Posted in Travel

How I Plan An Effective City Break Using Instagram & Google Maps

Amsterdam - January 2020
Amsterdam – January 2020

I know it’s ironic to be writing about travel tips during a global pandemic where we’re all locked down at home, but we have to hope and believe that it won’t always be like this. Onwards.

Anyone who knows me IRL knows that efficiency is practically my middle name. I hate having to do something twice or take the long way round and my husband frequently bellows “EFFICIENCY!!!” at me when I am being impatient because he’s hilarious like that (and it’s true).

Since I started to plan our trips with my patent pending Claire’s Universally Neat Travel method (need to work on that acronym), we both feel like we’ve really wrung so much more out of them – our last US road trip, for example, we fit SO much in without ever feeling rushed so it’s definitely been beneficial to take a more organised approach to planning.

Rijksmusem Amsterdam - January 2020
Rijksmusem Amsterdam – January 2020

With that in mind, I thought I would share my tried and tested method of planning an efficient city break – it really has changed my travel life and made sure I wring out every last ounce of opportunity of a break, mini or plus size.

  1. Make Instagram Work For You

    Instagram Is Your Friend!
    Instagram Is Your Friend!

Do you ever catch yourself stuck in a repetitive cycle of scrolling through images on instagram and wonder what on earth you’re doing whilst the world continues to revolve? Yeah, me too, especially at the moment. But here’s where the scrolling can come in useful!

A large part of my trip planning revolves around food because I’m a committed glutton and it’s important to me to eat well and often wherever we go. I never want to be in the position of having to eat a poor meal because we can’t find something we like (Paris 2005 trip, I’m looking at you, le bastarde) so here’s where Instagram comes in useful.

Committed Glutton, Instagramming His Lunch
Committed Glutton, Instagramming His Lunch

Committed gluttons like me exist all over the world and if there’s one thing we love doing more than eating, it’s taking photos of food and posting them on the internet.  Check out some relevant hashtags and get to scrolling – when planning our most recent San Francisco trip, I found some great tips by searching the #sfeats, #sfrestaurants, #eatersf and #brunchsf hash tags. It can be a bit of a rabbit hole – you’ll end up clicking through to one restaurant, seeing something interesting in the comments, clicking through that and before you know it, 4 hours have passed, it’s dark outside and your dog is starving.

Johnny Rockets Nostalgia Road Trip Lunch, Monterrey CA, May 2019
Johnny Rockets Nostalgia Road Trip Lunch, Monterrey CA, May 2019

I found a lot of great restaurants and bars through this method for places in San Francisco, Palm Springs, Las Vegas and for our most recent trip to Amsterdam but it’s worth pointing out that this is also a great method to find new places in  your own neighbourhood!

2. Make lists!

I fucking love lists
I fucking love lists

I mean, this is no hardship to someone like me who loves to write things down and tick them off (yep, even stuff I’ve already done. I can’t help it). I like to make a list of things under the following headings:

  • Things To Eat & Drink
  • Things To See
  • Things To Experience
  • Other (because there is always something that doesn’t fit in the first 3 categories).

These are intended to just be long, freeform lists – jot down places, addresses, instagram handles as you see them. This is intended to be the longlist – you’ll edit it down later – so just put EVERYTHING that sounds remotely interesting down. As an avid Food Network viewer, any time some loudmouth is eating a giant burger at somewhere interesting, I jot down the name of the restaurant so I can look it up on Instagram later.

3. Create Your Shortlist

Amateur Hour With The Bullet Journaling, Travel Edition
Amateur Hour With The Bullet Journaling, Travel Edition

So, you’ve taken note of about 47 different burger restaurants in Amsterdam now but you’re only there for 3 nights – something’s gotta give. This is the time to look them up and suss them out a bit. Again, I like to use Instagram for this – check out their account and see if they’re a one hit wonder or if there is more to hold your interest. If you’re into Trip Advisor, now’s your chance (remember only 1% of reviews on there are written by sane people like me).

Another good thing to do is check out the location tag for the restaurant or bar in question and see what real life other people are posting about it – they may have some good intel or feedback (or tell you that it’s not worth it!), too.

Don't forget to research coffee breaks too- Sightglass Coffee, San Francisco, May 2019
Don’t forget to research coffee breaks too- Sightglass Coffee, San Francisco, May 2019

I tend to whittle restaurants down to 2 or 3 options for each meal per day, so as to allow for it being too busy to get in, not open when you get there, etc.

Once you’ve gotten a more manageable list, you can start to plan out your itinerary in a bit more detail and allocate items from your list to specific days, depending on your travel plans. Voila – instantly you’ll feel a lot more organised!

I’m shit at bullet journaling but everyone can make a list, right? Also, don’t judge me, I much prefer pen and paper lists over digital ones. I’m old.


4. Make friends with Google Maps

Google Maps Is The Best
Google Maps Is The Best

I cannot stress enough how USEFUL a custom Google map can be. Ever since I made one for dog walking spots about 10 years ago for a friend who was moving to the area we lived in, I’ve been fairly hooked.

I am not going to reinvent the wheel and tell you how to do this – it’s fairly simply laid out by Google themselves.

Amsterdam Custom Google Map - January 2020
Amsterdam Custom Google Map – January 2020

The main thing is that you should absolutely do it and plot each of your shortlist items on the map. This means that when you’re out and about in your destination, you only need to have a quick peek at your map and see what’s in your location that you were interested in. They’re also shareable so you can make it a collaboration with your travel partner and even colour code the pins if you have a lot of time on your hands.

“But what about my data?!”, I hear you bleat. YOU CAN SAVE GOOGLE MAPS FOR USE OFFLINE. You’re welcome.

Look How Happy I Am Now I Know About Saving Google Maps For Offline Use!
Look How Happy I Am Now I Know About Saving Google Maps For Offline Use!

Seriously, finding this out about Google maps has been invaluable. We learned the very hard and very expensive way about 12 years ago just how expensive data roaming can be and although mobile providers have introduced caps so you can’t run up huge bills anymore, it’s still really ingenius to be able to use a saved map without worrying about using all your daily allowance to find out where that one good cafe is.

Cruising Kentucky's highways and byways - September 2016
Cruising Kentucky’s highways and byways with my free sat nav – September 2016

The other amazing thing about offline Google maps is that if you’re on a road trip, it will also act as a sat nav for you – just like if it was online (expect you won’t get traffic updates and all those extra features). I believe this is what millenials would call a “hack” – but it’s what I call some pretty useful intel indeed.

Saving Google maps for use offline has literally driven us across all of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, California and Nevada (clearly not all in one go) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. DO NOT PAY a car hire company for sat nav if you have a smartphone and you’re going somewhere like the USA. It is simply not necessary. You’re welcome once more.

5. Enjoy!

The excited face of a man who thought he was going to work but ended up on a plane to NYC
The excited face of a man who thought he was going to work but ended up on a plane to NYC

My whole travel planning regime actually came about when I organised a surprise trip to New York for my husband Lee’s 40th birthday a few years ago but it’s really stuck with me.

Basically lists and spreadsheets are ace and Instagram and Google Maps are, too. So, if you’re anything like me and think half the fun in travelling is in the planning, hopefully these wee tips will help you wring just a little more out of your next trip, whenever that may be!

Looking for my next adventure on the horizon - Sutro Baths, San Francisco May 2019
Looking for my next adventure on the horizon – Sutro Baths, San Francisco May 2019

You can follow me on Instagram at @ tinyotterpaws for more travel/food/cross stitch/hilarious content.


I’m Claire and I live near Glasgow, in Scotland. I have strong family ties to Cincinnati, too and regard it as my second home. If I had to describe myself in five words, it would be thus: Does. Not. Suffer. Fools. Gladly. I’ve been cross stitching pretty much all my life, but professionally since 2005, first as Miso Funky, then as The Bellwether and now under my own name. I'm known for my witty, sarcastic and occasionally profane typographic designs. My work has been featured in The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Channel 4 and on BBC television as well as numerous media outlets across the globe. At one point, I was kind of a big deal but I mostly just dabble in it these days when I have time. My website is a repositry of cross stitch charts, travel and food blogging and you'll find it at I also love to travel and eat, ideally travelling somewhere great to eat something brilliant. I'm fascinated by social history, particularly the Victorians and will absolutely beat you hands down in a quiz about the Tudors. Dogs are LIFE. I like being in water and have lots of ideas that will never see the light of day but would definitely be a winner on Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank. I love to give people gifts. I! also! overuse! exclamation! marks! sorry!

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