Those very words inspire a sense of adventure in some, and sheer terror in others. Not to mention images of Clark Griswold! I fall more into the sense of adventure category. In my “business life,” my biggest account was one I designed a number of catalogs for, and that project always hit over the summer. For weeks, I would be tied to the computer doing layouts, and once I submitted the job to the printer, I was still not done. There were press checks, minor revisions, etc…needless to say it was very profitable but I never really was able to enjoy the summer. Long story short, I resigned the account one year and I was hit with the realization that I had a completely blank slate for summer. I could hardly believe it, what on earth could I do? Where could I go?!
I decided that I would take my kids to Yellowstone National Park. Years and years of watching documentaries had ranked this destination high on my bucket list of destinations. At the time, my kids were 8 and 6. And I planned to drive them..SOLO! I was fired up!
Now, before I get into too many details of the trip, I will share some of the comments I received. “I could NEVER do that by myself, let alone with kids!” “Weren’t you scared you would break down, what would you do then?” “My kids would drive me absolutely crazy in a car that long!” And, my favorite, “What?! You aren’t taking any movies? What about video games?”
In what will be my first multi-part series, I’ll address some of those comments and share with you my tips for Road Trip Success. Careful planning can lead to success, and in our case, it certainly did. Each family is different, but I’ll share what worked for us, and a few things that didn’t. I have since planned a couple other trips, but none have quite matched our 6-week epic Yellowstone Trek.
So, let’s get on with Part 1: Planning for Success.
Items in my Roadtrip Planning Toolkit:
- www.myscenicdrives.com – very excellent online road trip planner.
- AAA (American Automobile Association) maps
- AAA tour books
- America From the Road (This is an older book I picked up at a used bookstore. While it is a bit older, it lists many natural points of interest and scenic drives)
- National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas
First, where do you want to go? What do you want to do? How much time do you have? Where do your kids want to go? And, of course, your budget must be factored in. For me, all I knew at the outset was that I wanted to go to Yellowstone, and I wanted to ENJOY the journey, not just the destination. I also knew I didn’t want “marathon driving” days, meaning, I didn’t want to be driving for 7+ straight hours each day, not with a couple of kids. Because I had just retired from my business, I had pretty much an open schedule; I was under no time constraints. From that, I decided that I only wanted to drive in 3- to 3.5-hour blocks of time. So, we would drive that amount in the morning, stop for an activity/place of interest, then drive another block for a couple of hours. This worked quite well, but admittedly, if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere it will most likely not work for you.
To illustrate, we left our home, drove about 3 hours or so to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. We spent a few hours doing the basic tour, had lunch, then drove on to Evansville, Indiana where we spent the night.
I found the website myscenicdrives.com invaluable in my planning. I could easily adjust parameters such as daily drive times, and it would automatically show where we “should” spend the night (I didn’t always adhere to this, however).
Along those lines, I would say the biggest part of my planning was planning the driving days and figuring out where we were staying for the night. Although myscenicdrives.com would make suggestions, I did have certain criteria for a hotel. It MUST have indoor corridors, must have a breakfast option, must have a pool, and it must have a laundry (more on that later). Before we even left, I had every single motel booked between here and Yellowstone. We stayed in a variety of hotels, some were really great…others, not so much. I have since learned, and highly recommend staying in suite hotels – especially if you are traveling with a family. The price difference is really not that much, but you get more room; believe me, you’ll enjoy that after traveling in a car, even if for 3.5 hours. My favorite at the moment is Homewood Suites, where they serve an evening meal during the week in addition to a typical continental breakfast, and I’ve yet to have a bad suite. I would also recommend, if you do not already, getting signed up for a rewards card at your hotel chain of choice. Homewood Suites is part of the Hilton family of hotels; more than once I used my cardholder status to get freebies.
For planning the hotels, I used the AAA tour books. Why didn’t I use the internet and popular hotel sites? Because I simply prefer having that hard copy in my hand, and for whatever reason I simply operate better that way. I’ve tried using hotel websites, and I just find them difficult to use; I can’t seem to get the information that I’m really after without having to spend a lot of time digging through multiple options. With the books, I look up the town I’m going to be in, and there is the hotel listing. You may prefer online sources however.
You’ll also have to decide what amenities you want. For me, as mentioned above, the must haves were indoor corridors, a pool, breakfast, and a laundry. Why indoor corridors? I was alone, traveling with kids. I want to be as safe as I can, and indoor corridors, while not fail-safe, provide an extra sense of security. Why a pool? For tiring out kids to get them sleep, that’s why! Why breakfast? To me, this is a no-brainer, but I like to save a bit of money (or the perception of saving money) and the convenience of eating at the hotel is appealing to me. Why a laundry? I’ll talk about this more in-depth in a future post, but saving on packing means I have to do laundry somewhere. We were pleasantly surprised upon arrival at the Country Inn & Suites in Gillette, Wyoming. The hotel had a water park attached to the building! This provided a couple hours of fun and “letting off the steam” for my kids. I had not known about this when I booked the hotel; but it was an added bonus that we all enjoyed. Now, I look for those sorts of features when we travel.
The AAA maps were also invaluable in planning our midday stops; I could easily look at the map and figure out where we were going to be during the midday hours, and look the town up in the book and find something to do. Similarly, the National Geographic Kids Ultimate Road Trip Atlas had a lot of cool things to do, that weren’t listed in the AAA book. This also helped get the kids involved in the planning. I believe we did every place that book had for Wyoming and South Dakota! Also, don’t be so strict in your planning that you can’t be flexible for spur of the moment stops. We were driving across Iowa and desperately needing a break when I started seeing signs for the Danish Windmill in Elk Horn (apparently the only working Danish windmill in America). Turns out there was a windmill attraction, a Danish restaurant, a winery, and the really nicely done Museum of Danish America. Keep in mind my kids were 8 and 6. They both enjoyed this stop very much, especially the LEGO display in the museum. This was an unscheduled stop on our journey, but it wound up being a really cool one. There is something for everyone, if everyone is willing to be open to the experience.
©2015 Stacy De Smet