Scotland might be a small country, but how much you can really fit into one trip depends on your priorities. Here is how to plan a trip to Scotland!
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How to Plan a Trip to Scotland: The Basics

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On the map Scotland looks like a tiny country, and indeed it measures less than 80,000km2 and is just short of 5.5 million people. The thing with small, but mountainous countries like Scotland is though, that every valley and every peak, every lake and every island, every city and every castle is worth a stop. How on Earth do you fit all of this in one epic trip? Before I go into more detail with itineraries and best of-lists (no, worries – they will come at a later point), let me run you through the basics of how to plan a trip to Scotland in the first place.

I will give you advice on how to get around, how much time you should plan for your trip and how to find and choose the things you want to do and see.

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

1. Getting Around

The first question you need to ask yourself when you plan a trip to Scotland is how to get around. Do you feel comfortable enough with left-side traffic and windy mountain roads that you can rent a car? Or would you rather travel eco-friendly and rely on public transport? Guided tours where transport is taken care of for the entire group are another option. You could even hitchhike, which I wouldn’t necessarily ‘recommend’, but it is a common practice especially among hikers and further up north… And then there is the option to simply use your feet and walk your way through Scotland.

Of course whichever means of transportation you chose will highly influence your experience in Scotland. Each comes with it’s advantages and flaws – here’s a wee list of things to consider:

Rental Car

If you rent a car you get maximum flexibility for your itinerary, but you also have to shoulder the responsibility of driving yourself all along.

Pros: flexible itinerary, easier time management, that road trip feeling!

Cons: higher cost for the car rental and petrol (& potential parking fees in Glasgow/Edinburgh), stress caused by left-hand side traffic, distraction from the gorgeous views (at least for the driver)

Realistic distances

A quick note on estimating distances: Scotland might be tiny and distances look small on the map, but on the windy mountain roads of the Highlands this can be deceiving. Some roads are just so scenic, that you will want to stop every few minutes. Others are so windy that busses, mini-busses, trucks or even camper vans in front of you can slow you down and there’s no chance to overtake them for miles. Instead of rushing up north as fast as you can slow down a bit and aim for destinations within closer reach.

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

Public Transport

Public transport in Scotland is excellent and fairly reliable. You can get a direct train from Glasgow to Fort William and from there to Mallaig, or explore the other coast and take a train to Aberdeen. There are daily busses to Oban, Inverness (Loch Ness) or the Isle of Skye. Train rides through the Highlands are a journey worth in themselves, as the tracks are usually far away from the roads and you’ve got the view of the hills to yourself. However, distances take longer to cross by public transport and there might only be one option per day or several per week.

Pros: environmentally friendly, extensive network, you don’t need to drive yourself

Cons: less flexible itinerary, more time-intense

Island-Hopping

If you plan to do some island-hopping while you’re in Scotland, here is some basic information on the ferries. There are two main operators, Northlink Ferries (to Orkney & Shetland) and CalMac (to the Inner & Outer Hebrides). If you have a set itinerary and travel by car in peak season during summer you might want to consider booking in advance – especially the car ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye can get very busy (although you can reach Skye by car via a bridge). Most ferries go several times a day, and while sailing to the Outer Hebrides can take several hours (not even speaking of the overnight sail to Shetland), other islands are within much better reach. The main ferry ports along the west coast are Ardrossan, Oban, Mallaig and Ullapool. You can reach all of them by public transport, so car-free island-hopping is totally possible.

Travel Passes

ScotRail offers a Spirit of Scotland Travel Pass, which enables free travel on the entire Scotrail network, as well as free ferry travel with CalMac ferries, 20% off on Northlink ferries and free bus travel on selected routes. The pass is available for 4 days of unlimited travel within 8 days, or 8 days unlimited travel within 15 days.

There are two other passes offered by ScotRail: the Highland Rover valid on various train, ferry and bus routes in the North and West Highlands and the Central Scotland Rover valid for travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh and on the Glasgow subway.

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

Guided Tour

The carefree option – there are loads of tour companies offering guided tours on coaches or mini-busses. They vary in group sizes, prices, itineraries and demographics, so it’s good to shop around before you decide on a tour.

Pros: you can lean back and let somebody else do the preparing and driving

Cons: less flexible itinerary, group travel, potentially too little time in each place

Personally I’ve only done a one-day guided tour with Rabbie’s in a mini-bus. We went from Glasgow to Stirling, through the Trossachs and past Loch Lomond to end the day at the Glengoyne whisky distillery. I’d say with castles, mountains, lochs and whisky we saw the best that Scotland has to offer in one day. Rabbie’s also offers multiple day trips to Skye and other areas of Scotland, and I can highly recommend them.

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

2. How much Time do you need?

There is an easy answer to this question and it’s: as much as you can spare. Yes, you could power through, do a day or two in Edinburgh and then a day or two, driving for hours and get to Loch Lomond, Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye on a weekend… But will you enjoy it?

I’d say spending at least a week to 10 days to get a first glimpse of Scotland is the minimum. In that time you can easily fit a day or two exploring Edinburgh and then contrasting it with the more edgy Glasgow. From there the Highlands are at your doorstep and you can spend a few days travelling around the mountains and islands. On the way back south, plan in a detour through Aberdeenshire and the Cairngorms National Park to see a completely different side of Scotland – one that is often neglected in favour of the Highlands but bursts with seaside charm and more castles than you can count.

In the future I will equip you with a couple of sample itineraries – trips I’ve done either to explore Scotland for myself, or to show its beauty to my friends and family when they visited. So stay tuned!

What’s the best time of the year?

This question is really hard to answer as weather in Scotland is unpredictable and different every year. In summer – if you want to call it that – it can get up to 25 Celsius (I’ve even experienced 27 before), but that is rather extraordinary. In general I would recommend to come in early summer (May) or early fall (September) as these are often drier months. That said, June and July are gorgeous in itself because of the extra long days, and visiting in December for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) is also very popular.

How to plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

3. Deciding on Things to Do & See

In Scotland it is not hard to find things to do and see, so it’s more about making a list of priorities. Do you want to delve into the country’s rich history and see castles and museums – or rather immerse yourself in the stunning natural landscape? Are you a thrill seeker in search for kayaking, mountaineering or skiing adventures – or do you prefer it more mellow with boat rides, leisurely walks and culinary delights?

Did you know? The Scotland Discovery Pass gives you access to over 60 attractions all over Scotland! Book it at Tiqets (from £26.50)*

 

I like to plan a good mix of things and activities when I visit a new country. For Scotland I suggest you see at least one castle, do at least one easy or intermediate hike, spend a day on the road/on the train/on the bus to see the landscape, take one ferry, spend one day in the city, go to the pub and see some live music, and visit a whisky (or gin) distillery.

Read more: 50 Travel Tips for Scotland

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

A note on Hiking

Although the mountains in the Highlands are not as tall as in the Alps or other high mountain ranges, you need to be very careful when hiking in the hills. Weather is unpredictable and fog can lock you in within minutes. Paths in the Highlands are rarely signposted and even if they are marked on the map, they could be barely visible in real life. Often sheep or deer trails look a lot like trails, but then of course they end in nothingness…

To get you started with hiking in Scotland, check out this beginner’s guide to climbing a Munro!

If you plan to do some hiking in the hills, here are a few essentials to bring for hiking:

– A map & a compass, and the knowledge of how to use them

– Plenty of water for every hiker in your party

Warm, wind- and waterproof clothes (jacket & trousers) & sturdy shoes (best hiking boots that support your ankles)

– A headtorch in case you lose your way and darkness closes you in

My go-to online resource for trail information and description is Walk Highlands which also has a great page on safety!

Browse my Hiking archives for inspiration

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

Now, I hope this gives you a good first idea of how to plan a trip to Scotland – once you have decided how long you stay, how to get around and what kind of activities and places you want to add to you itinerary, you are good to prepare your actual itinerary. More about that later!

How to Plan your Trip to Scotland | WatchMeSee.com

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.

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26 Comments

  1. Carolyne

    Kathi thank you so much for your blog I’m rtravelling on my own in Scotland this sept and the info here is priceless you don’t give day tours by any chance?
    I have made copious notes and I’ve a tons of planning to do. You blog link booked marked thank you again !
    Carolyne

    • Hi Carolyne, I’ve actually just created a profile on Showaround to give offering tours a shot (https://www.showaround.com/locals/9723790). It should let you book me as a tour guide for Glasgow – but I could also show you around Edinburgh! I don’t have a car, so cities are my stomping ground at the moment 😉 I also help people plan their itineraries for a small fee – I don’t have this up on the website yet, as I’ve been test-running it for a few months so far. Drop me an email if you’re interested!

  2. Kathi, so glad I found your page. The wealth of information is helpful. I’m attempting to plan our first 10 day trip to Scotland in October 2018 and I look forward to find out more info from you. I’m in my 40’s and likely the lovely lady above put it fluffy but adventurous with by best friend who’s in the same boat. I assertain that you think public transit and day trips are a more cost affective way to see the area without the tour congestion?

    • I’m glad you find my content useful 🙂 In October there are definitely fewer tourists, nothing compared to the summer months. Public transport is not necessarily cheaper than renting a car, but a great way to travel without having to figure out driving on the left. Busses are certainly cheaper and the network is very useful. Many train lines also offer great views. So there are many advantages of taking public transport!!

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  4. Sharon Solloway

    Kathi, your post, which I read on Pintrest, is very helpful! I am going to Scotland for 10 days in May, 2017 to visit my granddaughter who is a college student in Edinburgh.
    One big concern: I am a lady in my 70’s and am rather “fluffy” in stature but a little adventurous! I am worried about accessibility for older people with some physical limitations. A 5 day bus trip to Skye with Rabbe is planned and the other days will be in Edinburgh and Glasgow on our own. Do you think I will need trekking poles? Waterproof shoes?? I plan to bring along my sense of humor and optimism!

    • Hi Sharon, thanks for commenting and your question! With Rabbie’s you’re in good hands – their tour guides are really nice and considerate! I just had a quick look at that particular tour to see what stops are included. I would most definitely bring waterproof shoes no matter what you do in Scotland, but they don’t necessarily have to be hiking boots. Trekking shoes should be enough. May is the driest month, but if it only rains once, you’ll be happy you brought them. Make sure you have a good waterproof jacket though that also keeps the wind out! Trekking poles can be very helpful, it really depends on what activities you chose to do on Skye. For the hike in the Quiraing and the visit at the Neist Point lighthouse, I’d take them, just to be sure. The garden of Dunvegan Castle or the area of Kilt Rock are really just leisurely strolls on gravel paths. I think Scotland is a great place for seniors to visit – the natural beauty is overwhelming, but it’s not hidden away so only highly adventurous outdoors folk can see it! A lot of the most beautiful viewpoints are accessible by car! You’ll see 🙂

      I hope you have a fantastic trip!! Have you had a look at my Skye post yet? http://www.watchmesee.com/blog/things-to-do-isle-of-skye/

  5. I’m visiting Scotland again this late winter and am looking forward to exploring more of the islands as I’ve always stuck to the cities in the past. Glad I found this blog 🙂

    • Well, welcome to the family 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions for places to go, or things to do. Where are you heading in the islands?

  6. Pingback: The Classic Scotland Itinerary for One Week | Watch Me See

  7. Hello! So glad I bumped into your blog! I’m planning my first solo travel next month, 12 days of Scotland, and this really really helps me! Looking forward to it. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Yasmin, oh I’m so glad you found my blog – I hope it gives you loads of inspiration and ideas for your trip! 12 days is a great amount of time as well for a first trip here – do you already know where you want to go? x

  8. Hi Katie – I just came back from Scotland and I fell in love with it. I did 14 days and it was not nearly enough to see and do all I wanted. I did post my quite aggressive itinerary on my blog if you wish to see what my family and I did. Scotland is so incredibly beautiful and you are so right it seems like a small country but the winding roads that are sometimes single track make for a longer than expected road trip. But the visit is definitely worth it and I think everyone should experience Scotland.

    • Thanks for your comment – I’m so glad you had a great trip and it sounds like you will need to return as well! I love your blogposts and will share them on my networks as well! Need to find the PUFFINS!!! 😀

  9. Jeri murphy

    Hi Kathi, loved reading your blog and subscribed to get more. My husband & I are going for a week in September for our 45th anniversary. Can’t wait to see the beautiful country and meet the people. We’re actually spending our 1st week in Ireland and the 2nd week in Scotland. Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

    • Thanks for your comment! That sounds like a fantastic trip! I’ve never been to Ireland sadly, but I’ll definitely write loads about the best places to go in Scotland by then 😀 Are you flying between Ireland and Scotland or taking the ferry?

  10. Mary Franssen

    I recently returned from an incredible 10 day trip to Scotland! Be sure and take an umbrella and rain boots, to be covered for the occasional drizzle, which for the most part will not impede your plans. Plan a day or two in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, a day at Luss and on Loch Lomond, few days in the highlands; both West and North, and time in Skye. Hit at least one “local” (non-franchised) pub, where the locals gather, in order to get the real flavour of song, conversation, and entertainment. Tour one castle still in authentic ruins, one cathedral, one museum, on distillery, one football (soccer) game, and then most importantly, interact with the Scots . . . It’s the only way to really step into the wonders of the country. Ask for directions, chat, get lost, and do it all over again if you have to, just so you can engage and beg upon their incredible warmth and hospitality. “They,” and my incredible Rabbies tour guide, John Mc Dermott, MADE me fall in love with Scotland! Believe it or not, confused and a bit lost as I attempted to leave Glasgow on the train back to our hotel in Clydebank, one evening, the kindest, most fun couple literally “picked me up” while on the train. They got off at my same stop, and ended up taking me to their house, feeding me, treating me to lovely drinks and desserts, and then drove me back to my hotel where we all socialised into the wee hours of the night. It was amazing, and I’m quite sure such an event would never happen in the states! They’ve become friends for life, and will be traveling to the states next year, where we will meet up again. I’ve become fb friends with several native Scot, including John, who continues to treat me to travels by his incredible photography on the Internet. Scotland is magical when you gather the perfect ingredients: the people, the music, the food, the legends, the natural scenery, and being open to every oppotunity that comes your way, planned or not. I held back the tears when I left . . . it was just that wonderful, and I can’t wait to go back!

    • Thank you so much for your comment Mary! I’m so happy to hear you had such a fantastic time in Scotland and with Rabbies – and indeed the people make the entire country so special! I think John might have been my tour guide too, but I’m not 100% sure as I only did a day trip and it’s been a few months since then.

      I’m usually not one for the umbrella but prefer a rain coat so I still have my hands free and because of the wind – but I’ll make sure to talk about Scottish weather on the blog at some point soon. It’s something to get used to…

      Thanks again, and I hope Scotland sees you again soon! 🙂

    • María Elena Giacobo schupbach

      I believe you! I have been once in my life and my dream is to come back to Scotland again and again and again. I felt at home.

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  12. Scotland is one of the countries I wanted to visit. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    MONDAY PROJECTS

    • Thanks for your comment! I can’t recommend visiting Scotland enough 😀

  13. I’ve been all over Europe and somehow haven’t made it to Scotland yet, after reading your post and looking at your pictures it is definitely on my list. Thanks for sharing on the Girls V. Globe linkup! It would be interesting to see what it’s like “walking” your way through Scotland.

    • Hi Katie, thanks for your comment! I will be writing about the walking bit later on. There are several long-distance walks criss-crossing the country, and I’m planning to walk the most popular one this summer. It’s called the West Highland Way 🙂 Scotland is definitely worth a trip!

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