Thursday, June 13, 2013


Planning a Road Trip

 

 

Okay, one of the keys to a successful blog is regular posts.  Well, anyone that regularly reads can see that in this department I have miserably failed.  Sigh.  The thing is, it is kind of hard to write a travel blog without any travel going on in your life!  Our last trip was in early March to heavenly Scottsdale.  Since then the travel well has dried up, but only temporarily!  Right now I am planning our family summer vacation—a three week road trip that will take us from Pittsburgh, PA (well really McKeesport, PA, where my mother-in-law lives), to Hershey, the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Philadelphia, the Pocono Mountains, and back to Pittsburgh, well really, McKeesport.

Planning a road trip is a long process, but with the right resources and some meticulous research, you can plan a trip that will allow you to see America (or anywhere else for that matter) in a way that can’t be experienced by planes, trains, or tour buses.  All stops, restaurants, and activities are dictated by your needs and expectations for your trip and not by some silly tour company that thinks it knows what you need to see and for how long.

Getting Started (where are we going??):


Of course the answers to this question are limitless.  I started planning this vacation in probably November of last year.  We go to Hawaii every other year and this is our not Hawaii year.  Shortly after we returned from Hawaii last summer and the school year got started, by kids reported that they wanted to go to Pennsylvania.  We have not been to see my in-laws since 2006, when my son was 2 ½.  It was far cheaper to have my mother in law come to visit us for two weeks every summer than for us to fly five people out to PA.  In March of 2012, my father in law died quite unexpectedly.  Only Craig was able to go for the funeral; the rest of us stayed home, so it seemed more and more that going out to PA to see the family was the right thing to do.  The trick was turning our 7 days in a small steel town into a 21 day jaunt that would create good times and lasting family travel memories.

There are a lot of questions to ask yourself before you start laying down a plan for your roadtrip.  Where do you want to go?  How much time do you have?  Does your road trip have a theme or a goal-like attending games at minor league ballparks, or riding the nation’s scariest roller coasters, or eating at restaurants featured on the Food Network?  Are you planning your trip around a family event or visit?  What sights do you want to see along the way?  Where will you stop for the night and how long will you stay in each place??  How will you travel—by RV with nightly camping or by car with stops in hotels?

Steps to planning a great road trip:


1)    Plan your route and your schedule.  When I start planning a road trip the first place you should go, if you are lucky enough to have a membership, is to the AAA office (www.aaa.com).  If you don’t have a membership and have any interest in planning trips, you might want to consider getting one.  For about 60$ per year, in addition to all the emergency road service (which I used this week incidentally), you have unlimited access to free maps and travel planning materials.  If you want to road trip through the state of New York , it is quite helpful to have a map of the state of New York in front of you.  Having a AAA membership will also entitle you to discounts at hotels and attractions throughout the United States.

The next place I head is to Barnes and Noble with my newly acquired maps and my lap top.  The great thing about Barnes and Noble is that you can sit in the café using the free Wi-fi for as long as you want doing research with the books for sale in the bookstore without buying a thing but a cup of coffee.  You can get all the info you need from any book in a matter of hours, so why buy it?  When you see hotels/restaurants/sites that interest you, use your lap top (or tablet, or phone) to do more extensive research by checking out the website as well as by checking out reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) and Yelp (www.yelp.com ). 

Another great resource is your local public library!  Most library books will not be quite as up to date as those you might see in the bookstore, and I don’t recommend bothering checking out anything that is more than 2-3 years old. (The information will not be current and I can guarantee the prices will not be current!) Anything found at your library can be checked out for weeks at a time and researched in your own home at your leisure, and once again it doesn’t cost you a thing.

AAA-free. Barnes and Noble-free. Local library-free. Internet/Wi-fi-free.   I just planned a three week vacation and I did not spend a dime on resources!

Using all these resources, decide what you want to see and how long you want to spend seeing each.  Do not try to cram too much into any given trip and try to keep your driving distances to a reasonable length.  The longer you drive between destinations, the longer you should stay in each place.

 

2)    Arrange your accommodations.  It is unlikely that you would need to make a restaurant reservation 6-8 months in the advance; not so with hotels.  Planning a vacation during peak travelling time will mean high prices and definite competition for value lodging.  Two years ago, we tried to book the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park in September for the July following and we were shut out.  This year, compounded by the fact we need a room for five, by February, Philadelphia was completely out of any Old City accommodations we could afford.  The same can be true of ANY high demand area:  Disneyland, Yosemite, Hawaii.  Take care of this step as soon as you know where you will be resting your bones along your path.

Hotels.com (www.hotels.com) and Expedia.com (www.expedia.com ) have excellent detailed descriptions of rooms and amenities, distances to nearby attractions and customer reviews, as well as great filters that will help you narrow down your choices.  I highly recommend these as a good place to start.  However, these sites do not offer the best prices.  The best price available is through the hotel website itself using, again, your AAA membership discount.

Many times I found the AAA prices to be 10-15% lower than that offered by hotels.com or Expedia.  Over three nights in a $200 per night hotel, you have paid for your AAA membership with your savings.

All your free resources listed in #1 can also be used to help you pick that perfect hotel.

Secure a place to stay.  Remember if you find something better, you can always cancel!

 

3)    In each “stop”, determine how you want to arrange your days. When you go to a great place like San Francisco, you can’t see everything.  You can’t visit every museum, shop in every store, eat in every restaurant and attend every event.  No one has the time or the money, well some people do I guess…

Anyway, a great way to determine how to spend your time is to write down all the sites that interest you in any given destination.  See what is close to each other, see how much things cost (a morning horseback ride followed by a museum stop followed by mini-golfing followed by a dinner show for five can really add up!), note hours, note closed days.  Back to the website, back to the bookstore, back to yelp, back to the AAA resources. 

Once you have all the information, a fun thing to do is to sit around the computer and present the options to your family.  Never were my children so excited about Lancaster, PA until I showed them the buggy rides website and the YouTube video about the Bird-in-Hand Family Market.  We decided to see the Landis Valley Museum (www.landisvalleymuseum.org ), mini golf (www.villagegreens.com ), eat a Pennsylvania Dutch Smorgasbord (www.millerssmorgasbord.com) , visit the Pretzel (www.juliussturgis.com ) and Chocolate (www.wilburbuds.com ) factories, take the buggy ride (www.abesbuggyrides.com ), and forgo the Railroad museum( www.strasburgrailroad.com ) and the Sight and Sound Theatre (www.sight-sound.com )

Though it does not appear that I did this very well, it is critical to build in time to relax!  Every family needs an hour or two before or after dinner to sit by the pool, chill out, and reflect on the day. If you miss a stop in your busy day, so what, it’s better than becoming irritable because you ran yourself ragged.  You do that at home; don’t do it on vacation!!

Do any of these activities require an advanced reservation or tickets?  Air on the side of caution and if you can, also make your reservations before you leave on your vacation.  Knowing what times your activities are planned will help you to plan the rest of your day and will also prevent being unable to do something you had your heart set on. 

 

4)    Optional (but I do it!):  Research where you want to eat!  Every place on the map has its own culinary specialties.  Take advantage!  I may make it a secret goal of mine to eat my way through Pennsylvania this summer:  chocolate in Hershey, cheesesteaks in Philly, shoo-fly pie in the PA Dutch country!  All your above mentioned resources will help steer you in the direction of local favorite good eats.  Local food is part of the experience of travel.  My family has a rule that we cannot visit any chain restaurants while we are on vacation.  Make it your rule.  Flee from the golden arches.

Found the perfect South Philly Italian restaurant?  Make a reservation!  Opentable.com (www.opentable.com) will allow you to make reservations far in advance of your arrival at many restaurants in well known areas and will email you a reminder close to the date of your reservation.  For many other restaurants for which OpenTable is not available, online reservations are often easy to make, or if all else fails—use the phone!  Making a reservation decreases wait times at popular establishments and minimizes valuable vacation time spent arguing about where to eat.

Remember, once again, any reservation made can be cancelled.  You can even just not show up without penalty, though I don’t think this is very considerate!

 
Road Trips that really worked!

Wow have we gone on some great road trips!  The first road trip I planned was a Fall Foliage vacation in 1999 that started in New York City to visit my sister in law and took us through Connecticut for a wedding, to Sturbridge, MA, Pittsfield, MA, Stowe, VT, Conway, NH, and onto Boston.  I used neither the internet, nor yelp, nor trip advisor, nor hotels.com to plan this vacation, but boy did we have a great time.  We tasted cheese and fudge and maple syrup and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and the best apples I had ever eaten.  We saw the Hancock Shaker Village, climbed to the top of the crown in the Statue of Liberty (when you could do such a thing), walked Boston’s Freedom Trail, and experienced the roadside colors of the Kancamagus Highway.  It was so long ago that there was no such thing as a digital camera, so I have no pictures!  It was also so long ago that I don’t remember the exact route of even the names of the places we stayed.  Keep a journal!  All I remember was a great time.
The stunning colors of the Fall Foliage season

In 2001, when my oldest daughter was about 15 months old, I planned an 8 day road trip which included my brother in law.  We rented a Mercury Moutaineer and drove all the way from our house to Sedona, AZ.  This was a 11 ½ hour, 750 miles drive.  After 3 nights there or so, we moved onto the Grand Canyon and then onto Zion National Park.



To really see the world though, it really makes sense to take more time on a road trip.  The mack-daddy of all road trips was our twenty night road trip we took during the summer of 2011.  Four nights in South Lake Tahoe, four nights in Grand Teton National Park, four nights in Yellowstone National Park, four nights in Seattle, three nights in Olympic National Park and one in lovely (?) Medford on the way home.  All told we put 3500 miles on our poor minivan and some days spent up to 13 hours in the car.  It was the trip of a lifetime however.  Most people only get to see one (or possibly two) of any of these destinations in a single vacation, often trying to cram two destinations into one week.  We saw five destinations in one vacation.  It was great to be just one week into the vacation and know that we still had two weeks to go.
The Majestic Grand Teton Mountain Range
The Lovely Sol Duc Falls of Olympic National Park


The view from Artist's Point at the Canyon of the Yellowstone
In about 6 weeks, we will begin another 3 week road trip that will again take us to five destinations. Look for an upcoming post or two about our upcoming trip to Lake Tahoe, now only about 10 days away!

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