Last week, we covered Travel Guide Part I: Looking for a Place to Stay. This week, we’ll be covering an equally important topic: how to make a travel itinerary. After all, travel is nothing if not an opportunity to see interesting sights. It’s an even better opportunity if you plan ahead of time. An itinerary made in advance saves much effort because you don’t need to spontaneously decide where to visit; you simply check places off a list and enjoy the ride.
Although COVID-19 is still raging on, we all hope that social distancing and the expertise of our medical professionals will allow us to travel again soon. When that time comes, it’s best to be prepared!
Making an itinerary is a bit of a trick question, though. Especially when traveling to places you’ve never been to before. How would you know what to see until you actually got there? Online tourist information might be deceiving or misinforming, or biased in favor of especially tourist-y spots, after all. In this guide, we’ll be covering tips to make the ideal travel itinerary for your (post-COVID) vacation.
Preliminary step: Find the most famous landmarks
In this guide, we’ll emphasize the importance of looking for off-the-beaten-path sights. So this step might seem contradictory at first.
However, many landmarks are famous for a reason. They embody years of history and culture and often become the symbol of a country to the outside world. They are part of the “tourist experience” of that country. If you don’t visit them, it’s highly likely that you might come to regret it. Could you imagine going to Egypt without visiting the pyramids? To China without seeing the Great Wall? To Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower or Louvre?
The Convenience Factor
For beginner travelers who have never created itineraries before, famous landmarks offer a place to start. Because these places are well-traveled, there’s often a lot more information about them. If the place is difficult to get to, there is often an abundance of transportation options, and at more frequent times throughout the day. Extras like photographs and souvenirs that people traveling as a family might enjoy are also more available.
As far as creating an itinerary, these places can form a “skeleton” of sorts. They are the most obvious places you want to hit off your list. They are the sights that require you to wait in line (because it’s popular). The sights that compel you to take lots of pictures. The sights about which there are more tour guides and information you could possibly consume.
The Authenticity Factor (or Lack Thereof)
Often, these sights do not represent local life at all. Much like museums (which are often tourist attractions), these places offer a polished but isolated experience of a foreign place. So, while it’s good to hit these spots simply to say you’ve been there—and to mark your itinerary with obvious stopping points—it’s best if these places don’t form the majority of your itinerary.
The rest of this guide outlines the kinds of places you should fill your itinerary with, how to research them, and how to categorize them by the experience they offer.
Tip 1: When possible, mix the urban with the natural
Most travel spots are cosmopolitan centers like Zurich, Beijing, New York City, Bangkok, or London. That is no surprise. Dense urban centers offer a concentrated variety of tourist experiences, from restaurants to entertainment to the famous landmarks mentioned above. And they are definitely enjoyable experiences.
However, urban centers often tailor their attractions for tourists. Nature, on the other hand, requires more work, but is often more rewarding because you create the experience yourself. There are few things more rewarding than making a hike to the top of a peak, and getting rewarded with the most ethereal sunset. Or spending all day tramping through a city, then finally taking it all in with a single sweeping view.
Most cities have hiking trails of some sort around their borders. Zurich, for example, has Trail Loorenkopf, a relatively easy trail that gives a stunning view of the city when you climb a tower several stories tall. While the Great Wall of China is often overcrowded, certain sections actually attract relatively few tourists, such as the Mutianyu section (as opposed to the Badaling section). Los Angeles and New York City both have trails on their outskirts that provide a stunning natural contrast to their urban centers only miles away.
Tip 2: Look for experiences that allow you to see local life in some way
This one can be a bit tricky, and probably needs the most skillful research. It is, however, by far the memorable thing you will probably do on your trip.
While this tip is most convenient if you already know someone in the area, ready-made acquaintances aren’t strictly necessary. Many of these experiences are inexpensive, and they offer a warmer, more personal experience than a typical tourist site.
Broad examples include homestays, cooking classes, or culturally-specific experiences (like tea ceremonies in Japan, or meditating in a Thai temple). The overarching theme is an experience that allows you to mingle with the locals, listen to languages you might not understand, or participate in rituals that you’ve probably never heard of as a foreigner. For me, it was a bike tour I took in Lisbon, Portugal that was more memorable than anything else I visited on that trip.
There are three upsides to this tip that don’t exist in most tourist attractions:
- The social experience. Engaging in conversation with a local, talking about their lives and families, and possibly being introduced to their neighbors is incredibly refreshing and personal.
- For traveling families, this is a good way to introduce your kids to many different types of people.
- A combination of experiences. In my Lisbon bike tour, I saw the beach, city outskirts, fishing villages, and forest in just a few hours. With a tourist attraction, you only get one.
- Fresh, local, and authentic food. If the locals eat it, you can be sure what you’re getting is authentic. My guide ended my Lisbon bike tour with fresh octopus salad, caught and prepared fresh just minutes before serving.
Tip 3: Pick a combination of things that require walk and rest
Traveling can be tiring, and every new place has their own transportation that requires you to familiarize yourself with. When building your itinerary, it’s easy to think of the places you’d like to go. But it’s a little harder to visualize the logistics of getting from place to place, or to predict how tired you’ll become throughout the day.
Typically, meals make good stopping points for getting rest between your tourist sites. But lunch and dinner are hours apart, and you might get worn out long before the end of the day. Thus, it’s good to plan for experiences that allow you to rest, but still enjoy the sights. This is especially important if you’re traveling with kids.
Some good examples of these experiences are chairlift rides, ferry rides, or train rides. All three are relatively inexpensive in most parts of the world. They offer gorgeous views of surrounding countryside, mountain views, or the water. Most parts of Asia and Europe have high-speed bullet trains that feel almost weightless as they whiz by at hundreds of miles an hour. The ferry ride on Hong Kong offers a stunning view of the city at night and costs less than $1.00 USD. Any mountain site—like those in Switzerland, or mountain staircases in China—will likely have chairlifts to enjoy the view without the work of hiking to the top.
Tourist site suggestions besides landmarks and museums
Aside from the examples mentioned above, you might be wondering what else you can visit besides the most obvious attractions or museums in a foreign place. Below are a few options you may not have thought of when traveling.
- University Campuses. Many countries around the world have beautiful and prestigious campuses that make for great tourist sites. Oxford and Cambridge in England are beautiful, ETH in Zurich was Einstein’s home institution, and Tonji University in Shanghai, China is large and scenic enough to wander around as if it were a garden. Most of the most prestigious or famous campuses are also incredibly pretty, and it’s a great way to glimpse a snapshot of local student life, usually for free.
- Libraries and bookstores. Many cities have unique, local bookshops that make for a worthwhile tourist visit on their own even if you can’t read their language. Los Angeles’s “The Last Bookstore” is one such place in the US. Dozens of bookstores in Tokyo offer unique magazines and manga for lovers of anime, video games, or Asian TV shows. Shakespeare and Co., a bookshop in Paris that hosted such writers as Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, is one of the most historical examples. Hatchards in London specializes in signed editions, a haven for those who love book collecting.
- Historical homes. Every country has its famous people from history, and many of their homes are still preserved. From Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia to the home of Song Qing-ling in Shanghai, these places rarely draw large crowds and offer a glimpse into the past. You can see their bedrooms, carpets, nightstands, libraries, study desks, and furniture while a guide (usually) explains. It’s an opportunity to learn about history in a more interactive and authentic setting than a typical museum, and often mixes the outdoors with the indoors.
- Performances and Theater. Many cities are famous for their performing arts, and this is among the sites that allow you to rest (tying to the last tip above). It would be a pity to go to New York City without experiencing Broadway, to Las Vegas without seeing the Cirque du Soleil, to Vienna without watching an opera or ballet. It’s an opportunity to experience a more old-school form of entertainment that doesn’t require electronic screens or microphones, and a good way to get kids off their phones on vacation.
Every place has a lifetime’s worth of places to see, and it’s not possible to visit them all. That can be overwhelming at first, and you might have no idea how to pick which places will give you the best experiences. Even with the Internet, information can be overwhelming and the lack of general guidelines trips many people up when creating a travel itinerary.
We hope this guide has gone some way in demystifying that process. They are not necessarily hard and fast rules, but general tips on what to look for and where to start. Traveling is a lifelong journey that takes practice to get right. Hopefully when COVID-19 ends, you’ll be ready to celebrate with the vacation of a lifetime!