So you’ve chosen the perfect vacation destination. With the easy part out of the way, it’s time to work out the details: What will you do there? Where will you eat? How will you ever manage to see it all in a week?
For some, this is the fun part. Others find this a stressful, overwhelming process. If you fall into the latter camp—or just want to step up your vacation-planning game—we’ve compiled some expert tips on how to make your dream trip a reality.
1. DECIDE WHAT KIND OF TRAVELER YOU ARE.
First, think about what kind of person you are in your daily life. Are you a planner or a go-with-the-flow guy or gal? Do you prefer to plan a bunch of activities on weekends or spend your downtime in front of the telly? When you travel to a new place, your preferences aren’t going to magically change (just like you aren’t going to wear that one outfit you packed—you know, the one that's been languishing in your closet for a year).
“I forgot that I’d be bringing myself with me to Paris,” Travel + Leisure's Richelle Szypulski wrote of the time she almost ruined her solo trip to the City of Lights. “Like many people do, I failed to note that I’d be the same person, with the same tendencies and traits, walking through the Tuileries as I am in Central Park.”
Instead of worrying about what you “should” be doing on vacation, Szypulski recommends figuring out what kind of activity you find most restorative—whether it’s spending a week on the beach, traipsing around a city all day and returning to your hotel just to sleep, or somewhere in the middle. Once you’ve decided what kind of traveler you are, you’ll have some idea of how much or how little to add to your itinerary.
2. DON’T OVERPLAN ...
For Type A personalities, this is easier said than done—but it’s not impossible. There’s always the temptation to cram everything into one trip in a frenzied attempt to get the most bang for your buck, especially when you’re heading abroad. But when you spend your whole vacation rushing from Point A to Point B, you aren’t really experiencing that place. You’re merely ticking items off a to-do list.
Let’s say you’re planning your first or second trip to Europe. Instead of trying to hit four countries in 10 days, travel expert Roni Faida recommends spending time in two major cities that are easy to travel between—Paris and Rome, for instance.
Similarly, you don’t want to overload your itinerary with too many activities. “There’s nothing wrong with just doing one or two things a day,” Faida tells Mental Floss. “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a lovely brunch and spending an hour in a museum if that’s what you want to do.” In her Travel + Leisure article, Szypulski recommended filtering rather than accumulating pins on Google Maps, or whatever you happen to be using to plan your itinerary, whether it be a Word document or good old-fashioned pen and paper. Decide where you really want to go and resist the urge to keep piling things on.
3. ... BUT DO REMEMBER TO INCLUDE THE IMPORTANT DETAILS.
The business hours, address, and cost of any sites or activities on your itinerary are worth noting. If you need to take any trains or buses from place to place, it’s also helpful to have station addresses and schedules on hand so you don't have to look them up each time.
When traveling to a country where English isn't the official language, ask someone at the front desk to write down the address to your hotel—as well as lesser-known attractions—in the local language. Taxi drivers will most likely recognize the English names of more popular sites, but for places off the beaten track, it sometimes helps to hand them a piece of paper instead of pantomiming and pointing for 10 minutes.
4. MAP IT OUT.
Instead of planning every single day of your trip down to the minute, Lia and Jeremy of the Practical Wanderlust travel blog suggest coming up with a few different options for your daily schedule. “Planning each day of your vacation can set you up for disappointment: maybe one day you wake up not feeling up for the activities you have planned, perhaps the weather turns, maybe you find something else you’d like to do instead once you arrive,” Lia and Jeremy write. “Instead, we recommend planning out a few day options to choose from: perhaps a group of activities all in one area, or a day of seeing museums.”
One way of doing this is to map out the places you'd like to visit. "We like to map stuff out a little bit to group things into manageable days—if you find a cluster of things close to each other, group them together and call that an option for a day’s itinerary," they advise. Google MyMaps is a great tool because it lets you create personalized maps and mark the locations you’d like to check out.
5. GIVE YOURSELF TIME TO REST.
If you do happen to be the type of person who overplans, try adding some scheduled breaks to your itinerary. “I think people have to give themselves permission to slow down on vacation—especially Americans,” Faida says. “We just feel like we have to go, go, go.” How much rest you’ll need depends on whether you prefer fast or slow-paced travel, but make sure there’s at least one block of time where your itinerary is blank. If you’re traveling across time zones, be sure to give yourself the chance to sleep in and adjust. Otherwise, you’ll be especially cranky when you’re bumping elbows with 50 people in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
6. LAY OFF GOOGLE.
Sure, Google is a helpful tool when it comes to itinerary planning, but it isn’t the only tool. With the way search engine algorithms are set up, you’ll see pretty much the same results that everyone else who Googles “things to do in Los Angeles” gets—and thus, you’ll end up doing what every other tourist is doing.
Instead, Faida says a city’s tourism website is a good place to begin your research. She also recommends tried-and-true methods like turning to a guide book—she should know, she wrote one about Paris—and checking the local newspaper for interesting events once you arrive at your destination.
7. CHECK TO SEE IF ANY FESTIVALS OR HOLIDAYS ARE GOING ON.
Here's one thing you can Google: If you love a good party and being surrounded by a million of your newest best friends, then Oktoberfest in Germany, Holi in India, and Carnaval in Brazil may be on your bucket list. Planning a trip around a festival or holiday is a great way to mingle with locals and experience the culture of a city or country.
Alternatively, if crowds aren’t your thing, it’s helpful to know when certain destinations are best avoided. Major holidays can mean crowded airports and long traffic jams, so you’ll want to do your research and plan accordingly.
8. SCHEDULE A HANDS-ON ACTIVITY.
A pasta-making class in Italy or a tango lesson in Argentina are great ways to learn about the culture while learning a new skill. It’s also a useful strategy for travelers who fret if they don’t have a set schedule. “For me personally, planning in advance to do one or two specific things at specific times each day—even if I end up canceling or changing that plan—is far less intimidating than taking on a blank slate every day,” Szypulski writes.
Don’t feel like learning a new skill when you're supposed to be relaxing? No problem. Many cities also offer free walking tours, which are a great resource if you don’t want to shell out money on a tour guide. For a few options, check out freetoursbyfoot.com and freetour.com.
9. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF YOUR LONG LAYOVER.
The eight-hour layover is often regarded with dread, but what if you turned it into a pre-vacation rather than an internment at the airport? If you still have some energy after your flight, check your bags into an airport locker and head out into the city. You won’t be able to see it all in an afternoon, but it’s plenty of time to enjoy a local meal and get a feel for the place.
(But if you’d rather just sleep for a few hours in a hotel, check out our article about some of the options for daytime hotel stays that are available.)
10. BE FLEXIBLE.
“Things are going to go wrong,” Faida tells Mental Floss. “There will be something that happens that you didn’t expect.” Hopefully, these are minor bumps and not major issues, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for all possible outcomes. Even if you have travel insurance, Faida suggests tacking a couple hundred dollars onto your original budget to serve as an emergency fund. It also helps to manage your expectations so that you aren't crushed when situations don't align with the plan you had in mind.
11. TALK TO YOUR TAXI DRIVER.
Again, if you search online for the “best pizza in Chicago,” there’s a good chance you’ll end up somewhere crowded, overpriced, and touristy. Resist the urge to research, and talk to real people instead!
Faida says she always asks taxi drivers, hotel housekeepers, and grocery store clerks for local recommendations on where to eat, where to watch the sunset, and other must-do activities in the area. “I ask the people that most people ignore,” she says. “When I’m in a foreign country, I really want to eat like the locals eat. When you ask a housekeeper or someone who’s not in a managerial position, usually you’re going to find great food on a budget.” Talking to locals is a good idea whether you’re flying to New Zealand or merely driving to a neighboring state. You never know what kind of suggestions you’ll get.
If you ever get stuck while planning your itinerary, look up some travel blog articles about your chosen destination. There's a good chance someone else has already been there and written a detailed account of what they did, saw, and ate. Happy planning!