A well-crafted itinerary is the cure for untold travel troubles. The right amount of pre-trip planning can save money, keep you safe, and—this one’s crucial—help you have the best time possible whether you’re going on a three-week cross-continent sojourn or spending a long weekend at the beach. A solid itinerary is the root of a stress-free trip, to put it simply. Want to be a master planner? Here are 10 itinerary mistakes you probably make—and how to avoid them.
Don’t Bother with an Itinerary in the First Place
It’s nearly impossible to travel without some kind of itinerary—they’re unavoidable. Your airline or hotel will probably email you a simple outline of your travel dates when you book; these work as a kind of bare-bones plan for the freewheeling traveler. The important part is to bring this information with you on the road, whether it’s printed out, stored on a device, or both. This is elementary stuff, but it’s crucial.
Additionally, consider crafting a schedule of your day-to-day activities. The more complicated your travel plans, the more it makes sense to draw up a detailed program. If you’re hopping from city to city, an itinerary will help you choreograph travel time between destinations. Take note of local holidays, opening and closing times for attractions, train or bus schedules, hotel check-in and checkout times, and the like. Plan accordingly for a smoother, less stressful experience on your trip.
Place a copy of your travel plans along with contact information in a prominent place inside any checked bags; if your bag gets delayed, this will make it easier for airline staff to forward your luggage to you. (Airline staff members sometimes open delayed bags when looking for contact information.) Traveling solo? For safety reasons, leave a copy of your itinerary with a loved one.
Steer Clear of a Budget
First and foremost, you need to create a trip budget. And then you need to follow it. Surreptitious costs, such as hidden fees, fluctuating exchange rates, taxes, tips, and more, can take a big, jagged bite out of your financials. And if you don’t put pen to paper or digits to keyboard to sketch out an estimation of travel expenses, you could end up completely caught off guard by accumulating expenses—or worse, unable to afford your trip.
Become Fixated with an Exacting Budget
Budgets are important, yes. But let’s not get too carried away. A blow-by-blow, itemized budget that has achieved deity status in your mind will only make things more difficult if you come upon any emergency expenses. Put aside some Murphy’s Law cash to deal with any unforeseen events, from flat tires to lost luggage.
You’ll only be in your destination for a limited stretch of time, so it can be tempting to pack in scads of activities with no regard for conventional human needs like sleep, leisurely meals, or the sanity of your travel companion. Remember to be realistic. Factor in plenty of time for local travel, check-ins, mealtime and, most importantly, connections between flights. We recommend allowing for at least an hour-long gap between domestic flights and at least 90 minutes to two hours between international flights. (For more information, read “Minimum Connection Times for International Flights.”)
If you crave a trip that jam-packs an impressive amount of sightseeing into one vacation, consider booking a cruise or a multi-destination package tour.
Fail to properly prioritize, and you could end up with post-trip regrets after skipping that sting-ray diving excursion in the Caymans or failing to see the Louvre because you just didn’t have time.
Ask yourself some big-picture questions: Why did you choose your destination? What are the primary factors that inspired you to plan a trip to this place? Come up with a shortlist of three to five of the top activities you’d like to do and sites you’d like to see during your trip, then lay out the rest of your itinerary around these foundational points.
Book Your Flights Last
When building an itinerary, make your most expensive, big-ticket purchases first; this, in most cases, will include your flight. As I mention in “How to Save Money Using Flexible Fare Search,” one of the best ways to save a nice chunk of money on your flight is to be flexible with your travel dates.” Keeping your itinerary—and, if possible, your travel dates—as unhampered and open as possible will allow you to choose flights based on the lowest available fare.
Book the First Thing You Find
A good rule of thumb in life: Don’t commit to the first attractive option that pops up in the initial stages of any search, whether you’re looking for a house, a husband, or, in this case, a hotel. The more research you do when seeking accommodations, flights, local transportation, etc., the better you’ll understand your available options, as well as how much everything costs and what qualifies as a decent deal.
An in-depth search of major online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Orbitz, travel-review sites like TripAdvisor (our sister site), airline websites, and even alternative booking sites will yield the best prices and selection.
Overlook the Value of a Travel Agent
For travelers who tend to book the first thing they find—whether they’re too busy to research or they just don’t want to spend evenings scouring flight schedules and fares under the glow of a computer screen—there’s an easy solution. Call an agent. In “When to Seek the Expertise of a Travel Agent,” Ed Perkins writes, “An agent is a big help if you value your time. A five-minute call to a travel agent allows you to avoid many hours of tedious search through online sites.” In the end, the fee you pay an effective agent could amount to less than the dough you’d spend on overpriced flights or lodging—especially if you’re not willing to do a lot of research.
Don’t Even Think About Travel Insurance
Depending on the kind of trip you’re taking, travel insurance could be vital. Or it could be unnecessary. But you should always check to find out. Read “10 Essential Rules for Travel Insurance” for more information on assessing whether you should look into buying a policy for your next trip.
Disregard the Days Before You Depart
The days before you depart could be the most important bits of your itinerary. Consider this: You probably have a long to-do list to take care of before you leave, especially if you’re traveling internationally. You must arrange a pet- or house sitter, stop your mail, alert your credit card company and bank to your travels, and pack your bags. Make the experience less stressful by adding a few pre-trip days to your itinerary and arranging your travel-preparation tasks over the course of this time.
With travel dates, costly airfares, and a travel partner with contrasting opinions about what to see and where to go, planning a trip can get complicated. What are your tips for building a successful itinerary? Share them in the comments.