If you're a free spirit and an independent traveler, planning your touring itinerary in advance might seem dull. What about spontaneity?
Yet, without the framework of a plan, you are more likely to have confusion and stress than spontaneity; without at least a loosely organized plan, you can end up using up all your energy rushing from one place to another on motorways with no time to enjoy anything. Or you might waste precious time seeing a boring attraction when the one you would have really enjoyed was just five minutes down the road — if only you'd left time visit it.
These ten steps will allow you to plan a touring vacation that suits your style and leaves your free spirit plenty of space to fly.
Choose Your Base Camps
Many visitors make the mistake of trying to race from one corner of Great Britain to another to squeeze in as much territory and as many attractions as possible. It's a big temptation to fit in as much as possible when you may have saved for years for this trip of a lifetime. Resist the urge to travel from Land's End to John O'Groats. Instead, pick a few bases and you will end up seeing more.
Circular itineraries through one or two regions make more sense if you are touring for only a week or two.
This is a country packed with attractions and you should find plenty to do by thoroughly exploring a few discrete areas based on your interests. Balance a few days enjoying the excitement of London with a few of travel based on another region or theme.
Whatever you do, make sure you start and finish your tour within striking distance of your arrival and departure airport, station or port. If you don't you'll spend hours after your arrival in the UK traveling to the "start" of your trip. Or worse, you could face a stressful race to the finish to avoid missing your transportation home.
Set Realistic Mileage Goals
Limit your driving distance each day to between 50 and 65 miles, not more. Even using motorways — which is not much fun if you are touring — it takes much longer to get from one place to another than you might imagine. Oxford and Canterbury, for example, are both only about 60 miles from London. But, in perfect traffic conditions and using motorways, it will take you about two hours to travel that distance. On the best back roads for touring the going is going to be even slower.
Covering only smallish chunks of the country each day will allow you to stop for serendipitous discoveries without pressure (that adorable tea shop you'd hate to bypass or the sensational view you really must photograph) — to be spontaneous in other words.
Don't Over Schedule
Expect to explore only two main attractions per day — a museum in the morning, a stately home in the afternoon perhaps. And be flexible enough to cut back to only one if you are really having fun. That safari park where you planned to spend three hours turned out to be worth a whole day. The medieval village you discovered that had the most charming pub and shops full of artisans. Have a list of a few different things you might do each day but remember, it's not an assignment list, it's just a guide for your vacation. Part of the joy of touring is having the time to enjoy a market you just happened upon, to talk with some locals you met in a pub, to hike out to a beauty spot before the sun sets.
Think About Themes
If you have a special interest, think about using it as a theme for at least part of your itinerary. Are you keen on antiquing? There are whole villages where you can indulge your passion. Interested in literary touring? Fashion? Music? The industrial revolution? Art galleries? Can't resist a good garden or a splendid beach? Whatever your special interest, you can make more of your trip by including it in your itinerary.
Program in Variety
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you're not careful, at some point on your trip you will slog through one too many rooms full of furniture and ancestor portraits in one too many stately homes. You will grow weary of stained glass and flying buttresses. You will climb up a hill to examine one more pile of prehistoric rocks and think, what am I doing here?
To prevent tourism fatigue, make sure your list of must-see attractions is full of variety. Britain's stately homes, cathedrals, museums, prehistoric sites are fascinating as long as you don't overdo any of them.
Even if you've planned your tour around a theme, you can build in variety. If, for example, you are following the trail of Jane Austen, you might visit Jane Austen's House Museum, explore Bath, the city where she spent time, visit a museum with clothing from her period in history and portraits of her contemporaries and enjoy a feast of traditional treats she might have enjoyed.
Whatever your special interest, keep it fresh by experiencing different aspects of it.
Schedule Time Outs
You're on vacation, not a grueling endurance ordeal. Take it from a travel writer, continuous travel can exhaust you. Give yourself a day now and then to simply stay put somewhere, to walk around the town or village where you happen to be staying, to sit in a cafe and watch the world go by.
If you are traveling with young children or with grandparents, having some chillax time is especially important. If you are concerned about filling your time with the travel experiences you've paid good money to travel to, consider some slower paced attractions. At Runnymede, for example, children can use up lots of energy playing in the open meadows while you enjoy a cup of tea or unwind on a slow boat along the Thames from the birthplace of the Magna Carta to Windsor Castle. You don't have to keep moving all the time to enjoy the pleasures of Britain.
Pace Your Spending
Entrance fees and admission charges plus meals and snacks on the go can really add up — especially if you are traveling with a family. Make sure the funds you've budgeted last through your vacation by taking advantage of dozens of free UK attractions.
Alternate major attractions that have entrance fees — such as Chatsworth or Stonehenge — with freebies. All the national museums are free; you can visit prehistoric sites, beauty spots and more without spending a cent.
There's a small parking fee for Knole but you can walk in and enjoy the deer park with its almost tame deer for free. Walk-ins are free for Chatsworth Park as well, with great picnic spots and views of the fabulous house.
Dining doesn't have to cost much either. Pack a picnic now and then or take advantage of some of my other ideas about saving money on food and drink.
Keep Track of the Daylight
This may seem obvious but if you aren't used to the length of days in Northern latitudes, sunrise and sunset can catch you off guard in the UK. It's common to imagine that London and New York are at about the same latitude but actually, London is in line with Hudson Bay — much further north.
In practical terms, that means that at the height of the summer season, full sunrise can be before 4 am and there's plenty of daylight at 9 pm — even later in Scotland. Use those hours for outdoor activities, park and beach visits. If you can't start your day without a run or a visit to a gym, start your day at daybreak and you'll still have plenty of hours of daylight for touring.
The exact opposite is true in the winter months, of course, with sunset at midwinter as early as 3 pm. Lots of attractions open later and close earlier in the winter because of this. So if there is something you really want to visit or see outdoors, plan your itinerary to get there during daylight hours.
The BBC Weather website is a good place to check the times of sunrise and sunset wherever you are. The times are listed just above the temperature and forecast chart on the top left of the page.
Enjoy Your Accommodations
If you've taken the time to organize a really special hotel or a few nights of a vacation rental in a historic house, spend enough time there to use the facilities that attracted you in the first place.
Plan that special stay to coincide with one of your scheduled time-outs (see item 6 above). That way you won't worry about what you're missing while you chill out in the spa pool.
Plan for Dinner
Have some kind of advance plan for dinner by no later than early afternoon.
If you have your heart set on a well-reviewed restaurant with Michelin stars and AA Rosettes, it goes without saying that you need to book in advance. But even if your requirements are simpler — some good pub grub and burgers for the kids — it's a good idea to know what's available where you are heading or nearby. There's nothing worse at the end of a good but exhausting day touring to discover that the one pub in the village doesn't serve food, the takeaway Chinese is only open on weekends and the grand restaurant in your hotel is fully booked.
The Good Food Guide, The Good Pub Guide, and Hardens are all comprehensive and useful food and drink guides that can point you in the direction of anything from a satisfying sandwich to a bang-up three-course meal. All of them now have convenient apps for iPhone, Android or, in the case of Hardens, Blackberry, with handy extra features such as maps, booking facilities and local information.