stress of wondering how you will pay for all your medical expenses.
The Travel Insurance company I have used and close friends have used is:
Please, don’t leave home without it. I am not a nervous Nellie, but I would never take the risk and travel without insurance.
Have Fun Planning!
I love planning itineraries. Who doesn’t, it’s exciting? But it can be very stressful. Considering you are spending a lot of money and travelling to unfamiliar places, it’s understandable.
But if you develop a process, you will build confidence. And before you know it, you will enjoy planning your trip as much as the trip itself. Well, almost as much.
Have fun, and if you need some advice, reach out. I am always happy to help.