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.