Lessons Learned on the Road
For six weeks this summer, my boyfriend and I took the trip of a lifetime — a cross-country road trip in our Mini Cooper S. When all was said and done, we visited 35 states in 41 days and drove over 10,000 miles. In the course of our journey, we learned a bunch of lessons about how to undertake a successful road trip — some we learned from things we did right, and some from things we did wrong (or didn’t do at all). We’ll share our tips here, in the hopes of assisting other hopeful road trippers as they plan their own journeys on the highways and byways of the U.S.
When You Budget, Over Budget
Pad your budget in just about every category — it’s better to plan for more and spend less than vice versa. When budgeting for gas, over-estimate your mileage, under-estimate your miles-per-gallon, and over-estimate the average per-gallon cost of gas. If you do a trip map and get an estimate of your mileage ahead of time, add about 20% onto that for side trips, detours, and last-minute additions to the itinerary. Our original route was about 7,500 miles; we planned for 8,000 miles, we drove close to 10,000 miles. You should pad your estimate of a nightly hotel rate the same way (unless you make those plans in advance). And remember — an 8 hour drive never really takes only 8 hours once you add in bathroom breaks, gas station visits, and food stops, so pad all time estimates too.
Deprive Yourself So You Can Pamper Yourself
Instead of staying in average hotels and eating average food every night, make the trip more memorable and enjoyable by cutting corners on some stops so that you can live it up on others. We drove all night twice and camped several times (saving on the cost of hotels) so that we could stay in more upscale places on our longer stops in San Francisco and Chicago. We also snacked on granola bars and skipped lunch a few times so that we could eat at a fancy restaurant in Vegas. In the end, both experiences (the deprivation and the luxuriating) were more memorable than a steady stream of middle-of-the-road options would have been.
Don’t Under-estimate National Parks
Plan to spend more time (and more money) in national parks than you might expect. Places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon cannot really be experienced in a day or two. We scheduled too little time at each of these spots — even our 3 days in Yellowstone seemed insufficient. Plan to spend at least a few days at any of these places that fall along your route (and several of them should, since they are absolutely amazing places to visit and explore). You’ll want to get out and walk around, visit gift shops, take pictures, and just appreciate the natural beauty surrounding you. That takes time. If you think you’ll go to at least 4 national parks in the next year, buy the $80 America the Beautiful Interagency Pass at the first park — it gets your car into all of the parks, and it’ll save you money in the end.
Talk To The Locals
All of the guidebooks in the world can’t substitute for the information you can get by talking to locals along the way. Park Rangers in national and state parks proved to be invaluable to us on our journey, giving us a new respect for park rangers in general. The staff working at a hotel’s front desk can offer advice about restaurants and attractions, and the advice will only get better the more you try to befriend them. It’s worth your time — we found a gem of a restaurant in Santa Fe that way, and we got mud baths in the Napa Valley because of a conversation with had with some locals at our San Francisco hotel. I especially recommend getting restaurant recommendations from locals — eating at unique local spots give you a richer experience than settling for a TGI Friday’s just like the one back home.
Check Local Event Calendars
Finding out what’s going on in cities and towns you’ll be visiting will not only give you an idea of what you might want to do while you’re there — it will also help you plan to avoid events you don’t want to encounter. We didn’t do this in advance, and as a result we couldn’t find hotel rooms in Durango (a local music festival was going on) and Monterey (a motorcycle racing event was in town), and we had to find ways to delay our arrival in San Francisco (to avoid the marathon) and Chicago (to avoid Lollapalooza).
Research Hotel Deals Everywhere
To figure out what the best price is for a hotel room, you really need to check several sources. Don’t stop after looking at hotels.com or expedia — you can often get a better deal from the hotel directly. Don’t stop when you see the AAA rate — you can often get a rate lower than the AAA rate by booking online. Don’t stop when you see the basic online room rate — you can often get deals on multiple-night stays (buy 2 get the 3rd night free), or packages that includes free WiFi or parking. Don’t stop when you see that the hotel charges for WiFi — sometimes they give free WiFi to members of their frequent visitors club (e.g., Kimpton In Touch), and you can usually sign up for those clubs for free.