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A Pre-Trip Report-An Anatomy of our Planning for our Upcoming Trip to Scotland

How about a pre-trip report? I’ve noticed many questions on the forum asking for itinerary advice or where to start, etc. So, here’s what I do. And yes, I am somewhat anal…but efficient.

I’ve been trying to think of vacations that I haven’t loved and what comes to mind are trips that we sit around and do nothing-like a beach vacation, or trips where we have been scattered and disorganized-usually extended family trips or with friends where compromise is required but other travel partners don’t want to plan because they just want to go with the flow. I recall one vacation where we rented a beach house with some very close friends who had kids the same age as ours. We learned a very important lesson that communication is key before committing to travelling with friends and family. They’re idea was to sit on the beach 10 hours/day drinking beer and baking in the sun. I got so bored I ended up logging into the office and working a couple of hours each day. I need to keep moving.

My wife and I are planners and for the past few years we’ve settled into a routine that every Sunday morning we have a date at the local Tim Horton’s (Canadian coffee and donut franchise) and we plan our next or future travel adventures. Next up is Scotland in June 2020. It will be our 5th European adventure in the past 6 years. We’ve cruised, we’ve done an RS tour and we’ve done it on our own. They all work for us. Scotland is my wife’s pick as she is a huge fan of the TV show Outlander and so her search for Jamie Fraser has begun. We are usually planning about a year in advance and that gives us time to be patient in looking for good prices on airfare and slowly build an itinerary and book hotels. We had 3 bucket list items we wanted to accomplish and so we started the plan by building around these;

  1. Outlander sites.

  2. Stay in a haunted castle

  3. Visit Calgary on the Isle of Mull which is the place my hometown is named after.

Friends have also raved about Edinburgh and so we added that to our list as a hub to stay for the first week. How many days we’ll explore Edinburgh and how many will be day trips somewhere else, tbd.

Continued in the comments section...

Posted by
1094 posts

Continued from above

After making the list of our must-see places we need to figure out how to see them. We were on an RS tour in France in May this year and loved it and so we looked at the RS itinerary for Scotland, but for us it seemed a bit too rushed and didn’t focus on any of our must-see locations. And so, every Sunday since late June we’ve been taking our books and tablets to Tim Horton’s and we’ve been building the trip piece by piece. Our early travel books/guides of choice are Eyewitness Travel and Insight guides for the photos and info on the sites. Rick Steves books come later as what we like most about his books is the step by step approach he takes on how to get to locations such as from the airport to train station to town centre to hotel. We do glance at his books for ideas on places to see but honestly, we find the walking tour sections kind of dull. Now don’t get me wrong, the RS books are still a critical part of our planning and we’re better travelers because of them, but we just don’t rely on them as a sole source. It’s also surprising how many travel tips we get from strangers at Tim Horton’s when they see us with our books. We’ve become known as regulars there and other regulars will come up to us and ask about our travels; this past Sunday our Scottish plans didn’t go far as a neighbour that we don’t really know well came in, and we talked for about an hour about the trip to Ireland she just got back from. About 18 months ago we were in the late stages of planning for a trip to London and the Cotswolds and a stranger sitting next to us saw our books, it turned out he had lived in Reading for 2 years and we got some valuable advice about driving on the left side. I should also mention that this forum has been an excellent source of knowledge in the preplanning and I use it well before I focus on the RS books.

Our preliminary research for this trip was from the start of July to the end of August and we had put together a rough 2-week itinerary. And then in September I found the deal I wanted on airfare and was able to nail down specific travel dates. Now we could start researching hotels, rental cars, etc. This is where I really start focusing on the RS books, Trip Advisor, Expedia and also the RS European Travel Facebook page which directed me to the Scottish Travel Society which is one of the most outstanding Facebook travel sites that I’ve ever come across. Let me tell you, while the Venetians and Amsterdammers are happy if you stay away, based on this site, the Scots really, really want you to visit.

It’s now the end of October and 216 days until our flight to Glasgow. We fly to Glasgow and then take a train to Edinburgh. We’ll spend 6 days there which will include a couple of still to be determined day trips one of which will be an Outlander tour (bucket list). Then rent a car and meander our way to Inverness for a 2-night stay, the only key site on the radar so far is the Culloden Battlefield (bucket list item-an Outlander thing). Inverness to Oban and a stay at Barcaldine Castle for one night (bucket list item-haunted castle). A ferry across to Mull for a 2-night stay and visit Calgary (bucket list-my hometown named for it), then off to Glasgow for 2 nights and head home.

Continued below..

Posted by
1094 posts

Continued from above..

Hotels are booked, car is booked. Over the next few months we’ll continue to research and nail down other sites we may want to see in Edinburgh and on our drive through the Highlands. Typically, we don’t book any visits or tours in advance so we can maintain some flexibility in case of weather or other factors, however I just read that starting in 2020 Stirling Castle will require a timed booking and so now we have to figure out when will be best to fit that in. Our usual plan is to try to see one major site a day and then leave the rest of the day open for our version of spontaneity. However, because of the distances to cover in the Highlands and not having a handle yet on how long the drives will actually be from place to place we may need to put more thought than this usual ‘spontaneity.’

The other thing that will start as we get closer is to start reading books and watching TV shows/movies of historical fiction, that help build our knowledge and excitement for the trip. I typically also find local current or historical authors and will read a classic or two. Currently I’m reading a modern version of MacBeth written by Norwegian Crime Fiction author Jo Nesbo.

About a month before we go, I’ll start reviewing some you-tube videos about driving in Scotland, going back to my RS books and maps so I have a clear plan and path from the Airport to the train station to our first hotel. I also take this time to review car/travel/health insurance so in case something does happen, I’m not lost in the wilderness-it’s just the way I am.

The building blocks of the trip are set, but still plenty to do and look forward to in our weekly Sunday morning date.

Posted by
2382 posts

Allan, I hope every first-time visitor to Europe reads your post. Good job!

Posted by
442 posts

When I was planning my Scotland trip, my library’s dvd collection was a good resource. Check yours. Look for everything by Paul Multon, Tony Robinson, and JAMES McCready, and Rick Steves, of course.

There are hundreds of well done videos from the Scottish locals posted on YouTube. You should be able to find several directly associated with Outlander, the show means big business in all of the filming sites.

I enjoyed my tour with Rick Steves tremendously. Weather was fabulous, food was great, extraordinary people although, come to think of it, folks are about the same everywhere.

Posted by
541 posts

On the day you visit Culloden, you’ll want to visit Clara Cairns, the standing stones Claire walks through to travel back in time. They are quite close to Culloden and can easily be combined. Obviously, they are very interesting in their own right, not just for The Outlander.

Posted by
1571 posts

I love your thorough and detailed planning report!

I book my trips a year or more out and then 3 or 4 months ahead, I have to scramble to make last minute arrangements. I’m planning a week-long trip to Venice and Florence next April. We have our flights bought and hotel reservations made. It will be relatively easy to make the rest of our plans, like walking tours, etc. Train tickets to Florence.

Right now, this evening, I’m purchasing tickets in advance for art exhibits in Vienna for a RS tour of Munich Salzburg Vienna in December for the Christmas markets. I signed up for this tour in 2018!

You are so organized! Thanks for sharing.

Posted by
3377 posts

This is so interesting to read, Allan! I’m also a detailed planner but approach it differently. I enjoyed reading your method, and I think you’re informally starting a Travel Group at your coffee shop!

I like to place a large piece of paper on the table with the initial cities spaced out in relative distance from each other. I circle each one and begin with writing accurate train trips in hours between them along connecting lines. This gives me a view of order of travel or places to eliminate because they’re too long by train. Then I’ll pull up intermediate towns between those locations in Google images to search if there’s interesting stops or overnights along the way. That’s how I added Le Mans and Angers as overnights for France this year. It’s s lot of searching but goes fairly quick per connecting line.

Next, I search for festivals in any of those potential locations. That, for instance, determined my itinerary start date for Italy in 2018, so I could attend the Stresa Music festival, Verona opera and Arezzo jousting festival.

Posted by
1571 posts

Jean,
Your method is interesting as well. I like the idea of finding festivals in places you want to visit.

Posted by
307 posts

This is excellent info on planning a trip! Great write-up. I took the RS Best of Scotland tour and enjoyed it very much, but I agree that having more days in each spot is ideal. Not sure exactly when you'll be in Edinburgh - I assume you're aware of the major Fringe and other festivals that are in Edinburgh for most of August? That can affect lodging availability and cost. But, I've heard it's a fun thing to experience. Good luck and enjoy your trip!

Posted by
203 posts

I had the same comment as the last poster. If you are in Edinburgh in August, you will there during the fringe festival. You wont be able to avoid the crowds, and you’re paying more in hotel costs to be there, so you might as well go to some shows. Also, you will be there during the military tattoo, have you considered attending a show? And did you find a specific outlander tour in Edinburgh? There are a few sites along the royal mile. I’m curious as what you plan to see in Edinburgh. In other words, how detailed a planner are you? If you get a chance, read my detailed report on my week in Edinburgh for more ideas. Enjoy your trip.

Posted by
1094 posts

On the day you visit Culloden, you’ll want to visit Clara Cairns

Thanks for the tip, I didn't realize they were so close together. My wife is in charge of everything Outlander so she'll make the decision if we'll go to the stones. I guess I'll be worried if we do visit and she brings a suitcase along...

Posted by
1094 posts

I’m curious as what you plan to see in Edinburgh. In other words, how
detailed a planner are you? If you get a chance, read my detailed
report on my week in Edinburgh for more ideas.

Thanks Derek, I'll track your trip report down. in my planning, I'm obsessive about how to get to and from places such as airport to hotel, or hotel to locations I want to visit. I also have a knack of being able to study a map and then have a vision in my mind of where in the city something is; not a street by street photographic memory type thing, but approximate locations. For example when I was in Rome for the first time, as soon as I had my directions figured out and just a quick glance at a map, I was able to walk to the Colosseum, and the next day to the Vatican from our hotel in Trastevere. As far as planning of what to see and do in Edinburgh, we will start to study the city closer and learn of what the city has to offer and possibly book 1 or 2 walking tours, but we tend not to plan down to the minute. We'll decide we want to see a site like Hollyrood but probably won't book anything unless a reservation is required. That kind of planning may happen the night before.

Posted by
679 posts

Good job.
Amazing planning. I feel like it is half the fun and takes me at least a year. I am the one that usually spends the time planning. My hubby is still working the long hours and I am semi-retired. We each come up with 3 must places/sites/festivals etc. for where we are going and we whittle it down from there. I come up with a possible itinerary and my "possibilities" list for each day of the itinerary. We may do only 2-3 on the daily list but it gives us an idea of what we are interested in doing and location. About 6 months before, we spend Saturday morning reviewing.

Posted by
1094 posts

I feel like it is half the fun and takes me at least a year.

For us, the fun was an unintended consequence. It started out innocently to make sure we were getting the best bang for the buck and now it's a much anticipated weekly event. Every Sunday, whether we have a trip booked or not, we're planning and dreaming.

Posted by
53 posts

Good job Allan. You may already do this, but after plotting out the travel order, I look up on a map the UNESCO sites between places we will be driving. Also those nearby the places we stay. This is how I found the Roman ruins in Mérida, Spain and the Santa Maria de Guadalupe. We were driving from Sevilla to Salamanca and just added a night in Guadalupe to break up the drive. We were also able to book a great room at the Parador De Guadalupe Caceres that was wonderful and a bargain.

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1094 posts

Good tip Steve. Jean from Mill Creek posted above with a similar strategy. We do look at a map but more for a best route between places that we've decided on to make sure our daily drive will be reasonable. I'm going to take yours and Jean's advice and bring a map this Sunday for our weekly date. I'll let you know how it goes.

Posted by
53 posts

Allan, I just Google UNESCO sites and they will have all of them on a map for you.

Posted by
4 posts

I'm so thankful I'm not the only one who is obsessive about details for a long period of time. Thanks for your great model to follow.

Posted by
506 posts

I love the detail in this post. I'm another person who loves maps. When we planned our week in Kyoto I had thin pointer-shaped sticky notes marking the locations of temples, castles, boat ride, craft fair, museums, etc.

Posted by
1094 posts

Since some people are still commenting on this post from October I thought I'd update.

My biggest headache this week is that Westjet has grounded the Max 8 jets until after our trip so we've had to put any firm plans to book tours, etc. on hold until we know how our flight will be affected. I haven't spoken to Westjet yet but just this morning it looks like they will swap the max 8 for the 737-700 for the Halifax to Glasgow legs, however the Calgary to Halifax legs are still on the max 8. Hmm. I'm thinking this will be resolved soon and they'll either swap these planes as well or put us on a different flight on the to and from flights which will just mean 6-7 hour layovers. I will give Westjet credit for being proactive this early so I don't have to fret.

This is the 3rd time in the past year I've been affected and all 3 times the airlines have dealt with it as best they could. Last Spring I had timed a flight to Toronto so I could get to downtown Toronto about an hour before a Blue Jay's game started. WestJet rebooked me on a flight that would have had me arrive after the game was over. I called and got put on a flight the night before. Cost me an extra night of hotel and food, but go Blue Jay's, didn't want to miss.

Posted by
272 posts

Allan
We spent a week in Scotland after taking a Rick Steves Ireland tour last September. We took a 5 day “Wee Red Bus tour”. After leaving Edinburgh we stopped in Dunkeld to visit the cathedral. It was worth a stop. Then we saw some waterfalls right outside of town. (I think it is called the Hermitage). It is a short walk back to see them and they’re beautiful. I would also recommend stopping at the outdoor highlander museum at Newtonmore. This was excellent. There are several houses there, a schoolhouse, shearing sheds and some cute Highland Coos. It has bathrooms and a snack bar that is good. When you go to the Culloden Battlefield, spend some time at the museum. We happened to be there when they had a demonstration of how the highlanders would make a kilt and how it was used. It was very good, I would also second the motion to visit Clava Cairns. It is very interesting for Outlander fans. We went to the Isle of Skye and absolutely loved it. The scenery was incredible. You could easily spend 2-3 days driving around the island. We ate at some great restaurants. We also stopped at the Glenfinnian viaduct for some great pictures of the railroad trestle. We timed it where we saw the Harry Potter steam train go over it . Very cool. It is packed with people taking pictures at the high view point, but we got some at the base area that were just fine. There are great turnouts on the road near Glencoe for you to take pictures of the Tnree Sisters. They are beautiful.. I hope you get your airplane travel figured out. Have a wonderful trip.

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1094 posts

Thanks for the tips Janet. We have the Highland Museum on a list as a possible stop. Clava Cairns is also on the list when we visit Culloden. My sense is that I'll enjoy the museum more than the actual battlefield.

We still haven't decided what to do on our drive from Mull to Glasgow. We have to return our car by 5pm and so I expect we'll book the first ferry off the Island and determine our route very soon.

Stirling Castle now requires a timed entry and so we need to decide if we're visiting on the Saturday or Sunday while we're in Glasgow or a day trip from Edinburgh.

Plane issues are taken care of. The Calgary/Halifax leg both ways has been switched from a Max 8 to the 800.

Posted by
506 posts

I love the weekly "trip planning" meeting. I'm stealing it!

We started our three week multi-adult European trip in a similar fashion: DH, two adult sons and I in a brewery/restaurant, armed with laptops and three "bucket list" must-sees apiece. We plotted them on a map, looked for overlap, looked for strength of interest, eliminated a few outliers. Over the months of planning our must-sees changed but we tried to make sure every had something from their list. Each meeting ended with the scheduling of the next one and updating the Google-doc "Parking Lot" items that were unfinished. For example, as the plans developed my idea of seeing the Grand National (it's a horse race) turned into a day trip from London to Lingfield Park (where I placed bets with trackside bookies and had a hilarious time).

Posted by
1094 posts

Hey Marty, if you're ever in Calgary feel free to sit in on ours;). We're doing it all over again now, we found a kick-butt seat sale to London and heading there in September. Kind of rushed planning for us since we usually start planning a year in advance, but I'm sure we'll cope...

Posted by
78 posts

Hello from Nanaimo!

Have to say I love your style, I'm planning a trip to Scotland in April (you should see my dining room table, LOL) .. I am doing a day trip from Edinburgh to Stirling, how did you hear about needing a timed booking this year??

And I'm also glad to know I'm not the only one obsessed with details and logistics, it is totally half the fun!

Cheers,
Joanne

Posted by
13 posts

Regarding the timed entry at Stirling Castle... I bought Explorer Passes for me and my husband and Stirling Castle is one of the sites included on the pass. It's my understanding if you have the pass then you don't need to select your timed entry. If you will be visiting several other sites included on the pass, you may want to purchase one as it saves money on admission and you skip the ticket line.

Tammy

Posted by
1094 posts

Tammy, our Explorer's Passes arrived in the mail this week. We too, saw the value and convenience. I can't recall exactly how many sites that we plan to visit are included with the Pass but it will pay for itself. But even if it hadn't completely made up the difference, the value of skipping the timed entry at Stirling and not waiting in the ticket line for Edinburgh Castle added the extra value.

Posted by
660 posts

I plan much the same way - I start with lots of reading and notes about what grabs my attention. But it may be for trips several years in the future. I know I probably can’t get everywhere, so I have a general priority and this year is Scotland, Wales, and ending in London.

Then I look at how long I can be gone and where a good arrival point is. After that I prioritize and check the details of getting from one place to the next. Once I have established I can get there (and how), I decide more specifically what I want to see, which determines how long to stay.

I, too, study all routes, using google street view when possible. That also helps me choose my hotel or b&b. I end up with a spreadsheet by day, with lodging, travel details, potential sites and opening hours, reservations if I have them, estimated costs, and links for a refresher as the trip progresses.

And I’ll arrive on Mull June 25 for 4 nights, if all goes well. Then to Skye, Lewis & Harris, York, Wales, and London. (I have 5 weeks.)

Posted by
15 posts

I just found your Post. Great ideas. I started planning my 4 week trip to England & Scotland last fall. I was supposed to leave next Thursday, but, alas, since everything has been cancelled due to Covid-19, I am regrouping and figure I will have more time to refine my visit itinerary to get ready for next year.

Just wanted to share some of the things I did for planning, in case others may find them of interest. I have been getting lots of tour brochures from Tour Companies, so as part of my research, I checked to see what sites were showing up on most tours and then checked those sites out for myself and targeted those of interest. I found “VisitScotland” very useful for locations, plus Day trips and scenic drives.

I started using Rick Steves’ “Europe Through The Back Door” back in the mid 80s when first visited Europe, also used to find a great Hotel in Rome on a trip to Italy, and like his approach about visiting places not as crowded as the “top” places but just as interesting! Have been watching his PBS travel shows on Scotland & England & found them very helpful too!

I’m looking for help with a rental car. Most of the rental car sites I found only quote prices for a “manual” transmission and it was difficult to be able to search with an “automatic”. Although I drive stick shift cars for many years, my Cousin and I decided with driving on the left side of the road & negotiating turns & roundabouts, we don’t want the extra stress of shifting with the left hand too! Does anyone have info to share on rentals, such as Best place to rent in England & Scotland, is it less expensive to rent for a longer period or just rent for a shorter time & take some breaks in between & use public transportation in bigger cities such as Edinburgh & Glasgow - I’ve heard you DON’T want to drive in Edinburgh and from checking on lodging car parking is expensive or not available.

From what we could tell, it may be better to bring a portable GPS rather than pay about $15-20/day for one in rental car??

We were planning to go up in the Highlands and take day trips from near Inverness to Isle of Skye, Aberdeen, etc and then head up to Keiss, spend the night & take a day ferry trip & tour of the Orkney Islands! We had originally planned to just take our car over on a ferry, but the day tour was a much better way to see the 5000 year old village Skara Brae. It sounds amazing as well as some other sites from back in the Viking days!

Would appreciate any input?

Posted by
98 posts

This is an awesome thread!

I hope you come back to update how you are managing with the Covid crisis and etc.

Thanks for posting!!

Posted by
1094 posts

JMJ Traveler,

My trip was scheduled for May 31st so I can't recommend a rental car company through experience but we booked with https://www.celticlegend.co.uk/ after getting many recommendations on this forum. Their customer service so far has been outstanding when I've emailed with questions. I did book an automatic. Also, 18 months ago in England I booked through Enterprise and had no problem getting an automatic.

As for the GPS, in England we brought out TomTom but our car also had a GPS at no charge. Our rental guy recommended that we search for our destination by Postal Code, but TomTom will only search by street address. I started out using it anyway because I was more familiar with it, but the rental guy was right and we switched to the car's GPS. Celtic Legend said my car won't have a built in GPS, but I think renting one is only going to cost me 25 Pounds for the week which is far cheaper than downloading a European map to my TomTom.

Posted by
1094 posts

sen say,

We haven't formally cancelled anything yet, I've been waiting for WestJet to officially cancel the flight and then I'll get to work. The Canadian Transport Authority has ruled that flights originating in Canada can provide vouchers instead of refunds, which is no big deal for us. Our current thinking is to re-book for the same 2 weeks next year if travel will be allowed. All of our hotel reservations have no-penalty cancellation fees except Barcaldine Castle which in its terms stated that our £100 deposit is non refundable, so we'll call and see if they will honor it if we are willing to re-book. I haven't looked into our reservation for the CalMac Ferry to and from Mull, but that was pretty cheap and so I'm not concerned if I lose that money. Rabbies tours is offering credits. We've already purchased and received our Scottish Explorers annual pass-£112 and I don't see anything on the website about refunds, but since it's a non-profit organization, I'm OK with losing the money.

Here's a link to what our itinerary was going to be; https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/scotland/itinerary-by-request