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How to plan a road trip

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Back we May we went on a 3 week cross country road trip, two days after we moved into our house. It was perfect timing because we were exhausted and burned out from renovating our house, so it was SO NICE to escape from our nightmare house for 3 weeks.

People were very shocked when they found out that we were taking 3 weeks off work. The reason we took such a long trip is because we wanted to bring our dog with us, which meant driving.


1. Decide where to go
Sometime in the winter, maybe January 2015, Sam had a dream that we drove a RV all over California. After some Googling, the RV turned into a VW camper van. After deciding that we wanted to go to California and that we wanted to bring our dog, our trip plan quickly evolved into a cross country road trip from Alabama to California.

Leg One stops:
  • Huntsville, AL to Fort Smith, AK (hotel stay)
  • Fort Smith, AK to Amarillo, TX (hotel stay)
  • Amarillo, TX to Flagstaff, AZ (hotel stay)
  • Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon (camp ground for 2 nights)
  • Grand Canyon to LA (hotel stay)

Leg 2 (California) stops:
  • LA to pick up the camper van
  • LA to Sequoia
  • Sequoia to Yosemite
  • Yosemite to Napa Valley
  • Napa Valley to Sonoma Coast
  • Sonoma Coast to San Fransicso
  • San Fransicso to Big Sur
  • Big Sur to Cambria (hotel stay)
  • Cambria to Gaviota State Park
  • Gaviota to LA (dropped off the camper van) to Joshua Tree 

 Leg 3 (going home) stops

  • Joshua Tree to Flagstaff, AZ
  • Flagstaff to Petrified Forest
  • Petrified Forest to Amarillo, TX
  • Amarillo to Ft Smith, AK
  • Ft Smith to Huntsville, AL
2. Decide on a vehicle
Sam found a company in LA that rents VW vans, Vintage Surfari Wagons. Our plan was to drive a car to LA and then bring up the camper van. We spent several weeks going back and forth about renting a car or driving our own car. Here's what helped us make up our mind:
  • calculate number of miles from Alabama to LA
  • use a gas calculator
  • think about the number of overnight stops we'll be making (we debated between 2 or 3 overnight stops to the Grand Canyon)
  • research the cost of hotels
  • research the cost of round trip car rentals vs. one way car rentals
  • consider the wear and tear on your car
Most articles I read said that it's rarely worth it to rent a car vs. using your own car. When you calculate the cost of wear and tear on your car, it doesn't make financial sense to rent. Even though I agree with that theory, both our cars have 100,000+ miles on them. Mine has almost 200,000 miles. We need our cars to last at least 2 more years, so we need to be as gentle on our cars as we possibly can.

Ultimately we decided to rent a round trip car. The one way car rental was more expensive. During the time that we had the camper van, we left the rental car in a parking lot in LA (this sounds sketchy, but it was actually very safe).

our camper van at the Sonoma Coast

3. Planning the budget
By this point, we knew the cost of the rental VW, the rental car, and cost of gas by using a gas calculator. We did some research on hotel costs and ended up getting hotels in Ft Smith, Arkansas, Amarillo, TX, Flagstaff, AZ, and LA. During our time in California, we slept in the camper van and stayed at campgrounds. We also planned to pack our own lunches to eat on the road from Alabama to the Grand Canyon. In California, we usually ate out for lunch and cooked our own food for dinner. We did all our grocery shopping at Trader Joes.

 Sam making cappuccinos on our camping stove

Things to consider for a budget:
  • hotel accommodations
  • And/Or campground fees
  • gas
  • rental car or personal car
  • food
  • activities
Most people seem to think that a road trip is a cheap vacation because most people camp or rent RVs. THIS IS NOT TRUE! Some of the campground fees can be almost as much as a cheap hotel room. Our road trip cost close to the same amount that we spent on our honeymoon to Greece. A big reason for this is due to the long nature of our trip (3 weeks).

our tents at the Grand Canyon (the little tent is my sister's)
4. Packing
To be honest, we were horrible in our packing. Learn from our mistakes. Whenever I think of California and the Grand Canyon, I think of it being really hot. It wasn't. At all. When we were at the Grand Canyon it snowed and hailed. In Sequoia, snow was on the ground. Everywhere we went it was cold. And I only brought one pair of paints. Of course.

Thankfully my sister met us at the Grand Canyon and she brought me some pants and gloves. We also made a shopping trip to Kohl's and I bought more pants. Even Finn was freezing! He was wearing a sweater but still shivering, so I swaddled him.


Morale of the story: check the average weather temperatures, pack more than one pair of pants, and keep a blanket in the car for when your dog starts shivering uncontrollably.

More packing tips
  • bring a small cooler of snacks that's easy accessible in the car. We had one large cooler and one small cooler
  • pre-make sandwiches and put them in the small cooler
  • first aid kit
  • download movies or shows before you leave home. We watched the entire season of Outlander and Gamer of Thrones at the camp grounds when it got dark.
  • external battery cell phone charger. Several camp grounds didn't have power.
  • spare toilet paper. This was already provided in our camper van, and I thought it was very useful.
  • small size/easily transportable washing machine detergent. We washed clothes twice on the trip. Several camp grounds had laundry facilities.
Packing for dogs
  • sweater and jacket
  • dry bag for dog food
  • poop bags
  • one toy for comfort (he slept with his Moosie every night)
  • lots of treats
  • retractable leash and leather leash
  • blanket
  • new exciting food*
*Finn doesn't eat well on trips because he's excited and off his usual routine. We started to get worried because he wasn't eating at all. Sam found some canned lamb dog food at Trader Joes, and we mixed in a couple scoops with his regular food. That did the trick, and he started gobbling down his food every day.

If your have any questions about road trip planning, let me know in the comments.


New travel posts will go up on Thursdays. I'll add the links as the posts go live.

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