Last May, my husband surprised our family with the most amazing trip ever. We flew from the East Coast into San Francisco, and proceeded to journey almost 3,000 miles to destinations we had hitherto only read about or seen on documentaries. One of our sons has been a huge fan of the National Parks since he was a tiny boy, and he was ready with his personal bucket list of must-see sites for our vacation.
The whole idea, while very exciting, was more than just a little overwhelming for a routine-oriented, unadventurous girl like myself. After all, none of my children had ever flown, and I had only flown once for 45 minutes in a small plane. Isn’t Los Angeles a dangerous place, even if I do want to go see the Hollywood sign and glimpse the La Brea Tar Pits? Will we get altitude sickness if we go to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado? What if a rattlesnake bites us in the Mojave Desert or we fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon? I’m just kidding. Sort of. So I did what I do. I began researching and forming a plan of my own to make this scary undertaking a little more manageable.
Step One- Make an itinerary.
Once my husband and son sat everyone down for the big reveal, I sat with pencil and paper in hand to take notes. They produced a large map with our travel route and destinations, and I jotted each one down in order.
Step Two- Decide your method of travel.
We knew we would have to fly to our first stop, because our ten day vacation precluded a cross country road trip. Once we got there, we would need a set of wheels. Our first inclination was to rent an RV, which would serve a dual purpose as transportation and a place to lay our weary heads at night. We would buy groceries when we arrived so we could eat on the road and save money at the same time. Once we factored the rental and the high cost of fuel, though, we realized we wouldn’t be saving much money over the cost of a clean economy hotel. When we realized that some of the National Parks we wanted to visit were inaccessible by an RV, we ruled it out altogether. Instead, we reserved a rental minivan and booked our flights.
Step Three- Plan your accommodations.
Here is where planning each day’s adventures really paid off. By knowing where we planned to be each day, we were able to get online and search out hotels along our route. TripAdvisor was an awesome tool, giving us honest reviews from fellow travelers of the local hotels and some nice-to-know details about them. We carefully mapped each night’s approximate stopping point, and made reservations for a comfy bed to greet us at the end of our journey.
More than just a place to crash for the night, your hotel can be a destination within itself if you put some thought into it. For example, I squealed in excitement and danced around the room when we booked a night in the iconic Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. Who wouldn’t be excited about sleeping in a wigwam on Route 66? The only word of caution is to carefully confirm your reservation. We booked two wigwams- one for the boys and one for our little girl and ourselves. We arrived after regular check in time to find our key in a dropbox. Notice I said key. As in singular, not plural. At this point, there was nothing to do but make a pallet in the floor and cozy in- all five of us- for the night. It didn’t bother us too much, but I think the boys were looking forward to their own room for that one night!
Step Four- Decide on What You Want to See
This is possibly the most challenging part of planning a big trip. It is very easy to get caught up in an ever widening circle of all the amazing things you want to see and do in the vicinity. This is especially true if you feel that you may never be in this area again. We initially saw this as probably a once in a lifetime trip, but we had so much fun and left so much undone, we are really hopeful that we will find ourselves on the west coast again someday!
We first made a list of everyone’s suggestions. Making sure that the entire family got to have some input gave all of a sense of ownership in the vacation. For example, we all wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge, of course. My husband has always been fascinated by Alcatraz, so even though we basically left the airport, checked into our hotel, and made a run for Fisherman’s Wharf to depart on our ferry, we did it. Planning ahead can mean the difference between bitter disappointment and an exciting experience. As we perused the website at home weeks before our trip, we noticed that the Alcatraz Tours website warned that tours sometimes sell out weeks in advance. We bought our tickets online, printed them, and put them in our travel binder.
Expect to find things to do that you had not planned on, and leave room in your schedule to be spontaneous! For example, after riding a cable car and spotting Chinatown the next morning, we piled into our rental van and were headed to the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods. Woefully, our daughter announced that she had hoped to drive down another big hill. We made a couple of random turns,and to the tune of a very confused GPS repeating, “rerouting…rerouting…make a u-turn…”, we found ourselves weaving and winding down Lombard Street as a group of tourists photographed us! We would have missed this little adventure if we hadn’t been willing to bend a little!