Slow Travel Planning – How to Design Your Trip

There are not a lot of things that I think I’m really good at. I can’t think of much, even as I’m saying it, but there are two things that I am confident about:

  • I know how to plan a slow trip, and

(The second thing is neither here nor there, it’s just something I know.)

Adulting, having my life together, being tidy, all not things I’m good at, but this…

I’ve got this.

A woman stands outside at sunrise holding a coffee

Okay, so I should actually say we, because my darling husband likes things even slower than I do. If it was up to him there would be a minimum of one nap every day, but there isn’t.

So rest easy if you hate napping, (me too) or if you like it, because there will be time to both nap and explore!

What should a slow trip be like?

A slow travel plan should be a loose DIY guide to having meaningful experiences on your trip.

Think of it as a minimalist blueprint for your slow travels.

If you are wondering more about the basics of slow travel (what does it mean? etc.) take a look at this guide.

Throughout this post I am going to act as though your itinerary is a piece of paper, but it’s not necessary.

hands over a map with a camera in between them and a laptop to the side. The right hand holds a pencil.

If you have a good memory you may not need to write anything down, or maybe you prefer to use an app.

Anything goes!

Further down, I will add an actual document, if you prefer to be more specific in your plans.

How to Design Your Slow Travel Itinerary

I will assume at this point that you already have flights booked and are operating with somewhat of a schedule.

If you don’t, consider allowing flight deals to choose a location for you. I usually try to choose flights and then plan a trip because it saves the most money and is the most spontaneous.

(Here are my best tips to finding a great deal on flights.)

Make Time for Your Big Plans

A man rides a camel past the pyramids when the sun is low in the sky

Slow travel is all about finding authentic and meaningful travel experiences instead of checking a bunch of boxes on your list, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a list at all! 

When you add a location to your dream travel list, whether mentally or physically, there will be reasons that it sparked your interest.

So, what are those reasons? Ask yourself, “Why did I choose this destination originally?” 

Jot down your must-sees and if they aren’t all in the same city, make a note of where they are.

Next, if your main attractions are things that have opening hours, like a museum or castle, check online for the opening hours.

Make sure you do this, because sometimes things will be closed on random days.

a sign saying "sorry we're closed" hangs off a white and aqua door.

We have been disappointed more than once by not checking, and then finding out we left something to the end of our trip that was actually closed on a Tuesday! 

I tend to front load our vacations now, with the things that we really want to see. Not that we cram them in, but I always leave empty days towards the end of the trip.

This way we can either relax even more, or we have some insurance time if something doesn’t work out when we planned.

Highly recommend, because this will also allow you to bump an activity to later if you stumble on something else you want to do.

It’s always a good idea to have that contingency plan, because in less structured parts of the world, things can definitely be closed without notice.

This is also how I handle any fast travel portions of our itinerary.

Not to be hypocritical, but sometimes checking boxes is the most efficient and pleasant way to see things if they are either: Extremely expensive, or extremely crowded.

I would never plan a whole trip that way, but for short stays in very touristy cities, it can make sense.

Venice after sunset
Venice, Italy

For example, we put Venice at the beginning of our last trip so that we could relax more in the second part.

Next, check for anything that needs to be booked in advance, because those will be the only hard plans in your itinerary.

Now that you have all of these firm plans down, let’s make our “schedule” more enriching!

Follow Your Interests

Take some time to consider your passions and interests. Now choose a few things that you like to do anywhere.

What is “your thing?”

I am really into architecture and street art. No matter where I’m going, I will enjoy seeing both of those things.

So it makes sense to look into a self-guided street art walk, or searching for the most interesting buildings in the area.

A girl happily rides a coin operated Hello Kitty car in Lagos Portugal
Our daughter would probably say coin-operated rides are her thing.

If you like rock-climbing, or wine-tasting, see how you can work those into your itinerary.

Find Some Off-beat Ideas

Reddit

Be open-minded to new experiences and search in Reddit for ideas.

You can search both the r/Travel sub, and the country specific subreddit for your destinations.

After you search in the travel sub, pose the question, “what is the most unique or authentic thing you did in ______.”

A man smiles and looks over a plate containing a flaming sausage at a small restaurant in Lagos, Portugal
A hole in the wall restaurant in Lagos, Portugal.

In the local forum ask for some local hangouts, quiet restaurants, or for the sights, activities, and areas that tourists overlook.

You could also do a search in r/digitalnomads (a group for people who work abroad) to see if anyone has mentioned cool experiences at your destination.

If there are a lot of results for the location you are searching “hidden gems” is a great search term to narrow things down.

Pinterest 

I used to despise Pinterest, I just didn’t get the point.

It also used to be that every single pin was either broken, or linked to spam.

I am happy to tell you that is no longer the case, and if you give Pinterest a chance, you may find something new!

Pinterest is now super popular with bloggers, and fresh content is constantly being added.

This means that bloggers are going further off the beaten path and creating pins from their experiences.

Browsing won’t be very productive, but their search function is actually really good, and the more specific you are, the better.

Search “hidden gems Barcelona” or “Hot Springs in the Rocky Mountains” and you WILL find some great results.

YouTube

I have only recently been using YouTube to feed my travel itch, but if you know how to search you can actually find some great quiet spots.

Be specific and open in your search terms at the same time, for example, search “village (country)” and see what comes up.

(Specific being “village” but open because I won’t dictate a region or anything else about the village.)

A man films a vlog while leaning out of a train window

You could also search “abandoned (country)” or whatever else you think would float your boat.

Secret” is also another great search term, “secret beach Portugal” “secret lake Slovenia” “secret Barcelona.”

You may be surprised at what you find!

Bonus: You get to watch a fun travel vlog to get you pumped for your trip!

I think this works so well because the information isn’t written down anywhere, it’s just in the video, so you will find different results than you would by performing a Google search.

Now that you have some great ideas, add them to your plan!

Be Flexible

Now what we aren’t going to do, is schedule all of these ideas.

a map from above with a couple's hands on either side, planning a trip.

We are going to resist the urge to plan everything and instead, take a “choose your own adventure” approach to each day.

We have:

  • Our original list of must-haves
  • Our list of ideas

and,

  • We know where everything is

That’s almost everything we need to know to have a great trip!

I say almost because it is also a good idea to…

Figure Out Transportation

Without a doubt, researching transportation is my least favourite part of trip planning (slow or otherwise.)

A blue "U" sign indicating an underground station, in front of a white European building

I would love to figure it out when we get there, and I have tried to do that before, but there are a few problems with this strategy:

  • Wifi can be less than reliable at your destination
  • Information may be difficult to find and you waste valuable holiday time
  • You may find out there is NO public transport to one or more of the item’s on your travel plan, and you will have to scramble to figure out an alternative like hiring a guide or renting a car

We have dealt with all of the above, and it is information better covered in the comfort of your home when you have lots of time to figure it out.

Central and Nearby Transportation

In many cases you can quickly find out that there are easy public transport links by metro or bus and that will cover most of your movements.

(If you can’t walk, that is.)

For the sights and activities that are in the centre, you don’t really need to worry about it. You can cover it on foot, or worst-case scenario: hire a cab. 

A long line of white taxis

For transport to rural activities or ones further from the centre, Google maps has pretty good public transportation directions, so check those first and it may be easily sorted.

Transportation Between Cities

To move between cities, Rome2Rio is a great website and app that will tell you how to get anywhere!

Use it to check schedules and make notes of the transit companies you will need to book through.

No need to actually reserve anything yet, or put it on your itinerary, unless there are few times available. 

A train drives through a lush green jungle

When There Are No Options

Finally, if you can’t find transportation on any of these tools, search and/or ask in Trip Advisor forums.

As a last resort, see if you can book a tour, either private or small group.

I have had good luck finding facebook pages for small, locally owned tour companies.

If you don’t like the tour options and you are comfortable driving, then look into car rentals, which you may want to book in advance.

Choosing Accommodation 

To Book Or Not To Book?

In an ideal slow travel plan, you wouldn’t need to book any accommodation for your trip ahead of time, besides the initial day or two. 

If you are travelling:

  • In the off season, 
  • To a place that isn’t very touristy, and 
  • You don’t plan to stay in one city the whole time

Then that is the trifecta! I would say feel free to leave your accommodation open. 

A cute apartment balcony with a wood door and large cacti on either side in big terracotta pots

If you:

  • Are going to a busy place at a busy time (or either really)
  • Want the same accommodation for the whole trip, or
  • You just aren’t comfortable booking as you go

Then book ahead. 

Also, make sure that your destination is truly not touristy, and not that it isn’t touristy as far as you know. 

When we went to Montenegro for the first time, we knew nobody else who had ever been, so we thought that it would be fine in summer without booking ahead.

Nope!

People from North America may not go there often, but the regional tourism scene is bumping and we drove around for HOURS not being able to get a room!

Not an experience I would care to repeat, and in summer I would always book ahead.

A man covers his face with his hands and looks at his laptop in distress.
Jack thought last minute accommodation would be easy to find

Choosing Your Ideal Accommodation

Although budget ranks high on the list of priorities when we choose accommodation, we are also trying to enjoy every part of the journey and take everything in.

Therefore, it should be a balance between the budget and the wishlist. 

When you think about your upcoming trip, you probably have a picture in your mind:

Something with a view?

A Soviet apartment block?

A place near the beach? 

Try not to compromise too much on your vision, because where you stay does have an impact on how you feel about a location.

If you are visiting a destination where everything you want to see is in the old town, and you picture yourself strolling through the cobbled streets every morning:

Don’t book a modern hostel in the suburbs just because it’s cheaper. 

A woman's hand holds a picture of an orange tree in old town lagos portugal, over a white blanket.
A favourite view from our apartment in Lagos, Portugal.

In some really expensive cities, the center may not be in the budget, but get as close as you can if that’s where you want to be.

Alternatively, do some research and find a similar charming neighbourhood.

You will LOVE being able to enjoy the aesthetic out of your apartment window on a quiet evening (or a jet-lagged early morning!)

It’s worth remembering that while accommodation in the best locations will be more expensive, you will also save time and money, by getting around on foot.

(As well as be a little greener!)

Especially when you are travelling with kids, simple is always better.

a little girl reaches up on her tip toes to open an old window in an apartment in Sintra Portugal
Another favourite apartment in Sintra, Portugal.

Whether you want to be in the city center or not, do make sure that your location is walkable to as many things on your list as possible.

(Or at least good transit links.)

It may seem a little wasteful, but if you are travelling somewhere affordable, consider booking an apartment or room for your whole trip, and then plan a day or two away once you are there.

This way all of your plans can be flexible, but you have a place to stay if you change your mind or can’t get last minute accommodation.

For a longer trip especially, (a month or more) sometimes this works best.

An added bonus to having a “home base,” is that you can leave some of your extra luggage and move around lighter (if you haven’t packed extremely light to begin with!)

Tours

We almost never take tours, it’s just not our thing and we prefer to explore on our own.

There are exceptions of course!

You may need a tour to gain access to an area off limits to the public.

The overgrown ferris wheel at Pripyat - Chernobyl
The famous overgrown amusement park in Pripyat (near Chernobyl.)

An extreme example being something like Chernobyl, but it could be that you want additional access to a popular attraction.

Sometimes tours will get you into more areas of a castle or museum.

Consider taking a tour if you want to visit an extremely busy attraction:

You may be able to get access while it is closed, or skip the line.

If we were to ever go back to Versailles, it would definitely be worth the money for a tour to jump the hours long queue! 

It’s worth performing a quick search to see if there is anything unique that you can do on a tour.

I recently discovered Sofia Retro Tours, and they offer Soviet tours in a retro car. They even offer a 24 hour tour to a village where you can stay overnight and learn to cook Bulgarian foods!

A man in uniform stands proudly beside a retro red car in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia Retro Tours (Bulgaria)

Maybe tours aren’t always the contrived claustrophobic experience that I picture!

Unless you need to, don’t pre-book your tours.

If you are concerned about availability, just reach out and ask how soon you need to book in advance.

It is usually more expensive to book from home before you go, and you will not be aware of all the options that you would have in person.

It’s always a good idea to wait and ask at your accommodation when you arrive about the best way to do or see a particular thing. 

Ideally, see what tours are free or by donation, and on a “show up” basis.

A lot of cities have a free walking tour of the city center, and you may find other options of interest.

I will always take a “show up” tour over a booked tour, it’s just so convenient!

Whenever possible choose a small group tour, and try to keep to a few hours.

Skip the massive full-day bus experiences.

Tours in a bus are annoying because not only do they guarantee that the sights are crowded (hello, we ARE the crowd) but you are at the mercy of whatever attitude your fellow bus people have.

A large tour group makes their way through a cobbled lane, The leader carries an umbrella.

I once took a HIGHLY unpleasant day tour from Albufeira to Gibraltar. So much so that I will have a hard time even going back to Gibraltar because the other tourists were rude and grumpy and soured the whole experience.

Plan For Cultural Highlights

What quintessential experiences are you hoping to have on your trip?

When you think of the country or city, what comes to mind? 

Sitting by the ocean with a walled city behind you having salt cod and wine?

Strolling past a cafe to the sound of accordion music?

Eating at a busy street market with scooters honking as they zip by?

A street market at night with overhead lanterns strung across.

It’s a small thing, but planning to have the experience that you picture is totally worth doing.

You don’t need to actually pencil it all in and choose a time and spot to make it happen, but keep it in the back of your mind. 

“When I picture going to  __________. I picture_____________” 

Think about food, drink, music, dance, smells, sounds, and sights that will create the experience that you are looking forward to.

When you are at your destination, be intentional about creating it for yourself.

Don’t feel silly about finding the perfect spot to have tea and crumpets. It’s easy to go home and say that the trip wasn’t what you expected.

Some of it can be made to live up to your expectations if you seek out the experience that you are really after.

This is actually another reason that I prefer an apartment to a hotel or a private room.

I often picture myself living in a place. I imagine the view from the windows, having a meal on the rickety balcony, or listening to the sounds of the city through the open window.

Ah. Sounds nice doesn’t it?

A crumbling old pink building in Varna.
A view from said “rickety balcony” in Varna, Bulgaria.

Experiences

I wouldn’t usually plan paid experiences ahead of time.

They are something that I like to find when we have arrived.

Since we have lots of open time, we can seize the opportunities as they arise.

If there is something that you KNOW you want to do, like stomping grapes or fishing, then go ahead and do the research to see how it can be done.

Ideally there will be a few places and vendors so that you can choose one on an open day.

If you have to schedule and book ahead, or just feel more comfortable doing that, of course you can do that!

The reason we try to have as much open time as possible, is so that we can always change our plans and add new activities, sights, or even cities, when we discover them.

An orange sign pasted to a wooden door reads "water taxi."

I for one, would WAY rather find things to do that naturally capture our interest, over sticking to activities we picked ahead of time on the limited information we had from our internet searches.

Discover Places Via Google Earth and Maps

I am the queen of finding places to see through random visual searches of Google Maps and Google Earth.

When I am planning from home, I usually try to find somewhere to go that would be off the beaten path.

I will search for the general area that we are travelling to, and then search outwards for any interesting little towns or geographical features.

Look for villages, beaches, parks (either national parks or within the city,) islands, lakes, etc. Anything that makes you say “What is THAT?”

Then Google search them and scroll through images and wikis to see if they would be fun to visit.

This is a good way to find places that are interesting but not on any “best of” lists.

A girl stands on a beach with one foot on a piece of driftwood.
A quiet beach I found using Google Earth – near Kamloops, BC

Once you have arrived and have some free time, this is something you can do locally as well.

If you are into the outdoors, AllTrails is a great site and app that has – you guessed it — all the trails!

Discover new hikes and walks of all skill levels, anywhere in the world!

If you are planning to hike in a foreign country, just be sure to also educate yourself on the dangers.

Make sure there aren’t large predators to be worried about, and look up any poisonous friends you may encounter.

(Perhaps not actually a good idea, because I didn’t especially enjoy our hike once I knew there could be snakes and killer bees, but I’m sure it is worse to be unprepared!)

Final Tips

Leave a Lot of Time Open

I’m sure that you’ve gathered already that the whole point is to keep as much time as possible, flexible and open.

Have more days in your trip than you have plans for, that is the best rule of thumb.

A man reclines on a balcony with his feet up on the railing. A coconut with a spoon sits beside him.

Don’t worry about being bored, I promise that you will discover more things on offer when you are actually at your destination than you will ever read about beforehand!

Find a Grocery Store

Do search for at least one grocery store or market in the area that you will be staying before you go.

(Unless you are solo and/or aren’t planning to make any of your own meals.)

It can be time consuming to figure out the right word for “market” or “groceries” and to actually locate what you are looking for on the map.

If wifi is spotty that complicates things further. If you are trying to look while still at the arrivals hall in the airport, when everyone is cranky, even worse!

It’s just a nice thing to know ahead of time for when you arrive and either realize you have forgotten something, or just really need some snacks. 

produce lining a sidewalk storefront.

Maybe it’s the jet lag, but I have found grocery stores incredibly hard to find on Google Maps a few times (mostly where there is a bigger language barrier and you can’t simply search the english words, as I mentioned.)

At least at home you can search at a leisurely pace, and ask somewhere if you can’t find anything.

Of course if you forget, you can always try to remember to ask your host when you check in.

I do find that their version of “5-10 minutes walk” is not that reliable, and they may not know the actual closest spot.

Keep Your Pre-trip Anxiety in Check

I know it can be nerve wracking to feel like you are showing up without a plan, but if you have followed this guide and are armed with the opening times of everything and have the must-have’s scheduled, there is no need to stress!

A woman looks happy and relaxed as she pushes her hair back in front of some palm trees.

You WILL have time for everything that you make a priority.

You WILL have a place to sleep.

(If you chose not to book ahead, the absolute worst case scenario is finding yourself a bit further away than ideal. In the off season you will not be without a roof!)

You WILL have an amazing time discovering things as you go!

Consider a Hop On Hop Off

I realize that this is literally the opposite of slow travel, since Hop On Hop Off Buses are designed for tourists to see everything as efficiently as possible, but hear me out!

If you are going to a major tourist centre that has this option, you most likely want to see the attractions that are on these routes.

A red hop on hop off bus in Liverpool

Visiting these big ticket stops can totally be amazing and a great experience, but they will be touristy no matter what.

Therefore they also won’t be the most authentic experience, no matter what. 

So in my opinion, one of the better ways to relax and enjoy the experience is to:

  • Accept the direct transportation
  • Enjoy the guided narrative through the city
  • Be efficient seeing the big sights

By taking the tour you can reduce the stress of finding your way to all of these attractions on your own.

Also, it is technically still “public transportation” and sustainable in it’s own way.

(Definitely beats a cab or uber.)

At the end of the day it will definitely free up your time to then proceed with having your slow, intentional travel experiences elsewhere.

They are a particularly good option for small kids in a centre that isn’t very accessible for strollers.

If you are unfamiliar with Hop On Hop Off, know that you are still completely on your own schedule.

A vintage looking hop on hop off bus in a Edinburgh

You simply get off at a stop and catch the next bus when you are done.

To get the best value, you will want to plan ahead for a whole day or possibly two using the bus.

It will not be worth it to decide in the afternoon that you want the bus because they can be pricey.

Don’t Be Scared to Change Your Plans

I hope this is a theme that you are picking up.

There is no reason to be married to an itinerary or a schedule you have in your head.

A million things can happen that make you WANT to change your plans, so don’t feel the need to stick to plan A.

A view over the rooftops of Silves Portugal
The town of Silves was a delightful surprise. – Portugal

You could arrive somewhere and realize that it isn’t for you AT ALL. Unfortunately it happens (for me, that was Rome.)

If it happens to you:

  • Get out of town and find something in nature to do
  • Find totally different activities
  • Switch locations altogether  

You could find that a place is too hot to reasonably see something at midday.

Maybe you realize that you just don’t care about going up the Eiffel Tower enough to actually wait in line with a thousand people.

Maybe you don’t want to leave the apartment for the fourth straight day of rain.

All of that is okay!

This is your hard earned vacation, there is no need to do anything because you feel like you should, or even because it’s already paid for.

A woman in red floats by in a gondola in Venice.
I’ve been to Venice twice and never taken a gondola.

We’ve bailed on non-refundable activities because it was going to be windy and -27C.

The way I see it, we paid for the opportunity to back out when it was clearly going to be unpleasant.

It has taken a long time but I am getting over my weird guilt complex, and if that’s you, you can too!

Bring Printed Documents and Pre-loaded Maps

Hi, it’s your friendly neighbourhood old person, here to tell you that for peace of mind, some things are better off printed!

Jason hates it, but I always bring printed proof of onward and return travel.

(Thanks to some bad border control experiences)

I also bring a printed sheet of our first day’s accommodation so that we have the address, name, and phone number, in case our phones are dead.

(Sometimes also necessary for border control – the accommodation details, not dead phones.)

A woman holds her passport and travel documents above her head while carrying a yellow suitcase.

I also save the location of our first stay on the map so that I can use it offline.

We also usually download offline maps, not necessarily before we leave, but you will want them if you are outside of the city (especially if you are driving.)

Sample Slow Travel Itinerary

Here is a printable slow trip itinerary that I made based off of these tips!

You can either print and fill if you’re a paper person, or add text boxes over the Google doc.

If you’re planning your first ever slow travel experience, I hope you will let me know, and keep in touch with all of the hidden gems that you discovered along the way!

If this is always how you flow on your travels, what are your best tips?