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I am anal when it comes to planning vacations.  I am the mother who planned four Disney amusement parks in five days.  Even though our feet bled and we almost died of dehydration and we all lost twenty pounds from walking, we had our itinerary and we got to see everything we wanted to see. I’ve learned to be more relaxed in my planning, but not by much.

I view an upcoming trip to a large city as an undeniably delicious challenge.  There is no “we’ll figure it out once we get there.”  Oh, no.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Neither is a well-planned itinerary.  These are my tips for having a fabulous vacation in a large metropolis.  Caution:  elbow grease is required.

When visiting a large city like New York, London, or Paris for a short duration, do yourself a favor and study a map of the city well in advance.  Try to commit the general layout of the city to memory, taking note of how it is divided.  Do rivers naturally divide the city, like in Dublin, Florence, and Budapest?  Does a main road encircle the city center so it’s hard to get lost if you stay near it, like the Ringstrasse in Vienna?  Or, is the city divided into neat districts that help you get your bearings, like the twenty arrondissements (municipal districts) in Paris that spiral counter-clockwise like a snail from the city center?  Will you always be bounded on one side by a lake or sea, like Chicago or Barcelona?

After you study the layout of the city, make a list of the places you want to see and try to group them together so that you are not spending your vacation traveling from one side of town to the other.  This is especially important if your hotel is not centrally located.

Before spending three days in London, I followed my own advice.  I did a general search on things to see and do so I had an accurate and current list of activities in the city.  Tripadvisor and Frommer’s are great websites to consult when researching a city’s top ten or top twenty things to do list.

Harrod's

My daughter at Harrod’s. What a shopping mecca!

After making sure that we weren’t missing out on anything, I made a “must-see” list and a “maybe” list.  I included the days and times of operation under each attraction, and their closest public transportation stations.  I love using a digital calendar like Outlook or a calendar app because I can put the operating days and times in the notes section of each calendar entry to allow for greater flexibility later.  If I’m running late, I know how much more time I’ve got to get there.  Or, if plans change, I can do another activity in the same area.

Noting days and times of operation are extremely helpful in constructing the itinerary for another reason — to make sure that the things you most want to see and do are open. Doing this research in advance I learned that Buckingham Palace would not be open for tours when we visited.  One less thing to try to squeeze in!  Buckingham Palace.

Next, I studied a map of the city.  I noted the location of the Thames River, how it divided the city, and what was generally north and south of the river (landmarks, suburbs, etc.).  I also studied the Underground stations (subway system) and bus stops and tried to group activities based upon their proximity to each other.  I used the very efficient Underground (a.k.a. the “Tube”) website to determine travel times to and from the hotel and attractions, and between destinations.  I also learned that the closest Tube stop near our hotel would be closed for repairs during most of our stay, and that we had to use another stop.

Greenwich is a must-see destination in London this is often overlooked.

Greenwich is a must-see destination in London that is often overlooked.

After compiling my list and grouping activities together based on location, I created the itinerary.  To do this, I used a daily calendar (that was also an hourly calendar) and plugged in everything we wanted to see.  Next came the tricky part — fitting the activities into the time available and cutting out the activities that would not fit.

If you hate puzzles, you won’t like this part.  Not only do you have to plug in everything you want to see, but you have to build in adequate travel time to and from, and between destinations.

Convent Garden Market

Convent Garden Market is a great, inexpensive place to shop.

During construction of the final itinerary, the “maybe” list of attractions is your friend.  The “maybe” list fills in those spots where there’s lag time in the schedule between the “must-see” attractions.  “Maybes” are good if you can’t make it to your destination of choice, and need a quick filler.  “Maybes” are also the first things you can cut if you’re plain tired and need to cut something out.  I thought the London Eye was a must-see.  My daughter’s exhaustion quickly told me it was just a maybe.  London Eye.

Tower of London on a lovely, grey morning.

Tower of London on a lovely, grey morning.

Make sure you build in the breaks you need for lunch, dinner, and rest.  My daughter is still resentful at the “picnic” of our own snack food that we ate in a Tube station after deliberately skipping lunch.  That’s why you eat a large breakfast every morning.  Lunch is for wimps while on vacation in an exciting city.

Once you’ve figured out the itinerary, stick to it as much as possible.  You’ve just spent hours on this project, and the schedule is maximized to allow you to see as much of the city as you can.

You might be exhausted just reading this.  You might be thinking that there’s no way that you’ll go on any vacation that I plan.  You might even know that we shopped so much and took so many walking tours that our backs threatened to seize up on us at various times.  I will say this:  my daughter and I went all over, up, down, and through London.  We got it in all over London Town, and felt as if we really got a taste of the city.  We may not independently remember as much as we should, but we have our videos and pictures to prove we did the darn thing and did it well.

A map of the London Underground.

A map of the London Underground.