Workflows: Trip Planning Made Easy

The following is a guest post by Angela Petersen. She is a lawyer, freelance writer, and dedicated traveler. You can read more of Angela’s writing at Far & Wise, a global grab bag of stories, culture, history and food from around the world, or follow her on Twitter.

“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” – Bill Bryson

That childlike wonder of experiencing a new place for the first time is what draws me to travel as much as possible, both internationally and domestically within the US. That same curiosity about new people and places, along with the desire not to be totally “ignorant of almost everything,” means that I’ve logged lots of hours online researching my destinations, their history and culture, restaurants, hotels, and local attractions over the years. Lots of hours.

My trip planning initially started out haphazardly, but over time I developed a method to the madness that has made a world of difference. Below I’ll share with you my simple, but efficient trip planning method and a few tips to avoid wasting time as you plan your next trip.

7 Simple Steps to Plan Your Next Trip

1. Layout out your trip in chart format

All you need to start is a chart with two columns and a row for each day in your trip. Where you create this chart is entirely up to you. I use Evernote with the goal of keeping everything in one place. Google Docs works too. Below is mine in Evernote from my last international trip to Scandinavia in April 2013.

2. Next begin adding any specifics you already know to the chart

On any trip where I will be visiting multiple cities, I first note where I’ll be on which days by adding city names. It helps me remember how many days I have in any one spot and when. Other things to add from the beginning would include your flights with time of arrival and departure, traveling days, your hotel accommodations, and anything else you already know or that’s particularly important to you.

3. Below your chart, start a list of things you might want to do in each city you’re visiting

This is where I keep track of the things that pique my interest as I’m reading and researching. At this point, don’t worry about whether the things on your list are must-dos or just something you might want to see. This is your effort to narrow down the universe of possibilities to just what interests you.

As you read and research, write down the things you come across with all the necessary details (name, link, address, cost, etc.) along with where you found it. I link to blog posts and add “guidebook” to the end of my notes when there’s more information there that I’ll want to check out again. You can also clip pages or email notes to your Trips notebook in Evernote and tag it more specifically for your trip (i.e. #Scandinavia2013). This will help you avoid back tracking later to figure out where you read about that super cool foodie walking tour in Helsinki.

4. Create a Google Map for each city you’re planning to visit

At first they’ll be mostly blank, but in time you’ll add attractions, your hotel, and other important spots to them, which will help you plan your days and know what’s located near each other in a city. Look for the hyperlink icon in Google Maps, and add links for each city map to your working itinerary.

The image below showcases my maps for Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki.

Note: Google Maps is full of functionality, but I use it just to get a feel for the city, where I want to spend my time, and to figure out the neighborhood I want to find a hotel in. Don’t get bogged down by it!

5. Add places and things to do to both your Google map and your growing lists for each city

As your list for a city begins to grow, it’s helpful to identify the must-dos on your list versus the maybes. I note the must-dos with an asterisk, and ideally I’d start to group them by neighborhood, next to the other nearby attractions on the list. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t! I also note day trips by starting the bullet with “DAY TRIP,” so I can’t miss it.

6. Figure out what you’re most interested in seeing and add those into your chart

Start reading travel sites online (Trip Advisor, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Yelp, etc.), visit some travel blogs, or buy a travel guide. Head down the rabbit hole of online trip planning until your heart is content, but be sure to note what interests you as you go.

Sometimes I don’t begin adding attractions to specific days until the plane takes off or when I actually arrive in the city. Other times I plan ahead much more. Regardless of how you choose to learn more about your destination and how much time you have to plan your trip, this method will help you to put the information you need in a actionable format.

7. Repeat steps 5-6 until you’ve worked out the plans for your best trip yet

Having a list of things you found interesting as you read and researched back home, lets you pick up and go at any point in the process, regardless of whether you got as fast as you wanted, which is exactly what this is all about after all!

How to Use This Trip Itinerary

Consider your itinerary a fluid document. Update it, and rearrange it as much as needed as you get further along in your trip planning and during your trip. Don’t view it as set in stone or as a to do list. It’s just a tool for you to use as you go, and you can always ditch what you were planning and instead linger at a cafe or wander an amazing outdoor market much longer than expected.

That’s exactly the kind of situation when you’d want to access to this information — when you’re on the go and away from wifi, when you’re trying to figure out what to do next. Free wifi is often much more accessible abroad than it is in the US, but popping into a cafe or lurking outside to use their free wifi, isn’t always an option. If you create your itinerary in Evernote, you can always have access to it on your phone by making the note itself or your whole notebook available offline, but you must be a premium Evernote user to do that. Otherwise, you can send yourself a copy via email or print a copy before leaving your hotel.

Making your custom Google Maps available offline can be a little trickier. It’s simple if you have an Android phone; you just download the map area in the Google Maps app. The iPhone app doesn’t have this option. iPhone users can use the mobile version of Google Maps, which allows you to accessible your custom Google Maps, but this requires data coverage and is harder and more expensive to do internationally, especially if you’re in a spot where free wifi is not common. In that situation, consider clipping portions of your Google Maps with Evernote or using City Maps 2Go for iPhone ($2.99), which won’t get you access to your custom Google Maps, but does provide great maps offline for spots all over the world.

A Few Tips to Avoid Wasting Time

It’s really easy spend hours researching a place you’re planning to visit and still end up feeling like you have little to show for your efforts. Don’t fall into that trap. Using this method you can do a little trip planning when you have time, not touch it again for weeks, and easily pick up where you left off when you come back to the itinerary.

  • Consider including the address, hours, closed days, and a link to their website in case you discover that you need more information down the road. A phone number may also be helpful if you don’t speak the language or if English isn’t commonly spoken. Then the concierge at your hotel can use it to make reservations for you. This might sound like overkill, but it can be very helpful depending on how far off the beaten path you’re headed.
  • If you use Evernote, you can also add all your confirmations for flights, hotels, and tours to the Trips notebook and tag them as well for easy access at hotel check in or just in case.
  • For a city you visit often, updating your itinerary with places you stumbled upon during the trip and keeping a note in Evernote called something like “Next Time in NYC” let’s you have some ready made plans for your next trip without much effort at all.

Thanks for reading! I hope you learned something you can use when planning your next trip, and I’d love to hear more about how you plan trips now in the comments.

Photo credit: Matthew Espinoza via Flickr