Lessons from the road

Looking back on our 41 days journeying across the U.S. and back, we realize that we’ve learned many lessons that might be of assistance to others considering a similar journey (or even some smaller version of our massive trip). Our trek through 35 states exposed us to all shapes and sizes of travel issues: nice hotels, cheap hotels, campgrounds & all-night drives; fancy restaurants, local food spots, and snacks gathered from gas station mini marts; national parks, major tourist attractions, and quirky road trip meccas. So we’ve put together a list of some tips and things we figured out along the way, and we’re sharing them in this post. Hopefully someone, somewhere will benefit from our wide array of experiences. So, here goes nothing…

Over-Budget For Gas: When we did a rough budget prior to our trip, I used Google Maps to get a rough idea of our route. That map painted a picture of a trip that would span about 7,500 miles. We figured we’d drive more than that (around cities, sight-seeing, detouring, etc.), so we budgeted for 8,000 miles. In the end, we drove over 10,000 miles. Oops! That’s 25% more than the figure we used to budget — I was a math major, so I should know. Additionally, on more than one occasion we found ourselves needing gas while driving through a national park. There are gas stations along the main roads in the parks, but the prices are ridiculous. So sometimes the per-gallon price we paid was more than the generous figure we used to budget in advance. The lesson, then, is to pad your gas budget significantly — you’ll drive more than you expect, and you’ll pay more than you expect. Sure, the padding might be less aggressive for a shorter trip that’s focused on one or two destinations. But you still never know when you might unexpectedly take the scenic route or backtrack to get a picture you missed the day before.

Cut Corners In One Place So You Can Pamper Yourself In The Next: If you’re planning a long trip or visiting a place you’re not likely to return to all that soon, consider striking a balance between roughing it and living it up a bit. We found that it was worth a few nights in primitive campgrounds and a couple of all-night drives, when the payoffs were upscale hotels in Vegas, San Francisco and Chicago. We also didn’t mind snacking on granola bars and Pringles for lunch or dinner here and there when we knew we’d make up for it by trying a fancy French dinner at Bouchon and the best gnocchi in Chicago. Instead of keeping everything middle-of-the-road the whole time, we opted for skimping sometimes so that we could splurge other times. And I think doing both things gave us more interesting and memorable experiences — we’ll always groan when we think of the smelly outhouses at the $10 campgrounds near Big Sur, and we’ll always sigh fondly when we remember breakfast in bed in San Francisco. We wouldn’t be doing either of those things if we’d stayed at a Best Western every night.

If You Visit Multiple National Parks, Get The America The Beautiful Pass: We bought our National Parks Pass for $80 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where we could have gotten in for $8. But after visits to the Gateway Arch($6 off), Mono Lake($3), Zion($20), Yosemite($25), the Grand Canyon($25), and Grand Teton/Yellowstone($25), the pass had more than paid for itself. Plus it’s good until next July. The yearly interagency pass will get you into any national park in the country, and it will also give you discounts (if not free admission) at other monuments and some national forest campgrounds. If you’re only going to Yellowstone for a week, you won’t need the pass — the $25 price of admission for one car there will get you into both Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton for 7 days. But if you plan to visit at least 4 parks in a 1-year period, the pass will save you money (and it may, at some parks, get you through the entrance in a faster “express” lane).

Don’t Just Rely On Guidebooks; Talk To The Locals: We got some of our most helpful tips (restaurants, attractions, hotels) from one of my favorite vacation pastimes — befriending the locals. As you probably noticed if you’ve read this blog in its entirety, I rarely pass on a chance to chat it up with strangers I encounter while traveling (which is in direct conflict with advice given to me by both my mom and Kurt’s mom before we departed). Our encounters with hotel staff, park rangers, cab drivers, and people congregating at our SF hotel’s evening wine event added much more to our trip than my simple enjoyment of the conversations themselves. Without Ranger Lloyd, we never would have driven to the Lamar Valley and stood “a stone’s throw” away from a massive bison. Without Ranger Emily, we might have picked the wrong drive-thru tree to visit in northern California. Without our fellow wine drinkers at the Washington Square Inn, we absolutely, positively never would have ended up in huge tubs full of warm mud in Calistoga. And without various people working at various hotels’ front desks, we probably wouldn’t have found as many delicious local restaurants throughout this trip. So get out there and talk to people! But don’t pick up hitch-hikers.

Avoid Chain Restaurants and Eat Local: Before we left, Kurt and I agreed to avoid fast food and chain restaurants as much as possible. That’s why we were devastated to learn from our waiter at the Grand Lux Cafe in Vegas that the restaurant we had chosen for lunch that day was owned by the Cheesecake Factory. But aside from that meal, and the dinner from Subway we took with us on our first night camping (and the meals we ate on the road in the car), we managed to eat pretty much all of our meals in really great local places of all shapes and sizes. Don’t waste your vacation eating in places you could find in our around your hometown. Try the local fare — you’re more likely to get “home-cooked” food made with fresh local ingredients. Plus, local restaurants are great places to get a feel for the place you’re visiting. And, of course, to meet locals (see previous lesson).

Plan Ahead (We Didn’t): When planning your trip, you should check local events calendars. We didn’t. That’s why we had to scramble to find one of the handful of Durango hotel rooms that weren’t booked up by people attending the Music in the Mountains festival. And it’s also why we had to pay more than we should have for a below average hotel room in Monterey when the rest of the hotels were filled with bikers attending a motorcycle racing event in town. And it’s also why we had to delay our arrivals in San Francisco and Chicago, so that we could find available (and affordable) hotel rooms after the Marathon runners and the Lollapalooza attenders (respectively) had gone home. And it’s also why we couldn’t find a campsite in Yosemite or in Yellowstone, and ended up at private campgrounds outside the parks. And it’s also why we couldn’t camp overlooking the coast in Big Sur, but had to drive back the Nacimiento Road to a remote campground with no running water (although that was ultimately a fun little experience). Learn from our mistakes — don’t assume you can just totally wing everything. And if you do decide to just wing everything, be flexible and don’t freak out when you have to modify plans mid-stream.

Camping Requires More Than A Tent: Most people heading out to camp probably know this. We knew it too, to some extent. We brought along a flashlight and a lantern; a first aid kit (thanks to Kurt’s mom); bug spray; hand sanitizer; sleeping pads for under our sleeping bags; a tarp for under the tent; towels (thanks to my mom); and plenty of drinking water. We also remembered to save quarters during the trip so that we’d have them ready for any quarter-operated laundry machines (and, as it turns out, showers). But we did end up purchasing several other necessary supplies along the way: camping pillows (sleeping on a folded-up sweatshirt is not going to cut it for most people for more than a night or 2); bear spray (if you’re in Yosemite or Yellowstone, a good idea to have just in case); warmer clothing (even in the summertime, and even where it’s hot during the day, it gets colder than you might expect at night); and more powerful bug spray (regular Off! didn’t cut it for us, so we bought some heavy-duty camping stuff in Durango). Another helpful item would have been a dust pan and brush, to clean out the tent floor before folding it back up.

Hotels Have All Kinds Of Special Rates: Everyone knows that lots of hotels give AAA discounts. But there are all kinds of other deals you can find if you know where to look. For example, we noticed that the absolute lowest rate at a lot of places (lower than AAA), was an internet rate for rooms booked online. On more than one occasion, we walked into a hotel seeking a room, they quoted us a higher price than we’d seen online, we challenged the price, they said we had to book online to get the better rate, we pulled out our iPhones or asked them if we could use their business center, and they acquiesced. Some hotels also run multiple night deals — e.g., stay 2 nights, get the 3rd free. Some offer combination packages that get you free parking and/or internet access at a special rate. Some offer free internet only to members of their “club,” which you can usually join for free. I joined the Hilton Honors club before going, thinking we might rack up enough stays to get a free night. All it got us was free bottled water, but other chains (e.g., Kimpton) give you free WiFi. Making a bid on Priceline is worth a shot — it only worked once for us, but it got us one of the nicest hotels in Omaha for one of the lowest rates we paid on the entire trip. And finally, find out if your credit cards offer any special deals — for the month of July, Discover gave 5% cashback on all hotels and gas purchases (perfect timing for us).

National Parks Are More Interesting And Time Consuming Than You Think: Do NOT assume that one or two days will be enough time in any major national park. One of our biggest mistakes was not scheduling time in Yosemite — we thought one day driving through would be enough time to see it. I know — we’re morons sometimes. Our 3 days in Yellowstone were barely enough for us to scratch the surface there. On this trip, really for the first time in my life, I gained an understanding of just how awesome our national parks are. There is so much to see and explore, and it takes time to do that. Plus, they’re so vast, that it takes time just to drive through them. Getting through Yosemite took a whole afternoon. Driving from one part of Yellowstone to another can take several hours. And you’ll see things that make you want to stop along the way, making the trip even longer. And the summertime is not only a time when many people visit parks (creating traffic), it’s also a time when road construction happens inside parks (creating traffic delays). So be sure to schedule extra time in and around national parks, be sure to take binoculars, be sure to check the National Park Service website for information about construction delays, and be sure to ask a ranger for a park map.

An 8 Hour Drive Will Always Take More Than 8 Hours: Bathroom breaks, food stops, gas station visits, road construction, and sudden scenic detours will transform a drive that Google Maps tells you should take 8 hours into a drive that really takes you more like 10 hours. We almost never arrived at our destination for any given day at the time we predicted when we woke up that morning. Long drives need to be broken up into manageable chunks (plan to stop somewhere for lunch, or pick a minor attraction to visit along the way). Ideally, for a long road trip like ours, you should have more than one eligible driver in the car to share the load (and this may require advance planning, like adding drivers to car insurance policies, etc.). And if you’re going to spend the bulk of one day in the car, try to plan the next day to involve less driving so that you have time to recover. Although I’m glad we did our two all-night drives, we simultaneously loved and hated them while we were experiencing them, and we certainly couldn’t have mustered the energy to do 2 nights in a row. We also knew that our first one was leading to 2 nights in Memphis, and our second one was leading to 3 nights in Yellowstone, giving us time to recharge. So plan ahead by anticipating stops that will reduce long drives into shorter pieces, splitting the driving time with your travel companion(s), and building down time into your itinerary.

I’m sure that as soon as I publish this list, I’ll think of an 11th lesson that should have been on here. So one final tip: If you’re planning a road trip, find someone else who has done one and talk to them about it as you prepare. I got some helpful tips in advance from a high school friend who did a shorter cross-country adventure about 2 years ago. Anyone reading this blog as they prepare to hit the road is more than welcome to contact us and pick our brains about planning tips, as well as places to see, stay or eat. Happy trails!

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