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How to create the perfect itinerary

What's the secret to creating a great itinerary? After you've snagged a good deal, arranged for a car rental and managed to pack light, there are still a few things to consider for a seamless trip.
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Ever noticed how some folks make the toughest trips seem like a leisurely walk in the park? We'll wager that nine out of 10 times, those travelers created a near-perfect itinerary before they even started packing.

Modern itinerary-making tools, from Web sites to computer programs, allow travelers to build colorful trip timelines and share their travel plans with loved ones. But the ability to engineer an effective, seamless itinerary requires more than just bells and whistles — and well-laid travel plans are an integral component of any successful trip.

So what's the secret to creating a great itinerary? After you've snagged a solid airfare deal, arranged for a car rental and even managed to pack light, there are some less obvious — but equally important — tactics you can use to put together a seamless trip.

Use your computerTravel itinerary sites and software have facilitated the creation of itineraries, and the ability to share those itineraries, for thousands of tech-savvy travelers. Here are a few of our favorites:

TripIt allows users to create complex online itineraries and e-mail them to friends and family. The site will automatically insert tons of useful information into your itinerary, including maps, directions and weather. TripIt is free, but you can buy extra perks, like a mobile service that alerts you if your flight is changed or canceled, for an annual fee.

NileGuide is a valuable resource for travelers visiting select locations around the world — but you can only create an itinerary based on the site's pre-picked destinations and cannot customize a trip to a locale not listed on the site. However, if you do happen to be traveling to one of NileGuide's destinations, pick your place from their list and you'll get an impressive inventory of hotels, activities, travel guides and more, which you can use to build a personal itinerary.

Get crafty on the computer by using software to make your own itinerary! Owners of Microsoft Office can download free itinerary templates at Microsoft Office Online, which are basically blank schedules with spots for you to record your travel information. TinyPlanet Software offers an itinerary program for Macs, Knapsack.  The program's features, from interactive maps to printed itineraries that appear professionally designed, make trip planning more fun than an in-flight movie.

Be realistic
Sure, you'd like to milk your trip for all it's worth by booking a red-eye flight and then scheduling a full day's worth of activities on day one, despite an eight-hour time difference. But by the end of the trip, you're likely to look and feel as if you've spent the week in correctional boot camp. If you really want to squeeze in every tour, meal and excursion you've typed into your itinerary, but as it currently stands you're getting six hours of sleep a night with no room for a time adjustment, you need to add a day — or cut an activity.

Choreographing all you want to get done into a seamless schedule — especially if you're visiting multiple cities or countries — can be a massive challenge. Make it easier by creating a list of everything you want to see or do in your locale. Then, put the list in priority order. To help estimate how long an activity will take, or how long it will take to get there, consult a guidebook or check out online message boards for perspectives from other travelers who've been there and done that. This will make it easier for you to feel out what you can and cannot accomplish during, say, three nights in Montreal.

Research events happening in your destination while you'll be there (tourist board Web sites are good for this — they usually have events calendars), and plan accordingly. There may be a nifty festival that you want to slot into your schedule, or, at the opposite extreme, you may want to avoid a certain part of town if it's going to be crowded or blocked off.

Also note local holidays coinciding with your trip, which can affect transportation schedules, business opening hours, etc.

Ambitious travelers who plan to embark on a weeklong tour of a Europe (yes, we've actually heard of people who attempt to see a continent in less time than it takes to learn the Thriller dance) should do some serious planning. In a case like this, a map is your best friend as you prioritize activities. Look at a map and start grouping the different attractions you want to see by neighborhood or region — this will help you minimize transit time between one part of your itinerary and the next.

There's more to consider than just time and location. Planning to search for sunken treasures? Most scuba experts agree that divers should allow about 24 hours between scuba diving and flying (so that your body can adjust to changes in altitude). If you have a cruise or a prepaid excursion planned, arrange for your flight to arrive no less than a day prior to your departure date. Otherwise, a missed or severely delayed flight could cost you. A good rule of thumb, regardless of what you have planned: The more space your itinerary allows between activities and transportation, the better.

Get it right, from door to door
It's important to reckon the drive to the airport to account for time spent schlepping from the economy parking lot a few towns over. (Is it us, or are economy parking lots are getting farther and farther away?) Allow yourself plenty of time to make it through the security checkpoint's snaking line.

Ask yourself a few questions: How far from the airport do I live or work? Will I have an opportunity to eat before driving to the airport? If I miss the parking or rental car shuttle by seconds, will I have enough time to wait for the next one, or am I going to be sprinting across the lot trying to hail down the driver?

The same thing goes for your arrival. Although travelers may sometimes save by booking flights to smaller, more out-of-the-way airports (especially in when flying on discount airlines in many European countries), it's important to weigh thrift against travel time. One of our editors saved some money by booking a Ryanair ticket to Barcelona's secondary airport in Girona (instead of Aeroport de Barcelona, the city's main hub). But she ended up taking an hour-long bus ride to get from the Girona airport to Barcelona's city center — an inconvenience that eclipsed what she saved on the ticket.

Connections are key
Add a connection to your itinerary and plenty could go wrong that wouldn't have happened had you booked a nonstop flight. Connections mean additional planes and additional opportunities for delays of those extra planes. Connections also mean that your bags are being moved and mauled, which creates more occasions for your property to be lost or damaged. God forbid you miss a connection and your bags don't — or vice versa.

A connection will disrupt your sleep, too. If you're the type to take a sleep aid in transit, you know that there's nothing more miserable than surfacing from the depths of a Dramamine-induced slumber to slouch off the plane, lumber through the airport to a new gate and endure another complete boarding process.

The best laid plans of mice and men
Your itinerary is not a legally binding contract. It's more like a rough draft ... written in sand. Things will go wrong. Restaurants will be closed. Buses will be late. Animals will attack.

Consider scheduling a free day into your itinerary. During your trip, it's likely you'll discover some worthwhile attractions you didn't know about prior to your departure. This will also give you some wiggle room in case you don't see everything you had originally planned.

All in all, the most flexible itinerary is often the best. Our final advice? Opt out of the hour-by-hour detailed timeline that factors in bathroom breaks and photo ops. Instead, expect the unexpected, and leave plenty of room for upsets. If you know where the bumps in the road might be, you can steer around them. And if you're really lucky, you can put it all together for the perfect itinerary.