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: Everything you Need to Know to Visit Scotland

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Last updated on November 20th, 2017 at 09:57 pm

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. Yet when you plan a trip to Scotland, it can be an overwhelming challenge to figure out where to begin! Too many cities, islands, mountains, valleys, castles and lochs to chose from; all of them are worth a stop, but it’s impossible to see them all, no matter how much time you have. How on Earth are you going to plan the perfect trip to Scotland?

Before you get too deeply involved in my suggested itineraries, favourite off the beaten track destinations or must have experiences in Scotland, let me run you through the basics of how to plan a trip to Scotland in the first place.

This guide will give you advice on:

1. When is the best time to visit Scotland?

2. How much time you should plan for your trip

3. My suggested itineraries for weekends or full weeks in Scotland

4. How to get around in Scotland

5. My recommended Scotland Bus Tours

6. How to chose which activities to include

7. Hiking tips for Scotland

8. Where to Stay in Scotland

By the end of the guide you will have all the tools to plan an amazing trip to Scotland, and my suggested itineraries will get you on the way in no time!

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!

When is the best time to visit Scotland

The impossible question – what is the best time of the year to visit Scotland? Fact is, that every season in Scotland has a different appeal, but very often the weather does not differ to much from season to season.

Billy Connolly once said, there are only two seasons in Scotland, June and Winter. The weather is always unpredictable – even in June. No matter when you visit, you should be prepared to encounter all four seasons in one day.

That said there are other factors playing into this. I think the best time to visit Scotland is in May or early autumn, in August or September. In May you already get the long summer days I love so much in Scotland – more time to explore! Also, the dreaded Scottish midges haven’t hatched yet, and you get to experience the Highlands bite-free! August and September are great months for wildlife watching, particularly is you’re interested in seeing puffins (they leave some time in August) or witness how the Scottish highlands turn purple as the heather blooms.

Finally, if you want to see Edinburgh at its best, visit during the main festival season in August or in December for the Christmas markets and Hogmanay festivities around New Year’s Eve!

You might also like: Scottish Weather & How to Deal with it

 

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!

How much time should you spend in Scotland?

There is an easy answer to this question: as much time as you can. Yes, you could enter a tour de force through Scotland, spend a day or two in Edinburgh and then drive for hours to cover Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye and Glencoe over the weekend. But would you enjoy it? Probably not…

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.

You might also like: My Classic One Week Itinerary for Scotland

 

Any less, and you will have to adjust your itinerary accordingly. I’ve made the mistake myself and tried to cover everything in 7 days – and I failed. Now I travel much slower and dedicate long weekends or full weeks to certain regions around Scotland. There is so much to see, it would be a shame to race through them in pursuit of the far-flung tourist magnets of Scotland.

Check out my suggested itineraries:

  

  

 

How to Get around Scotland

Road trips, public transport or organised tours?

The first question you need to ask yourself when you plan a trip to Scotland is how to get around – your mode of transport has a huge impact on your route through Scotland and how much is feasible in any given time frame. 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 I’ve successfully done it myself. And then there is the option to simply use your feet and walk through Scotland.

Of course whichever mode of transport through Scotland you chose will highly influence your experience in Scotland. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages – here’s a wee list of things to consider:

Renting a car in Scotland

The huge advantage of renting a car in Scotland is that you get maximum flexibility for your itinerary. However, you have bear the responsibility of driving and navigating yourself. Solo travelers in particular might find that driving takes away some of the joys of observing the scenery; or find it tiring.

Distances on the map of Scotland can be deceiving, particularly on winding, narrow Highland roads. Some roads are so pretty, that photo stops will slow you down; other are so tricky to navigate that busses, mini-busses, trucks or even camper vans in front of you take care of that. Don’t underestimate distances in Scotland – it’s better to plan shorter driving days, than cram in as many miles as possible.

Personally, I think renting a car the best way to get around Scotland, because many of my favourite places can only be reached by car. However, remember that other feasible options do exist and a road trip is not the Holy Grail of planning a trip to Scotland.

I usually book my rental cars with Auto Europe, because it compares prices from several providers and I find the full insurance cover to be cheaper than getting it directly from the rental agency. That way I can ensure I definitely get the best deal!

Pros | Flexible itinerary and time management; That road trip feeling!

Cons | Potentially more expensive; More responsibility; Distraction from the gorgeous views (at least for the driver)

You might also like: Everything you need to know about driving in Scotland

 

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!

Scotland by Train and Ferry

Public transport in Scotland serves an extensive network and is fairly reliable. With a combination of trains, busses and ferries you can basically travel the entire country. 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. All of the countries most popular destinations, like Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye, Oban or Fort William can be easily reached from Glasgow or Edinburgh – you might just need a little more time.

Scotland is a great destination for island hopping. There are two major ferry operators, Northlink Ferries (to Orkney & Shetland) and CalMac (to the Inner & Outer Hebrides). If you have a set itinerary and want to bring a rental car, you should definitely book your ferry tickets in advance, but if you travel as a pedestrian that is usually not necessary. While sailing to the Outer Hebrides or Shetland takes several hours (overnight to Shetland), other islands, such as Arran, Mull or Skye are within much quicker reach. Major ferry ports you might consider as starting point are Ardrossan, Oban, Mallaig or Ullapool. You can reach all of them by public transport, so car-free island-hopping is totally possible.

Traveling Scotland by train is made super easy by ScotRail’s travel passes. There are several options, some are limited to certain regions, others enable you to travel across the railway, bus and ferry network with the same ticket.

Pros | Environmentally friendly; Extensive network, easy to navigate; Time to focus on views

Cons | Less flexible itinerary; More time-intense

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!

Guided Tours of Scotland

Joining a guided tour of Scotland is the so-called “carefree” option. Everything is taken care of – transport, routes and in some cases even accommodation or meals. There are many Scottish tour operators to chose from, and they can vary in group sizes, prices, itineraries and target demographics. I’d recommend to shop around and read reviews before you decide on a tour around Scotland.

I’ve done quite a few guided tours, with companies such as Rabbie’s, Timberbush or Highland Explorer – you can check out my reviews here. Generally I would recommend doing multiple day tours rather than several individual day tours – mainly because it saves a lot of driving time and in my experience the itinerary will be more relaxed.

Pros | Worry-free travel experience; Experienced tour guide on board

Cons | You’re “stuck” with the prescribed itinerary; Potentially too little time at each destination

Scotland Bus Tours I’d recommend:

Oban, Glencoe & West Highland Castles: 1-day tour from Glasgow with Timberbush (similar tour from Edinburgh here) – Read my REVIEW!

Loch Ness, Glencoe & the Highlands: 1-day tour from Glasgow with Rabbie’s (similar tour from Edinburgh available too) – Read my REVIEW!

Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond & Whisky: 1-day tour from Glasgow with Rabbie’s (similar tour from Edinburgh available too) – Read my REVIEW!

Outlander Day Tour: 1-day tour from Edinburgh with Highland Explorer Tours – Read my REVIEW!

The Kelpies & Falkirk Wheel: 1/2-day tour from Glasgow with Rabbie’s – Read my REVIEW!

Isle of Arran Adventure: 3-day tour from Glasgow/Edinburgh with Rabbie’s – Read my REVIEW!

 


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!

Decide what to Do & See in Scotland

It really is not hard to find things to do and see in Scotland – it really is more about making a feasible 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?

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.

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

 

You might find my 50 Travel Tips for Scotland useful!

 

The Isle of Mull is a fantastic weekend getaway if you're looking for some island hopping, sea views and boat adventures. Check out my Isle of Mull guide!

Hiking Tips for Scotland

Although the mountains in the Highlands are not as tall as in the Alps or other popular mountain ranges, you need to be very careful when hiking in these hills. The 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 nowhere – or worse, lead off a cliff…

A great introduction to hiking in Scotland is this video guide for bagging munros! 

If you plan to go hiking in Scotland, here are a few essential hiking tips for the Highlands:

– Bring a map and a compass, and know how to use them. If you’re not an experienced navigator, stick to very popular routes that are well signposted.

– Bring plenty of water for every hiker in your party – water might never be far in the Scottish Highlands, but sometimes accessing it is trickier than you’d think.

-Wear warm, wind- and waterproof clothes (jacket & trousers) & sturdy shoes (best hiking boots that support your ankles). I talk about some of my essential hiking equipment in this post.

– Don’t forget your headtorch, just in case you lose your way and it falls dark.

My number 1 online resource for trail information and descriptions is Walk Highlands which also has a great page on hiking safety!

Browse my Hiking archives for inspiration

 

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!

Where to stay in Scotland

Accommodation in Scotland is super easy to come by, but if you’re set on visiting a popular region, you’re better off planning ahead to avoid disappointment. Note, that in places such as the Isle of Skye, you might not even be let onto the island unless you have accommodation booked in advance!

There are many options you can chose from, ranging from top notch luxury hotels and boutique B&Bs to more basic guest houses, inns or hostels. If you are on a really tight budget, consider camping (during the summer months) or renting a campervan to have your home with you at all times. Personally, I love renting out entire cottages to feel like I have a real home away from home.

Hotels in Edinburgh | Can be very expensive, especially during the summer and Christmas season. Here are some of my favourite options for all budgets.

Hotels in Glasgow | Are much easier to come by, more affordable but increasingly popular! Check out my favourites for all budgets.

Hotels & B&Bs in the Highlands | Range from basic to luxury. Highland and island accommodation should be booked in advance, as the houses often have fewer rooms. Usually they are well located near public transport and in scenic spots. I find Booking.com to be a great resource to find independent B&Bs, hotels or guest houses.

Hostels | The Scottish Youth Hostel Association runs many hostels throughout the country, but I also love staying at one of the Scottish Independent Hostels.

AirBnB | As I mentioned above, I love renting out entire cottages, and AirBnB is a great resource to find some incredibly unique accommodation in the Scottish countryside! You can use my referral to get £25 off your first booking!

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!

This guide should have given you a thorough idea of how to plan a trip to Scotland. The first decisions are often the hardest, but once you know when and how long you will visit Scotland, how you want to get around Scotland and what sort of activities you are interested in, it is time to plan your actual itinerary.

Fee free to mix and match the activities and routes I suggest in my itineraries above to get started with that. And if you need any assistance in planning your trip to Scotland, get in touch at kathi@watchmesee.com – I offer travel planning services that range from honest feedback on your planned itinerary to creating customised routes for you and your travel party!

Are you ready to plan a trip to Scotland?

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37 Comments

  1. Wow! I love how comprehensive this guide is…it really answers so many questions and provides so much information!

  2. Oh wow, such an amazing guide. I have always wanted to visit Scotland, and I will definitely bookmark this for when I get back to Europe! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Such a thorough guide, thanks for sharing! I’ve lived in London for 5 years and never made it up to Scotland, I think it’s time for a trip! I also love your photos 🙂

    • Hi Greta, oh wow – you really should come up here! It’s such a beautiful country! Have you been able to travel much around England though?

  4. Pingback: 50 Useful Travel Tips for Scotland | Watch Me See

  5. Pingback: 5 Reasons not go to the Isle of Skye and where to head instead

  6. Hi Kathi,
    So happy to stumble upon found you – my daughter and I are planning a trip to Scotland June 2018 – both of us single (19 and 52) and happy to hear your comments being on the safe side to travel. Just trying to narrow down all we want to do in 17 days!

    • Hi Lisa, happy you found me! 17 days is a great amount of time to see a lot of different sides of Scotland. You could take my one week itinerary as a starting point http://www.watchmesee.com/blog/classic-scotland-itinerary/, and add a few days here and there, maybe some time in the Cairngorms or Fife, some more time on the islands, more time in Glasgow & Edinburgh – opportunities are endless! Let me know if you need any help planning – I’m offering travel planning services for Scotland! (Just not on the website yet…)

  7. 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!

    • Hi Kathi,

      your blog is really interesting. I will be coming on September and i would like to explore Scotland! how i can be in touch with you to offer me a tour guide. thank you

      • Heya, I see you’ve already found me on Instagram 😉 I also signed up with Showaround, so you could book me for a day tour of Glasgow or in the surrounding area! This is my profile: https://www.showaround.com/locals/9723790 You’d have to sign up, add your travel dates and I can send you an offer if I’m available! Cheers, Kathi

  8. 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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  10. 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/

  11. 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?

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

  13. 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

  14. 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!!! 😀

  15. 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?

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

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

  19. 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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