Each year, we embark on a road trip. By making the most of our vacation time, we can usually traverse some part of the US in 9 days without having to use more than 3-4 days of vacation. Last year we took off from Phoenix & ended in Spokane, Washington. This year we plan to begin & end in Portland - taking on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Planning a road trip that is dependent upon flights or a specific end-time can be a bit daunting. The biggest trick is doing so & still leaving room for spontaneity without the risk of a missed flight. So, le'go - we have a lot to do! I'm literally going to plan my next road trip with you, right now.
1 | Choosing An Approximate Route
First thing is first, ask yourself these questions:
How many full days is my road trip? Exclude flight days if you really won't be able to accomplish much on those days.
How many hours a day am I willing to drive?
For me, I'll have 8 full days to travel. My goal for a road trip is to travel no more than ~4 hours a day. If you only want to travel 1-2 hours a day, well, it really isn't a road trip. The amount of time it'll take you to plan for a road trip that small isn't worth it - just choose a great location and stay the week/weekend there & explore everything in that specific area! Anyways, back to it. Now you have to do math (Lord have mercy):
Full Days x Hours Willing to Drive = ~32 hours in my case
So my approximate route should be around 32 hours, start to stop.
Now, planning your road trip is assuming you already have a general area in mind. When I started, I was thinking Seattle. So I mapped out my dream road trip and it was from Seattle to the Redwoods in Northern California! Well, if you drive straight from one to the other it's only 12 hours. Sounds perfect right, plenty of time? NOPE. A few things you need to consider:
Can you financially afford to rent a car in one location & drop it off at another? Do a little research on cost, generally it's out-of-this-world. Not only that, but they may even charge you per mile *gag*.
Are you crossing a border? A lot of rental car companies have some fine print that says "No way Jose".
Is the direct route that the online map (I prefer Google for planning road trips) gives you, really the one you want to take? For instance, mine wasn't even traveling the Pacific Coast Highway.
I can't afford the >$1,000 rental car - so it looks like I need to be ending where I start. That means my road trip is now 24 hours! If I adjust it to the route I prefer it's 38 hours! WOAH. That means if I stick to that exact route, i'll be driving around 5 hours a day. Ew. You definitely don't want to go over the amount of time you're willing to drive at this point or you will literally have no room for mistakes or spontaneity. I know for a fact I'll be veering from the course for hikes & other fun adventures, so I'll need to keep that in mind.
Now I have to shorten it up. Figure out a few ways to save time & map out multiple routes. At this point I've created 3 separate road trips. I've mapped out one that begins in Portland & ends in Portland, cutting out Seattle completely, but still exploring Northern Washington & the Pacific Coast. Looking into other airports can, not only save money, but time. The other road trip options I have just came from staring at a map. One begins in Seattle & circles up into Canada (Banff & Vancouver)! Another, would explore Napa Valley, Yosemite, & the Redwoods. I've decided to save this one for the future because September is the optimal time to hit up the Pacific Coast & it is also the beginning of fall in Banff!
Screenshot your top two & hit up social media for a vote. You probably have friends & family that have taken similar trips & may be able to supply you with some great insight. For instance, this is how I found out that most rental car companies won't allow me to drive over the border. I also found out that Banff & Vancouver are something I should take a week for, without trying to travel cross-country. Apparently there is a LOT to do & see & Vancouver is likened to visiting a country on the other side of the world.
At this point, you have to take all of the knowledge you've gathered & make a decision. Mine was made. I would be flying in & out of Portland, traveling the Pacific Coast. How much of Washington & whether or not I'd be able to hit the Northern tip of California were still up in the air, but that is okay. Once you get into the details of it all, where you end up driving will fall into place. I know I won't sacrifice driving Highway 1 or seeing Olympic National Park in Washington, so that should make things easier come decision-time.
Below are the photos I put to a vote on Facebook with my friends & family.
2 | Booking Your Flights
Above, I already mentioned I had decided to fly in & out of Portland. I had three options when it came to airports because I fly Southwest.
Side Note: I fly Southwest because Dustin flies with me for free. Anywhere I go, he goes for free. It's called the Companion Pass & I wrote an entire blog on how I got mine.
So we could fly from Seattle, Portland or San Francisco & still be close to the route. Well, San Francisco would make it stressful to hit up Northern Washington & I don't want to be on a time crunch. So it's out. The two things you need to consider now are as follows:
Which airport has cheaper flights?
Which airport has cheaper rental cars?
For me, Portland was the clear winner. Plus, if you look at the map above, Seattle was actually slightly out of the way for the trip I want to plan.
If you read my tips to making the most of your vacation time, you'll know I choose to fly the day before an adventure, after work. This means I don't waste a vacation day just to fly & I don't cut into the actual trip. This is how I chose my flight out. My flight back is on a Saturday, which is personal preference. As a couple, we prefer a day to decompress after a long trip. This way we can unpack, & melt into the sofa. For me, it's the perfect way to end a great vacation. My trip will span from Thursday to Saturday & due to time-off from work, it'll only cost me 4 vacation days.
3 | Deciding When To Rent A Car
If you can't handle waiting until the last moment - go ahead, book it. However, if you do a little research, you'll find that each airport has the "perfect time" to rent a car. This isn't a fool proof method, but it works for me 9 out of 10 times. I hop on a rental car site (we use Avis or National because our work offers a discount) & look 1-6 weeks out. Generally it's the cheapest 2-3 weeks out. I then go ahead & mark my calendar to remind me & put a note of what the price should approximately be.
Now, if you look 1-6 weeks out and not much is available, well, then it pays to book ahead. You don't want to be stuck with an entire road trip planned & no car, or an astronomically priced vehicle. Also, do a little web research because there are generally coupon codes out there! We usually book through Southwest for our rental car because it is cheaper & I get points for the booking.
4 | Discovering Potential Stops
This is my absolute favorite part of planning a road trip, by far. This is where you research the places you'd like to stop & adventures you'd like to partake in. Think wineries, breweries, hikes, waterfalls, & tourist stops. I prefer outdoor activity & wine so my research will revolve around that. A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I use Pinterest exclusively for this part. Try it!
Go to Pinterest & type things in like:
State names - individually search each
National Parks on your route, or potentially on your route
Name of the State + the word "Waterfall"
Name of the State + the word "Sunset"
So on & so forth...create a Pinterest board & save all of the pins that look interesting to you. My board is full of hot springs, secret beaches, free camping spots, & hike suggestions.
Now is the slightly more difficult part, once you've pinned all that your little heart desires, start opening the pins. Most will probably take you to a blog like this one! Find the location for that pin & save it to your map, it doesn't have to be exact. Again, it does not have to be exact - just a general location. On Google maps (you must be logged in), a little gold star shows up when you favorite a location. Pretty soon your map will be filled with tiny little gold stars. Obviously you only want to save the locations that are semi-close to your route. Don't be scared if some of the "gold stars" look to be out of the way a bit. By the time you're done, there may be a cluster of stars out of the way, which means you may want to edit your route a slight bit to incorporate those stops! Those are decisions for the next step though. Right now, concentrate on making sure every stop you could ever imagine wanting to make, is marked on your map. Below is a photo of what my map looks like at this point.
5 | Deciding On An Exact Route
This, my friends, is the hardest part! Deciding which "stars" (locations) you'll have to cut out, to stay on schedule & whether or not you want to add more. This step takes quite a bit of time & effort. To add to the grief - Step 5 & Step 6 really happen simultaneously. Things you need to begin looking at, at this point in the process:
Exact locations: If it's a place, it's easy. If it's a hike, you'll want to keep track of the trail-head.
Information: You're spending time researching places you'll actually be visiting. Don't lose track of the websites you've visited. I print the informative websites & create packets for each stop. The packets are fun, because between stops we get to read about our next one & get excited.
Time: Estimate the time you'll want to spend at each stop! Don't be too stingy. Add more time than you think you'll need, you don't want to be in a hurry. Plus if you run into traffic or other issues, this will provide a buffer. If the trip is smooth sailing, then you just make it to your destination for that evening a little sooner. It's a win-win, so add more time than you think you'll need.
Sunrise & Sunset: Make sure you're aware of the approximate time these two events are going to occur. You don't want to be at a trail-head ready to start a hike before you have light, or worse, without light. You may want to watch the sunrise or sunset at a specific location & if you don't plan properly, that's not going to happen.
Reservations: Some of the things you'd like to do may require you to reserve a spot. Keep an eye out on websites & make a few phone calls.
Lodging: I generally think about this last, because you kind of end up where you end up at the end of the day. So I find lodging as I end each day on my schedule.
Money: Keep track of those dollars, they will add up & trust me, you don't want to be surprised.
Pretty much all of the above is noted in my schedule, which I will discuss below. Well, everything except my information packets. Keep in mind, while you're going through the above, you'll see that you're spending time in certain areas - don't be afraid to research those areas more & see if there is anything else you just can't miss.
Now, don't make the mistake I did during my first road trip! Don't rely on Google Maps from this point forward. There will, inevitably, come times in your trip where you have no service on your devices. Lucky for me, my insane travel companion & boyfriend loaded our entire trip into an app called inRoute. So while I was fumbling with paper maps in the middle of a place we'd never been - he was laughing at me. Also, this is the point in which I always become frustrated with Google Maps anyways. The locations I've favorited, well it's hard to get them to "unfavorite". Doesn't seem to matter...well, never mind. I'm not going to go into the details of all of the Google glitches, you'll just have to trust me. Anyways, I favor the use of inRoute at this point. I believe it costs a couple of bucks, but it's a real Godsend. So now, as I examine my Google map full of stars while I begin choosing my exact route, I log it into inRoute.
6 | Creating A Schedule
As I said above, creating your schedule has to walk hand-in-hand with deciding upon your exact route. Why? Well, because you probably have an end-day in mind or flight to catch when this is all over. That means you have a schedule to keep. Not to mention you'll probably have some reservations along the way that you'll need to make! So how do you create a schedule? Well, I use Excel. I layout my schedule as follows (Column Titles in Excel):
Cost (I sum the cost at the bottom so I know what the trip total is)
Between your schedule, your information packets, & your inRoute app - you should be all set! Now, I just need to finish Steps 5 & 6 for my upcoming trip. AHHHHHH!