How to Plan a Trip with Coffee Table Books

Have you ever bought a coffee table book with beautiful pictures of amazing locations, paged through it a few times, and then never really looked at it again? Those books can be put to good use when planning trips! Ten years ago, my husband and I planned our honeymoon using coffee table books, a huge map, and some push pins with flags. Here’s how.

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Have you ever bought a coffee table book with beautiful pictures of amazing locations, paged through it a few times, and then never really looked at it again? Those books can be put to good use when planning trips!

Ten years ago, my husband and I planned our honeymoon using coffee table books, a huge map, and some push pins with flags.

We had a blast doing it and it worked really well, so I thought I’d share our approach for people who a) are planning trips and/or b) are trying to figure out what the heck to do with those beautiful coffee table books (or why you might buy one in the first place).

Why Coffee Table Books?

Coffee table books gave us an easy way to see the places we were thinking about visiting. We weren’t planning many museum visits, so the large, beautiful photos gave us a quick look at the sites, plus a small amount of info. If something caught our eye, we looked it up in a more detailed guidebook.

Paging through photos was so much easier than reading a detailed guidebook from the start, or clicking through endless web pages. The books were inexpensive, and they often prompted us to choose places we may not have chosen to go based on a guidebook description alone.

Our coffee table books didn’t include all of the places we ended up visiting, but they did help us choose our top priorities. Once we identified those, we were able to find other sites nearby, using guidebooks and other sources.

Our Trip

We were lucky enough to take a three-week trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland for our honeymoon. I had lived in Dublin a few years prior and was looking forward to going back, but I hadn’t spent much time in Northern Ireland and I didn’t make it Scotland at all. My husband wanted to see this part of the world for the first time, and finally see what all my fuss about Ireland was about.

So, we knew where we wanted to go and how long we would be gone. But we had to figure out what we wanted to see, in what order to plan our travels, and how long we wanted to spend in each place.

Maes Howe, Orkney Islands, Scotland

We knew we didn’t want to do a tour, and we were open to renting cars, taking buses and trains, or flying. All of this required a lot of coordination.

As we thought about all of this, we would page through an Ireland coffee table book that we happened to own. Occasionally, one of us would mention something we’d like to see and add a bookmark.

After placing a few bookmarks, we realized that we didn’t know the exact locations of some of the sites, or if it made sense for us to see all of these places. We decided to buy a huge map, plus a couple more coffee table books.

The Materials

Once we had the map, our project quickly grew. We needed an easy way to mark the things we wanted to see. Here is the full list of supplies we ended up using:

  • Huge map showing the countries we were visiting
  • Several pieces of foam-core board, to pin the map on (tape them together, if needed)
  • T-shaped push pins
  • Different colored flags to write on. We used small sticky notes, but plain washi tape or masking tape would work better. Get a few colors–I suggest at least three.
  • Coffee table books with photos of sites in the location you’re traveling
  • Guidebooks (or phone/computer with travel websites)

We spread all of this out on our dining room table, which we rarely used. It could also be shoved under a bed, if you don’t have the space to keep it out. (One key note: this was pre-kids, so nothing was in danger of getting into little hands!)

View from a castle in Scotland

The Process

1. Create your system.

Decide how you want to color-code your pins. We used the following categories–choose one color for each:

  • High-priority, really want to see (green on our map)
  • Low-medium priority, would be worth a detour if we can fit it in (yellow on our map)
  • Places we might want to stay (blue on our map)
    (note that we also had a couple of pink pins, but I can’t remember why!)

Map of Ireland and Scotland with pins showing places we wanted to visit.

2. Start paging through your coffee table books.

When something catches your eye, take a moment to find out more.

  • Where is it on the map?
  • What’s it all about?
  • Is it something that you’d want to see? How badly?

You may need your guidebook (or the internet) in this step, or you can just start placing pins and return to dig up more later. At the very least, you need to figure out where the site is located.

My husband and I didn’t discuss every pin we placed–we saved that for later when we narrowed things down.

3. Create a pin for each place that interests you.

  • Choose which color applies
  • Place the tape around the pin
  • Write the name of the site on the tape
  • Place the pin on the map.

4. Repeat…

…until you get really sick of your map, pins, coffee table books, and guidebooks and you don’t want to go anymore.

(Kidding, but we had months to plan and we used that time. This can get tiring, so don’t get too stressed about pinning absolutely everything!)

5. Actually, just pin until some patterns emerge.

Then examine those patterns.

  • Are there locations with a lot of pins–especially of your high-priority places, but also of other colors? Plan to spend some time there.
  • Are there places with only low-priority pins that aren’t anywhere near the high-priority ones? Remove them from the map. (You can keep them if you think you’ll be able to drop in while driving, but you likely already have a ton of places to see, so I would remove them).

This step may take you a while, as you narrow down the highest priority sites and discuss them with any travel companions. This is the part when we spent the most time poring over the guidebooks, reading more about the sites, discussing what we wanted to see and weighing priorities.

Abbey ruins in Scotland

6. Make a list of the general areas you want to see.

Ours was something like this:

  • Dublin
  • Belfast
  • Northern Irish coast
  • Galway
  • Western Ireland coast – Ring of Kerry
  • Cork
  • Wicklow Mountains
  • Inverness
  • Orkney Islands
  • Edinburgh
  • Stirling
  • Areas south of Edinburgh – abbeys and churches

This seems like a lot for a three-week trip, but some of these ended up being day trips or one-night stops.

7. Plan your route and schedule.

Start figuring out your route and plugging in timeframes, based on how long you can spend in each area.

Not enough time to fit it all in? You’ll have to take some places out of your plan.

We did this in a notebook, changing and crossing out numbers of days until they added up to our total trip time.

As you come closer to finalizing your schedule, plug in the actual dates to double-check that everything matches up. Remember that you might not be able to fit a lot into arrival and departure dates.

8. Narrow down further.

Once you have the general timeframes you plan to spend in each area, choose which sites you can fit into those days. Start taking pins out of your map if you know you won’t be going somewhere.

As you sketch out your days, consider how much time you’ll spend at each site, any travel times, and time for meals and rests.

This is the point where I went to a calendar printout and penciled in the locations and sites on each day. The map became less important, but it was still a good reference and it helped us decide how we wanted to travel (car or public transportation) and how long the drives might take.

10. Book travel and accommodations.

Fill in these plans on your calendar–flights, car rentals, where you’re staying, estimated travel times, etc.

We also took a picture of our map because, at this point, it felt like we were planning to invade, not just visit. Who doesn’t need a record of that? (And now here I am, sharing it with you ten years later!)

11. Enjoy your trip!

Spending so much time with the map helped us get very familiar with the countries and cities we were visiting–even many of the places we weren’t able to fit in. It also helped us identify where we might like to go next time.

Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

There are definitely plenty of online resources you can use to plan a trip, and they can be useful in this process. But using the books and map made it fun, helped us create a strategy, and allowed us to get very familiar with the countries we were visiting.

We also saw some sites we most likely otherwise wouldn’t have fit in, and we took a pretty unusual route to get to all the places we wanted to go. Studying a map for that many hours brings you to some creative travel solutions!

Now tell me!

Have you ever planned a tour like this? How did you approach the planning? Do you think this would work for you?

What do YOU do with coffee table books?


How to Plan a Trip Using Coffee Table Books | MindJoggle.com



  1. What an awesome trip!
    I’ve only been to Scotland, but planning to see Ireland at one point too.

    1. It was amazing. I’d love to spend more time in Scotland–there’s never enough time to see everything. Guess we’ll have to go back ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. This is so cool, Allison! You lived in Dublin for awhile? WOW! I can only imagine! Ireland is definitely a bucket list trip for me; much of my family originated in Ireland and I have a friend who visited recently and brought back the most amazing pictures. This way of planning and organizing sounds so like so much fun; one of my favorite things about vacations is the planning because I get super excited for all of the possibilities.

    1. Thanks, Tara! I was able to live in Dublin for a little over four months after college–so not long, but long enough to grow to love it! There was a program that allowed recent college grads to get 4-month work permits; I temped at Microsoft for a few weeks and then worked as a web designer at a boutique design company.

      You should definitely try to go! The sites are amazing and the people are even better ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I like the idea of using coffee table books to plan where you want to go. Pictures are definitely more intriguing than pages and pages of dense travel books. I also like creating my own coffee table books after the trip! A great way to share those pictures and memories.

    1. Yes, I was thinking as I dug up these pictures that I really should make an album (or about five–I haven’t been good about putting any of my photos in books!).

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