Our vacations probably fall somewhere along the lines of a hybrid of the movies Disney Pixar's Cars, National Lampoon's Vacation and The Long, Long Trailer. In case you were wondering, I am more a Mater/Sally, Clark Griswold, Tacy (Lucille Ball) in our version of the road trip, dragging my kids and husband to must-see sights along the way to our chosen destination because, after all, how can we not stop there when it is so close to where we are traveling.
We've seen so much already including a 4,021 mile trip last summer that looped from Chicago to Dallas to Washington, D.C., to Reading, PA and back to Chicago. I'm not going to recount all the past trips, but it makes sense to start the blog off with some of the things learned about road-tripping and covering some of the common questions that I have already been asked advice about. So without further ado here's some wisdom....
- Everyone has taken a couple hour trip to a destination or to visit a relative. Before seriously considering a real, drive-to-the-end-of-the-Earth road trip watch the three movies I mentioned above. Seriously. Because I guarantee that your trip will somewhat resemble the experiences of the Griswolds or Tacy and Nicky, whether you get lost in East St. Louis or experience being on the brink of divorce on a white-knuckle drive through the mountains. If you watch them and see the beauty of taking the scenic route depicted in Cars and find the humor in the sticky situations in Vacation and The Long Long Trailer, and even more importantly, think you would eventually laugh if you found yourself in these situations even if it's not the least bit funny in the heat of the moment, then road trips might be for you. If not, get on Expedia and book a flight because while I can't guarantee vacationing that way will be perfect, I can guarantee that during your road trip you will get lost, you will fight with your spouse, you will eventually have car problems and you will consider tying the children to the roof, putting them in the trunk or just dropping them on the roadside to fend for themselves.
- Is it better to book hotels along the way in advance or just wing it? I cannot answer that for you because, well, you're you and I'm me. I can tell you that we have never left as early in the morning as we plan, we often are over-optimistic about how far we will make it in a day versus reality, there are always surprises and Murphy (as in Murphy's Law) likes to travel along on road trips. That being said, consider how flexible you and your travel companions are. Are you a hotel snob? There's nothing wrong with that, but if you are very particular then you may want to book in advance even if that means having to give up a few sights along the way to make it to your planned stop for the night. If you think you can handle a little less than the very best, wing it.
- How much should we wing it? Well, again, you decide your comfort level here. We have never not found a room for the night thus far. From experience I recommend mapping out some potential stops and then looking to see what is at least available in those areas and also even checking the area's tourism website to make sure there isn't a big event going on that will make finding lodging either very expensive or impossible. Some key points learned from experience: if you have an inflatable air bed, bring it. If you don't, invest in one. It will give you greater flexibility in hotel choices along the way and save you money because you will run into hotels that only offer 2 double beds vs 2 queen beds or only have King rooms available. Even if the King room has a pull-out, the new Aero-bed-type air mattresses are exponentially more comfortable than any pull out.
- Do you just walk into a hotel and ask for a room? Not usually. You may be comfortable with that level of winging it, but, and don't tell my husband, I'm not actually that flexible. The smart phone is your friend. There are some good apps out there to use to book a room en route once you get a better idea of where you will be ready to stop for a night. We most recently have been using Hotel Tonight. I have an account and rewards with Hotels.com, but we have found that when booking night-of there are problems with the booking not getting to the hotel by the time we arrive. When planning to book en route via a smart phone app, keep in mind your cellular provider's service coverage. Occasionally we drive through areas that don't provide enough service to be able to use the app but eventually you will drive out of the dead zone and be able to use it.
- How do you find all these things to see along the way? There are so may sources from something I may have seen on TV to travel magazines and guides, the travel section of the newspaper, and of course, the internet. Do you want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the Earth and emulate Clark Griswold (warning this may annoy your travel companions)? Roadside America is "your online guide to offbeat roadside attractions." There's always the greatest road trip, The Mother Road: Route 66, to draw inspiration from. Did you know that historic Route 66 begins/ends in Downtown Chicago about a 1/2 block West of Michigan Ave on Adams/Jackson? Did you know that many of the places shown in the Disney Pixar Cars movie were based on real places along Route 66? Google it or pick up a Route 66 travel guide.
- A final note on America the Beautiful- While there are a number of overseas destinations I would love to visit someday I have always felt that there's more than enough to see here in the United States. My introductory road trip blog post would not be complete without a special shout out to the National Park Service and another soon-to-be-mentioned American icon. The National Park Service has 84,000,000 acres of land, 4,502,644 acres of oceans, lakes, reservoirs, 85,049 miles of perennial rivers and streams, 68,561 archeological sites, 43,162 miles of shoreline, 27,000 historic structures, 2,461 national historic landmarks, 582 national natural landmarks, 401 national parks and 49 national heritage areas. This makes it near impossible to go on a lengthy road trip and not have something on this list to stop and experience. (And don't forget state parks!) Your experience can vary from a Civil War reenactment (this is the 150th anniversary year) to a leisurely float down a river, to a hike in the mountains and more. I recommend a National Parks Passport Book. Not only is this a great source for ideas but it is a cute little travel log. National Park visitor centers across the U.S. carry this book for purchase as well has have free dated cancellation stamps for you to collect when you visit. They even make one for the kids though we just have one for the family. And speaking of the kids, most if not all of the National Parks have a Junior Ranger program. Stop at the visitor center before you start exploring and ask for a free booklet. It's a learning experience for kids based on age and if you bring your completed booklet to the ranger before you leave the kids receive a souvenir badge. You can also purchase a nicer, sewn souvenir patch upon completion of the booklet activities.
Until then, Happy Trails.