Because wanderlust is an actual thing, the Internet is not short of helpful guides, apps, software, and websites to make itinerary planning supposedly a breeze. There are guides to fit a budget, answer a need, or suit any other travel personality out there. But if the availability of all these numerous options tends to become more overwhelming than actually helpful, then let me provide you with a simpler version (at least to me!).
1. Create your itinerary template
Let’s start with a simple excel file. I may be wrong but you are most likely underutilizing the existence of free office software. No, I am not talking about illegal or unlicensed versions of MS Office. The absolutely FREE Google G Suite (which uses fewer resources, quick, and syncs to a freakin cloud) just gets the job done. It is also great at planning group trips as you can all contribute and collaborate in the process. I cannot stress how much I enjoy using this for simpler documents than good old MS Word or Pages. A sheet is just easier to use and modify, rather than a document file.
Do not use your mobile phone to download. The template above may be opened in your own Google Sheets or Excel/Numbers app. This is completely customizable and may be modified to your liking. To see it in action, I have a screenshot of “Day 1” of our draft itinerary for our trip to Oahu next month (click image for larger version):
- Time – I don’t normally fill this up down to the minute because having a strict timeline can be a bit stressful. Instead, you can indicate a generic time slot, such as “breakfast”, “sunset”, “late afternoon” or you could also indicate the duration you would spend in the destination such as “1 hour” or “30 mins.”
- Destination – Place the exact venue/s or establishment that you wish to visit. It helps to be specific rather than limit it to a particular area.
- Transportation – Directions/address information. Please also indicate the mode of transportation.
- Things to do/Description – This is the description of the place and also any other activities that may be done in this area.
- Notes – Other relevant/noteworthy information such as store hours, parking details, promotions, tips/advice.
- Cost – Indicate the amount per person (entrance fees, transportation costs, tickets)
2. Narrow down the sights/places to visit
This is probably my favorite part of planning an itinerary and my initial job. There’s a two-part process involved here that will exhaust your Google search skills. I also separate any search for food, as this is, in my personal case, a second to sights and shops.
First, list down all the sights you want to visit in your destination. There’s really no need to filter or limit yet. Be specific and creative with your searches. Apart from the usual “top destinations/sights” or “must-see sights” key searches that will lead you to TripAdvisor, some of my other keyword searches include the following phrases: “Most Instagram-able places,” “Seven-day itinerary,” “Best neighborhoods to visit,” “Where to shop,” and “How to experience _____ as a local.” Sometimes, I would even google events, festivals, or concerts during the time I would be in that country. Just simply copy and paste the destinations on the Stickies app or some other text app.
The second step is to narrow down the sights you would end up actually visiting. This requires a more thorough research and some discernment on your end (budget, travel personality, duration of stay, people you will be traveling with, etc.). This could actually be incorporated in the first search already. Make sure to read in detail the place you want to go to.
I would Google each place that I have listed and include keywords “blog,” “experience,” and “review” to better understand or get a clearer description of the place. TripAdvisor has a great and helpful community that will answer your questions too. I would spend time reading through the reviews/comments of the place and note down helpful tips or valuable comments. It is at this point where you would be crossing off certain sights or places in your initial list.
Once you have a list of places, which you are, at this point, 80% sure you’d want to visit, place them all under the “Destination” portion of your itinerary. Just place them all in Day 1 and worry about the order later on. Similarly, all other information should be reflected in the “Description/Things to do” and the “Notes” portions of your itinerary template. Most of the information under the “Notes” section would come from TripAdvisor reviews/blog experiences. Some relevant information to note of would be: ticket/entrance fee prices, hours/holidays, parking issue (if you have a vehicle), suggested tips or valuable advice from locals.
3. Plot their locations and organize your daily schedule
Once you have narrowed down the sights and shops you want to visit, it’s time to figure out where they are. This is also to guide you in arranging your daily schedule. The general rule is to simply visit all sights that are near each other or in a particular area. Remember to include your hotel/accommodation as well. With the existence of Google Maps, doing the same is a breeze. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to use it efficiently. For your guidance, I will add some screenshots.
First, plot ALL your destinations in Google Maps. Type in the first establishment/place and click “Directions” to allow Google Maps to do its thing. Make sure to also click the “Save” or star icon as this will be helpful once you are accessing Google Maps offline.
Use the “Add Destination” (shown below) to put in the rest of the other locations. This allows you to have a visual representation of the area and the sights that are within nearby distance or in the same area. Thereafter, just re-arrange/group these sights together in your template. Perhaps separate them under another “Day.” Try to organize them consecutively at this point and consider whether the establishment may be closed or open on such day/date or whether the place would better be visited on a weekday rather than a weekend. Some sights may be better visited at a particular time of day such as in the evening, during sunset, or early morning.
4. Let’s move to food and do the same process all over again
At this point, your itinerary should be taking shape and make you just a little bit more excited. Let’s further that excitement and move on to searching for food options. The process is similar to the sights and places to visit. Start by doing a google search. Do not confine yourself with restaurants. Look for marketplaces, hidden-food gems, food parks/trucks, food festivals, etc. Why not search for your favorite famous chef’s recommendation? You will be surprised that a certain country has so much more to offer than the usual tourist traps.
Now that you have plotted the sights you will be visiting and have arranged them accordingly, you can approach this portion in two ways. You can either plot all the food places you would visit in Google Maps to determine their location and thereafter organize them on the day you would be in the area, or you could specifically search for good food options within the area already. I prefer the latter as this just makes it easier to finally finish the itinerary for the day.
I would normally find at least three/four options within each day. This will cover breakfast, lunch, a snack option, and dinner. Sometimes I would include a coffee shop (or two!) or a drinks/happy hour option. This could be as mundane as indicating “quick run to a convenience store beside the hotel for an onigiri and coffee run” or as definitive as actually booking and reserving a fancy dinner. I cannot stress the importance of having to book in advance for very popular or Michelin-star restaurants. This is a must, especially in places like Japan, where restaurants seat less than 20 people and reservations are fully-booked months in advance. Take advantage of the restaurant’s Facebook account or email to book or inquire about it. Under the “Things to do/Description” column, I would already indicate the popular food items to order or their best-sellers. Since most of the menu/food recommendations can easily be found online, this easily saves time in the ordering process and makes it easy for us to budget that particular meal.
At this point, you pretty much have your draft itinerary down. It’s now time to figure out how to get from one place to another. If you’re fortunate to have internet access, then you can simply just use Google Maps on-the-go. But if you’re like me and my sister who prefers to have both the directions and also have Internet access while traveling, then there’s no harm in simply putting in the transportation notes as part of the itinerary. Just type in the two consecutive locations and simply note down the directions provided for by Google Maps.
Remember to copy it comprehensively and note the station/platform, the exact exit, and even the time it will take. This will also allow you to get an idea of the duration of your day and length of stay per area. For places that you are most likely to get lost in translation such as Korea or Japan, noting this down will save you a lot of time. You will also be able to familiarize yourself with the stations prior to simply being overwhelmed once you arrive there.
More than simply relying on Google Maps, do a comprehensive search about the transportation system/culture of the country. Be strategic. Find out whether a riding a cab is more cost/time efficient at certain times of the day or at a certain area. Read about unlimited passes or discounted rates/times. Do not forget to note when the last trains are if you have a big evening out planned. Figure out whether an Uber or a car rental would be so much better. Make sure to indicate any relevant notes or comments in your itinerary.
6. In conclusion
As much as you think you have everything planned, the actual trip itself can be very unpredictable. You might get lost, be subject to delays/fortuitous events, and experience a few hiccups along the way. That’s basically the fun of it! For me, personally, making a comprehensive itinerary prior to the actual trip fuels more excitement and gives me a semblance of control and familiarity. If you have more questions, feel free to comment below or contact me.