Planning Your Scotland Itinerary
The first time I visited Scotland in 2007 I was a complete newbie. I had never traveled out of the US. I had only flown previously on one trip. My friend and I didn't know the first thing about how to get to Scotland. We decided we wanted to go on a guided coach (bus) tour. Not knowing how to book our flights, we went to a travel agency and they handled everything. The flights and tour lined up seamlessly. Whew! That was easy. If you're a complete novice at traveling, then that's what I would recommend. We used CIE Tours and they were great. There are several other tour companies you can search for online.
If you haven't yet read my first two posts about planning your trip to Scotland, you can find them here:
If you've traveled out of the country before, even if it wasn't to Scotland, then you'll be a lot more comfortable with planning and booking your own trip. For those not taking a guided coach tour, you'll need to decide which parts of Scotland you want to visit and how you'll get around.
I've had rushed, fast-paced itineraries a couple of times, and I don't like them anymore. I prefer to take my time and absorb the atmosphere of a castle or Neolithic site. That's why I like to stay at one hotel, B&B or cottage for at least two nights, and sometimes longer. On the last trip, we stayed in one house in Edinburgh for ten nights. Moving around to a different B&B every day can be exhausting.
A couple of other tips about jetlag and exhaustion… usually I have a difficult time sleeping on planes during the overnight flights. Since I end up with jetlag the first day or two in Scotland and that doesn't mix well with driving, sometimes I'll book a hotel near the airport right after landing to sleep for part of that day and all night, perhaps 10 – 12 hours, so I'll be fresh and alert when I begin driving. I'm usually the designated driver, so I have to be ready for it.
Also during all the intensive travel around Scotland, I try to fit in a whole day for rest. I know it seems wasteful to use up a day or two of being in Scotland by staying in your hotel or cottage. But I think you'll find that if you're rested, you'll enjoy all the sites even more.
I bet that by now you have a list of all your must-see destinations in Scotland. Maybe you want to visit Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland. Maybe you want to explore the most visited tourist attraction in Scotland, Edinburgh Castle. Maybe you want to visit a mystical standing stone circle such as the Callanish Stones. Scotland has far more amazing and wonderful sites than most people can see in a single trip, unless they're staying six months. You'll have to prioritize.
To begin, let's say for example, that Eilean Donan Castle is the number one priority on your list. Get online and type the name of the castle into Google or your favorite search engine. Then click "Maps" on the menu to see what else you can find in the Dornie or Kyle of Lochalsh area to visit the following day. You might find Plockton seal trips, Seaprobe Atlantis, and Isle of Skye.
Now, you know you'll be incredibly close to Isle of Skye, an amazing island everyone wants to visit. Look for castles or other places of interest on Skye. You might discover the Fairy Pools, Armadale Castle, Kilt Rock, Dunvegan Castle, and Neist Point Lighthouse. You could visit a distillery, go fishing, explore Fairy Glen, hike to Old Man of Storr, take a boat trip to view sea eagles, visit the Museum of Island Life, etc.
Or you could check out 50 things to do on Isle of Skye.
Fifty things to do?!?
How will you ever decide what to do in your limited time in this area? Isle of Skye is a big island, so don't try to do them all in 3 days. If you're driving a rental car, figure driving time. The Google Map will tell you how many miles between each attraction and how long it takes to get there. Add a few minutes, or several, because the roads are narrow and curvy. And some of them are single track (meaning a one lane road with two-way traffic and passing places.) If you're a new UK driver, you might not want go at the 60 MPH speed limit.
On Google Maps, type in "attractions near Isle of Skye, UK" and you will see all these orange dots pop up with different icons. The camera icons are for beautiful spots to take photos. One icon is for castles and another is for museums, etc. Zoom in and drag the map around to find additional places to visit. This won't show all of the sites, especially the less well known ones. If you're interested in specific types of sites such as castles, castle ruins, ancient cemeteries, brochs or standing stones, you can do a separate internet search for those.
Keeping Eilean Donan in mind as your priority, on the map, on the top left search box, type in "accommodation near Dornie, UK." Little dots will appear on the map, and B&Bs and hotels will show up on the left sidebar, with ratings. This is not all of the available accommodation but it will get you started.
If instead, you decide to stay on Isle of Skye in a more central location between all the things you've added to your must-see list for the area, then redo your search for "accommodation near Isle of Skye, UK."
The map will zoom out and show you the locations of places you could stay along with the prices. You can zoom in or out (using the + or – signs) to see additional properties. Even the little blue dots without prices are places you might check into. A lot of them are B&Bs, sometimes called guest houses. Scotland is full of B&Bs and some are very affordable. If you want to help the local economy of Isle of Skye, then you might decide to stay on Skye and also buy your food and souvenirs there.
Another thing you can with the Google map is use Street View if you want to see what any of the places look like from the street or road. With your mouse, drag the little golden man, called Pegman, from the bottom right corner onto one of the roads which will light up blue as you're hovering over it with Pegman. If this is your first time using Street View, you may want to learn more about how to use it by reading this article.
You can move forward by clicking, turn around for a 360 degree view by dragging, etc. Double click on the map to move to another location.
I've used Street View every time when planning Scotland trips, and "virtually" I've already stood in front of each B&B, cottage or hotel I've ever booked. This makes them far easier to find as you're driving if you already have a visual in mind of what the area looks like. When I get there, I recognize it. I've even had my friends ask if I've been to that specific spot before. No, not in person anyway. I use this same map to see which roads and streets I'll need to travel, how long it will take to get there, how far away the nearest town, restaurant, co-op or store is.
Google has even integrated most of the well-known travel sites. If I click on a B&B that I could book via a travel site, the rates from those will appear on the left sidebar. But you might find a lower price by choosing remote B&Bs that are not well known and not on travel sites. Always read reviews and see if they have a star rating. Sometimes you can find a 4 star guest house at a low price, depending on where it is. Don't expect as much from a 2 star B&B or hotel.
You can also find plenty of activities and attractions on the above website.
Now, let's say you have decided to stay in Broadford, Isle of Skye, for example, and you want to visit the Skye Museum of Island Life and see Old Man of Storr. In the map search box, type in, "Broadford, Isle of Skye, UK to Skye Museum of Island Life, Kilmuir." (The boxes should autocomplete. If instead, you're staying in another location on Skye, type in that area name.) The map will show you a blue line running between the two locations. On the top left, you'll see different icons for types of transportation. If you click the car, you'll see the blue line which is the fastest route. Sometimes this is the shortest route as the map doesn't always take into account how fast you can drive on a particular road.
The map will tell you how many miles the drive will be (46.6 miles) and approximately how long it will take to get there (1 hr and 10 min.) This is calculated at the top speed limit, which is generally 60 MPH in the UK. Personally, I know I don't drive that fast on narrow curvy roads, (but those who live in Scotland do.) I also know I'm going to pull over often, either to take photos of amazing views, or to let the drivers behind me drive on. I don't like to hold up traffic. I'll add thirty minutes or an hour to the drive time.
Click "details" and the map will give you detailed directions of each road and each turn.
In the example, we decided we wanted to also see Old Man of Storr. So let's type that into the map search. At the little + sign it says "add destination." Click the + and add your next destination. This takes you around the whole Trotternish Peninsula in a circle. See what other attractions or views are along this drive, which will take most of the day if you stop to enjoy the sights.
When I type in Broadford as the final destination, I see that it's a total of 99 miles. What other attractions are along this route? Kilt Rock, Portree, Fairy Glen in Uig, Duntulm Castle ruin, Staffin Bay, the Quiraing, Flora MacDonald's grave (next to the Skye Museum of Island Life.)
You could do a separate Google Search for Trotternish Peninsula attractions. If you want, you could easily visit or view all of these in one day and return to Broadford before dark in summer. The driving time alone will be 2.5 to 3.5 hours depending on how fast you drive. Then you'll have several hours for taking in the views or exploring.
I've been around this route on the Trotternish Peninsula three times, once on a tour bus and twice driving a rental car. It's a fun day trip but can also be exhausting if no one is helping you drive.
You may want to take a snack. Or you could check out these lists of restaurants in the area.
Reviews for restaurants are available online. If you're lucky, the café or restaurant will have a website with menus so you can plan where to eat before you even leave home. If you're on a budget, notice the prices on the menu. Some of the fine dining restaurants on Skye are more expensive.
Map out where all of the sites you want to see are (including where you'll eat), and in what order you'll approach them, so you don't drive past any of them. I use my own GPS with an added UK card and I type in as many of these sites as I can before I leave the States. It's fairly easy to do this with post codes. Then make a list of post codes and which locations they stand for on paper or on your phone. You can also print out maps and driving directions if you prefer.
The next day of your Skye stay you might want to drive west to Dunvegan Castle or south to Armadale Castle. Do the map searches and see what else you could see and do along the way. Look at the driving time. Estimate how long you'll stay at each site. If you're touring a castle and gardens like Dunvegan or a museum and gardens like Armadale, that could take most of the day if you take a leisurely pace. If you rush through, it might only take a couple of hours.
Personally, if I didn't want to drive or take a two week guided coach tour, I would choose one of the smaller Isle of Skye tours from one of the cities, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness. I've used Rabbie's Tours and Heart of Scotland Tours and they're both great. I took one each of their one day tours out of Edinburgh (not to Skye, but other places).
Rabbie's Tours offers many options from one day to several days involving Isle of Skye.
I haven't tried WOW Scotland tours but it's a five star tour company and looks good.
In this one you book a train from Inverness, then get on a small tour bus for a day on Skye.
Almost any guided tour will take a faster pace than if you were driving yourself around. They have to in order to get you to all of these sites in one day. Sometimes you will have to choose to either eat lunch or see a site… or go to the bathroom or visit a site, as there won't be time to do both in some cases. There are always trade-offs and pros and cons.
I don't know how public transportation is on Isle of Skye. If that's something you're interested in, then you could do an online search. They have buses on Skye but not trains.
Another, more expensive, option would be hiring a driver or private tour guide, which I haven't done.
If you're planning to visit a different part of Scotland, you would apply the same methods mentioned above.
In future posts, I'll cover other topics about Scotland travel.
Thanks for checking out my posts!