travel planning

I often meet other travelers who have their whole vacation scheduled out. They know exactly where they’re going to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they have their museum visits planned out, their sightseeing trips slotted into the day’s program, and even their coffee breaks penciled in. As you already know, I lean away from such detailed trip planning because I like to allow for spontaneity, but if you are going to plan, I think it’s important to plan your time realistically.

We human beings are notoriously terrible at estimating how long something will take us to do. This goes for everyday activities that we do routinely (getting ready in the morning, cooking a meal, writing a report etc) so imagine how out of whack our estimates are when it comes to activities we’re unfamiliar with, like those we do when we travel. Bus rides take longer than you could have ever imagined, lines at attractions are unforeseen, the waiter at the restaurant takes forever to bring you the bill, the metro ticketing system takes 30 minutes and a master’s degree to figure out, the art gallery was bigger than you had expected, and on and on. The fact of the matter is, stuff almost always takes longer than you think it will, and the less familiar you are with your destination, the longer it will take.

So what’s a genetically-pre-programmed-to-be-lousy-at-time-estimation-traveler to do?

1. Start by researching the place you’re visiting

Look over guidebooks and websites to get a sense of how long things take. A lot of transportation websites will include route duration information and many museum websites will give you an idea of how long an average visit takes (although if you love art or history or whatever the subject of the museum is, be sure to factor in extra time – the average visit usually just includes a tour of the highlights). If you can’t find this information listed online, consider emailing the attraction with your questions, or post them in a forum online so other travelers can weigh in.

2. Create a list of priorities

Make a list of all the things you hope to see and do while on your vacation, then put an asterisk next to the ones that you absolutely don’t want to miss. Rank the rest of the activities in order of priority. Focus on seeing and doing the things that made the top of your list, and save the other activities as back-ups, in case you find yourself with extra time on your hands (I like to keep the opening hours and days of attractions with me so that if I find myself with extra time, I know whether or not I can squeeze in that other activity). This way, even if time gets away from you somehow, you still hit all your must-dos.

3. Group activities by locale

When you’re unfamiliar with a city, it’s easy to waste a lot of time just trying to get from one attraction to the next. If you pull out a map and do a bit of research in advance, you can figure out which sights are located near each other. By planning your day so that everything on the schedule is in close proximity, you’ll make it more likely that you’ll get to everything on that day’s program.

4. Try to keep your day balanced

If I try to hit too many sights that involve walking in the hot sun or looking at museum displays all day, I find myself really dragging by the afternoon. Not only does it slow me down, but I simply don’t enjoy myself as much when I cram so much of the same kind of activity into one day. I think it’s helpful to plan out your day so that you have maybe one intensive sightseeing activity, along with other more relaxing or fun things, such as going to the beach, visiting a brewery, enjoying afternoon tea somewhere special and so on.

By thinking through some of these factors before you set off on vacation, you raise your chances of seeing all your must-dos without leaving yourself feeling frazzled.

Do you tend to cram your schedule full of activities or have you figured out a way of balancing out your day while on vacation?

[Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan, Flickr]