How To: Creating a Rough Travel Itinerary

Doug Walsh, April, 2013

The beauty of extended travel, especially by bicycle, is that you truly can go wherever you want. Or nowhere at all. There’s a freedom that is simply impossible to achieve while confined to the paltry two-weeks vacation most employers allot. One of the aspects we look forward to most is knowing that we can stop for the day when we want, follow our curiosity where it leads us, accept the invitations of kindness as they’re presented and  not worry about having to keep a certain pace in order to be back in the office on Monday.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.  – Dwight D. Eisenhower

The question of planning an itinerary is one that is deeply personal. There are those who feel any mention of the i-word is an affront to their vagabonding sensitivities. There are also those who delight in scheduling every night’s stop, estimating every day’s mileage, and carefully planning out every day’s featured photo-op. Naturally, the majority of travelers fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes (I hope). As this article is going to show, I invested a rather lengthy amount of time creating an itinerary that I know will be of little use on a day-to-day basis. And I’d do it again just for fun.

As the quote above so eloquently states, the act of formulating a plan is vital to understanding what it is you hope to get out of the trip, where you wish to go, and why. Developing an itinerary also serves to educate the traveler on the stark realities of their pending adventure: distances, costs, weather patterns, and visa requirements among other things.

My goals in creating the plan were to familiarize myself with the route we had strung across the map on our wall; to get some semblance of an idea concerning how long it would take; and to ballpark a total cost to help guide our savings plan. Before starting, I recommend having an idea of where it is you want to go and to also have done a few shorter trips to get a sense of how many miles you are comfortable averaging and how much money you need on a day-to-day basis to travel comfortably. For us, these numbers were an average of 55 miles per day and $60 USD per day for the two of us as a couple. Naturally these are just averages. Miles will be less in the mountains and dollars spent will surely go up in the more costly countries. Your miles and dollars may differ considerably. Click the image to download a sample of the spreadsheet I created for use in your own planning.

Click here to download a shareable copy of our itinerary spreadsheet (Excel).
Click here to download a free copy of our itinerary spreadsheet (MS Excel).

A Matter of Time: Miles and Days

The first thing I did was to start breaking the projected route into many smaller segments. For example, I divided our “USA & Canada” leg of the trip into seven segments plus an eighth for visiting family in New Jersey and a ninth for crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 (more about those later).

I used Google Maps to calculate the mileage for each leg. Using the first leg (Seattle, WA to Missoula, MT) as an example, I right-clicked “Directions From” on Seattle and right-clicked “Directions To” on Missoula using the bicycle directions option. I then clicked and dragged the suggested route onto many of the smallest roads I can to get the directions to account for our desire to pedal with as little traffic as possible. Another option is to opt for “walking directions” which I sometimes did. I also made sure to steer the directions towards any points of interest that we anticipate stopping for.

Once satisfied, I plugged this number (674 miles using the Seattle to Missoula example) into a formula that increases the mileage estimate by 5%, figures out how many days it would take at 55 miles/day average, and adds one recovery day per week. It spit out a projection of 15 days for this segment. Had I have just divided 674 by 55, I would have only allotted 12 days for this segment. Of course, we’d still be free to take as many days as necessary, but it could get pretty demoralizing pretty fast to feel as if we were always behind schedule, even if there really isn’t one. And given the many mountain passes along that stretch, those would have been hard days indeed. Columns for start and end dates automatically assign a range of dates to help with planning future arrangements such as onward travel and family visits.

Daily Expenses: How Much Will it Cost?

The next step was to figure out how much each segment of the journey might cost us. For this I had three categories: daily cost, segment cost, and major cost. For daily cost on cycling segments I stuck with the $60 USD/day budget that, through our previous tours, we found to work well for our desired level of comfort. For segments in which we’re planning on spending time sightseeing, like in cities, I doubled our daily budget to $120 USD/day. The more time off the bike, the more opportunities there are to be spending money. We’re also more likely to be using hostels or eating out in cities. I multiplied these numbers by the number of days for each segment to get a segment cost. This gave us a projected $877 expense for the 15 days it will likely take us for the Seattle to Missoula segment (the spreadsheet utilizes those hidden decimal places).

A third column title “Major Costs” is a catch-all for additional expenses that we know we’ll have to account for during each segment. These expenses include ferry fees, cruise/train tickets, visa fees, language school, etc. I did some very quick research ahead of time and plugged in the current going-rate for ferry tickets and the like in this column.

Plotting the Weather

The next column in the spreadsheet was for the weather. Using climate data available on Wikipedia and other sites, I put the average monthly high and low temperatures along with the monthly total rainfall for the destination town in each segment. So, using the initial Seattle to Missoula segment, I typed in 58/32 for the average daily high and low temperature (F) in April and 1.1″ for the monthly rainfall.

I then color-coded these entries using black, red, blue, and green so that I can get a quick-glance idea of where we can expect cold weather, hot weather, or too much rain. You can’t do anything about the weather, but this step could bring any planning errors to the light. Such as forgetting to take into account the seasonal changes as you shift from one hemisphere to the next or accidentally scheduling a trip through southeast Asia at the height of monsoon season.

My color-coding scheme was as follows:

  • Red = Average High >80 F
  • Blue = Average Low <40 F
  • Green = Monthly Rainfall > 4.0in

Everything else was left in black font — average temps and (hopefully) average rainfall.

Major Tasks to Do

One final column was left for major tasks like getting visas and/or extensions, booking cargo ship arrangements, going to the dentist, and getting vaccination boosters. This column was also useful for just general notes and leaving us reminders.

The Happy Totals

One of the end results was to tally up the miles, days, and costs to get a feel for how long our projected route would take and to see how much money we’d need to save in order to pull it off at our desired budget. This is where taking the time to put an itinerary together really can be useful. This stands to raise an alarm quite early in the planning that your projected route may take longer than you anticipated. Or that you might need to take longer to save or, perhaps, that your anticipated daily budget needs to shrink a little.

For us, this exercise revealed that the costs of forgoing air travel are much higher than we anticipated. In forcing myself to investigate the true costs of using the Queen Mary 2 to cross the Atlantic and cargo ships to travel from Singapore to New Zealand and then onward to Panama, it became clear just how much cheaper air travel was — and that we needed to boost our monthly savings if we were going to still try and do this trip without travelling by air.

The Visa Plan

Creating a visa plan years ahead of travel is all but pointless as the situation on the ground can change monthly, especially when it comes to Central Asia and China. That said, it’s a good idea to at least know what you’re up against.

The second page in the spreadsheet has the visa plan I created in 2012 to help with organizing and visualizing how we’ll go about obtaining our visas. I spent some time on the Thorntree forums as well as looking at official embassy websites and each country’s entry requirements to get a feel for what is and isn’t necessary for each country we’ll be visiting. I then included some current intel for those visas that can be trickier to get while outside your home country.

The spreadsheet includes a listing of every country we’ll be visiting, whether or not a visa is needed, the duration it’s good for, and the city and country along our route where we should be able to get it. On the other half of the sheet, I have information about obtaining those onward travel visas. We’ll update this information as we get closer to the countries in question.

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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