I don’t think I’ve ever planned a trip without someone, either on a forum or in real life, suggesting alternatives to my itinerary. When I went to the Balkans, I heard from people who said I needed more time in Dubrovnik and others who said I needed less time in Dubrovnik. And no where did I get more varied opinions than when asking about Belgium. There are four major tourist destinations in Belgium (in addition to countless smaller places that are undoubtedly worth seeing): Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp. There are 24 different ways of prioritizing those four cities, and I have no doubt you could get 24 different opinions if you asked 24 different people on a travel forum.
So why bother asking for itinerary advice? Well, for me, sometimes it’s just to get confirmation that I’m not making foolish decisions. It is reassuring to get a thumbs-up on a potential itinerary, and sometimes, a genuinely useful bit of advice has helped me make some good adjustments to my itinerary.
I’ve learned from the time I’ve spent perusing travel forums, especially the one on Rick Steves’ web site, that there are ways to request advice that make it more likely I’ll get some valuable feedback. And there is a difference between helpful advice and simply demonstrating that you have some knowledge about something.
So here’s my advice for asking for advice. And below that is my advice for giving advice.
If you want advice
- Don’t let someone else plan your vacation for you. You are the best person to know what you like and don’t like, what style of travel fits your personality, what pace you are capable of maintaining, what activities you do and don’t enjoy. I’m always astonished when people post questions like “I’m planning three weeks in Europe next summer. What’s a good itinerary?” And I’m even more astonished when people try to answer. No one knows what’s a good itinerary for you — except you!
- Start by doing your homework. In this day and age, so much information is available without buying a book or spending a dime. Before you ask others for advice, figure out what locations are most appealing to you. Try to get a general idea of where you want to go.
- Set some goals. Decide what you want to get out of this vacation. If you just want to lie on the beach, great! If you have always wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower at sunrise or see Leonardo’s Last Supper, those are great goals too, though not enough to fill your itinerary. You may want to create some stretch goals. Maybe decide to spend a day riding the Metro and popping up into various Paris neighborhoods and exploring. Do you want to come away with inspiration? Do you want to feel relaxed and rested? Do you want to stretch yourself physically, or mentally, or culturally, or emotionally? Once you know what you want for yourself, you can make better choices about your itinerary.
- Limit yourself regionally. It may be possible to cover a lot of ground in the time you have, but that doesn’t mean it’s desirable. For one thing, you will spend a lot of time getting from one place to another. And remember, getting from one city to another doesn’t just mean the flight time or the train time. You have to check out of your hotel, get yourself to the airport or train station, and allow enough time extra time before boarding. Then when you arrive, you have to get to where you’re staying and get checked in and settled. So covering long distances will cost you time as well as money. Second, limiting yourself to a particular region allows you to focus your planning time and energy on that one region If you’re planning on spending two weeks exploring Tuscany, you can really learn a lot about where you’re going beforehand, and that can enhance your appreciation and increase your efficiency while you’re there. If you spend that same two weeks in Rome, Paris, London, and Amsterdam, think of all the planning you have to do, all the guidebooks to read, all the languages to bone up on. And finally, when you get home from your vacation, you will have much richer memories if you didn’t visit so many diverse, unrelated places that they all run together in your mind. If you look at your pictures and keep asking yourself, “Where was that?” you probably went to too many different places.
- Stretch yourself thematically. You may love art, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should spend all day, every day, for two weeks visiting art museums. Plan on breaks in the countryside or at the beach or in small villages. A mix of larger and smaller cities, urban and rural landscapes, city walks and countryside hikes, is good for you no matter what your interests are. Delve into history one day, and take a bike ride the next. Or spend most of your time in a city, but give yourself a couple of days, maybe at the midpoint or at the end of your trip, at the beach.
- Plan to love what you see, not regret what you skip. I think the most common pitfall of vacation planning is worrying about missing something unmissable. But here is a newsflash: Nothing Is Unmissable. Don’t try to squeeze more stuff into less time because you’re already there and you don’t know when you’ll get back there again. Wherever you go, and for however much time you are there, that will end up being the perfect itinerary for you.
- Put together two or three variant itineraries. Based on your research, decide on a handful of alternatives. These should not be completely different from each other; rather, they should be variations on a common theme. For example, you could decide you want a week in Paris followed by a week exploring some other parts of France, but you’re undecided as to which part of France you’re most drawn to. Or you want to visit Spain, and you’re unsure if you should include Portugal in the time you have.
- Ask specific questions. There’s nothing particularly wrong with posting a question on a forum asking for feedback on your itinerary ideas. Just be prepared to get diverse opinions and end up less able to make up your mind. Plus, you are likely to get responses suggesting other alternatives that will just muddy the waters for you. A better approach, when you have narrowed down your options, is to ask specific questions that will help you choose. For example, “Which of these is easiest to do via trains only?” or “Which towns would you recommend I stop in if I’m interested in cheese tasting?” or “Where are some good day hikes within an hour’s drive of _____?” You will probably get fewer responses to these kinds of questions, because there aren’t as many people who know the answers. But the answers you do get will be useful and will help you narrow down your choices.
- Provide all necessary information. If you have already booked your flights, or if you are limited by the use of points or miles, make that clear when you ask your question, so responders don’t waste their energy suggesting alternatives for where to fly into or out of. If you are not open to renting a car, or if you are absolutely committed to renting a car, or if you love the train, or if you get motion sickness and so can’t ride in buses for more than ten minutes, or if you have limited mobility, are afraid of heights, prefer 5-star hotels, whatever might be relevant to your question, be sure to include it in your question.
- Describe your dilemma. If you’re truly on the fence choosing between two options, don’t just ask, “Which would you do?” This will not tell you which you should do. Explain why you are attracted to each itinerary you’re considering, and ask specific questions to help you make a final decision. For example: “My husband and I, in our mid-30s, are traveling with our two sons, ages 7 and 11, for two weeks in June of next year. We are trying to decide between Italy and Norway. I love art and am leaning toward Italy, but my husband and the boys want to see mountains and fjords and think Norway would be more fun, but we’re concerned that it will be expensive. What would you advise.” You might get some people talking about places in Italy that are very scenic. You might get others who will convince you you can get your fill of good art at some of the museums in Oslo, or ways you can do Norway on a tight budget. And maybe this will help you come to a final decision. It’s certainly a better question than, “What would you suggest for two weeks — Italy or Norway?”
- Don’t ask for the “best” anything. “Best” is subjective and relative. What’s best for you might not be best for me. Ask about what matters to you: fast, cheap, convenient, comfortable, simple, scenic, quiet.
- Be appreciative. The people on the forum who are offering advice are doing it for free. They want to be helpful. A simple “thank you” is always welcome. And even better, when you get back from your trip, let people know if their advice was truly useful to you. And pay it forward by answering questions for others based on your newly-acquired expertise.
The only bad itinerary is the one you come home from feeling disappointed.
Traveling is an activity best suited to people who are able to make lemonade out of lemons. If you’re more likely to regret not getting to one more village, one more museum, or one more cathedral, don’t go. If something isn’t as spectacular as you hoped and dreamed, modify your hopes and dreams. Be happy.
If you want to give advice
- Answer the question that was asked. If someone asks for advice on whether to stay in Ghent or Antwerp, don’t tell them to stay in Bruges. If someone asks how long it will take to drive from point A to point B, don’t tell them they should take the train.
- If you don’t like the question, don’t answer. You aren’t required to answer every question about which you have knowledge. If someone wants to know where in Venice to buy carnival masks, and you think carnival masks are a stupid thing to buy in Venice, don’t respond. It’s not your place to lecture someone about how carnival masks are a tourist scam.
- Don’t tell someone else what to do. A travel forum is a place for exchanging information. If you know something about the topic, share what you know. If you have an opinion, share your opinion, but make sure you don’t confuse your opinion with fact. Tell people what you liked or didn’t like. Tell them if you think they are trying to squeeze too many sites into too little time. Don’t tell them where to go or where to stay or what to see or what to skip.
- Remember how it felt to be going on your first trip. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the first-time traveler. Remember how you wanted to go everywhere and see everything. Maybe you know better now, but cut them some slack if their travel goals don’t align with yours. If they intend to hit four cities in a week despite all the advice from others to cut it back to two or three, give them some tips on how to make the most of it. Next time, they’ll know better too.
- Keep it positive. If someone has made what you think is a bad decision or has a plan you think is unworkable, don’t scold them or make them feel bad. Help them turn those lemons into lemonade.
- Different strokes for different folks. Maybe you love staying in apartments in interesting neighborhoods where you can shop at local markets and do your own cooking. Some folks prefer small boutique hotels. Others prefer fine luxury accommodations. Be supportive of these individual preferences. If someone asks for a friendly B&B near the train station, don’t reply by telling them about the fantastic views from the high-rise hotel where you stayed. If they say they aren’t interested in visiting art museums, don’t try to convince them to spend part of their vacation at your favorite art museum, even if it’s the Louvre or the Prado or the Uffizi or the Rijksmuseum. However…
- Reality checks are fine. If someone who doesn’t like art museums and churches is planning on spending a few nights in Florence, you might want to let them know what to expect.
- Respect other responses. You might not agree with the advice someone else offers. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad advice. Offer your alternative suggestions, and explain why your suggestion makes sense for you, but acknowledge that other opinions might be just as valid. And don’t insult someone just because they gave erroneous information or made a suggestion you disagree with. Think of it as an opportunity to educate them as well as the person who posted the original question.
- Don’t suggest that there is a “best” anything. “Best” is subjective and relative. What was best for you might not be best for them. Offer advice about what is fast, cheap, convenient, comfortable, simple, scenic, quiet.
- Consider that there is no one right answer. Sometimes the most useful answer you can give someone is that they can’t go wrong. If someone is staying in Dubrovnik and has time for a day trip to either Mostar or to Kotor, but not both, let them know what you liked about each of those destinations, maybe even tell them which one you’d pick if you could only do one, but ultimately, reassure them that they are both great places to go for a day. Remind them to plan on loving what they see, not regretting what they skip.