If you’re new to independent travel, or even if you’re not, the need to plan and book everything yourself can some times seem daunting. You often need to book different parts of the trip separately, and you need to be sure that it will all fit together. But it’s not really difficult. This page explains how I plan a complex journey and work out a budget for the trip, as you might find the same technique useful.
Why bother to plan? It pays to plan…
- To make sure your itinerary works. OK, so if it takes 48 hours to reach Moscow, and the Moscow-Beijing train only runs on Tuesdays and takes 6 days, and the Beijing-Hanoi train only runs on Sundays and Thursdays, and you can probably get 3 weeks off work, on what day do you need to leave London and will this all fit into 3 weeks? The only way to be sure is to plan out an itinerary for yourself…
- To plan a budget. I’m often asked ‘How much does a trip like this cost?’ This is independent travel, not an inclusive package, so it’s as long as a piece of string. Do you want a 30 day trip with 5 star hotels and lots of tours, stopovers and restaurant meals? Or a 10 day trip with minimal stopovers, travelling 2nd class, staying in hostels and living on chocolate digestives? The possibilities are endless. The best way to work out costs is to sketch out an itinerary and budget and adjust what you want to what you can afford.
- To make sure you book the right trains, ferries & buses for the right date. Obvious, really. But with independent travel you’ll often have to put the trip together yourself, booking each leg of the journey separately via a different agency or website, and it pays to make sure you book the right tickets for the right day.
To see if you’re happy with how long you get in key places. Many people want to stop everywhere and see everything, but simply haven’t thought through how long they’ll actually get in each place after allowing for travelling time. Again, plan it out, and if necessary adjust your plans, trading off longer stays in key places for a more relaxed journey against trying to stop everywhere to see everything.
The simple spreadsheet technique…
I thought this was obvious, and everyone planning a big trip would do this. But feedback suggests they don’t, so here’s how I sketch out a big trip. I use Microsoft Excel to sketch out an itinerary and budget like the one below. You can use a table in Word or another word processor if you can’t use Excel. The table below is just an example, so please don’t read anything into the times, fares or costs. They are just to demonstrate how to plan a trip, not a real suggested itinerary! This example is for a Trans-Siberian trip, but the technique works for any complex journey.
|Date||Day||Day’s planned activity or journey||
|28 August||Monday|| London depart 12:57 Brussels arrive 16:05, Eurostar.Brussels depart 17:28 Cologne arrive 19:45, Thalys.
Cologne depart 22:28 by sleeper to Moscow…
|29 August||Tuesday||On board sleeper via Warsaw…||0||0||10|
|30 August||Wednesday||Arrive Moscow 10:59. Day in Moscow||0||40||20|
|31 August||Thursday||Day in Moscow||0||40||20||
10 entrance fees
|1 September||Friday||Day in Moscow. Depart Moscow 23:00 by train to Irkutsk||250||0||20|
|2 September||Saturday||On train in Siberia…||0||0||10|
|3 September||Sunday||On train in Siberia…||0||0||10|
|4 September||Monday||On train in Siberia…||0||0||10|
|5 September||Tuesday||Arrive Irkutsk 04:30 (08:30 local time). Day in Irkutsk.||0||30||20|
|6 September||Wednesday||Day in Irkutsk. Day tour to Lake Baikal.||0||30||20||
20 Baikal day tour
|7 September||Thursday||Depart Irkutsk 15:00 by sleeper for Ulan Bator||90||0||20|
|8 September||Friday||On train in Siberia…||0||30||10|
|9 September||Saturday||Arrive Ulan Bator 06:00. Day in UB||0||30||20||
|10 September||Saturday||Day in UB. Day tour.||0||30||20||
15 day tour
|11 September||Sunday||Depart UB 09:30 for Beijing by sleeper train||95||0||10|
|12 September||Monday||Arrive Beijing 15:00||0||40||20||
|13 September||Tuesday||Day in Beijing. See Forbidden City.||0||40||20||
10 entrance fees
|14 September||Wednesday||Day in Beijing. Day tour to Great Wall.||0||40||20||
25 Great Wall tour
|15 September||Thursday||Flight Beijing-London: Beijing depart 21:30.||470||0||20||
20 Taxi to airport
Then add important one-off items to the bottom of your table:
|Belarus transit visa||80|
- Column A shows the date. If I need to pre-book any part of my itinerary, I can now book it for the right date…
- Column B shows the days of the week. If I need to take a train or ferry that only runs on certain days of the week, I can see that I’ve got the day right!
- Column C shows a rough idea of what I might do that day. I can see how long I get in major stops, and can adjust the itinerary if I think it’s not long enough. It can be for planning purposes only – you don’t have to stick to it rigidly once you’re travelling!
- Column D shows likely train, bus or ferry costs. I use rough estimates if I’m not 100% sure.
- Column E shows likely hotel costs. The hotel cost is zero when I’m on a sleeper train. I also allow a higher budget in an expensive western city than I would in a cheaper city. If I know where I want to stay, I enter the actual cost, otherwise I use a rough estimate.
- Column F is for daily spending on food, local transport, normal museum entrance fees and so on. Some people try and plan a whole trip using a flat ‘budget per day’ which never changes, but I adjust the amount I budget for depending on whether I’m on a train or in a city, in a western city or a third world city, likely to want a restaurant meal or happy with snacks and so on.
- Column G is for large and predictable one-off costs, like expensive entrance fees to major attractions. For example, the entrance fee to Petra in Jordan is about 30 Dinar (£30 or $50). If you’ve only budgeted for £30 a day to cover everything including food, then that’s a problem, but if you’ve made provision for predictable large one-off costs like this, your budget won’t be blown, you won’t be stressed, and you won’t feel compelled to go without food that day… It helps to have read your guidebook to anticipate these expenses!