Visiting Scotland: The Essential Guide On How To Plan Your Trip

Are you looking to plan your vacation to Scotland?

But you are overwhelmed with all of the information available, especially when it comes second or third-hand. There’s so much to see and do. When to go, how much it will cost, where to go?

It could be a daunting task, especially if you plan visiting Scotland for the first time. Your head is spinning in all directions, so let me help you to plan your Scottish vacation because, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish”.

Here in this post, you will learn some practical advice on how planning a trip to Scotland could be easier and less overwhelming.

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Table of Contents

I am going to answer some of the questions you might ask:

  • How to get to Scotland
  • What is the cheapest way to travel to Scotland?
  • When to book?
  • When is the best time to visit Scotland?
  • How much time should you spend in Scotland?
  • How to choose the accommodation?
  • Drive or not to drive?
  • How to create the itinerary?
Royal Mile,Edinburgh self-walking tour
Royal Mile, Edinburgh Edinburgh self-walking tour

There are quite a few things you can take into account when plan visiting Scotland:

  • How much time you have
  • What your budget is like
  • Is there a special interest that brings you to Scotland?
  • The places family and friends have recommended
  • If there’s a special event you want to attend in Scotland?

 

Some of these criteria might be more important to you for one trip than another. If it is a once in a lifetime trip you probably want to make it very special. It will be, however, different when you take your Mum to show her the country where she was born.  Or if you want to come to Scotland because you love hiking and whisky?

When you really don’t know where to go, start by having a look at a map of Scotland, make a list of your priorities for the trip, and make notes or a list of places you want to visit and research some events or festivals you would be interested in.

travel vacations planning stage

When to start planning a trip to Scotland?

Before you start, check first for information on travel documents and Health Declaration to enter the country. Here, you will get all information plus hassle-free the entire process.  

 

If you did some research you should have a rough idea of what time of the year you want to come. The most popular months in the summer from June until September are peak season here, no matter where you go. So if you decide to spend a couple of weeks in let’s say July or August then I really encourage you to plan it a year ahead.

It may seem ridiculous, but yes we are very busy here with tourists and if you aim to get the best value you should start to think well in advance.

Edinburgh and Highlands are extremely busy during July and August, and with all the festivals here and so many people coming to visit, the prices skyrocket.

Of course you can still plan your trip at the last minute, but in all honesty, it will cost you much more money and hassle.

What is the best time of year to go to Scotland?

The important thing to consider is – do you like crowds? Summer months are bustling with festivals, events, and despite not always having the best weather, some places still experience serious over-tourism. I would strongly consider this before you plan your trip to Scotland.

My favourite time to travel around Scotland is May and June when the days are long (in June the daylight is until 11 pm) and the weather is mostly good (still unpredictable). Gardens are blooming with warmer days and the woodlands are getting greener.

I also love September and October with the beautiful autumn foliage and the days still warm, and less crowded. This is one of the best times to visit Scotland.

There are some particular dates I would avoid when visiting Scotland; unsurprisingly all countries over the world experience it. School holidays and breaks and Bank Holidays.

Bank Holidays are usually on Mondays, so we have a long weekend, and everybody is looking to get some time away. So if your holidays overlap Scottish Bank Holidays, then keep in mind that the accommodation availability will be limited and some places might be overcrowded. You can find the detailed dates here.

Once you’ve decided when you want to go, it’s time to book your flights.

Let me plan a custom travel itinerary made for YOU!

What is the cheapest way to travel to Scotland?

Apparently, the hardest thing to know when booking the flight is to know when the right time to book is. As flight prices depend on many factors, some as simple as supply and demand, it’s important to compare airline deals against booking engines.  

Before you make the booking, make sure you read the fine print, because some tickets, although cheaper, might have less flexible terms and conditions. 

The cheapest way to visit Scotland is to come in off season, so for Scotland it would be anytime between November and the end of March. Also, starting your trip during the week, not on a weekend, might also be a cheaper option. 

The cheapest method of travel to Scotland would be a bus, but this is not an option when you come from overseas. However, indirect flights through less popular destinations could significantly reduce the price of your ticket.

For instance, for travellers from the USA and Canada, cheaper flight options could include a stopover in Dublin (Ireland) or through Reykjavik (Iceland) rather than London. 

Generally speaking, all transportation tickets tend to get more expensive at the last minute, but it still depends on the demand.  

Here is a list of the most popular flight booking engines

Skyscanner is good for searching the best deals when you know your dates. You can also see the cheapest flight within a month of those dates, which works great when you can be flexible.

Kayak is a very flexible booking engine. You can search for specific dates or for dates flexible up to 3 days before and 3 days after a specific date. You can also search per weekend or within a monthly simply by specifying how long you want to stay at your destination.

With Kayak you can set up flight alerts and it will let you know whenever the price for a route goes up or down.

Kiwi is quite special in that it has a “nomad” search function. With the nomad tool you can enter all the cities you’d like to visit, along with how long you’d like to stay in each city, and Kiwi.com will work out the cheapest possible option. Kiwi lets you search a number of different departure cities and/or countries as well as a bunch of different destinations, all at the same time. It also offers a guarantee that protects you should you incur any flight delays, cancellations, or changes. Other than that, it also offers flexible search engines and a flight alert function.

Tip: If you already have an idea if your itinerary/ trip/ road trip it might make a sense and is sometimes cheaper to start and end your trip in different airports. For example, you can start your trip in Glasgow and finish it in Edinburgh.

travel vacations planning stage visiting-scotland-first-time

Flying-free options

If you come from Europe or London, perhaps you prefer to drive or get a train, so I’ll share some tips and tools on getting away by ferry, train, bus, and car.

There are quite few advantages when travelling by public transport, with probably the biggest being budget. But also, it usually requires less advanced booking, especially when you are planning a more spontaneous trip.

When you choose a weekend break in Edinburgh and you live in London, it does not make sense to fly or drive and I would say a train (4.5 hours) would be the best and most comfortable option, while the overnight bus would be the cheapest option, sometimes for a little as £20.

For a family or a group of travellers from Germany, Belgium or Holland, a long ferry from Amsterdam to Newcastle would be a great and relaxing choice to get to Scotland affordably.

For people from France or Belgium, who live in close proximity to Eurostar stations (Paris, Lille, Lyon, Brussels), the train would also be a great option and if booked in advance, for example,180 days before, may surprise you with the price.

With an easy change in London, you can get to Scotland from Paris in 8 hours and airport-madness free. Plus you’d have time to read a book, watch a movie or just get a nap.

Travelling by car

Travelling either with your own car or a rented vehicle has some advantages and disadvantages. I would recommend this option only to drivers who are experienced and confident driving on the other side of the road.

Advantages:

  • Freedom- go as you please
  • No advance booking
  • Relatively low cost
  • Easy to get to remote places
  • Luggage space
  • You can travel roads less travelled

Disadvantages:

  • Long-distance trips can be stressful and exhausting
  • Expensive parking prices. For instance, in Edinburgh 24 hours’ parking will cost you at least £30. On-street parking in the city centre is for a maximum of 4 hours.
  • Often no parking spaces available
  • Environmental issue
  • Difficult to navigate within a city if you a) do not know the city b) if you are a first-time driver on the left-hand side

The most popular car rental in Scotland is Arnold Clark

Rentalcars.com is a comparison site to find a rental car. It compares hundreds of rental companies so you can find a good deal here. I would recommend reading the car rental reviews, fine print and T&Cs before the booking.

Travelling by train

Especially within UK and Europe, train travel is a good option when visiting neighbouring countries. Some of the benefits of train travel are:

  • more space to move around
  • easier to get some work done
  • simply get on board, take off, and get out again at your destination
  • more luggage allocation

I like Omio to book my train travels. It gives you a good overview of your transportation options from A to B. A train trip is an excellent way to explore Scotland. If you’re planning a trip, here are 9 steps to perfect your plan. 

How to choose accommodation?

Blackrock Cottage at Glen Etive
Blackrock Cottage at Glen Etive

I think booking accommodation in Scotland is the most overlooked task. People who visit Scotland often underestimate how busy we are and how limited we are with accommodation choices.

Especially on islands and in remote places in Highlands, it is sometimes not possible to stay in 4 or 5* hotels just because there are not many or not at all, to begin with.

So priority number one is to secure accommodation as soon as possible. As I mentioned before, during major events like the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh (August) and Hogmanay (New Year), the prices get very high and availability is very limited.

I have been working for years in a destination management company and we always advised that to get the best value you have to book your accommodation at least half a year in advance. Make sure you read the guide of the most common mistakes people do when booking a hotel room

Outside of peak season, there are rarely problems with accommodation unless there is an event happening like Up Helly Aa in Lerwick (Shetlands) or Hogmanay in Edinburgh.

Before you book your accommodation you must know where to go, right? So you should have at least some idea of your itinerary. For example, if you’re planning a road trip and will be staying at different places throughout that trip, you’ll want to craft your itinerary first.

In terms of accommodation, support the Scottish economy by choosing small local establishments instead of international chains. For me, it means supporting the local community and engaging with local people.

Chain hotels, although they might have amenities you are looking for, are more anonymous and impersonal in my opinion.

It’s quite important to write down what you are looking for when choosing accommodation

  • How much do you want to spend?
  • An idea of what location you want to be in
  • Accommodation type or character (castle, manor house, pub or perhaps a cottage)
  • Uniqueness (a treehouse?)
  • Amenities (like a pool or spa)
  • Grading (2*, 3*, 4* or 5*)
  • Do you need breakfast?
  • Other recommendations?

If your trip is to a city or if you plan on using one central base to go out and explore from, you’ll want to book your accommodation next to make sure you have a wide range of places to choose from.

Read detailed guide about ACOMMODATION IN SCOTLAND

Scotland itinerary planner

When you do your searching for the best places to see and things to do, you might get overwhelmed with the amount of information available on the internet.

The best thing is to remember that you have a limited time here in Scotland and although it is good to see and do many things, it is also important to enjoy your holidays. Avoid the temptation of rushing from one site to another, ticking off a long list of “must-see” attractions.

For that reason leave some room for spontaneity or lazy days wandering in the countryside or through cobbled streets.

The best way to get it organised is to create a spreadsheet or Google doc. Or write it down in a notepad. Whatever works for you.

Steps to create your itinerary;

Create headings for each day.

Day 1 – your departure- please note that if you travel long-haul, for example you leave Canada or the USA on Monday evening, your arrival to first night accommodation (car rental or any other activities) will be on day 2.

If you travel from overseas consider jet lag. It is better to have some lazy days until you adapt to a different time zone and weather.

Other things to include:

How do you get from the airport to your hotel?

What time is check-in at the hotel? For example, if you arrive to Glasgow at 8 am but check-in is 2 pm at the hotel, it might be worth contacting the hotel to let them know.

They may be able to prepare your room earlier or allow you to store your luggage at your accommodation until your check-in?

Tip: Some hotels do not store luggage. Travelodge, for example, do not have the facilities to store luggage. So it’s better to check before going to the hotel. Your solution could be to store the luggage in a bus or train station. If you have a rented car then the problem is solved.

If you rent a car at the airport, does the hotel you will stay in have parking and how much will it cost?

Check opening times/days, costs and whether advance booking is required for any attractions or activities you want to do or see.

Do you need to exchange currencies or get money from the ATM upon your arrival?

On your last day, what time is your return flight, and what time you need to leave to get to the airport? Plan it carefully, as some airports might be very busy in peak season. Will you take a taxi or transfer? If you need to drop a rental car consider the time required to do so.

Where should you visit in Scotland?

When you do your research, use different sources, not just blogs. Guide books, social media forums, ask friends or family and listen to personal recommendations.

Go beyond the bucket list and choose “slow travel”. It is always best to get familiar with one area rather than trying to hit as many hotspots as possible.

When you search the internet, you will find most of the time a list of hotspots following the same route: Glasgow-Loch Lomond- Fort William- Isle of Skye- Inverness-Pitlochry- Edinburgh

But do you know what is behind each of these places? Let’s take Fort William as an example. The town itself is not that nice, and I would say is rather ugly. What is great is the area around Fort William; the mountains (Glencoe), hiking paths, Munros, scenic drives and walks, and the scenic-route Jacobite train.

If you are not interested in any of the Fort William features (mainly hiking) do not go there. Choose something else, but to do so you must have the knowledge, so do your research.

Read blogs of the people who actually live here in Scotland. There is so much nonsense out there on the internet. Many people call themselves destination expert after being here for just a week!

What’s worse is they usually follow the same path around Scotland, changing places every night. Sorry, but that does not help you to have the best and most relaxing holiday.

Add these things to the spreadsheet in a separate tab. When you are ready and you feel you have enough material to build an itinerary, go to Google Maps and create a personal account (very easy if you have an email with Gmail).

This feature allows you to pin places you want to go, so that visually you can see how it makes sense. Immediately, you will see the distances between the places and short information.

Based on this, you are ready to build your itinerary in the spreadsheet. Group attractions or visits into the same areas. Then choose two for each day. Yes, you heard me well, two! One in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Use a combination of activities, hiking and visit to the castle. A culinary experience with a whisky tasting. Visit a museum and maybe some time to go shopping or listen to live music in the evening. Maybe you can hire a local guide who shows you a road less travelled, less touristic and more authentic. 

Maybe you want to attend a masterclass to learn more about whisky? Or take a private golf lesson in the famous St Andrews where Kate and Prince William met? Seek out slower and more meaningful experiences.

Your planning should also allow some flexibility and be ready to adapt. Sometimes the weather plays out unfairly, so when there is heavy rain outside and you planned hiking, change the plan.

It is better to adapt it and, for example, go for a whisky tasting or spend a nice evening in the pub with live music.

What do I do when I travel? On the first day, I just wander around the village or the city, I go to a local tourist information office. I ask a local (e.g. hotel receptionist) for a dinner reservation or other recommendation. Maybe there is something going on in the town, or a good story you did not hear yet.

Final thoughts

I hope the above will help you to plan a visit to Scotland. Do not stress yourself out about missing out. Go slow! Your holidays are the best time to enjoy and appreciate life. Experience it and make it memorable. Do not follow the same path as everybody does. Have a more meaningful and positively impactful experience. Move from a passive traveller to an engaged socio-cultural ambassador. Make it Yours.

Need help with your planning and itinerary?

Book one of my services for stress-free holidays!

Visiting Scotland:  The Essential Guide On How To Plan Your Trip
About me
Scotland Itinerary planning

My name is Kate and I created Scotland Itinerary Planning to give you those life-changing experiences right in the beautiful country I call home.

I’m proud to live in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the world’s most beautiful capital cities. Living in Edinburgh has provided me a base to explore extensively around this magical little country.

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