Last snap before I strolled across the street and headed into Harrods for the first time. All images copyright Marisa Allegra Williams unless noted otherwise.

Travel: Planning Mode(s)

What’s your tried-and-tested approach to planning a great escape?

Oxford is an easy and adorable day trip by train from London.

More than food or shopping or premeditated sightseeing, I’m usually most interested in mapping out desirable day trips. To this end, the most complicated (and fun) part of my trip-planning process used to be creating detailed tables of possible day trips and how to get there by public bus, metro, train (or tram), boat, or some combination thereof. I would spend happy, countless hours exploring little-known cities via Google Maps and Google Images, my preferred discovery-mining duo (sometimes an additional image search on Flickr made it a terrific threesome), before finding, deciphering (hello Google Translate), and documenting the most efficient and cost-conscious routes.

Snippet of an involved 2011 day trip table for two weeks in Genoa (Genova), Italy.

It was something of a puzzle and I enjoyed the challenge, which always promised at least one wild-card curveball. For example, when headed to Europe, it’s healthy to be wary of a walkout and—oh, look! There’s a tentatively scheduled train strike for at least two of the days I’m going to be in town. What are the best buses or other backup ways to reach cities A, B, and must-see?

Oh, yes. I was in fact a Girl Scout. They trained me well!

Like a good Girl Scout, I would have all viable options charted miles ahead of my arrival, along with an index of online resources to employ on the fly. The last thing I wanted to do was burn precious vacation-exploration time over a slow, spotty internet connection, trying to figure out how to reach some cute, out-of-the-way town that required multiple transfers and modes of transportation. Finding the right, up-to-date public transportation site(s) and schedules used to be a nightmare—and still can be!

This London Tube tile art doesn’t lie: the city has an abundance of amazing food.

Improved internet connections everywhere and an international data plan, time-saving “how do I get to” tools like Citymapper and Rome2Rio, and the continual evolution of Google Maps means that I can lighten up on the neurotic transportation-planning details for day trips and give more weight to things like where I might want to eat.

Can recommend the full English breakfast at The Wolseley in London.

And I do like to eat! So I resolved to noodle with a new approach to planning for a first-time trip to London. A trip that would include only one excursion outside of the city, to Oxford, with a friend who generously took charge of those day-trip logistics.

Step 1: Pinterest
I decided to Pinterest any points or items of interest (e.g., streets, shops, museums, restaurants, parks, markets). Many were the result of deep-dive internet scuba sessions, but more were found by leafing through stacks of analog guidebooks that I refuse to lug abroad. Beyond mere inspiration, pretty pictures are a quick, effective reminder of why something made it onto the itinerary in the first place. And Pinterest is possibly the best free tool for brainstorming a big trip, visually.

Step 2: Google Maps
Even before I’d finished my Trip Planning: London board, I started plotting things directly to Google Maps, which conveniently lets you save locations on your laptop or smartphone for easy, on-the-go reference.

Cycling through the colorful streets of Shoreditch in Hackney, East London.

This worked quite well on the ground in London, so that while I was exploring any pocket of the city at random, I could consult Google Maps for my current location and hit up saved places nearby at my leisure, if I was in the mood. And as I encountered new gems serendipitously, I could quickly “star” them on my map. I made sure to have an offline map of the entire city handy (easy to do in Google Maps), in case my data or WiFi connection suddenly disappeared, which happened in more than one navigation-critical situation. GPS still works like a charm to reveal your position and all those saved places, offline!

Step 3: Google Sheets 
I still made a Google Sheet with notes, just in case everything else went to shit.

Maybe I just love spreadsheets. And cheese.

Step 4: Map maintenance
Back at home in Oakland, I revisited all of my London stars in Google Maps and removed them if they were anything short of a favorite I’d want to repeat, in which case I re-saved them as such (hearts rather than stars), or marked them as “want to go” if I’d missed.

Dearest London, I shall return.

And now I can easily repeat the whole process for my next date with London; I already have one new star to this inevitable end.

The Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park was a highlight and particularly delightful during the hottest weather the city had seen in over 40 years.

All in all, this revised approach to planning ahead of a trip (and assessing afterward) worked well for me. The real test will come on a future journey involving multiple day trips (looks to be Genoa again this fall). Can’t wait!

One day in Oxford was a lovely introduction. I could spend a week here, easy.

To review (or if you want to go download apps straight away), here’s a quick list of all the tools mentioned in this post:

Google Images 
Google Maps 
Google Sheets
Google Translate 

What’s in your travel-planning toolkit? There are so many options today (and only more tomorrow); finding out what other people are using and how is always a welcome lesson.