"Can we do this again? I mean, why can we do a road trip like this every year?"
And just like that, our road trip passion was born. Oh, we did a few before then, but nothing like the epic journey last year or the one we've planned for this summer. Planning is a huge part of a successful trip, I think. I sign out books from the library, visit travel forums, and read online articles. Otherwise I've found that you could end up missing out on the really cool places and be staying in the not so great ones. In fact, sometimes the research is part of the fun!
Tips for planning
~Decide how long you have and how far you want to go, as well as how much you want to spend.
The biggest trip we did was last summer's month long epic of 8000 km, which we all agreed was just a bit too long. This year we aren't going nearly as far south, and we shortened our time to 3 weeks-which for us, is just perfect. It really is up to the individual and your budget, to be honest. To keep hotel costs lower, we book in popular places way ahead of time. Also, we stay out of the big cities and stick to the smaller towns, which are considerably cheaper.
~What do you want to do, anyway?
Sit down your whole family (kids included), and figure out what you all want to do. Does your family like history and seeing famous landmarks? Or are you more interested in nature? Once you know what everyone would like to do, it's easier to plan what places would be best suited to you. See, we like nature. So it just makes sense that we like to hit all the National parks we can, right?
~Narrow down your options
Once Hubs has suggested specific states and/or areas, I take to the computer and visit every state's tourism website to request a travel brochere. Not only do they come with nifty maps, but they often have some great information about places to visit. We all read them over and mark off the places that look interesting. It gives me the chance to also sort out what is worth seeing, and what is just an overpriced tourist trap.
Then, I go back to the Net and look the places up to find out things like admission prices, driving distances, etc. We make a list of our definite 'must see' places, and then have a few 'extras' just in case we have time or change our minds. This helps with budgeting too, because then we have no surprises when it comes to admission and can choose which attractions we'd rather spend our money on. Those plans are pretty flexible and the more I read, I may also change my mind. For instance we had planned to go to South Dakota's Custer State Park, but last night decided that Jewel Cave was more interesting.
~Check out the accomodations, but buyer beware
Booking hotels online is always risky. We've had experiences where the hotel looked fantastic online, but in real life was a complete dump or had terrible service. What we have found works best for us is to first look up the hotels in the area just to see what is available. We go directly to the hotel's website and check everything out. Then, we mosey over to Trip Advisor and look at the reviews. Everyone has a different opinion, but if a hotel has mostly great reviews and is a good brand name, we may go for it. If the reviews cite things like 'musty' or there are many complaints about service or noise, we skip it. This strategy has worked pretty well for us. We always phone the hotel directly to book so that there is no confusion. AND, one thing I have noticed....hotels often quote a higher rate via the phone then is offered online. I call them with the online rates right up on my screen and say, "Well I'm looking at your website and it says that the best rate for that room is X." They have always given me the cheaper online rate.
~Research, research, research!
After reading everything I can online, consulting travel books and the brocheres, I visit travel message boards such as Road Trip America. There you can talk to real people who have seen these places and will give you the straight goods on what the places are like. We like the tips on where to hike, which National Parks are worth more time then others, etc. Who better to get the information from then people who live there or go there all the time? I research the roads, the climate, what I'll need to bring, the parks, you name it. This strategy was invaluable for our vacations to the desert because people were quick to let us know what we'd need.
~Keep a Travel Planning Book
About a month before we go, I compile all that research and put together THE BOOK. Inside it is:
-reservation numbers, hotel addresses, phone numbers, and directions
-specific attractions we plan to see, plus their hours, prices, phone numbers, and directions
-phone numbers, e-mail, and addresses for family members we may want to contact en route
- a list of restaurants we would like to go to, and their addresses
-any pertinent information that I garnered through the online message boards, printed out and added to the book
-emergency phone numbers
The book is GOD. It gets star treatment as it rides the entire trip up front with us, ready to be grabbed at a moment's notice. It comes with me when I check into hotels, it has saved us from getting lost, and by the end of the trip is dog eared and worn.
Most important? I haven't lost that book yet. Unlike my packing lists, but that's the next travel post.