I love planning my travel adventures, almost as much as I like going on them. That initial excitement of a decision being made to explore a new place. The choices of routes, accommodation and things to do are endless! I love to research new destinations, read about countries and talk to others to help me put together the best travel itinerary I can for the time I have.
I think I’ve become quite good at putting together complex travel itineraries: there was our two week honeymoon travelling around the different islands of Indonesia; we had another 3 week Southeast Asia adventure to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; and this year we spent three weeks exploring South America. Not to mention the two week trip I planned for my in-laws across Northern Italy for their 25th wedding anniversary.
As you can see, I like to plan! However, many of my friends and family don’t. And I’ve been asked quite a few times for tips on travel itineraries I’ve put together.
It’s understandable to find organising big trips a little daunting and even when we started to plan our honeymoon we went straight to one of the big travel agents to help us plan right at the beginning of the process. But I soon realised I could save us nearly £2000 but putting it together myself! It also meant I could include exactly what I wanted to the itinerary and budget accordingly.
I’m going to share with you 10 steps I use to put together a complex travel itinerary.
How to create the perfect travel itinerary
There are many ways to create a travel itinerary, and it will depend on the type of trip you are taking. But whenever I begin planning a new trip I go through the process below. Just adapt it to your plans and you’ll no longer find travel planning daunting!
1. Define your region
I say region because it may just be one country you want to visit or it may be a whole continent you want to explore! Or are you thinking of taking a year out and want to create some kind of plan? If so, list all the countries you want to stop at on your journey.
2. Create a ‘can’t miss’ list of your region
Time to spend some time researching! I’ll spend hours reading about the countries on my list to find out what it is I want to see with my own eyes and what it is that perhaps I don’t mind not seeing.
Create a list of things you really want to see/do/eat. I put ‘eat’ on there because this always forms a big part of my travel planning! These are things that to you, can’t be missed. Are you there to just see the top sights and take the most famous treks, or are you looking for hidden gems?
3. Map out your list
Once you’ve created your list of the things you don’t want miss out on, map out where these are. This way you can see how close or how far they are from each other. How long will it take to travel between them – hours, days and is it a bus or train or do you even need to fly? Is it a common route that others have taken or does a natural route seem to be occurring the more you read about it?
For example, when we were travelling from Chiang Mai down the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos, the majority of people spoke about taking a slow boat from a place just outside of Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. It’s more uncommon to go the other way. So there was lots of information on the route we took, which helped with planning. The extra information may highlight its an easier route to take.
4. Decide how long your trip will be
If you are more flexible with time you may realise that after creating your list of the things you can’t miss you might need to extend your adventure by a week or two or even months to fit everything in. Or it might be that you realise the top things you want to see are dotted all over the place with a days travel between each and it’s not going to fit into your 10 day holiday you had planned.
The majority of us can’t spend our life travelling so even with big trips it is likely you are going to have to make some compromises. At this point you want to really think about the time you do have and what the most important things about the trip really are. Yes, you may want to see that awesome lake everyone takes a photo of, but just an hour from that other hike you have on your list is an equally beautiful lake that you’ve read about a few times during your research. Maybe this could be a great swap?
5. Look at the different modes of transport and how it could work
I would assume one of the first things you will have done when deciding where you be travelling around would have been to look at how much return flights are to the main hub of that region.
Now start to look at the most time and cost efficient way it is to travel between the different places you have on your list. Is it viable? Depending on where you are in the world it may be cheap, long bus rides or it may be expensive trains. This part goes hand-in-hand with looking at how much time you have and the budget you may have added to your spreadsheet.
It may exclude a destination because the only way you can afford to get there is by taking the 8 hour bus but you can’t afford to loose that day traveling because your itinerary is too tight. But at least it good to realise now!
6. Create a spreadsheet!
This is honestly one of my favourite parts about travel planning. After all the research, I create the master spreadsheet! This is my secret travel planning tool. It might sound a bit geeky but it really helps.
The spreadsheet keeps track of the whole itinerary, which once completed is a great place to put any booking references and notes. But it is also such a useful tool in the planning process.
Once I’ve completed the steps above and whilst I’m still deciding what the best travel itinerary will be I will create a tab with multiple itineraries alongside each other. Each day of the trip runs down the first column, then each new column afterwards is a different possible itinerary. I just simply put the initials of the place so it keeps looking clean and easy to read.
It might sound like a lot of work but once you get it written down you can see which itinerary will work and which won’t.
Once you’ve decided create a new tab with the final itinerary to keep track of everything going forward. Again each day down the left column and then a new column for accommodation, travel, cost, status of booking, paid etc.
I keep track of my spending against any budget that was created and put in booking references. I save it to Google Docs so I can access where ever I am in the world!
7. Book your main travel
You have your travel itinerary planned now you need to book your main travel components! Normally this will be your main return flights. For South America we flew into Lima and out of BA but for SE Asia we were in and out of Bangkok because our route around the region worked well for that.
This is also the time to book the travel that doesn’t have any leeway. Do this as soon as you can. You don’t want to find out the flight is fully booked so it pushes everything back a day which then means you can’t take that boat trip you wanted because it only leaves once a week.
8. Book your accommodation
As soon as my main flights are booked I book my hotels/airbnbs/hostels. This is not everyones preferred way of travel. Some of you may want to book as you go, perhaps you love the hostel life. If you are traveling at a popular time of year, for example Japan in blossom season, you will need to book your accommodation as soon as possible.
We always mix things up between affordable and luxury and because the trips I plan are usually booked holiday days from work, I’m not flexible on dates and I love to find cute boutique hotels. So I plan ahead.
9. Start filling in the gaps
With the backbone of your complex itinerary booked you can relax a bit! I usually continue spending hours reading magazines, blogs and guide books. It might be that you decide how to spend your days as you are traveling or you make want to book a few tours before you arrive. Each traveler is different!
As you can probably tell I’m a bit of planner. I don’t plan every minute but I do book things like tours and I will have a list of things I’d like to do before I get to a city or new country. More so that if you do find yourself with a couple of free hours you can whip out the list and may realise that museum you fancied seeing is just around the corner!
And of course I love to make lists of the food markets, restaurants and bars I want to check out. I may book some now or just have them handy for when we arrive.
10. Enjoy your adventure!!
This is definitely the most important part – enjoy your adventure!
By using the spreadsheet as your travel planning tool you have everything in one place so there is no need to worry whilst you are away. When planning a big trip there are lots of components to think about, but when you break it down and keep all the information in one place it becomes easier to do!
How do you plan your travel adventures? Do you plan ahead or are you more laid back and book everything as you go?
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