Planning a Road Trip
Planning is Part of the Fun
Look at any travel book, and they will tell you that the key to a good vacation is planning. I heartily agree. Planning is important in making sure that you have considered all options, have agreement among participants about what will be fun, figured out the logistics, and ironed out the budget.
I saw an advertisement for a family vacation guide on the web. It said that a family travel expert had “taken the hassle out of vacation planning.” The book had some pre-planned vacations that a family could take. You didn’t have to plan your vacation; you just chose one from the menu and followed the directions. We found, however, that planning was not a hassle. It was a pleasure, and a big part of the fun.
Planning a vacation is exciting for the whole family. When we were planning our 48 state trip, we had almost nightly discussions over the dinner table fantasizing about the things that we wanted to see. We ordered free brochures from places like the state of Texas, or Walt Disney World, and looked at them as a family. All inputs were considered, including those from our children. Planning as a family had a strong effect on our children, excitement and anticipation grew stronger in all of us. This anticipation and excitement diffused the boredom later on when we were faced with long drives.
This page tells the process we went through to plan our 48 state trip. We have found that the same approach we used in planning our big trip has worked in planning smaller, one week or shorter trips closer to home. Hopefully our experience is an outline of how to put together a good family road trip. The goal is to plan a trip that creates fun and adventure, while leaving the inconvenience and disappointment of non-met expectations behind.
Deciding What to Do
Usually when planning something complex, you do it in stages. You start from a general goal or desire, and then work your way down to more and more detail. That is the method we used in planning our trip. The first stage in planning an adventure was deciding what to do. Starting with a vision is very important. Even if the final plan ends up different from the original goal, this initial goal stimulates thought and action. Creating a goal, and then coming up with a plan to achieve it can be a rewarding experience in any aspect of life. When it comes to a vacation goal, it is down right exciting.
For our 48 state trip, the goal was to see and experience as much of the United States as possible. One or two years before we were to start our vacation, we started to specifically list the things that we wanted to see. This list of things we wanted to see did not come from a travel guide, but from our day to day experiences. When seeing something on the TV, on the news, or in a movie, Mary and I would comment to each other that here was something that we wanted to see on our trip.
For example, when we watched the movie “Where the Red Fern Grows” with our children, we realized that we would probably appreciate the story more if we could actually see the Ozark Mountains. When we listened to the book Tom Sawyer, and heard Mark Twain’s poetic descriptions of the Mississippi river, we knew we had to see it. When our daughter Emily read Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalles Wilder, she felt a need to see those places too.
One night we were watching the Night Time News’s coverage of an event in the Nation’s Capitol. As they switched over from Capitol Hill to Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House, we realized that we had no concept of where those places were with respect to each other, or how close you could get to them, or what the city and surrounding areas were like. It seemed we would understand the news stories better if we had actually been to Washington D.C. Our family listened to an autobiography about George Washington. We felt the desire to see those places important to the American Revolution and learn more. We thought our kids would learn to appreciate history more if they could see those historical places in person.
We would write these ideas down as they came to us. Eventually, we ended up with a list of 10 – 15 key things that we wanted to see. The list included things like: Yosemite National Park, Florida Beaches, Disney World, the Grand Canyon, and Washington D.C. The list also included more general destinations like the bayou in the South, historical sites in the Northeastern United States, and farm country in the Midwest. This short list became the basic outline for our adventure.
Computer Road Atlas--A Key Planning Resource
Once we had chosen the key destinations of the adventure, decided that we were going to take an RV rather than stay in hotels, and gathered the key dates where we needed to be places, it was time to start planning the route between destinations. Before we got too far into planning the route, we needed to figure out if the road trip was realistic with the money and time we had budgeted. It was time for a reality check. In order to do that, we turned to our most important planning resource, our computer road atlas.
A computer road atlas is a great resource for planning and navigating a trip. We considered it a necessity. Using internet sites like mapquest.com, or yahoo.com, you can print directions from one place to another. However, these sites are not very good at accommodating multiple destinations or saving the results for later additions and changes. A computer road atlas like Microsoft Streets and Trips or Delorme Street Atlas will do these things, plus a lot more. These programs put a map of the entire country right on your computer. We used Microsoft Streets and Trips (MST), which also has a database of hotels, campgrounds, hospitals, gas stations, restaurants, and many other service businesses.
In order to estimate how far we would need to go our planned road trip I put the key 15 destinations in to MST. After I input my 15 destinations, which were spread out across the country, I pushed the “get directions” button. It took a minute for the computer to crunch the data, but eventually the program produced a map of the United States with all of my destinations noted and green lines drawn to represent a proposed route. Included in the output were travel distances between each point and a total travel distance for the entire trip.
This first draft of our trip was 10,500 miles just to get to the 15 main destinations. Since I knew that I still would want to add many stops and diversions to the plan, I guessed that I would probably travel 25% above that, or about 13,000 miles. I knew I had 73 days allotted for the trip, and after doing the division it came to 185 miles per day. Broken down like that, the trip did not seem too daunting. That amounted to about 3 hours of driving per day. I was encouraged. The trip seemed doable.
The second part of my reality check was to estimate much gas we would use. We knew that this would be a large part of the budget. I tried to make a conservative estimate, so that I wouldn’t be surprised later on. I guessed that I would get 8 miles per gallon due to the fact that I was pulling an RV, and that it would cost about $1.80 a gallon. The calculation showed about $3000 in gas. It was a very big number to be sure, but it was still something that we could do if we saved. Undaunted by these large mileage and gas money numbers, and encouraged that the reality check made the trip seem doable, Mary and I got down to the work of putting together the detailed route.
The next step was to decide on some more key dates. We put the family reunion dates in a spreadsheet, knowing that those were not flexible. We strategized to go south first, and be in the hotter parts of the country before it got too late in the summer. We also chose another key date which was when we would be in Florida. We chose this as a reference for two reasons. One was so that we could reserve a spot in the Disney Fort Wilderness Campground, and the other was to give ourselves a half-way point to shoot for. This helped us to make sure while planning that we were not getting too far behind the needed pace. The Disney World date in mid-June along with the family reunion date in late-July, became “stakes in the ground” to plan the rest of the trip around. The other guideline we set up for ourselves was to plan travel an average of 185 miles per day.
Finding Things to See Along the Way
The next stage of the planning was the most fun. We went through the trip piece by piece and decided on what we wanted to see. This part of the planning required the most resources. Our first 15 destinations were things we pulled out of the top of our head. The next 30-50 things we decided to see along the way were things we hadn’t thought of before hand, and needed to be discovered. This is where planning made a big difference in our trip. We could have just traveled between the key destinations, and stopped in between wherever it was most convenient to stop. However, we wanted to make every stop and every mile count. We wanted to see new things every day.
We knew there were exciting and interesting things to see across the country, but finding them was a bit of a challenge. We did not find a single set of maps or resources that gave us all of the information that we wanted to know for our trip. Information about what there is to see along the way was scattered in travel guides, websites, and word of mouth. This website, with its clickable map of the United States is an attempt to reference those resources and make them more accessible.
Some of the Key things to see along the way include National Parks (there are over 460 sites run by the National Park service), state parks, national forests, tourist attractions, amusement parks, and other historical sites. These areas almost always have a website that gives the information necessary to plan a trip. You should be able to find these resources using the clickable map on the home page.
We decided early on in our planning that the best way to see interesting places was to stay in interesting places. Many of the national parks provided that opportunity. On the nps.gov web site are links to camping reservations, hotel reservations, or other unique lodging opportunities. If you are planning a road trip, big or small, don’t miss this website.
After national parks, state parks are the best camping deal in America. Prices to camp are typically ~1/2 of private campgrounds. The state park campgrounds are generally in much better locations than private campgrounds, and are nestled in with the natural beauty more than a typical private campground. They are often near remarkable scenery or historical locations that shouldn’t be missed. In almost every instance where I could choose between a private campground and a state park, I chose the state park. The clickable map on this website gives access to national and state parks by state.
If we would have stayed in hotels on our road trip, we would have used the internet websites to research places to stay. Websites like travelocity.com; expedia.com; and orbitz.com can help you not only locate hotels, but compare prices and complete reservations in minutes. These sites have clearly changed the way Americans book their travel in the last several years.
Using these resources we planned the route, day by day. Trying to travel 185 miles a day on average, we would look at a section of the road trip, and make a list of all the places that we might want to see, and where we might want to stay. Usually, this would involve going through all of the resources available, comparing information and prices, and conferring with the family on what we thought would be the neatest place to visit in a given area.
A primary goal was to make every night count. We never wanted to stay at a place just because it was on the way to something else. Because time was limited, and there were so many things to see, we wanted to see or do something new every day. It was a fun project.
We kept track of the destinations in a spreadsheet as well as in MST. In the spreadsheet we listed the days, and the places we wanted to be each day. We listed in this spreadsheet campground phone numbers and reservation information so that it was all in one place.
An example of this process was planning travel along between Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Walt Disney World in Florida. These were two major landmarks on the trip, but we hadn’t planned in between. We knew little about this area, and so we used our resources to learn about things to see and places to stay.
The first place we discovered that we wanted to see east of the Grand Canyon was Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado. Thinking we would need more than just a late afternoon to see it, we planned two days to camp there. Because we had been without full hookups in Grand Canyon, we decided we didn’t want to stay in the national park because it didn’t have full hookups. We used the campground guide and KOA web site to find a KOA with full-hookups—and a swimming pool—just outside Mesa Verde National Park. We marked that specific KOA in MST, as well as in our spreadsheet with the KOA phone number so that we could make the reservation later.
By studying the maps, we noticed that Utah’s monument valley was not far from our route between Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde’s National Parks. The four corners monument was also nearby. So we added those two sites to MST and the program calculated a route that would take us through these landmarks. What we had was a pretty good adventure for those two days, including a scenic drive through monument valley, a visit to the four corners region, and a day visiting Mesa Verde National Park.
Because of the extra day we stayed at Mesa Verde National Park, we needed to make up some time and travel about 500 miles the next day. That would put us somewhere in Texas. We had never been to Texas before, and looked for a way to experience the state rather than just stop over. We learned from the reserveamerica.com website that there was a state park called Palo Duro Canyon State Park not too far from our route on I-40. We also learned that this canyon is sometimes called “The Grand Canyon of Texas” and that there is an outdoor musical production in the park outlining the history of Texas. Bullseye.
Putting this new destination into MST showed us that the quickest route to Palo Duro was to go strait south from Mesa Verde, Colorado into New Mexico, and then merge up with I-40 for a few hundred miles. This did not look like the most exciting way to go. It seemed a shame to miss the famous cities of Durango, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico which we noticed were close by studying the MST map. So we added these two cities into MST to test how many miles would be added to the trip. The scenic route added less than an hour of drive time, so Durango and Santa Fe became intermediate points on our way to Texas. 500 miles is a long way to drive, but we figured that going the scenic route would make it more fun. We were right.
In this manner we began to fill in the plan for our trip, state by state, mile by mile. Using this process, the list of things that we wanted to see had grown from 15 destinations to 60-70 destinations plus places of interest to see along the way. As the planning progressed, we put all of our destinations into MST as well as into our spreadsheet so that that we could keep track of the dates, mileage, and phone numbers of places we wanted to stay. Sometimes, the MST program would calculate a route that back-tracked onto some stretch of road that we had already been on. In those cases, we often changed the route to avoid the traveling on the same road twice. Driving on the same road a second time was not as adventurous as going on a new road, even if it were slightly longer.
When we were just about done planning the route, we had a realization that caused us to significantly change it. It happened after I noticed that the course that we had planned went through 43 of the United States. How could we drive all that way, we thought, and not see the five remaining states. It was sure to lead to regret. And thus, the trip was rearranged so that we would make it to all 48 contiguous states. To add the last 5 states added about 1,000 miles to the trip. The MST program made it easy to add the additional destinations and merge them with what had already been planned.
We made an attempt to have some special experiences in these last 5 states. We decided that we wanted to see Nevada by driving over Hoover Dam. This added 50 miles or so to our route, but also added Nevada to our repertoire of states. We took a long, scenic drive between Great Smokey Mountain National Park and Washington D.C. so that we could add Kentucky and West Virginia to the states that we had seen. However, there were a few states were we kind of cheated. We did the least with Michican. Traveling along I-80 just south of the Michigan-Indiana border, we took an exit, drove about 10 miles north into a small town in Michigan, bought a few things at the Dollar General, then headed back down into Indiana and I-80 West bound. Michigan had been visited! We did something similar to the catch the state of Washington on our way home.
It took us hours and hours to get through this planning process. However, it was a family effort, and it was lots of fun. By the time we had finished planning the route, we felt like we had planned a journey. In fact, we felt like we had planned an adventure. The journey was to be the heart of our road trip, and we were excited to get going.
Filling in the Details
At this point, we went over the trip a last time asking ourselves several logistical questions. When was the last time we stayed at a place with laundry facilities? Do we really have enough time to see this museum then drive to the next location in one day? How many days in a row can we “dry camp” before we need to find hookups for our trailer? Which campground in the area is nicest, cheapest, and closest to what we want to see? When was the last time we were close to a grocery store? What would be at the best time of the week to arrive to avoid the crowds? For example, we didn’t want to go to amusement parks on Saturdays.
The logistical problems we noticed while asking these questions led us to modify the route and schedule. These changes were generally small, but were logged in MST and into our tracking spreadsheet. It is important to note that at this point, no reservations had been made yet. All changes were just in the computer and were easy to make.
Once we had the whole trip outlined, we decided to make reservations for every night of our trip. Despite the non-refundable reservation fees, we decided to make the reservations in advance to ensure we could stay the places we wanted to stay. There were only a few places that we wanted to stay that did not accept reservations.
We started to make the reservations as far as six months in advance. In general, there were no issues getting what we wanted. The exception was reservations at Yosemite National Park for Memorial Day weekend. Mary had called on the first day possible, starting at 7:00 a.m. She stayed on the phone until noon when she finally got through. By that time, the campgrounds were nearly full for the weekend we wanted to be there. We were able to get in, but we had to have 3 different campsites for the three nights that we were there.
When all the reservations were made, we experienced another level of anticipation. The trip was locked, loaded, and ready to go. We were now, to a large extent, committed to go on this adventure.