Planning a Trip to Scotland, Part 0

by Keith Savage · 7 comments

The clock is ticking on your travel planning.

Five years ago I wrote a quartet of Planning a Trip to Scotland posts. These articles have garnered more popularity than anything else I’ve written here on Traveling Savage, and it’s no surprise why. They brim with practical advice that applies to just about anyone planning their own trip to Scotland. I created them because it was exactly the kind of information I would look for (and do when going to other countries), and I figured others would find it useful. Who knew it would resonant so well, or that it would lead me to provide face-to-face trip-planning services?

I started offering those services two years ago this month, and since then I’ve helped hundreds of people from around the world plan their trips to Scotland. It has been a lot of fun for me and a big help for them, but I’ve noticed something important during these consultations that is missing from my Planning a Trip to Scotland series: When you should start planning the trip! So I’m revising history a little bit here and adding part 0 to my series.

Whether or not you’re a planner or a pantser, there are a handful of factors you must consider.

Time of Year

Scotland’s high season for tourism runs from May through September with August and then July as the busiest months. From a trip-planning perspective, this means that flights to Scotland are more expensive, accommodations fill up more quickly and are more expensive, automatic transmission cars can become scarce, and tourist attractions are busier. For example, in the throes of August you may have to wait in the ticket line at Edinburgh Castle for more than an hour.

So what does this mean for when you should start planning your trip? It means that you want a large lead time, ideally a year in advance to keep your options open. This gives you time to jump on cheap flights and scout out accommodations that fit your tastes. Even if you are opposed to booking accommodations in advance, during the high season you will spend more time on the ground trying to find places with no vacancy.

You need less lead time if you’re planning to visit Scotland in the shoulder or off seasons, as little as 3-6 months. One caveat regarding winter visits: Many accommodations and tourist attractions close or have severely reduced hours, which puts a renewed emphasis on planning.


Festivals can really screw up travel plans. They’re like mini high tourist seasons and they happen all over Scotland. The biggest one (in the world, no less) is the International Fringe Festival that happens in Edinburgh. In August. This one festival is a big reason why August is the busiest tourism month in Scotland. Another festival I’d like to call out here is Feis Ile — Islay’s music and whisky festival. To find accommodation on Islay during this festival, you often need to start planning more than a year in advance. It’s that popular. However, you don’t need a huge festival to throw a wrench in the works. Folk music festivals, highland games, and whisky festivals can occur at any time of year in even the smallest towns. Heck, even bank holidays can be lumped in here.

When you’re settling on the dates for your trip, research whether they overlap with bank holidays or festivals in the places you plan to visit. If you find some overlap then you’ll be glad you started planning early.


Some places are more popular than others. Edinburgh, the Isle of Skye, the Speyside whisky region, and St. Andrews all stand out as some of Scotland’s more visited places. You need more lead time anytime you plan to visit popular places. Much of this boils down to the availability of accommodations, but it also pertains to restaurants, tours, and special events that may fill up before you have a chance to make reservations. It is much safer to play it by ear in out of the way places, though, as mentioned above, you could still be surprised by a local festival.


Unless you’re a backpacker or have a motorhome, most people are somewhat particular about their accommodations. They aren’t happy taking whatever’s left over, which is the name of the game for pantsers. As such, planning ahead is of utmost importance. I am an extreme example. I seek out unique, often luxurious accommodation wherever I travel in Scotland, and invariably these are the first places to fill up because they are scarce. More than anything else on this list, any pickiness in accommodations requires early planning, ideally six months to a year ahead of time.

In a perfect world, I recommend you start planning your trip to Scotland a year in advance. This will leave open the most options and allow you to find the best prices. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Many travelers have only six months, three months, or even a month or less to plan their trip. Don’t worry. You will still have a wonderful time, and hopefully this post will have provided some insight to whatever obstacles you encounter.

Need more help planning that trip to Scotland? Check out the Scotland trip-planning services I offer. Also, continue on to part 1.

Tony RichardsNo Gravatar February 17, 2017 at 5:06 AM

Hi Keith, great blog, just one question, I’m coming from New Zealand and intend to travel by train from Edinburgh to Thurso, and across to Kirkwall in one day. If I start at 6am I can get to Thurso by 2.30pm. But I’m having trouble working out the ferry system from Stromness to Scrabster and the bus service through to Kirkwall. In short, can I buy a ticket all the way to Scrabster in Edinburgh? Obviously, I want to avoid being stuck in Thurso or Scrabster. What’s your opinion?
Tony Richards

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 17, 2017 at 8:03 AM

Hi Tony. The short answer is ‘I don’t think so.’ The train ticket will get you to Thurso where you’ll need to get a taxi to Scrabster. Once you’re in Stromness you can catch a bus to Kirkwall. The best alternative is to simply fly from Edinburgh to Kirkwall. Much quicker and easier logistically, and not much more expensive. Yes, you lose out on seeing the countryside from the train, so you’ll have to weigh that.

Tina DunnNo Gravatar January 28, 2017 at 4:50 PM

I just came across your website this weekend. Love all the great information here. We are planning a trip in June 2018. We will be taking advantage of your knowledge and filling out your questionnaire so you can help us put together an itinerary. Cannot wait!

Thanks in advance!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 28, 2017 at 5:53 PM

Hi Tina, looking forward to helping you out!

Barb BryantNo Gravatar October 23, 2016 at 5:17 PM

Hey there Keith!
I discovered your website this weekend and I’m just so excited about the possibility of visiting Scotland. Just a couple questions for ya…I’m hoping to visit some of the more remote and yet scenic areas of the Scottish Highlands. I just want beautiful views and lots of hiking.
1. I’m a single gal. Is it safe to plan a trip by myself?
2. I was hoping to plan my trip for this coming June–is that too early to plan well?
3. I have also seen advertisements by REI to go on an 8-day hiking excursion for around $4,000 (sans plane ticket.) Can I do the same amount of time on my own, but cheaper?
Thanks for any insight you can shed on this! I’m just so excited about this and so hope I can go this year, but if I need to wait to plan the trip a year in advance, I certainly can do that too. 🙂
Thanks again,

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 23, 2016 at 10:03 PM

Hi Barb, you’ll find tons of information here to help you plan your trip. Regarding your questions:
1.) Yes. By and large Scotland is an incredibly safe country.
2.) It’s not too late to plan for June, but realize that if you’re picky about accommodation you may find some places already booked.
3.) Absolutely. You could do the same trip on your own for a fraction of that cost.
All the best in your planning!

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