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Planning a Trip to Scotland: Step-by-Step Guide

Planning a Trip to Scotland: Step-by-Step Guide

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Dreaming of your first Scotland trip? Let me show you exactly how to plan a trip to Scotland like a pro!
This post about how to plan a trip to Scotland for the first time was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

Have you dreamed about visiting the land of tartan, shortbread, and Braveheart for years? It’s time to start planning a trip to Scotland to turn those dreams into a reality!

Whether you’re visiting on a city break in Edinburgh or a road trip through the Highlands, there’s so much to see. Scotland boasts over 1,500 castles, more than 30,000 lochs, and six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

So, figuring out how to plan a trip to Scotland can be challenging!

This easy guide will take you through where to go in Scotland, the top attractions and activities, and everything else you need to know for a smooth trip.

Once you’ve ticked off all the steps of this Scotland planning guide, you can relax and enjoy your trip. Ideally, with a wee dram of whisky or a piece of Scottish tablet fudge!

15-Step Guide to Planning a Trip to Scotland

Step 1: Check Your Passport and Visa Requirements for Scotland

The last thing you want to do is go to the effort of meticulously planning a Scotland trip and realizing too late that one of your kids’ passports has expired!

How to Apply for a US Passport for a Baby or Child, tips featured by top US travel blogger, Marcie in Mommyland: Learn how to get a passport for a child (or baby) with these 8 easy steps. You’ll even find some secret, expert tips to help expedite the application process
Always check the expiration date in your passport!

Scotland is a country in the United Kingdom, so it’s not part of the European Union or the Schengen Zone. The UK’s rules for entry for US and Canadian citizens are more lax than in the EU.

Most tourists will not need a Visa and you only need two months validity left on your passport.

Step 2: Figure out the Length of Your Scotland Trip

If you’re traveling long haul, you’re probably not looking for tips on how to visit Scotland for less than three days! Four nights is the minimum for a city break to Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, for example.

Check out the best Edinburgh hotels for families recommended by top family travel blog Marcie in Mommyland. Image of View of the city centre of Edinburgh - Scotland
Most people spend time in Edinburgh during their trip to Scotland.

One week is enough to visit Edinburgh plus a couple of places in the Highlands and islands. You could book a multi-day tour to the Isle of Skye or Fort William and Loch Ness or rent a car.

Two weeks or more is ideal if this is your first time in Scotland and you want to take an epic road trip. You will probably need to set aside at least two weeks if you want to figure out how to plan a trip to Scotland and Ireland without spending your whole trip in the car!

Step 3: Research the Best Time to Travel to Scotland

For the ideal balance between pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and more affordable accommodation, the best times to travel to Scotland are the shoulder seasons of April – May and September – October.

Image of the view on Portree before sunset, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Summer is a popular time to visit places like the Isle of Skye.

Scotland in summer has the warmest weather with average temperatures of 59-63 °F/15-17°C with heatwaves growing more common. 

August is the festival season in Edinburgh. Some travelers will love the cultural experience, but others won’t love the crowds and expensive accommodations.

New Year (named ‘Hogmanay’ in Scotland) is an important holiday. You can also ski in the Cairngorms in winter.

Step 4: Choose Where to Visit in Scotland

There are so many amazing places to go in Scotland! Here is a breakdown of all the top travel destinations:

  • Big Cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow
  • Small Cities: St Andrews and Stirling
  • National Parks: Loch Lomond and The Trossachs and the Cairngorms
  • Road Trip Routes: North Coast 500, Southwest Coast 300, and North East 250
  • Popular Islands: The Isle of Skye, Mull, Arran, Iona, Lewis and Harris, and Islay
  • Popular Highland Areas: Loch Ness, Glen Coe, Glenfinnan Viaduct, and Fort William

Looking for Scotland vacation ideas off the beaten path? Stick to the Scottish Borders region or visit an island or city not listed like Jura, Tiree, or Aberdeen.

Step 5: Create a Budget for Your Vacation in Scotland

Your budget for your trip to Scotland will depend on many factors. When you’re planning to travel, how many people you are traveling will, and your travel style will all play a role.

Travel budget concept. Travel money savings in a glass jar with compass, passport and aircraft toy on world map
Be realistic about your Scotland travel budget.

Budget Your Trip has determined that two people traveling in Scotland for one week spend, on average, around $2,613 per person.

Planning a trip to Scotland is usually less expensive than in other Western European countries like Switzerland or Germany. However, it can be more expensive than Portugal or Italy.

Step 6: Book Your Flights to Scotland

The best way to travel to Scotland for most North American travelers is, of course, by plane!

Approximately 10 cities across the US and Canada offer direct flights to Edinburgh, mostly from the East Coast. There are also tons of flights from various London airports to Edinburgh, so that might be a good layover option.

Step 7: Plan the Best Itinerary for Scotland

The best itinerary for your Scotland trip will depend on what you like to do and where you’re going! Here are some Scotland itineraries to suit different types of travelers:

  • How to plan a golf trip to Scotland – Visit Edinburgh (plenty of golf courses in the city!) and St. Andrews for the oldest golf course in the world
  • How to plan a trip to Scotland with kids – Visit Edinburgh, Loch Ness, and ride the Jacobite steam train from Harry Potter across Glenfinnan Viaduct
  • How to plan a whisky trip to Scotland – Take a small group tour to the Isle of Islay from Edinburgh or hire a car and drive up to Speyside
  • How to plan a first-time trip to Scotland – Visit Edinburgh for three days and then rent a car and drive up to Fort William and Glenfinnan through Glen Coe. Visit the Isle of Skye for two or three days and then drive across to Loch Ness. Drive back down to Edinburgh through Stirling

Step 8: Book Accommodation in Scotland

Currently, Scotland does not charge a tourist tax when you book accommodation like Italy or Spain. However, there is a Visitor Levy bill in parliament so that may have changed by the time you visit!

The best places to stay in Scotland vary between the cities and the countryside. Edinburgh and Glasgow have a range of boutique and branded hotels and hostels. 

Image of Edinburgh citiscape view with houses and Salisbury crags, Scotland, United Kingdom
There are TONS of places to stay in Scotland.

Looking for where to stay in Scotland on the islands or Highlands? Guesthouses and cute Bed and Breakfasts are usually the best options for price and experience.

On road trips, you often need to stop overnight somewhere with no town nearby. Short-term rentals and glamping are great places to stay.

RVs can also be cost-effective on road trips. Just remember to book a small vehicle (Scotland’s roads are narrow!) and stay overnight in campsites to help the local economy.

Step 9: Book a Rental Car and Ferries

While visiting Scotland’s cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, you definitely won’t need a car! Buses (Glasgow also has a metro) are super easy to use. Just use a contactless credit or debit card to pay the driver.

You can use trains to travel between towns in Scotland’s Lowlands and buses between larger towns in the Highlands. 

Image of Winding road in the hills of Scotland with cars, sunny sumer day.
Consider renting a car in Scotland.

However, if you are traveling for a week or longer in the Scottish Highlands, it makes sense to book a group tour or rent a car. 

Book a small car to navigate Scotland’s very narrow roads! And pay a little extra for an automatic car if you’re not used to manual. They are the standard in Scotland, so that’s what you’ll get if you don’t request an automatic.

Organize ferry tickets as far in advance as possible. Especially during busy seasons! Sometimes, only one or two ferries travel between ports every day.

Step 10: Purchase Attraction Tickets and Plan Activities

It’s better to purchase some more popular attraction tickets like those to Edinburgh Castle and Loch Ness tours in advance. 

Image of Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland with the Jacobite steam train passing over. United Kingdom
The Jacobite Steam Train is a top Scotland attraction.

Consider an Edinburgh City Pass if you plan on visiting lots of ticketed attractions during your trip. But keep in mind that many Edinburgh museums and galleries, like the National Museum of Scotland, are free to visit.

Check out the Historic Scotland or National Trust for Scotland memberships if you plan on visiting lots of castles and other historic sites.

Want to travel on the Jacobite steam train in the summer? Book your tickets in January! That’s not an exaggeration – this is one of the most popular attractions in Scotland.

Step 11: Buy Travel Insurance for Your Vacation to Scotland

The best time to purchase travel insurance for your trip to Scotland is right after you book your flights. This will ensure every penny you spend on your trip is protected.

Travel insurance is ALWAYS a good idea.

But as long as you buy travel insurance before you step foot in the airport, your health and belongings are protected.

Check with your credit card provider as they often include travel insurance as a benefit!

Step 12: Figure out Phone, Credit Card, and Currency

Speaking of credit cards, make sure you have a travel-friendly Mastercard or Visa payment card. American Express isn’t accepted in many places across Scotland, but credit cards in general are widely accepted.

Since Scotland is part of the UK, the currency is Great British Pound (£). Bring some cash to make purchases when making small purchases in more remote parts of Scotland.

Make sure you can use your phone abroad too! Check your phone plan before traveling and if it doesn’t include international coverage, get an eSIM for the UK.

Step 13: Watch Movies and Read Books Set in Scotland

Planning a trip to Scotland doesn’t stop once you’ve booked everything! Continue the excitement by watching movies or TV shows and reading books set in Scotland.

Of course, re-watching the Harry Potter movies with your kids is essential before a trip to Scotland. The book series or TV adaptation of Outlander is great for after they’ve gone to bed!

Step 14: Pack the Right Outfits for Traveling in Scotland

You should always prepare for rain no matter when you are visiting Scotland. Pack a light raincoat in summer and a warm parka in winter. 

Image of Girl in red dress with suitcase on country road in sunset. Low side view
Choose your Scotland packing list carefully!

Layers are a great idea because the weather can change dramatically from day to day.

Sturdy boots are essential for pounding the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh. Hiking boots are a must in the Highlands or islands.

Step 15: Go To Scotland!

The only thing left to do is to board a plane and prepare yourself for a magical vacation in the lush, storied country of Scotland.

Save some space in your suitcase to pick up a wool sweater, tartan scarf, and lots of shortbread!

Planning a Trip to Scotland FAQs

What month is the best time to visit Scotland?

The shoulder season is the best time to visit Scotland for the ideal balance of mild weather, cheaper accommodation, and fewer crowds. 

Winter nights are very long. Summer is extremely crowded, with roads in remote areas clogged with RVs and festivals in the cities.

How many days is enough for Scotland?

Three to four days is enough for Scotland if you just want to visit Edinburgh. This is enough time to explore the city and take a day trip.

If you want to explore parts of the Scottish countryside too, stay for at least one week. 10 days to two weeks is the ideal amount of time to visit Edinburgh, Glasgow, the national parks, the Highlands near Fort William, and the Isle of Skye.

How far in advance should I book a trip to Scotland?

Three to four months is far enough in advance to plan a trip to Scotland if you are not visiting in the summer. If you are visiting in the summer, six to nine months is preferable.

Planning a Trip to Scotland Wrap-Up

This step-by-step guide to planning a trip to Scotland is foolproof. 

There’s no way you will accidentally skip one of the best destinations in Scotland or make a common travel mistake. 

Your Scotland trip planning efforts will all feel worth it looking up at Edinburgh Castle from the Royal Mile or driving through Glen Coe!

Looking for more Scotland travel resources? Check out 9 Best Edinburgh Hotels for Families Worth Booking, 13 Best Day Trips From Glasgow by Train, and 13 Best Day Trips From Edinburgh by Train!

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