I used to travel for long periods of time... weeks or months, even years sometimes, so having an itinerary wasn't really important. I had a general idea of where I was headed and I'd simply point myself in that direction and let my instinct (or newest friends) guide me.
These days I have a 'day job' and while I'm fortunate to live in Europe where six weeks' holiday is standard, that kind of timeframe still requires planning, especially if I'm going away for a week or two at a time.
So here I am, off to Albania in a few days, and I'm only staying two weeks. How on earth am I supposed to see an entire country in that time? That's what tours are for and as an independent traveler I try to avoid organized travel (I can't always, if I'm going to fit everything in).
I did eventually settle on a route, but the decision process wasn't easy and it taught me a few things about both travel and myself.
How to Plan an Itinerary (when you don't have a lot of time) - Issue 54
Buy the book and read it
Your first stop should be a guidebook, or its online equivalent. This is when you become familiar with your destination's big picture - not the nitty gritty of where to go and where to stay but the overall history (to put places into context), geography (you'll want to know if insurmountable summits stand in your way), culture (it's all about the people, right?) and society (politics, economy, the environment...) This will also help focus exactly what you want to see - just the tourist sights, or perhaps something less traveled? It's all about getting into the mood.
Draw up your wish list
Jot down the places you feel attracted to without worrying about whether you can fit them in just yet. Make sure you have your top sites covered. It's time to dream.
What would a tour agencies do?
Guidebooks may tell you 'everything is worth seeing' but tour agencies have various itineraries their clients have been happy with. No need to see everything on their routes (you probably can't travel as fast as an organized group if you're traveling independently) but make sure you're not missing anything crucial. Use their itineraries as guidelines.
Check out the forums
Other travelers are usually your best source of up-to-date information so after you've done your main research, find out if there's anything standing in your way, like a strike or an election or a natural disaster. The best place for this kind of information (other than checking the news of course) is to ask on or read what others have to say on some of the better travel forums online.
Draw a map
Pin all the dots up on a wall map or online (you can try any of the free maps available out there, like Go Pro Travelling or Google Maps). You'll be able to see what's possible and what isn't. For all you know your desired destinations may all be one next to the other. In the opposite case, if they're too far apart, you'll be able to see that too. As happened for me with Albania, I was able to see that I'd have to drive around the country as opposed to across it.
Cut half the itinerary
Now you may THINK you can go from Paris to Geneva to Zurich in a single day... Of course you can but you'll barely get off the train and out of the station. So look at your list, and get rid of half those destinations. If you're traveling by bus or train you'll probably arrive downtown - great news because even if you've only got a few hours that's enough time for a bit of sightseeing. If you're flying you have to contend with early arrivals, transport to and from the airport, and even if it's a short flight your day is blown. Time to be realistic about time.
Have a look
Once your itinerary 'feels' right, it's time to look at it - I mean really look at it. First, I head to Panoramio or Google Maps and click on the places I plan to visit. This gives me photographs, an advance peek at where I'm headed. If there aren't enough photos I head over to Flickr and YouTube and just Search for the name of my destination. This usually yields even greater treasures and helps me decide between two destinations if I'm on the fence about them.
Now it's time to pull it all together
Start by asking the right questions about where you're going. Where are you landing? Is there anything to see there or is it just your landing point? Will you have enough time to recover from jet lag? How much time do you need for each destination? How much time does it take to travel from one place to the next? Does it feel right? Not too many ruins at the expense of shopping or eating? Only you can tell.
Set up your formal itinerary
Use a spreadsheet or insert a table into a document or make a list by hand, whatever feels comfortable. I've prepared a simplified example for you below (you can leave room for flight times, hotel names and numbers, restaurant reservations, specific shops and their addresses - anything you want). Down the left add as many rows as you have travel days. At the top, divide the table into columns: Date, Destination, Type of Travel, Travel Time. In other words, if you're traveling from 1-10 August, you'll have 10 rows dated 1 August, 2 August and so on.
|1 August||Paris||Fly from NYC||Overnight - arrive morning||Drop luggage at hotel, try escargots for lunch, check in and recover from jet lag|
|2 August||Paris||Sightseeing||None||Louvre - don't forget to wear comfy shoes|
|3 August||Paris-Geneva||Sightseeing||Train - 3 hours PM||Food not cheap - bring|
|4 August||Geneva-Zurich||Sightseeing||Train - 3 hours PM||UN visit - call ahead|
|5 August||Zurich-Zermatt||Hiking||Train - 3 hours|
|6 August||Zermatt||Hiking||None||Go to spa|
Plan your transport there and back
Travel counts as part of your itinerary. If you're gone for 14 days but it takes you the better part of two days there and two days back, you will only have 10 days left to travel. A common mistake is to forget this and then have to cram a lot more than is feasible into a shorter time.
Make a list
It's not exactly part of the itinerary-making process but I love lists so I always list those things I want to make sure I don't miss: a delicious national dish, a type of wood carving, a historical tidbit, a band I should try to catch... This isn't specific to each location but general to the country or region. It's a 'keep a lookout' list.
And finally, share your itinerary
Of course the best thing about travel is to do things on the spur of the moment but since you've gone to the trouble of developing an itinerary, please leave a copy with someone back home - and don't forget to update it. If you don't show up where you're supposed to someone might actually notice!
Recommended Books and Products
What I'm reading this month: Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, a British journalist living in Spain. I grew up in Spain at the height of Franco's power and seeing some of that society's veneer peeled away is both enlightening and disconcerting. If you've ever been curious about the story behind Spanish history and society, this is a hugely readable book and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Read the Amazon reviews.
The Art of Solo Travel: A Girl's Guide (by Stephanie Lee) - Still the bestselling guide to traveling on your own for the first time. Filled with information, fun to read, and a quick download right into your inbox. The place to start if you don't know where to begin.
Video 101: Tips and Tricks for Awesome Visual Storytelling (by Lisa Lubin) - My other favorite download. Video continues growing in popularity and Lisa, who has won three Emmies, has written the perfect teaching guide.
If you've been traveling please come and share your experiences with the rest of us and if you're still undecided about something, ask me a question. Claire from New Jersey just shared her story about solo camping and Rebecca from Australia looks at what's changed in Paris scams.
Speaking of scams, Sue Sanders of Sacramento warns: I don't know if this comes under a 'scam', but I'd like travelers to know about it. I just returned from two months in Spain and 11 days in Morocco. I bought a lot and shipped 4 official Post Office boxes home from Spain and one from Morocco. All five had been broken into and a lot was taken. My friend's box came back completely empty. Next time I'll look into a private shipping company.
Travel News from across the Web
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How to Volunteer Abroad for Free
The 10 Greatest Adventure Stories of the Next Century
40 Tips for Visiting Italy
Top Websites and Apps for Your Next Trip
The Planet's Most Interesting Deserts
28 Freaky Ghost Towns
For food lovers...
...and lovers of other arts
If You're VisualPhotography Project: South Africa
A Charming Corner of Austria
Amazing Pools Around the World
Manhattan in Motion
A Kunming Album
39 Photos That Will Inspire You to Travel the World
Destination TravelBeginner's Travel Guide to Burma
Swakopmund and Etosha, Namibia
Sri Lanka: Ancient Past, New Peace
The Challenges of Modernizing Russia
Koh Samui: What Not to Miss
Impressions of Bucharest, Romania
And finally...Facebook for dozens of great travel links each week!
Cause of the Month
When total bans can kill
There's a belief in some circles that the life of an unborn child is more valuable than that of its mother so if an abortion is needed to save a mother's life, she should be allowed to die because abortion is a sin.
This played out unexpectedly last week in the Dominican Republic, one of the few countries in which abortion is illegal whatever the circumstances, even if the mother's survival is at risk.
A strange set of factors coincided: a girl was 10 weeks pregnant; she had leukemia; and she was a minor. Chemotherapy was initially witheld from her because it might cause an abortion and only after weeks of discussion among officials, doctors and ethicists was she allowed to begin treatment.
Should allowing a mother to die to save her unborn child be a decision made by governments? In this case both the girl and her mother wanted the chemotherapy to go ahead.
The decision to allow treatment is fuelling discussion and reopening the issue of a total abortion ban in the country. Meantime, in the US, several states have contemplated or are considering putting such a ban in place.
For more information about these issues:
Treatment permission granted for pregnant Dominican teen
Not the same outcome in Nicaragua
The total abortion ban in Nicaragua
Near total bans in the USA
How to pack for a pilgrimage or other long walks - exclusive to Women on the Road by Stephanie Dale, author of My Pilgrim's Heart (read the rave reviews on Amazon!)
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