Step-by-step DIY itinerary planning

I will never forget my first overseas trip. I was going to see EVERYTHING in Zurich, Switzerland. Good thing I love travel research and planning because I quickly realised that itinerary planning is critical to make the most of your time away. In this post, we consider what itinerary planning is, why itinerary planning is important, and we look at the steps you can follow for DIY itinerary planning. 

What is DIY itinerary planning?

Many people like tour groups or packaged tours since it requires no planning on their behalf. Others allow travel agents to plan their itineraries. 

DIY itinerary planning is when you do your own planning for your travel days. It includes activities, transport and eating – basically, anything you may do while at your destination. Itinerary planning may sound like a chore, but it is exciting! 

Why is itinerary planning important?

Itinerary planning is essential to make the most of your trip. When you allow others to plan your itinerary, you will probably miss out on some fun activities. Many friends have told me how they had to sit in a tour bus seeing a sight go by without visiting it since they were part of an organised tour group.

When you do your own travel planning, DIY itinerary planning is critical. Going on an overseas trip is not cheap. Once you get to your destination, you want to make sure you see everything you wanted to see, taste dishes you have heard of before and do all the activities you have read about and want to try. Itinerary planning helps you plan your days by making sure you allocate enough time to everything on your destination bucket list.

Steps to follow when doing itinerary planning

After you have chosen your destination, you book your flights. Then you can plan your itinerary. If itinerary planning seems overwhelming and complicated, don’t fear! Here are steps to follow to make this daunting task easy and valuable:

If you are busy with itinerary planning, also consider the different factors to consider in doing itinerary planning. Another useful post is 11 itinerary planning apps and resources.

1. Get a calendar

You can either print a calendar or use a digital tool, such as Notion, Evernote, Trello or even OneNote. Now add your flights to the calendar. Remember to consider local times once you arrive at your destination. Add the time and date of your arrival at your destination and your departure to your calendar. The arrival and departure dates will be the boundaries within which you need to do your planning. 

2. Consider your arrival time and any downtime you may need

Now add your arrival time to your calendar. If you land very early, you may not be able to check into your hotel or accommodation unless you arranged for early check-in. If you did not make such arrangements, spend some time exploring your destination before checking in. In this case, add activities to your itinerary that won’t be intensive. You may only include simple activities such as getting information from the local tourist office, getting a local sim card, and enjoying a pleasant meal at your destination. 

3. Consider any downtime you may need

If you are travelling to a destination in a different time zone than your own, you may suffer from jet lag upon arrival. If you don’t have a strategy for avoiding jet lag, it will be tough to sightsee when you need sleep. Unless you cannot check-in (see the point above), you may need to get some rest in your hotel. In this case, rather rest for a few hours than wasting your time walking around without seeing or remembering much.

4. Add the cities or towns you will visit and the required travel time 

Now make a list of all the cities you would like to see in your destination country. Your previous travel research and your bucket list may influence your choice of destinations. 

If you plan to travel to several cities or towns, try not to have less than two days in each city or town. If the travel time between cities is significant (three or more hours), try to have three days in each city. Too little time in a town will not give you much time for sightseeing (unless it is a tiny town and one day is enough to see everything you want) and exhaust you.

Step-by-step itinerary planning
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Take a map and plot the cities to see how long the travel time is between them. Also, consider whether you will rent a car, using a service or public transport. Your mode of transportation will affect your plans. Always try to schedule towns based on their distance from each other. For example, if you visit Switzerland and want to see Zurich, Zermatt and Lucerne, you may first visit Zurich, then Lucerne and then Zermatt. In this way, you start with the closest destination, then the city nearest to Zurich, before going to the furthest city, Zermatt. 

Add your destination cities to your calendar with the number of hours you would need for travelling. Where possible, I try to travel overnight per train, boat or plane since I then reach my destination fresh and without wasting my day travelling between cities. This is not always possible, but consider travelling in the early morning or late afternoon to give you the entire day to explore your destinations. 

5. Consider the activities you want to do

Now you have reduced the time you need to plan for. Make a list of each activity or sight you want to see in each city. If you did prior travel research, you could look at your saved items. Rank them based on how high they are on your list of priorities. Now plot the sights you want to see on either a physical map or Google Maps. This allows you to see clusters of high-priority activities or sights, which you can group for your itinerary planning. Add these groups of activities to your calendar, and make sure you allow at least 1-2 hours per activity. Once you are satisfied with your schedule, book your tickets for sights and activities online and make sure you save your tickets to a central point for easy access.

6. Add meals to your itinerary planning process

Now that you know which activities you will do and where you will do them, add your meals to your plan. Meal frequency may differ between individuals. For example, when I travel, I eat a substantial breakfast, take some fruit or nuts to snack on during the day, and then eat an early supper. By doing this, meals do not take too much time from my time. Meals are essential and if you have always wanted to try a specific dish or eat at a particular restaurant, see when they would fit best in your schedule. Sometimes it may be necessary to set additional time aside to go to a specific restaurant, and you need to plan for this. 

7. Book your hotels and accommodation

When you finished these steps, you can finalise your hotel bookings. Make sure you know what your booking criteria are. Now you look at your map and your itinerary calendar and see which hotel would be most central to the activities in each city. If you travel in the late evenings, perhaps a hotel near the airport or train station is best. 

8. Keep your itinerary and books safe and accessible 

Once you have completed all these steps, make copies of your itinerary and/or digitise them and save them to a storage point or a planning tool for easy access. As your date of departure nears, review your itinerary and make sure it still works for you and your travel companions. 

Step-by-step DIY itinerary planning
Step-by-step DIY itinerary planning
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