Planning A Trip To Scotland – The Ultimate Guide

planning a trip to scotland

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Are you planning a trip to Scotland for the first time? How exciting!

My first trip to Scotland was so amazing, I ended up moving to Edinburgh a few years later!

I’ve combined my years of experience working as a travel agent, travelling the world, and living and exploring Scotland to put this guide together to help you plan your dream trip.

In my Planning a Trip to Scotland Guide I’m spilling the beans on how I personally plan my trips around Scotland. I cover the best times to visit Scotland, the regions you can visit, how to book flights, accommodation and activities and what to pack.

I hope this guide is a great introduction to planning a trip to Scotland!

Planning a trip to Scotland

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Hiking the Quiraing on Isle of Skye at sunrise

What is the best time to visit Scotland?

Anytime! It really just depends what you want out of your trip to Scotland.

My favourite months for exploring Scotland are April and May. This is when the weather is starting to get warmer and we have more daylight hours. Scotland’s nature is also in full bloom, and you can enjoy it with less tourists around before the busy summer months.

Scotland gets busier in June, and July and August are the busiest months for tourists. That being said, Edinburgh is really fun during August because five of the Edinburgh festivals are on. The streets are swarmed with people attending the festivities, including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Bear in mind this may not be the best time for you to visit if you hate crowds, and accommodation prices also triple during August making Edinburgh an expensive option!

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Kinlochbervie in the northwestern highlands in summer

I also love travelling Scotland during September and October. The autumn colours are gorgeous and the weather is still warm. If you’re looking for autumn breaks in Scotland, I’ve written a guide on my favourite places to see the golden foliage.

Another thing to be aware of when you’re planning a trip to Scotland is that most attractions are only open from April-mid October. If you’re visiting outside this time, you may not be able to visit all the castles, palaces and other historical attractions you want to see. Make sure you check the opening dates on the websites of the places you’d like to visit. Historic Scotland and the National Trust For Scotland are two of the main organisations that look after Scotland’s ancient attractions and are a good place to start.

In winter in Scotland there is very little daylight. The sun will usually rise at around 8.30am and it will be pitch black by 3-4pm. Bear this in mind when planning your trip to Scotland- you will need to squeeze in a lot in with short daylight hours.

Average temperature guide:

  • Spring: 7°C (45°F) to 13 °C (55°F)
  • Summer: 15°C (59°F) to 25°C (77°F)
  • Autumn/Fall: 8°C (46°F) to 14°C (57°F)
  • Winter: -5°C (23°F) to 11 °C (51.8°F)

Please note the above is a guide; Scotland has very changeable weather and we can sometimes get snow or 25°C (77°F) days in spring!

Times to avoid visiting Scotland

When planning a trip to Scotland it is best to visit outside our school and public holidays to avoid travel during busy spells. You can search school holiday dates for each region here and public and bank holidays here.

>> Join my Scotland Travel Tips Facebook group for help planning your trip -it’s free!

planning a trip to scotland in spring
Plan a trip to Scotland in the spring or autumn for the pretty colours

Where should you visit in Scotland?

Are you a nature lover or city slicker? Are you adventurous or do you like a relaxing spa weekend? Do you prefer whisky distilleries and bustling pubs or going off the beaten path?

Scotland may be a small country, but each of her regions is unique and different. There is something for everyone in Scotland!

I’ve written an in-depth guide on the regions in Scotland– so make sure you give that a read. It will give you a good idea about what there is to do in each region, and what each region in Scotland is known for.

Here’s a brief overview of each region:

  • Aberdeenshire & Moray – Aberdeenshire is home to some of Scotland’s most famous castles on The Castle Trail. Moray is also home to the Speyside whisky region and the Malt Whisky Trail.
  • Argyll & the Isles – Known as ‘Scotland’s Adventure Coast’, this region is known for its cute seaside villages, delicious seafood, and the islands making up the Inner Hebrides.
  • Ayrshire & Arran – Ayrshire is home to rolling farmland and over 50 golf courses! Arran is known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ and offers a little bit of everything.
  • Dumfries & Galloway – Home to Scotland’s largest Dark Sky Park, Scotland’s National Book Town and Gretna Green, the marriage capital of Scotland where English couples would elope during the 18th century.
  • Dundee & Angus – Known for its outstanding glens, innovation in design, museums and Arbroath Smokies [smoked haddock].
  • Edinburgh & the Lothians – Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital city and is known for its beautiful gothic architecture. This region is also home to Linlithgow in West Lothian, the birthplace to Mary Queen of Scots [I also call West Lothian home!] Read my posts on Edinburgh & the Lothians
  • Fife – Nicknamed the ‘Kingdom of Fife’ by locals, Fife was once home to Scotland’s biggest cathedral, St Andrews Cathedral. Today it is known for its cute fishing villages and for being a popular Outlander filming location. Read my posts on Fife
  • Glasgow & the Clyde Valley – Glasgow and The Clyde Valley is known for its parks and green spaces, colourful and quirky locals, entertaining nightlife and thriving music scene. Glasgow is a great city for shopping and a night out! Read my posts on Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
  • Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park [plus Stirlingshire] – Loch Lomond and The Trossachs is Scotland’s first national park and is the perfect place for a nature escape. Stirlingshire is famous for the almost-impregnable Stirling Castle and the world’s largest equine sculptures, The Kelpies.
  • Orkney & Shetland – Orkney is made up of more than 70 islands off the northeastern coast of Scotland. It’s home to a variety of 5000 year-old Neolithic sites, towering sandstone cliffs and seal colonies. Shetland is located even further north of Orkney, and is known for its ancient standing stones, Iron Age brochs and Viking heritage.
  • Outer Hebrides – An archipelago chain of over 100 islands spanning 150 miles and surrounded by white sandy beaches and crystal clear water, the Outer Hebrides are one of Europe’s last untouched natural habitats. It’s the perfect place in Scotland to get off the beaten path.
  • Perthshire – Perthshire is the colourful beating heart of Scotland made up of cosy villages, tranquil walking trails, and bubbling brooks. Perthshire is the best place to visit in Scotland during autumn! Read my posts on Perthshire
  • Scottish Borders – In the Scottish Borders you will find rolling hills and farmland, ancient abbey ruins and Roman roads that were once walked regularly by Scottish and English armies. It’s a region filled with history, and is popular for hill walking and horse riding. Read my posts on the Scottish Borders
  • Scottish Highlands – Home to misty mountains, enormous lochs, cosy cabins, craggy castles and rugged coastline- the Highlands is a playground for outdoor lovers. Combined with it’s romantic clan history, it’s a must-see for anyone visiting Scotland. Read my posts on the Scottish Highlands
  • Scottish Islands – The Scottish Islands are spready throughout Scotland’s regions, from Ayrshire in the south west all the way to Shetland in the north, and even off the coast of Edinburgh in the east. Read my posts on the Scottish Islands

>> Read more: 22 books about Scotland you’ll love

The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye
The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye

Things to do in Scotland

There are SO many things to do in Scotland, but I won’t overwhelm you. If you have a week in Scotland, I recommend ticking the following off your bucket list:

If you need inspiration or ideas on things to do in Scotland, you can read all my Scotland blog posts here.

I also recommend using the Historic Scotland and National Trust for Scotland websites to find interesting historic sites to visit!

>> Are you visiting Scotland? Make sure you grab my Scotland Bucket List Planning printable. It’s the price of a coffee!

how to plan a trip to scotland
Hiking in the northwestern highlands

Booking flights to Scotland

The key to finding the cheapest and most direct flights is patience and knowing where to search. I predominantly use Skyscanner to search for flights, and I also check Google Flights.

This is my four step process for finding cheap flights:

Step 1

First of all, I do a quick search in Skyscanner to get a rough idea of price and the different flight paths available.

I always search in Incognito mode. Most commercial websites use Cookies to keep track of what you are searching on their website. Let’s say you’re flying from San Francisco to Edinburgh and you search for these flights in Google Flights or Skyscanner; now that website knows you are planning a trip there. Do you think they’re going to show you the cheapest prices anymore? Nope!

If you search while in Incognito however, you are able to browse the web without these Cookies tracking what flights you’re searching for, so you’ll always see the cheapest flights!

Step 2

Once I have an idea of what airlines fly the route I am wanting to go, I get out a notepad and write down the different flight options I can think of. I will write down the closest airport to me, and any other large airports nearby. For example, if I’m searching for flights from California to Edinburgh the major airports I’d write down would be Los Angeles and San Francisco. I would then search flights departing Los Angeles to Edinburgh, and San Francisco to Edinburgh. I also do the same for my end destination. The major airports in Scotland are Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.

For example, the flights I would search would be something like this:

  • Los Angeles to Edinburgh
  • Los Angeles to Inverness
  • Los Angeles to Glasgow
  • San Francisco to Edinburgh
  • San Francisco to Inverness
  • San Francisco to Glasgow

If you do all of the above searches, you’ll eventually find the cheapest route. You could also try flying into an airport in London; flights to London are often cheaper than flying into Scotland. You could then ride the train to Scotland.

Please note you can only book trains 3 months in advance- but there are regular trains from London to Scotland.

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Step 3 [optional]

You can even take the above a step further and add a stopover in half way. Do a search and write down where airlines seem to stopover. Most airlines tend to have stopovers in their ‘hub city’. For example, Air France’s hub city is- you guessed it, France. KLM is a Dutch airline so it will often stop in Amsterdam. Using the KLM example, you could search for a flight from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, and then have a stopover here for a couple of nights, and then book a separate ticket from Amsterdam to Edinburgh. I did this when I moved to the UK from Canada, I booked two one way tickets (Kelowna to Toronto with Canada Air, and Toronto to London with West Jet). Doing it this way saved me $300. Just ensure you allow plenty of layover time in between your flights [at least 8 hours or spend a couple of nights]. If your first flight is delayed and you miss your second flight, you may not get rebooked on another flight.

You will also need to weigh up costs of accommodation and activities for your stopover too. When I fly long haul I like this process because it means I get to see another country and it’s cheaper than booking two separate trips!

Step 4

Once I find a price I’m happy with, I’ll also search the exact flights directly with the airline, in case they’re cheaper. I also prefer booking directly with the airline in case of any problems that arise- so if they’re the same price, book directly with the airline versus the third party vendor.

More helpful tips for booking flights

  • Flights come out 9-10 months in advance. Flights are usually cheaper at this time too!
  • Sign up for airlines email lists that fly to your destination so you are aware when they are having a sale.
  • Aer Lingus are known for having cheap flights from America to Scotland, if that’s where you’re flying from.
  • WestJet often has cheap flights from Canada to London. They do not fly into Scotland however, so you would have to book another flight or book a bus or train. Allow sufficient layover time!
  • As soon as you book your flights, you should book your travel insurance in case the airline you are booking with collapses [for example when Thomas Cook went bankrupt in 2019, many people without travel insurance didn’t receive a refund].
  • For flights within Scotland [for example to the Orkney and Shetland] check the airline Loganair.

>> Read more: How to travel Scotland on a budget

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Highlands dancers at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Edinburgh

Finding the best accommodation in Scotland

When looking for accommodation in Scotland I use Airbnb and Booking.com. Once I find a place I’m happy with, I’ll also compare prices booking directly and also on Expedia to see which has the cheapest price.

In my experience, the cheapest and most reliable third party platforms are Airbnb, Booking.com and Expedia.

If you’re travelling in a group or as a family, I recommend using Airbnb. I use Airbnb the most when booking trips for myself and friends. I like to book a private house or apartment so we have the place to ourselves. You can also find really unique accommodation on Airbnb.

I also like Booking.com because they have a large range of accommodation and offer free cancellation.

For pods, eco-huts, glamping and luxury camping I recommend Canopy & Stars and Huts and Cabins.

>> Read more: The best hostels in Scotland

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
A Scottish mansion

Booking tours and attractions in Scotland

I book most of my tours and attractions with Get Your Guide.

Get Your Guide is great because once you’ve purchased your tickets and booked your tours you can download their app, and all your tickets are in one place. They have a QR code system in the app so when you arrive the tour operators just scan your phone. It’s also super easy to make bookings on your mobile phone via the app or on their website.

They also have free cancellation up to 24 hours before your activity in case your plans change, and 24/7 customer service.

I also like Get Your Guide because ticket prices are the same as purchasing direct but you can keep all your tours and activities in one place on the app.

Passes that will save you money

If you’re planning on visiting castles, cathedrals, abbeys and other Scotland attractions you might save money with an Explorer Pass from Historic Scotland.

Historic Scotland offers 3, 7 and 14 day passes. With this pass you can visit over 70 attractions in Scotland! All days must be consecutive and prices start from £33. You can purchase passes on Get Your Guide.

I have an annual pass [residents can purchase these] and I love it!

Entry into Edinburgh Castle alone is £19.50 at the gate and Stirling Castle is £16 at the gate- so all you have to do is visit these two attractions to make it worth buying a 3-day pass.

The National Trust for Scotland also has a similar pass. If you visit one of their properties, you can purchase a pass there.

>> Read more: The best bookshops in Scotland

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Edinburgh Castle

Car hire in Scotland

It is worth hiring a car if you’re visiting Scotland- you’ll get to see so much more! There are over 2000 castles in Scotland, so you won’t need to drive far to discover ancient castle ruins (with many being free to visit).

There are also many scenic drives in Scotland, including the North Coast 500- Scotland’s answer to Route 66!

For car hire I use Auto Europe, a car rental comparison site (similar to Skyscanner). I have my own car in Scotland, however I used Auto Europe to hire a car on my recent trip to Ireland and they were fantastic. I was able to secure a great rate that included insurance, so all I had to do was pick up my car from the airport when I arrived.

One thing to always check in the fine print is the excess. In the UK and Ireland, the excess can be expensive- so ensure you have that amount on your credit card, as it will be blocked off when you pick up your rental car.

Something else to consider is the cost of fuel. If you’re visiting Scotland from Canada or the USA, you may be disappointed in the fuel costs here. As I write this in 2020 the cost for petrol/gas is sitting at around £1.12 per litre ($1.42USD).

I’ve found fuel to be a little cheaper in the bigger cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. The cheapest place to buy fuel is usually at an ASDA supermarket [but please note not all stores have a fuelling station].

Other car hire companies in Scotland I’ve heard good things about are Celtic Legend and Arnold Clark Car Rental.

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Driving the North Coast 500

Public transport in Scotland

Travel by Train

Scotrail is the main railway in Scotland. Their website is very useful for researching train routes and prices.

I always compare prices with Scotrail and Trainline to find the cheapest train tickets. For long journeys I recommend purchasing your tickets online. For short train journeys [Edinburgh to Glasgow and vice versa] you can purchase your tickets at the train station using the machines there.

Tickets for trains are generally only available to book 3 months in advance.

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
The Jacobite Steam Train on the West Highland Line

Travel by Bus

For travel within the UK I recommend first looking at Megabus. They have some fantastic fares- some for just £1!

Stagecoach is another popular bus company in Scotland.

Each region has their own local bus system. The bus companies in Edinburgh and Glasgow are fantastic. To explore Edinburgh by bus you can purchase an all-day ticket with Lothian Buses for only £4. In Glasgow, you can get a day pass with First Buses for £4.50.

Tickets can be purchased on board and most buses in cities accept contactless. In smaller towns and villages they may not have contactless, so make sure you bring the correct change.

Tickets for buses are generally only available to book 3 months in advance.

You can also explore Scotland’s cities on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. You can grab a 24 hour tour in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. These are useful because they usually stop outside the main attractions, so you can use it like a normal bus pass plus you learn about the city’s history via audio guide!

>> Read more: 25 tips for sustainable travel in Scotland

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
The Hop-on, Hop-off bus is a great way to get to know Scotland’s cities

Packing for a trip to Scotland

I have written a complete blog post on what to pack for a trip to Scotland, so make sure you give that a read. Here are a few essentials I recommend you bring to Scotland:

You can find all of the above in my Amazon store. Here is my USA Amazon store and here is my UK Amazon store.

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Packing for a hiking adventure in Scotland

Recommended Scotland itineraries

I’ve written several itineraries for travel in Scotland. My itineraries cover all the must-sees in Scotland, and I’ve also included many off the beaten track experiences too! If you’re planning on going to any of these areas, make sure you give these itineraries a try.

Everyone has a different travel style, so if you’d like a personalised itinerary made for you, I’d love to help! Just check out my itinerary planning services page for all the information.

>> Read more: Common questions about visiting Scotland answered

Planning A Trip To Scotland - The Ultimate Guide
Exploring the castle ruin of Elcho Castle in Perthshire

Helpful Links

Historic Scotland – to research any castles or historic spaces you’d like to visit, and to check opening dates
National Trust For Scotland – to research any castles or historic spaces you’d like to visit, and to check opening dates
Skyscanner – to find cheap flights and compare prices with different airlines
Google Flights – another flight comparison website
Airbnb – for booking accommodation
Booking.com – for booking accommodation
Expedia – for booking accommodation
Canopy & Stars – for glamping and luxury camping
Huts and Cabins – pods, huts, glamping, and camping accommodation
WalkHighlands – for information on hiking in Scotland with over 2000 hiking routes
Auto Europe – car hire comparison website I use for hire in the UK
Celtic Legend – car hire in Scotland
Arnold Clark Car Rental – car hire in Scotland
Scotrail – main train network in Scotland and for checking train routes [you can also check their live network map here]
Trainline – it’s sometimes works out cheaper booking trains here
Megabus UK – for cheap bus fares in Scotland and the UK
Scotland Bucket List Planning printable – to help you create your Scotland to-do list

>> Did this guide help you? Don’t forget to sign up to my monthly newsletter about my adventures in Scotland!

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ABOUT YVETTE

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Hello, I’m Yvette and I’m from New Zealand. In 2016 I left home to travel the world; I met my husband after hiking the length of Scotland, and now we live in a wee Scottish village with our pup, Angus. I’m a full-time blogger and travel Scotland for a living! Read more about me here.

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