Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Well, Ben, I couldn't agree more. Making a plan is the first step towards a great trip. And when there is a marathon involved, it can also be the first step towards avoiding unnecessary stress in the days leading up to a race. Marathon training takes months of hard work and dedication and, if you are traveling to the location of your big race, the last thing you want is to undo all that discipline and preparation because you're on a trip and suddenly ready to partaayyyyy. Whether we are traveling for a race, or purely for pleasure (Ruth would likely argue those are the same), I always put together a detailed itinerary.
Many people think itineraries are boring, restrictive, and unnecessary. And one of the most common misconceptions about itineraries is that they prevent you from stumbling upon something great or unexpected. As if having a roadmap for your time eliminates all possibility of chance encounters and spontaneity! I would counter that building an itinerary actually increases your chances of finding something or someplace you love during your trip. When you have a plan, you don't end up spending hours needlessly staring at your phone, searching for what to do or where to eat next. This frees up your mind from distraction and allows you to simply experience the place you are in.
Below are the steps I take when planning an itinerary, and regardless of location or trip purpose, I try to follow this methodology every time:
1. Research Neighborhoods: Most cities have more than one “personality.” Think of New York City and the difference between Wall Street and the East Village. Learning about the neighborhoods of a city can help you zero in on where to stay, and determine where you want to spend time during your trip. An easy way to do this is to simply google, “neighborhoods of X city.” Airbnb has put together some great neighborhood guides, and many bloggers do neighborhood-by-neighborhood rundowns in different cities. There is a wealth of information out there on this topic! Just be sure to look at a map so you can begin to visualize which neighborhoods border each other, and begin to get a lay of the land.
2. Determine Where to Stay: Once you have done your neighborhood research, decide which spot is the most appealing to set up camp. If your trip is long enough and you don't mind making a move, consider relocating halfway through to experience more than one area. And, most importantly, if you are traveling for a race, you may want to consider locating your accommodations relatively close to the start or finish line to make transportation the day of easy and stress-free. When it comes to the type of accommodations, the options for where travelers can stay are endless. You can stay at a large hotel chain and rack up points, settle in to a boutique hotel for a more personal feel, or opt for an Airbnb and have some freedom to cook your own meals and spread out. It's a totally personal choice, and there is no right or wrong answer!
3. Research "Can't Miss": Every city has top sights, landmarks, and other "can't miss" spots. Find out what those are, and where they are, for the city you are traveling to. Whether you are into seeing major attractions or not, it is helpful to know where they are. This way, if you find yourself in close proximity to one of a city’s major sights, you can swing by for a quick look. If certain attractions really pique your interest, find them on a map and note which neighborhoods they are in. You may find that 2-3 things you really want to see are in close vicinity to your hotel or other areas you plan to explore! Another great option for major sights is to take a brief tour on one of your first days so that you can get oriented and check a few things off your list. Either way, if you find sights, attractions, or museums you know you want to visit, be sure to check their website for days and times they are open. Note that if it's a marathon trip, you will want to avoid walking tours prior to race day, and find a bus or boat tour instead to save your (or your runner's) legs.
4. Research YOUR "Can't Miss": Think about your favorite things to do or experience, and find them in the city you're traveling to. If you love live music, find some local venues and look up what's playing. If you're into breweries or distilleries, see if there are any you can visit and have a tasting tour. If you are a huge foodie, find out which restaurants are hot at the moment, and make a reservation. I know it's dorky, but I personally love ghost tours. They aren't all cheesy and about ghosts, they just tend to be nighttime tours that tell a darker side of a city's history. I always look up whether the places we are traveling to have ghost tours, and I try to take one when we have the time! These more personal additions to your itinerary will make your trip much more memorable, and give you a more local experience too. When we travel, we try to live as much “like a local” as possible, which gives each trip we take a very unique feel.
5. Watch a Movie: That's right, put away the laptop and the planning process, and find a movie to watch that is set in the city you're traveling to. Nothing inspires great itinerary ideas like seeing a story play out on screen in the very place you will be exploring yourself. It is also a lot of fun to be in an unfamiliar place and come across places you recognize, like museums, cafes, and parks that have been used in scenes from the movie you watched. Watching a movie set in your destination can definitely help build excitement for your trip and everything you will experience.
6. Food, Food, and More Food: When planning what and where you will eat during your trip, I recommend going meal by meal, rather than day by day. What I mean by this is, search breakfast spots first. Narrow down your search by specific neighborhoods and, in particular, the area around your hotel. You can go more far and wide for lunch and dinner, but if you're a breakfast eater, you will want something relatively close to where you are staying each morning so you can grab a bite and get on your way! When you find a place that looks intriguing, be sure to cross-reference it before adding it to your list. Just because a place gets five stars on one site doesn't guarantee it will be a home run. Check TripAdvisor, Expedia, OpenTable (if it serves your destination), and local food blogs to make sure it gets a thumbs up all the way around. Also, look at traveler photos, rather than the photos the restaurant itself provides. Get a good list of breakfast spots going before you move on to lunches, and then dinners. Don't worry if your list exceeds the number of days you will be traveling, it's always good to have a back-up list of places to eat in case one of your first options doesn't work out! And finally, be sure to note any that have reviews or comments warning that a reservation is required. If you have your heart set on a spot to eat that could be tough to get into, make a reservation in advance.
7. The Devil is in the Details: Too often, people only plan the what of their trip, like their hotel, flights, and tours, and don’t take into consideration the how. Nailing down the finer points of your trip will help give you the mental space to actually enjoy yourself. When planning logistics, I recommend you start from the top and include your travel details (airport, flight, departure & arrival times) to begin. Picture yourself arriving, and ask yourself what you will need to know as soon as you step off the plane. Then follow your time logically. What will you need to do first? Get from the airport or train station to your chosen accommodations. So, figure out how, and include instructions for yourself. For example, if it is a train ride from the airport to the city, research what train, how often they leave, how to get tickets, and where to find the train within the airport. Include your hotel information next, with full address and phone number. Once you arrive at your hotel, you will want to know the easiest ways to get around in general from where you are staying. Is it a city where everyone Ubers? Is there a great metro system? Is it simply so walkable you won’t need to use much transportation? Figure out the preferred method for most of your transportation needs so that you know what to expect. And, if you are traveling for a race, dig into the details of the marathon expo and plan when and how to get there. Expos are sometimes inconveniently located as they will be held in large convention centers, which can be outside of the typical downtown area. Knowing where the expo is and how to get there will also be an important trip logistic to figure out.8. Day by Day: Now that you have some general lists of what to see, where to stay, and places to eat, as well as some logistical details worked out, it is time to start assigning those items to specific days. Your first day, depending when you arrive, may simply be a travel day and the only thing you need to plan is where to grab a bite to eat for dinner before going to bed that night. If you are arriving before hotel check-in opens, you can always drop your bags and head straight to the race expo to kill some time and pick up the race bib(s). Continue to logically map out your time beginning with day one for each of the days of your trip.
- Pre-Marathon Day: If you are traveling for a race, this is arguably the most important day to plan in detail. From where you will eat your meals to how you will spend your time, this is a day you will want to be as stress-free and planned out as possible. If you (or your runner) have particular pre-marathon foods, make sure you search for restaurants that serve what you are looking for. It may sound simple enough to want eggs and toast for breakfast, but depending where you are traveling, that may not be the case. Ruth's pre-race dinner is always pizza. So, when we are planning a marathon trip, I make it a priority to find high quality pizza, and always make a reservation for the night prior to the race! This is also a day to keep things pretty low key. No biking or walking tours. Try not to venture too far and wide. This is a great day to visit a small museum, or just explore the neighborhood near your hotel. If you have a FitBit or can track your steps on your phone, check how far you've gone periodically. It's easy to lose track of how much you are walking when you're in a new place. We have made the mistake more than once of over-doing it the day before a race due to the excitement of exploring our destination.
- Marathon Day: Most marathons include some instructions for runners about how and when to get to the start on race day. Take a look at those on the race website and determine departure time from your hotel, as well as your mode of transportation. If you have chosen a hotel in close proximity to the race start, that makes it easy and you can walk or jog your way there. If you need to take public transportation, just keep in mind that many roads will be closed all morning, so try not to depend on buses or taxis. Underground metros tend to be more reliable on race days. Also, determine where the race finishes, and whether you will need anything immediately following the race. Some runners need sustenance right away, others prefer a small snack and a shower before eating anything substantial. If you do opt to go straight from the finish to a post-race meal, determine what and where you want to eat, as well as how to get there from the finish line. Ruth’s post-meal is almost always a burger, so we look for burger places in two locations – one very close to the finish andone very close to our hotel, which gives us options based on how she is feeling after the run.
9. Safety First: Before you finish up your itinerary-making process, do a little safety planning. If the trip is to a foreign country, find the embassy of your own country and write down its address and contact information on your itinerary. Next, determine how the emergency system works in the city you are traveling to. 911 doesn't work outside the United States, so include information about who to contact in the event of an urgent or emergent medical event. And finally, take into consideration common hazards of the location. Cities like Tokyo and Los Angeles are earthquake prone, which means you will want to at least understand the basics of what to do and where to go in the event of an earthquake. Other places may make you vulnerable to diseases, and you will need to have precautionary shots or take medication prior to travel. Your safety needs will differ from one location to the next, so there is no "one size its all" safety section of an itinerary, but doing some basic research to know the common hazards of a place can help keep you safe and healthy during your trip.
10. Wrapping It Up: Once you have outlined your itinerary day-by-day, paying particular attention to the pre-marathon and marathon days, it’s time to look back and review. Make sure you have incorporated the major sights and attractions you wanted to hit and, if you’ve missed anything, figure out where to add it in. This is also a good time to start crowd-sourcing recommendations from friends and on social media. I don’t like to post, “Going to Tokyo, give me your recommendations!” because that tends to draw a lot of similar (and obvious) suggestions that are already on my “top sights” list. What I prefer instead is, “Heading to Tokyo…if you’ve been, what was your most memorable, off-the-beaten path discovery?” or “Going to Tokyo for a week, but considering a day-trip elsewhere, what are your best day-trip recommendations?” Specificity will help garner more valuable tips from your network of connections. See what people throw in and find room in the itinerary for the suggestions that pique your interest.
11. Print It Out: Yes, it’s the old-fashioned way, but travel can make access to Wi-Fi and electronic materials unpredictable. I recommend printing your itinerary once complete and keeping it in your carry-on bag. With all of your critical travel details on paper, you won’t need to worry about finding internet access as soon as you land (which, if in a foreign country, can be challenging). I tend to carry the hardcopy folded up in my bag, along with a pen, and make a few additional notes along the way. Sometimes we meet locals, or even other travelers, who make great suggestions for us during our stay in a city. I like to jot those down by hand right on the original itinerary so I don’t lose track of their recommendations.
A final word of advice: be flexible. Yes, you planned an itinerary so you would have a plan, a roadmap of sorts, for your time away. But, it is essential that you remain open to the possibility that you will stumble upon something amazing during the trip, and will need to throw away some aspects of your original plan to make room for what you have found. In general, we stick to about 80% of the itinerary when we travel, and sometimes our most memorable experiences are the unexpected 20% that pop up along the way. If you remain open to adjusting your plan, you will find a way to strike the perfect balance between keeping to your itinerary and being spontaneous.