We've been planning for our upcoming trip to England and Ireland in bits and pieces, but the biggest decisions (after actually buying the plane tickets) have fallen into place - deciding where to go on our trip.
Everyone has their own travel style, and you can find countless articles on planning the perfect trip itinerary online. Today I'm going to share our method of figuring out where to go, and why. As slow travelers, we may not see all the "Top 10" sites in a country. But we do want to make sure we experience a place fully and make personal connections, wherever we are.
As I mentioned earlier, Andrew and I wanted to take an international trip this year. It's been a year and a half since we've used our passports after moving back home, and let's be honest - our feet are getting itchy to travel again.
There are about a thousand places we'd like to see, but we settled on England because we have friends who live there and it's a place I've wanted to visit ever since I can remember. We also knew we could only take two weeks off work, so it needed to be a place fairly close and easy to travel around in. England fit the bill.
Ireland was added on because we discovered that plane tickets that end in Dublin are around $300-400 cheaper per ticket than flights going on to London. You can read a bit more about "bonus trips" like this in my blog post here.
Here are three simple ways we are planning our two-week trip itinerary.
1. Research, research, research
Once we picked the countries, we started reading all we could about them - travel websites, blogs, and (of course) guide books. Before we could decide on what to see, we had to know what the choices were.
And I had no idea how difficult that would be to decide on for a two week trip. One reason we chose England was because of the sheer density of historical sites, cities, and foodie destinations in such a small country. I quickly realized I could live the rest of my life in England and never run out of places to visit (not a bad idea...).
Deciding on our itinerary meant first exposing myself to as much information as possible. And the more you read, the more certain cities or regions will stick out to you. Your attention will be drawn to them, and it will help you decide on what you really want to see, and what else is just optional.
Some of our favorite books for travel research have been -
- The National Geographic Traveler series (Great Britain, London & Ireland) - these full-color, information-dense travel books cover the most interesting historical sites, neighborhoods, and natural wonders. You may not get a lot of places to eat or sleep (especially on a budget), but the gorgeous photography gave us a good idea of the places we would like to see.
- Lonely Planet guidebooks (England & Ireland) - Lonely Planet is the standard backpacker's guide. Although I wouldn't carry it around with me, it's a great way to scout out budget accommodations and restaurants. Lonely Planet also has a free smartphone app - GuidesI - with downloadable city guides that I've found just as helpful as the actual books.
- Michelin Guide - Great Britain and Ireland - I was almost giddy to find this sitting on the library shelf. Although I doubt we'll be eating at many Michelin-starred restaurants on our trip, the guide also lists good value restaurants and cafes throughout the country. It's a great foodie resource.
- Travel memoirs - It's interesting to see a country through the eyes of other travelers, especially ones who have lived there a long time. Since this is our first trip to England and Ireland, I can't judge how accurate these memoirs are - but I have enjoyed reading the experiences found in these books -
2. Look for people you know
Travel is about making connections - both literally and figuratively. And we have found travel much more enjoyable when we connect with friends while we travel. Sometimes we make friends by sleeping on their couches (not as weird as it seems - read about it here). And often we visit old friends in new places, which deepens the pleasure of travel in unexpected ways.
Once we started looking for connections, we were surprised at how many popped up. We'll be meeting up with friends in Dublin who know Andrew's family. In England, we'll stay several nights in Loughborough with friends we met in Cambodia. And we'll also stay in London with a couple whose family I grew up with in my hometown.
If you know people, even if it's a friend of a friend, don't be afraid to reach out. Ask if you can meet up while you travel; ask for hotel recommendations, how to travel around the city, where to eat the best food. The best travel advice will come from real people who know you and what you like, not from a generic travel guide. But you'll only get it if you ask.
3. Pick your top 3
I delayed planning our itinerary as long as possible because I didn't want to say "no" to anything - I wanted to see it all! But I decided to tell myself, "This is only our FIRST trip here..." And that made it easier to pick and choose where we could go this trip.
Unless you're moving indefinitely to a new place, you won't be able to see everything. And if you try to see too much, you'll feel so rushed just getting around to everything that you won't actually enjoy being there.
FOMO - fear of missing out - is one of the worst ways to ruin your trip. You're afraid of not seeing all the great museums of London, so you devise a strict schedule to get through all of them in the two days you're in town. You don't want to miss out on that highly-rated restaurant, so you trek all over town trying to find it, ignoring all the other places that could offer an equal or better experience. Your fear of missing out on what you think is necessary to "doing ______" (fill in the blank with your location) that you don't enjoy anything.
Don't let FOMO ruin your trip. Decide on a few places that you really, really want to see, and let the rest fill in naturally.
We picked out our top 3 stops - Galway (Ireland), Oxford, and London. That may not seem like enough to fill two weeks, but that covers two countries, two flights, and a lot of train and bus rides. Once we're in those cities, there are countless activities to do and day trips to nearby villages that can easily fill our time.
We chose Galway for our first 48 hours in Ireland because it was an easy 3-hour trip to and from Dublin. It's also described as "the most Irish of Irish cities." If you only get to spend a few days in Ireland, you might as well get as Irish as you can. Bring on the pubs and live music.
After Ireland, we'll fly to Birmingham and travel to Loughborough to stay with friends. Their central location will allow us to make day trips out to Nottingham and the Peak District. Afterwards, we'll head straight south to Oxford.
As a long-time Inklings fan, Oxford was a no-brainer - of course the college town of Lewis and Tolkien, among many other writers, would be on our itinerary. Loads of museums, mansions, and Lewis-themed sites will make our few days there very enjoyable.
And then - on to London - of course. Because how can you travel to England without seeing London? We'll stay four nights - two nights through AirBNB in Bethnal Green, east London, and two with friends in southwest London. Splitting our time in opposite corners of the city allows us to experience different neighborhoods and see more of the city.
There are so many other places I wish I had time to visit - York in northern England for its Viking and Roman history; Shrewsbury for its Brother Cadfael connections and medieval history; Wales for its rugged beauty; Dorset and the Jurassic Coast for its stunning cliffs.
But I've realized I'm a slow traveler, who would prefer to visit fewer places if it means having more time to experience whatever makes them unique. And like I said, this is only our first trip here - right?
If you've traveled, I'd love for you to share any tips or ideas you have on planning your trip itinerary - especially if it's to England or Ireland!
Note: Affiliate links used. Full disclosure here.