Look, I already know I'm the dictionary definition of a Type A person. I've had every class of my college career planned since I was a senior in high school. I love spreadsheets way too much for someone under the age of 40. I maintain a detailed calendar with eight color-coded categories of events. But all this zeal for planning and preparation pays off when it comes time to travel. For those of you who don't feel naturally lured towards creating hourly itineraries and mapped-out tours for your travels (while of course leaving room for mindless wandering and spontaneity), sit back and learn from the pro.
Step 1: What do you want to see?
Look up the sites in the city you're planning on visiting. Write down any monuments, museums, markets, and scenic areas you want to see. Don't force your list to be short just yet--chances are, with some planning, you can make it all work.
Step 2: Map the sites.
Look up each site on Google Maps. Google has a feature where you can "save" a location, and it'll show up as a star on your map. Do this for every place you'd like to go in the city you're traveling to.
Step 3: Pick your lodging.
Where are the stars concentrated on the map? It'll be most convenient for you to live near a few of those stars. Alternatively, look up where the public transit lines are, and pick a hotel that falls along the metro or bus line that goes directly to the attractions. By avoiding a complicated daily commute into the city, you'll save plenty of time and get to see more.
Step 4: String together routes.
Play a game of connect the dots with the stars on your map. Make as many routes as you have days in the city, starting from your hotel and ending either back at your hotel, or somewhere where you have access to transportation back to your hotel. Try to make it roughly in a line, so you don't waste time running across town to see the next site when you could be seeing a site every couple blocks.
I recommend making each route diverse. Do you really want to spend all of one day looking at pretty parks? Probably not. Try to string museums to parks to monuments to food for the most exciting day.
Step 5: Manage the timing.
This is where your first draft of your daily sightseeing routes meets pragmatics. How early are you willing to wake up? How much time do you want to spend at each place? You only have about twelve to fourteen hours in a day to be out and about, so be aware of how the time spent at each site in a single the route adds up. Reorganize your daily routes if necessary.
Also remember to check for operating hours. You don't want to show up to a castle just to find out it's closed on Mondays.
Step 6: Make your schedule.
Write it all out! Include breaks for meals, and give yourself at least an hour each day for mindless wandering. Make sure to take into account the time it takes to get from one place to another.
Step 7: Plan the transportation.
Research your bus, metro, and walking routes and WRITE IT DOWN. If you don't have internet in the place you're visiting, you won't be able to look up directions. Write down and print out which metro stops are nearest to which sites and how to get from one site in your schedule to another. Think about what will be most useful to you when you're actually there--will you understand "walk 500 meters north" better or "turn left at the Burger King"?
Step 8: ENJOY!
You've planned a great trip, so go have fun with it! And don't panic if things don't go exactly as planned--they never do, and that's the fun part!