Planning your Scotland itinerary is an exciting time, researching builds the anticipation. Deciding where to go, which castles you want to explore, what lochs you want to see, which mountains you want to climb (or look at!). It’s a fun task and the perfect excuse you get your travel party together with a nice bottle of wine and a big notepad. Perhaps you've been dreaming about this trip for years. Maybe you have been tracing your ancestors in Scotland and you’ve discovered you have some Scottish blood. So you've decided to take the plunge and book a vacation. But where on earth do you start? This guide will help make the process easier, guiding you through the vital steps to make sure your holiday runs smoothly and you have the time of your life.
In this article, while planning your Scotland itinerary, you will research
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A wee note before we begin. I’m old school and love to write things down on a paper with a pen. I know, weird. I spend so long on computers and phones for my blog that when I get the chance to be creative with pens and paper I grab it. All of the below can of course be done on the computer, in word documents and on google maps if you’d prefer. I like it on paper so I can keep it all in a pretty folder , then when I get back I can add postcards, leaflets and photos so I have a nice folder filled with memories of my trip. I've attached a file at the foot of this blog which you can print out to help you plan.
Let's begin with the basics
How many nights do you want to spend in Scotland?
Obviously the longer you can spend in Scotland the better. Scotland may look small on the map but there is lots to see and there are lots of miles to cover. I would recommend at least a week, preferably two. Of course, if you only have two or three days, for instance if it's part of a bigger trip visiting other countries, or if you are visiting for work you can still see enough to make it memorable. In this instance I would recommend flying into Edinburgh or Glasgow and making that your base. Take time to see the sites in the city and perhaps take a day tour to some castles as part of a group tour. If you have yet to choose how many nights you want to spend here and you have some flexibility in your Scotland itinerary it’ll become clearer as you begin to list the attractions and sights you want to visit how long you will need. I suggest putting down a rough guide to begin with and you can change it later, if needed.
What time of year do you want to visit?
What type of holiday to you prefer? If you like it warm (I won’t say hot as it’s rarely that, if it is it’ll be a nice wee bonus) you could visit between May and September. Remember though that the cities and popular sites will be busy with tourists from June to August. Unless you want to visit the Edinburgh Fringe I would avoid Edinburgh in August as it is full to the brim with festival goers. The Fringe is a pretty fantastic event though. If you don't mind crowds then the summer is a beautiful time to visit, it doesn't get dark in July and August until after 10pm so you can have your evening meal outside. Beware of the midges though. Learn how to avoid the dreaded Scottish Midge
I think May and September are lovely months to visit, the weather is not too cold and the attractions are open but quieter.
Winter can be a little more complicated. A lot of the sites close over the winter months, such as the majority of Historic Scotland properties. The roads up in the Highlands are at risk of closing due to snow too. If you only plan on visiting Edinburgh or Glasgow though and maybe some towns and villages nearby than the winter can be beautiful. Everywhere is a lot quieter and slower paced and it gives you more of a chance to properly appreciate your surroundings without banging into folk! Many of the town and villages hold Christmas events in December, Oban holds a fantastic Oban Winter Festival and Christmas in Edinburgh and Glasgow are just magical.
Do you now have a rough idea of when you want to visit? Ok, let’s move on
What sights do you want to see?
Gather everybody in your party together, get a big bit of paper and start listing. What would you like to see the most? What does everyone else really want to see? Write them down. Start with a couple of things each that you absolutely can’t miss.
Once you have the must see sights down you can start adding more that you would like to see if you can squeeze them in. This is where the amount of days becomes important. Keep a note too of any places you might want to see if you happen to drive past them. It’s not going to be possible to see 20 attractions dotted around the country in three days no matter how hard you try unfortunately so this is why the next step is important.
Grab your map of Scotland and a pencil and mark each of the must see places on your list. The easiest way is to go onto Google Maps, type in the attraction ie Edinburgh Castle and put a mark where it is on your map. Once you have them all noted you’ll have a basic idea of where everything is.
Think carefully about any attraction that seems miles away from anything else. If you only have a few days will it be possible? Most often these places are likely to be Orkney, the Isle of Skye or the Outer Herbrides. Are these on your list?
Let’s go through those...
The Isle of Skye
Skye is really a holiday on its own, there is so much amazing sights to see that it warrants, at the very least, three days. Also, take note of the driving time.
Edinburgh to Isle of Skye - 6 hours
Glasgow to Isle of Skye - 5 hours 37 minutes
Check the route, is it too long of a drive to do in a day? Probably best to spread it out over two days and find somewhere nice to spend the night along the route.
If you want to visit Orkney I recommend staying at least three days again. You can fly to Kirkwall with Loganair and FlyBe from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Edinburgh. If you are thinking about hiring a car and want to drive you can leave from either Scrabster (90 minute) or Aberdeen (6 hours)
Edinburgh to Scrabster - 5 hours 9 minutes
Edinburgh to Aberdeen - 2 hours 19 minutes
Glasgow to Scrabster - 5 hours 3 minutes
Glasgow to Aberdeen - 2 hours 48 minutes
The Outer Hebrides
Caledonian MacBrayne (or CalMac) Ferries will take you to the islands of the Outer Hebrides, the Inner Hebrides and between them, leaving from ports on the west coast including Mallaig, Oban and Ullapool.
On the CalMac website you will find maps, timetables and contact details. I'd advise to book in advance if you are driving.
Edinburgh to Oban - 2 hours 36 minutes (Ferry Oban to Barra - 5 hours and 30 minutes)
Glasgow to Ullapool - 4 hours 16 minutes (Ferry Ullapool to Lewis 2 hours 30 minutes)
As you can see these locations can take some time to reach but of course well worth it if you are going to spend a bit of time there. I would recommend at least 3 days for each, ideally 4-5 to really get a feel for the place. Don't worry though, if you can't spare enough time there is more than enough on the mainland to see and do.
My very messy map of my NC500 road trip
How to plan a realistic itinerary
So now you have your must see places on the map have a look to see where the "if we can squeeze it in" places and the "only if we happen to be passing it" places are in comparison. Maybe you can mark those in a different colour. If you plan to travel around and stay in different location it's a good idea to spend a couple of full days in each place so you can get a feel for the area and not feel rushed.
By looking at your map now you should be able to tell whether it would be a good idea to base yourself in one place and take day trips or book accommodation in a few different areas. I'd recommend a couple of days in the cities to see the main sites.
Note down the driving distances between each attraction using Google Maps, bearing in mind your mode of transport. If you are driving remember some of the roads are single track and some are busy so traffic jams can happen, add a little extra time onto your journey to be on the safe side.
Write your attractions and areas down in your Scotland Itinerary.
Which airports are in Scotland?
International airports in Scotland
There are also many regional airports (for internal flights) including
-Campbeltown (near tip of Kintyre Peninsula)
-Stornoway (Isle of Lewis)
When you are researching flights to Scotland you will most likely be flying into Edinburgh or Glasgow. From experience a Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the cheapest days to fly. It's also a good idea to clear your cookies and history every time you search to keep the prices low. You can also arrive by ferry from Ireland and mainland Europe.
How will you get around?
Would you like to drive?
There are car hire companies in each city and also at the airports. Arrange these beforehand and remember to check your license is valid to drive in the UK and that your insurance covers driving abroad.
Would you prefer to travel by train or bus?
I cover train and coach travel in the resources section of my blog which you can find here.
There are pros and cons for each mode of travel. Driving will give you more flexibility and allow you to reach more far flung, off the beaten track places. Taking the train or bus will allow you to relax and take in the scenery. Driving can be nerve-wrecking for some as we are on the opposite side of the road to most ( I can assure you it's not that scary) and the train or bus limits you a little more.
talk between you about which you would prefer and note it down.
Would you prefer a guided tour?
There are many companies who offer tours of Scotland. You could join a group tour, have a private tour or hire a guide to come along with you. Some people prefer to have someone with them who knows Scotland and that might be you. Maybe you are coming alone and fancy some like-minded company or maybe you just aren't confident in navigating and would like someone to take you to all those little hidden gems and don't want to drive yourself. There are some excellent tour companies and tour guides in Scotland, below are the ones I've personally experienced or have had friends and fellow bloggers experience so am confident they will give you an amazing holiday.
Where do you want to stay?
There are lots of choices when it comes to accommodation. There are 5 star luxury hotels, campsites, beautiful B+B's, guest houses, hostels and bunkhouses.
Your best bet is to begin online, have a look at some websites, search in the areas you want and see what takes your fancy.
Try and book in advance, accommodation fills up fast, especially during the school holidays and during festivals and festive breaks. If you are driving make sure there is parking at the property and if wifi is a must double check that too. Think about what you will be eating, if it's self catering are there shops and restaurants nearby? If not you will want to stock up in the nearest town or village. Once you have chosen your accommodation make sure you write down the contact details in your itinerary.
I most often book through Booking.com and Airbnb
This should give you an idea of where to begin planning your Scotland itinerary. If you'd like anymore advice you can follow me on any of my social media channels where I'd be happy to help.
Do you have any tips that really helped you plan?