Trip Planning 101: Part III – Creating an Itinerary

The Tunisia to Iceland flight can be a killer…

This post is part of a series on planning a trip. The other posts covered choosing a location and booking airline tickets.

When traveling for a limited amount of time and on a limited budget, I find that its always helpful to plan out an itinerary ahead of time. As I’ve mentioned before, some people like to travel with lots of flexibility in their plans and more power to them. This guide is probably not for those people. Although, sometimes the best experiences can come from last minute changes to plans and decisions on a whim, a planned itinerary allows you to book hotels and transportation ahead of time which will allow you to make the most of your time and money. It also makes sure you don’t miss you on important experiences (You will know ahead of time which days hotels are closed, you can book a meal in advance for the world famous restaurant and you can grab that last seat on that overnight train to your next destination).

A planned itinerary doesn’t necessarily close the door to spontaneity. Tickets can be rescheduled, hotel accommodations can be canceled and plans can be reworked if some once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself. All an itinerary allows that you can do the hard work of bookings and research before your trip so you can spend your vacation…well, enjoying your vacation. Think of it as being your own travel agent.

Whenever I start planning for a new trip, my first step is always to take a look at a map of the are I plan to visit and keep in mind where my flights land. For example, when I visited Israel and Jordan in 2010 I flew into Amman and out of Tel Aviv:

Looking at the map gave me a pretty good idea of the area I was visiting and how the two countries were laid out. (I don’t usually mock up something this fancy, I usually just use a map from a guide book and a colored marker). After that I mark the location of any ‘Must Sees’ on my trip. If you are going to Peru, you want to make sure you see Machu Pichu, if you are going to Greece you want to see Athens, etc. These markings will help you focus your itinerary and make sure you don’t miss out on anything you would be really upset if you skipped. When I visited Israel/Jordan I knew that I for sure wanted to see Petra, the Wadi Rum Dessert, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. I also went ahead and marked Tel Aviv and Amman as ‘must sees’ since I was flying in/ out of those cities and it would be an obvious place to spend time:

My next step is to read a few guide books (I like Lonely Plant and Rick Steves) to get an idea of the the places I want to see. As I read about something that sounds interesting I mark it on the map. At this point I don’t discriminate – if something seems interesting I throw it on the map. I can always take something off later but this will give me an idea of what things are grouped around my ‘must sees.’ I like to put these markings in another color so I can know what needs to stay and what can go.  As you can see, for my Israel/Jordan trip I had about 10 additional sites that I added as “want to sees.”

Now’s the time to do a little feasibility research. This means taking into account things like safety, proximity to other sites, cost, and transportation. For my Israel/Jordan trip one important consideration was crossing the border from Jordan to Israel. After some research, I determined that there are 3 main border crossings – the easiest crossing is in the South of the country near the Red Sea. Additional research showed that the Gaza strip was not a safe or feasible place to visit. Nazareth was crossed off the list because although interesting, it didn’t seem to have as much to offer as other cities on the list. The final change came when I realized that the Amman airport is actually much closer to Madaba which is an interesting city in its own right, and also a cheaper place to stay.  This research helps to hone down the travel map to a final list of travel destinations:

Once the list of destinations is complete its as easy as ‘connecting the dots’ in a logical way. The first rule of thumb is to cross borders as little as possible. Border crossings are time consuming and logistically complicated. The next goal is to minimize back tracking. The last item to keep in mind is where you will be spending the night. The city of Hebron was somewhere I definitely wanted to visit, but because of its location in the West Bank it wasn’t the best place to stay. After checking out Jerusalem, I realized that I could visit Hebron on a day trip from there.

That’s it – the travel map is complete. You have a pretty good idea of where you are going at what point in the trip. The next step is to start planning transportation and accommodations.

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