In case you’ve missed the subtle mentions here and there, we will be spending about three weeks in Europe, starting in mid-September. The majority of the places we are visiting I have been to before, but I am beyond excited to go back and to share them all with Paul. Since I have been spending the last several months in vacation planning mode, I thought now would be the perfect time to share my process for travel planning.
This may seem like a cumbersome and unnecessary system that will produce an over-planned trip, but I promise you, it won’t. Honestly, I actually enjoy planning for anything and everything, but ultimately I do it to be informed and prepared so that I can make the most of my trip. Plus, studies have shown that planning can be more enjoyable than taking the actual vacation. And if you need an excuse to justify your next trip, check out all the reasons that traveling is actually good for your health. Particularly when traveling to Europe, I appreciate open-ended days that allow for wandering and living like a local. By mapping out my ideas in advance, I’m able to prioritize the places that are most important to me, plus have a variety of restaurants and activities stored away if we find ourselves wanting to fill an afternoon, or in search of a good restaurant.
- Gather inspiration I am constantly saving interesting articles, travel tips, and restaurant suggestions for places all over the world to my Pinterest board or within my aNote app. At the start of planning any trip, it’s always such a help to be able to look back on suggestions you’ve been collecting for months, or even years! I usually find that the best tips come from one-off conversations with friends or during casual internet browsing, so I make sure to save everything I come across.
- Location and timing Now that you have a whole list of options, it’s time to decide where you want to go! Once you’ve chosen a location (or multiple), it’s important to do some general research to determine the best time of year to visit, how you want to spend your time, and how many days will be required to do so.
- Research Go back through every saved pin, browse travel sites, read articles, ask friends, and generally scour the internet for recommendations on restaurants, museums, landmarks and activities in each place. I always read reviews and scan through photos of each place to really get a feel for what it would be like. I like to use this time to also learn a little about the general customs of the country or area I’m visiting (how to dress, how much to tip, etc.).
- Create a spreadsheet My spreadsheets include tabs for each city I’m visiting, and within each tab, a column for the category, name, and additional notes. The notes section contains as much helpful information as I can find on cost, hours, if reservations are required, how I got the recommendation, or even just a reminder of what interests me about that particular activity. Keeping track of this information up front makes it so that I don’t need to look up each place later on to remind myself of the specifics.
- Prioritize This is definitely the hardest part of the process, but chances are you won’t have time to visit everything you’d like unless you create a jam-packed schedule each day. Go through and highlight the places that are most important to you, so you can schedule and plan around them.
- Map it Next, we move everything from the spreadsheet into map form. Using the My Maps feature on Google allows you to save a map of a particular region and add pins anywhere you would like. I use a different color pin for each category so they’re easily identifiable, and translate over any applicable notes. This is arguably the most helpful (albeit tedious) step because it allows you to plan your days in a practical way, rather than bouncing from one side of the city to the other. You’ll also appreciate it in the moment, when you’re wandering the streets in search of lunch and are able to pull up your map and see that a great restaurant you flagged is right nearby.
- Create a schedule Create a new spreadsheet, with a column for each day you’ll be traveling. I break mine into chunks by city so it’s visible within one tab, but you can arrange it however works best for you. I previously added these schedules directly into my calendar, but I find that it’s more challenging to see the big picture, and more cumbersome to rearrange things while you are still in progress. When deciding how to arrange your days, start by filling in your “must see” places and reference both your master list and your maps to help you. You can use your initial spreadsheet to pull details, like which days a certain museum is open and what’s the best time of day to visit. You want to ensure you don’t plan everything around seeing the Musée d’Orsay on a Monday afternoon, only to discover it’s closed. All the work you did to add pins to your maps will help you to figure out the most logical way to flow throughout the city. Pull out which activities and restaurants are nearby each other, so you can hit those in the same day. Lastly, remember to leave plenty of time for exploring in between! There’s nothing worse than wanting to spend a little more time somewhere, but being bound by reservations elsewhere.
- Reserve Once you’ve finalized your schedule, it’s time to book tickets and make reservations for any important places that require advanced notice. You don’t want to waste hours of your trip standing in a museum line, so when possible, pre-purchase tickets online and make reservations for the activities you don’t want to miss out on.
- Make a to do list While everything is fresh in your mind, make a list of all the last minute things to be done right before you leave. On this trip that means things like activating our international phone plans, notifying our bank, and booking airport transportation.
- Keep a log Last, but certainly not least, keep track of everything you do while traveling. I’m always so sure I’ll remember everything I saw and did, but years down the road I never do. Take lots of photos and detailed notes about each place – what you liked and what you would do differently. You’ll thank yourself one day when you want to return to that killer Roman pizza spot, and your friends will thank you when you can give them the perfect foundation for their planning process!