Today I want to share my travel planning process. I LOVE trip planning! It’s almost as much fun as the trip itself to me. I like to use Pinterest and Google Drive mostly for my planning, and after performing these steps for my last several trips, I feel pretty good about my method.
Of course, as this is my own process, it is tailored to my travel style. Travel styles can vary greatly between travelers. Kevin and I like to be on the move when we vacation. We walk a lot, cram in a lot of sightseeing, and try to experience local restaurants. So for some, this may feel very “overplanned” (and you probably think I’m crazy). But it works great for how we vacation. I try to put something into every time slot, and then leave mental room to change it on the fly if we want to, which we often do. But I find that having a tight schedule before we leave helps streamline the “must-do’s” and avoids any “What should we do now?” situations. This list of steps might seem long and overwhelming, but keep in mind that I draw my process out so that it takes several months, and I only focus on one or two steps at once. When you have enough time beforehand, it is quite fun! Take a look at how I plan, and steal any of these ideas for yourself if you want to! Now take a deep breath and don’t get scared! Here we go!
Step 1: I always begin with Pinterest. I search the city or country we are visiting with no other keywords first, to get an idea of the location. I get a Pinterest board started, and save anything that looks interesting. When I see repeats of things to do or see, then I know I’ve found the popular tourist draws. This is okay! We ARE tourists after all. Tourist attractions are popular for a reason, so we usually like to see them (there is a lot of snobbery these days about getting “off the beaten path” when traveling). This step usually lasts about a week or less if I am kind of obsessing over it (sometimes trip planning is all I can think about once a reservation is made).
Step 2: Start clicking on the pins to their sources. This is where you can get lost down the rabbit hole of clicking through to article after article. But if you’ve got some extra planning time, that can be very enjoyable. If I start feeling overwhelmed or have too many tabs open, I just close all of it and start over later. I try not to worry about missing something. I will do LOTS of reading during this step, but it is a valuable time to be taking in information and slowly becoming an “expert” (compared to what I was before) on being a tourist in this location. During this step, I often just absorb info – I don’t make too many notes yet. And it helps me make decisions in the later steps. This step can last a while, like a month or more, depending how far out the trip is.
Step 3: Introduce Google Drive into the mix. This step gets added in before I am done with Step 2, as they work off each other. I have a TRAVEL folder that I put all my stuff into. Each trip will have it’s own subfolder, and inside that, as many files as I need.
I usually start with a new “My Map.” I start plonking down sites of interest, and I don’t worry about how far apart they all are yet. I just toss anything we might like to see on the map, even if it feels far away from the rest. I get these locations from everything I read during Step 2. Any restaurants, museums, lookout points, landmarks etc. that are recommended that sound interesting go on this map. Once I’m ready for this step, I do it for as long as I’m doing Step 2.
Step 4: Make a spreadsheet in Google Drive. I make 7 columns along the top, and however many days we’re traveling, plus one, for rows along the side. My columns are labeled DATE, BREAKFAST, MORNING, LUNCH, AFTERNOON, DINNER, EVENING, and the meal columns are thinner than the others. The rows are labeled with the day of the week and date. If it’s a week-long trip or less, I usually color-code each day with it’s own color and later make my map color coded to match (see photo above). This should take less than 10 minutes to set up.
Step 5: Once I feel I have scoured the internet as fully as my brain can manage, then it’s time to start analyzing the data I’ve collected. I look over my map and start determining which places are near each other and could be done on the same day. I will search open hours/days, how long to spend on each place (for things like museums or architectural sites), and how long it takes to get to them, if they are further from where we’re staying. For things that are only available at certain times, I start slotting them into my spreadsheet first, followed by anything we MUST see, and build around them. I keep adding and rearranging as needed. I usually stare at my spreadsheet during breaks at work (does that make me a nerd?), and this often leads to some reshuffling to make it even better. I will take a few weeks to do this process, as I don’t like to rush it, and it will be amended countless times until I am satisfied.
Step 6: Concurrently with Step 5, I start taking notes on transportation. I usually just have a regular Google document for this, and arrange it in the order that we’ll be doing it. I include directions from the airport to accommodation, and then accomodation to each location that needs it. For a place like NYC or London, it’s not a bad idea to include the subway/tube stop for each location right on the spreadsheet, especially if our smartphones won’t work there (shown in black in the above photo). There’s no other easy way to find that out once you get there, besides asking people.
Step 7: Once the itinerary is fleshed out and looking pretty good, I start looking for restaurants that are in the areas we plan to be during mealtimes. I just google restaurants in X neighborhood and read reviews. I will admit that I often include these on my spreadsheet, and we just as often eat somewhere else. For whatever reason, the restaurants are harder to plan for, but it’s nice to have it ready in any case. Even if we only hit a few of them, it’s a good way to ensure that we will experience at least some authentic local food that is known to be tasty. I also like to read up on local chains (if they have any), so that when we see one, we’ll know if we should stop in or run the other way.
Bonus Step 8: After all that, the last step is to be okay with the liklihood of changes. Unexpected things come up all the time, and it’s best to just flow with it. Sometimes we want to linger at a museum longer than expected, or hunt down a restaurant that the cab driver recommended, or something might be closed for renovations. You just never know. Even though I plan all this out and spend a lot of time on building the perfect itinerary, I always expect that it will be altered, which makes it pretty easy to handle when that inevitably comes up.
I hope that reading about my trip planning methods didn’t overwhelm you too much. It sounds like a lot, and describing it isn’t overly exciting, but I assure you it can be a really great part of the trip process. It’s great for ramping up the anticipation before we leave, and really helping me understand our destination once we’re there. Believe it or not, I find this process relaxing (yes, really!) while also triggering curiosity and excitement. If you think it might work for you too, give it a try! Let me know how it goes!