I get asked this question quite often so I thought I would share my process. While I have been traveling for as long as I can remember I was never particularly good at it. I used to think just getting in my car, driving to a new town, and wandering around was suffice. Creating a travel itinerary is essential to getting the most out of your trips. It doesn’t mean that you need to obsessively stick to it, I personally use mine as a guide.
There is a lot of discussion in travel communities about planning travel itineraries and there is no right or wrong way to do it. This is why I did not title this article “Best way to plan your trip” this is how I do it, because of my personal interests, but this method can be applied to anyone with adjustments.
Step One | Where do you want to explore?
First, where are you going?
For this article’s sake, I will show you the travel itinerary I made for a solo trip to Barcelona. You can read my article about my experiences to see the actual result of the itinerary here.
Second, part of this step, how long do you have? This will determine how much you can do, obviously. For this trip, I was in Barcelona for four days, by myself, which means I could do whatever I want!
Step Two | Google is your best friend.
Google your location “Barcelona, Spain” and see the results. Google is very intuitive and does a lot of the work for you. *This post has been updated as Google has actually created a whole new section for travel along with an app called Google Trips.
The first image shows the results if you click to view more on Barcelona travel guide it will bring up the page shown in the second image. Now you not only have a list of all major points of interest in your location but much more. There are premade itineraries, tips on best times to visit, temperatures, nearby day trips, and you can even book your flight.
Now, if you stop at this step you may end up seeing the most “touristy” places. This is Google so these are the highlights. Not to say anything is wrong with it but I love to go a bit deeper. This is a starting point. From here I would write all of these items that I am interested in on a list in my notebook.
This second part of step two is personal. Since for this example I am going to Spain, the language is Spanish, not English. So when I write down each item on my list I will write them in Spanish, and for some, I may do an English translation.
The point in doing this is so that I know what these places are called in the language that is spoken where I am going, so if I need to ask where it is or any questions, I know how to call it. I also do this because sometimes in other countries Google Map locations may be in that language, and not English. I do not know the trick to this, sometimes it is in English, sometimes not. This is important for a later step!
Step Three | Google to the rescue, part two.
This time search for “sightseeing in Barcelona” or “must see in Barcelona” or any similar variation.
This is an example of the results. As you can see there is some overlap in articles, but there are also different ones. Since I do this often, I know the sources I prefer so I usually check Time Out, The Guardian, the local tourism board site, and Trip Advisor.
From these lists, I check my list, if something from my first list comes up multiple times and is known to be a do not miss item I place a star next to it, just for my reference.
Step Four | Pinterest, Blogs, and Buzzfeed
I repeat this process with other websites. Trip Advisor if I didn’t click through on step three, Pinterest, and Buzzfeed. Yes, you read me right. Pinterest and Buzzfeed are my secret travel planning weapons, as well as a recent addition, Reddit.
Pinterest is amazing for planning itineraries. This is where you will find other blog articles written about the very place you are going! This is how I get insider information on the places I want to see or if I missed something. Essential when going new places for the first time during high season.
This helps me answer some questions like “Do I need to book in advance?” which is something I did not do in Barcelona for Sagrada Familia, and almost missed out because you do have to book in advance in the high season. Through these blog articles, you can also read about hidden gems the traveler found and restaurant or accommodation recommendations. Follow my Pinterest boards to find more travel tips.
Buzzfeed. Yes, I know everyone has their opinion about them but hear me out! I use Buzzfeed to find the best food for where I am going. Yes, those very articles that you read about your town, and you get so outraged you leave comments shouting “what about x!??!?!?! the best coffee in town” Yup. That is what I am seeking on this page. I do read the articles if there is one. I check out the photos, does this look good? But mainly, the comments are the gold mine. Local people with local pride shouting their favorites is where I find my restaurant recommendations. Sorted.
When I wrote this almost two years ago there were a lot more comments on these types of articles but upon updating this article I now see it is not as much. This is not to say it still isn’t a viable source, it is just that it isn’t as great as it used to be. Below you will see a screenshot of comments that are useful.
As you can see when I searched “Buzzfeed Barcelona” in Google I am suddenly given a lot of great content. A great resource for finding those hidden gems, the perfect Instagram shot, the best street food, whatever gets you excited about travel, you will probably find it here.
This is from 19 Cheap Dishes Every Foodie Must Try in Barcelona. As you can see below, a local commented about Mosquito, a restaurant listed in the article, and she reiterates that it is something the locals and tourist really enjoy. Another commented about Quimet y Quimet who appears to be from Spain. It takes a little investigation, but if you are passionate about these things these tips will guide your search.
If you want to search Reddit most cities have their own subreddit and already have prepared posts about the best places to see, or places to eat, and usually, the locals are quite helpful.
Step Five | Digging even deeper. (optional)
At this point, you might feel like you have exhausted your resources but if you want to take it another step, this is what I do if I have some extra time or want to dig a bit deeper. The previous steps mainly give me the major sites. Obviously, if you are personally into art, architecture, music, etc you should Google what is going on when you are there. I always find a local tourism board that lists current events.
This step might be a bit out of reach for the average person who goes on one trip a year, as they might not have built up the communities interested in travel. I have a Twitter and Instagram where I follow a lot of fellow travelers, and I am a member of a lot of Facebook communities. These communities are invaluable. I can go there, say “Hi I am going to Barcelona what is your favorite coffee shop, favorite bar, hidden gems, etc.” and locals or others who have gone will share their secrets. That is how I add the little extra to my itinerary.
Step Six | Getting into the culture: Language and Food
Want to go the extra mile when traveling abroad? I like to research a few phrases in the local language such as: hello, thank you, goodbye. I check what currency they use and the conversion just to get an idea.
And finally, because I love food, I write down a few local dishes. Every time I travel I try to have a local dish for as many meals as possible. Why is this in the itinerary planning? Because you need to find the best restaurants that serve those foods to add to your list!
Probably my best advice for trying local foods, without spending a fortune, and avoiding tourist traps… markets. Find local markets for street food. Most of the time you will find the local dishes at a fraction of the price compared to restaurants. Sometimes there are daily markets, like in Barcelona there was La Boqueria, but other times there might just be a market a few days a week.
Tips for finding this info easily; Pinterest and Wikipedia. Sometimes on Pinterest, you can find images like the one below, thanks to The Culture Trip. While this is perfect for a starter, don’t forget that there are regional dishes and languages so be mindful. In this case, if you were traveling to Barcelona they speak primarily Catalan.
Step Seven | Saving places in Google Maps.
Now you probably have a page full of places to see, restaurants or markets to try, coffee shops or pubs and it feels very overwhelming. I haven’t said it explicitly but of course, you edit your list to your interest. Don’t think you HAVE to go to the art museum because it is ranked high or considered a must see, only go if you want to. Once your list is full of things you would enjoy experiencing you can begin this step.
Open up Google Maps, sign into your account, if you don’t have one, you need it for this step. You can check which account is logged in by clicking the circle in the top left where the arrow is pointing. Make sure this is an account you have access to also on whichever device you are using while traveling.
Search for an item from your list. I choose La Boqueria for this example. See the arrow on the left, you have to click “Save” and this dropdown menu comes up. When I first wrote this article there was only the option to “star” a place. Now you can use any of these options.
I have not used the New List feature. I tried it and found the icons it uses to mark your locations to be really difficult to see. Honestly, there are so many ways to do this, so many ways to organize and retrieve it. If this is of interest to you guys I can write up more ways to manage this data.
I am a fan of the stars, so that is what we will use. Personally, I save the heart for my location of where I am staying. That way I can always visually find out where I am starting or ending when viewing my map.
Once you enter all of your places your map will look like this
Magic! From this view, you can see where everything is that you want to see. That way you can plan what day you do what item, so you aren’t running across a new city back and forth all day. If I have a few days in a new place I choose one big item for that day and see if I have other saved places around the area. This saves me from going back and forth all day.
If you are wanting more details on your map, you can create a map in your Google account and that way you can color code items saved so you can easily see food, shopping, sights. Below is an example of my Barcelona map I created. Feel free to save this for your next trip there!
So that is how I plan my travel itinerary. It can sound exhausting but I found that I get so much more out of my trips when I do some proper digging. If you would like to see how to access these maps offline I have just the article for you.
If you would like to read more about the technical aspects of trip planning, finding good deals on flights, tips for booking AirBnbs, how to use Google Trips, or just about anything, drop me a comment below and I will add it to upcoming articles.
I would love to hear how you plan yours as I am always looking for new creative ways to find new places to see when wandering in new locations. Let me know in the comments!
Owner of wanderinghelene.com. Anthropologist, content creator, castle explorer, coffee drinker, and lover of markets and very old places!