It happened quite by accident.
I was planning our family’s first vacation abroad. It was a special trip for the four of us – one week in London, one week in Paris, a birthday celebration and my first time back in London since studying there in college. With guide books and maps laid out on the dining room table, I was ready to begin crafting our itinerary.
I needed something to write on and instead of reaching for my usual yellow pad, I grabbed a few 5×8 unlined index cards. Our son Andrew had needed the cards for a school project, and our local Staples store only sold them in one of those bulk quantities that you wonder how you will ever use. I had no idea that day that I would be creating an indispensable organizational tool for myself and that I would eventually go through all the remaining cards and need to purchase another set.
My 5×8 cards have taken on a life of their own over the years. They have become an expected traveling companion on all our trips and a fond part of our family lore. When I started this blog, our daughter Emily said, “You have to write about your 5×8 cards!” I knew she was right, and I think it isn’t so much the cards themselves that are successful but rather, the fact that they work for me. And of course, it’s the information on the cards that is the real star.
Here are my Top Ten Travel Planning Tips:
1. Have all your information in one easy place.
I include all flight numbers, hotel confirmations, tours, sightseeing ideas, restaurant options, phone numbers – literally everything I might need – on my 5×8 cards. It doesn’t matter if you do this on a phone or in a notebook or whatever works for you. The key is having it all in one place. It will keep you organized throughout the trip and avoid holding up a line of people while you explain to the person behind the counter, “I know I put that somewhere!”
2. Create your itinerary as a day-by-day plan.
I use a different card for each day of the trip and often work backwards as I plan. If we will be in a city for three days, for instance, I make a list of priorities – from “must sees” to “nice if we have time” – and then research the attractions to determine the days they are open, best times to visit and which sites are in the same area of the city. Once I have that information, the itinerary almost writes itself, transforming my 5×8 cards into an on-the-road calendar.
3. Make sure to include a couple of options for most days.
Unless you are taking an organized tour, it’s difficult to determine how long you will spend somewhere. We’ve experienced both extremes – from thinking we would spend hours in a place that took far less time to wishing we had more time somewhere. It’s always good to have back-up ideas on your list and the flexibility of moving something to the next day if the timing just doesn’t work out.
4. Don’t forget to take a break.
One of my first blog posts here, Tea & Coffee Shops Around the World, is also one of my favorite travel activities. I tend to put together itineraries that are pretty full, and I’ve found that the best way to see as much as we can without being completely exhausted is to allow time for a break or two in addition to the usual meals. Starbucks is fine and predictable, but the real fun is seeking out local cafes and coffee shops. I try to track down a few options before the trip, but we always seem to happen upon some wonderful spots when we’re busy heading somewhere else!
5. Research cafes and restaurants in advance.
Some people travel as much for the food as they do for the sights. But even if you’re not seeking out a Michelin starred restaurant in Rome, it’s a good idea to have a few places on your list before you arrive. Having a restaurant or two in mind will help keep you from wandering around a new city at the end of the day when you’re tired and hungry, settling on the first place you find simply because it’s there.
6. Include a walking tour in your list of things to do.
Travel writer Rick Steves is a master of the walking tour. I often print route recommendations from his guide books and attach them to my 5×8 cards using a glue stick. Yes, I know, that’s very low-tech, but it’s also incredibly neat and organized and much easier than lugging a guide book!
7. Bring along a map or two.
Google Maps is wonderful – and we have used it numerous times on trips – but there is something about a real-live map that brings a place to life for me. Like an armchair traveler dreaming of a faraway land, I love to study maps of where we will be traveling before we leave home. Once we arrive, I feel like I know the place in some small way. My favorite maps are from Streetwise. They’re laminated, durable and easy to unfold. I tuck the one I need next to my 5×8 cards and I’m ready to head out for the day.
8. Read the guidebooks…
Like those old-fashioned paper maps, guidebooks are still a great source of travel information. Most of the major players offer one-day to one-week or longer itineraries for touring cities and countries throughout the world. Books by Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet and Rick Steves contain really good general, practical information. The DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, filled with lavish photographs and maps, are the most beautifully illustrated. The Unofficial Guide series, which used to publish international guidebooks, now seems to focus on U.S. travel, offering general information as well as “inside tips” for the best times to visit places like Disney World and Washington, D.C. I think the most important thing to remember is to use these recommendations as a framework for constructing your own personal trip. Just because an author recommends something, doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.
9. …And the web sites.
I find that the more I read, the more ideas I get, and that one site inevitably leads to another and another and another. I take pages of notes before putting together the final plan on my 5×8 cards. And I cross-reference recommendations. If a café or hotel gets consistently good reviews on more than one site, then it’s a safe bet that it will be a good choice. I always check recommendations on tripadvisor.com, cruisecritic.com (helpful port information even if you’re traveling on a land trip), the web site of the attraction, hotel or restaurant and any links to blogs or articles that come up in a Google search. For airline seat selection, seatguru.com has information on the best and worst seats on various planes and airlines. And for trains, seat61.com has a wealth of information for traveling by train or ferry throughout the world.
10. Don’t forget to pack your sense of humor.
No matter how carefully you plan and how much you anticipate roadblocks, something will go wrong. Or at the very least, it won’t go as planned. That’s one of the unwritten rules of travel. And sometimes that’s also one of the unexpected joys of the trip. Something will surprise you and may be even better than you had originally planned. But for those not-so-happy interruptions, I’ve found that being able to look Fate squarely in the eye and laugh at the misfortune of the moment will go a long way in getting your trip back on track. And best of all, you’ll have a great story to tell when you get home.