How do you plan and track your travel?

I understand that a lot of travelers don’t plan much or spend much time organizing their travels. This post is for the rest of us who do at least want to make an effort. I will tell you the ad-hoc system I have cobbled together, admitting up front that I don’t consider it anywhere near perfect and hoping others will chime in with good/better suggestions.

Since I travel with a netbook, I do most of my organizing activities digitally. I even use Lonely Planet’s guidebook in PDF format (yes, they offer PDF versions). More on that in a moment. For most of my planning and organizing, I use a VERY simple and free program called The Guide (“a two-pane extrinsic outliner”). I’m sure there are better programs out there, but this one is lightweight and portable (can be run off a USB drive). Alternatives might include mindmapping software, Evernote (a hugely popular program I am starting to explore), a basic text file, a Google doc, etc. I am open to other suggestions. What I especially like about using The Guide is the simple way it is organized with parent and child tree like outlining structures.

Keeping Track of People I Meet

So, how do I use The Guide? Well, under my parent or top level page of Travel, I have a child listing for “People I Met.” For this section I further create child items for each country I plan to visit. Then, for each country I make bullet point lists for each place I stay, writing down the names of people I meet there with small notes about each of them (email address, where they are from, where they have been or are going, interests, something memorable about them, things in common, etc.). You’d be surprised how often I have referred back to these notes.

Planning My Itineraries

I also have a section of The Guide titled “Itineraries/Planning,” where I again create child pages for each country. At the top I add a bullet point list of all the suggestions I receive from other travelers (with a reference to which traveler gave me the suggestion). I also add useful online links to relevant sites (more and more common now that I have started following a lot of travel bloggers). Since I am organized in this way I know that when I finally get to a place, even if months away, I will not have to rely on my terrible memory or search for some small scrap of paper to find the suggestions I know I received earlier.

After the listing of fellow travelers’ suggestions I have a small text template that I use (just copy and paste) for each location in the country I want to visit. And I mean simple. I basically have a listing for “Sleeping” where I write suggested places from other travelers, my Lonely Planet or online research, with prices, location, contact info, etc. Then I have a “To Do” section with ideas for things to see and do in that area. (Note: when I get site-specific suggestions from other travelers, I will often add them directly to the relevant location section for the country rather than at the top). As for the locations, they are often in no particular order at first, but as I do more country research I try to organize them in the order I plan to visit. In the end, when I finally get to a location, I refer to my notes on it to make sure I know where I might like to stay and what I want to see before heading out for the next destination.

Tracking Other Thoughts and Suggestions

Other top pages I have created in The Guide are for “Books to Read,” “Movies to See,” “Music to Download,” and “Miscellaneous.” The former are mostly suggestions I get from other travelers though sometimes they are things I come across on my own.

Maps of Locations I Will Visit

Since I am using the PDF version of Lonely Planet, I usually print out just the maps pages before I head to a country. I do this quite simply by printing to a PDFCreator print driver, selecting the individual page numbers to include. Obviously I could get my maps using online resources instead.

Backing Up Photos

Like most travelers, I take a lot of photos. Since I travel with my computer, I am careful to regularly transfer my photos from my camera memory stick to my PC. To keep everything organized, I create folders for each country and then sub-folders for each location within that country (and, occasionally, further sub-folders for a location if merited). I also use ADrive, which offers free accounts with 50GB of online storage, occasionally backing up my photos to that account when I am in a place with a good Internet connection.

Tracking My Expenses

My final planning tool is undoubtedly WAY more effort than anyone else will want to bother with, but I actually keep a spreadsheet of all my daily expenses. Basic categories include  “location” (so I can recall where I was on which day and what I spent there), “lodging,” “transportation,” “drinking” (not something I do much but I like to separate it out as an expense),  “tourism,” “laundry,” “web/phone,” and “miscellaneous.” I also have two Total columns (one local currency, one in US$) and a column for notes. I keep a separate sheet listing my ATM withdrawals and the relevant exchange rate so in the end I can calculate an average exchange rate for each country (which I use for the US$ Total column). By the way, I will be making this spreadsheet template available in the future and highlighting the results for various countries I have visited to give any interested an idea of what a budget might look like.

What System Do YOU Use?

So, that’s more or less my travel planning and tracking system. I would love to hear what system(s) you might be using.

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  1. I agree with everything you wrote, JB. I travel in much the same way. I hadn't heard of The Guide, but am downloading it now. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Wow! You are REALLY organized. I'm more of a wing-it kind of person. Don't get me wrong, I read through the guides, do online research, & listen to other travelers, but I don't keep track of anything. That is, except my expenses. I keep an Excel sheet listing transport, accomodation, food, souvenirs, etc. Why? Because all the other stuff is only useful before you go. The expenses tally will be useful long after you get back.

    1. Well, I don't know which came first, my organization skills or my bad memory, but the former is definitely the crutch I lean on for the latter.

      One example of my system in action. A few days ago I met the nicest three older folks in my hotel. Two live in Argentina and one in Lima. After spending a great day together chatting in Spanish (great practice for me), they gave me their phone numbers for when I arrive in their respective home cities (they aren't just older, but old school, no email for them). Those numbers will go straight to my itinerary notes under the appropriate cities so I won't have to (1) remember that I once met someone worth looking up (yes, I am capable of forgetting that!) and (2) remember where I placed the scrap of paper with their numbers.

    1. Yes, right up your your alley. I actually use it for much more than travel, including my Spanish study (mostly new vocabulary, sample sentences, etc.), TO Do lists, work notes, ideas, etc. The Guide is pretty much always open on my desktop for quick access. One significant weakness it has it poor search capability.

  3. I searched for planning software 4 years ago. All were lacking something until I found TiddlyWiki Been using it ever since. Tried Evennote but came back to TiddlyWiki

    What does it do, what does it look like? Go to the link above. Their site is a TiddlyWiki.

    Pros: Can organize information by links, by hierarchy, by tags or by combining them. Link to media from local drive, the cloud or the net. It's a wiki in a file so it's both tiny and fast. Runs on anything that recognizes html and javascript. Navigate by tags, section name, links, text search, chronological order and menus. Started by using menus now it's tags, links and search because it's much faster to build, maintain and matches the way I think. Can be used dead simple as it's downloaded or by adding Plugins to do specific tasks. The software is under active development. User community provides support and new Plugins.

    Cons: Changing versions of Tiddlywiki and browsers sometimes get out of sync. The user community will find a fix soon which may require editing system settings or files, then the next version of Tiddlywiki will solve the problem.

    I handle photos much as you do (did .. this post is 2 years old). However, first thing I do after loading the image files onto the computer is use a batch renaming program to insert YYYY-MM-DD in the filename. I found software that uses the dates from the photo's EXIF data or my manual input.

    1. Thanks for the detailed review of what seems a good alternative. My solution is so basic but it has grown on me, though it can't handle multimedia files, which I suppose tiddlywiki can. I also haven't tried a mobile approach yet, but will soon. Your suggestion might be more useful for that. Just curious, what value do you get out of renaming your photos that way? And, for others reading, which program did you find to do it?

      1. You're welcome. I was inspired by your detailed posts.

        TiddlyWiki is a bad mobile solution. It won't load on my Android phone. Workaround is to export content by location/attraction/transport mode/etc to text then email them to myself. I've considered using TiddlyWiki for planning, then exporting to mobile + cloud solution for use while on the road.

        I add the date stamp to the photo file name as an additional way to search my photo and it's the only way to put fotos from multiple cameras in chronological order. Between photo album tags, folder names and date stamps I'm usually able to search successfully.

        I use Windows to process RAW photos and output as JPG. The rest of my photo editing workflow is done on Linux. For what it's worth, I use pyRenamer for batch file renaming

        1. Thanks for the update. On the TiddlyWiki page I saw that there are iOS and Android apps (unofficial). Are you saying they are no good, or that you haven't used them yet?

          Since I am not much of a photographer, I had not previously considered that using multiple cameras might cause some issues.

          1. Tired and rejected AndTidWiki, the unofficial Android app. Main problem is phone screen is too small to display the 3 column default layout of a TiddlyWiki (TW) created on a non-mobile device. Left (menu) and right (list of created items) are functional. That means the content is a LONG column a few words wide.

            Other problem is TWs created using AndTidWiki have an interface that is useful for the phone but is kept when transferred to another computer. That interface takes too many mouse actions to preform simple tasks.

            Never tried any of the iOS solutions.

  4. Another program that seems promising is TreeDBNotes but alas, I see no evidence of mobile versions. As I start using my smartphone more and more, I really wish The Guide had a mobile app. In fact, I am still searching for something similar that is truly cross-platform. There are a ton of notes apps out there, but none seem to offer the organization that I want.

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