Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On the Road: Part 1 of 2

"There's a silver lining to the financial climate: Hotel discounts abound, gas prices are dropping, and there are airfare deals online" ~Quote from "Yes, You Can Go on Vacation" from New York Magazine 11/3/08.

I will begin our road trip re-cap talking about planning, which may help any of you that plan your own road trip one day.

When we started discussing, "Where should we go on vacation next", Nate was all gung ho for the road trip. I was only quasi into the idea. We had decided to stay in the US, and he was a big advocate for the road trip saying that we would be able to cover many more places on my list that way. Ok, I agreed, Road trip it is. (Although I'm not sure we qualify as Mammoth Men in terms of road trips!)


We thought about doing an eastern-bound road trip through New York and back home through Canada. Then our timeline got later and later. Ideally this would be a good trip for late summer, early fall weather-wise. Another route on our list was through the south, which would also allow us to visit our friends in our former hometown, Atlanta. One problem: We definitely wanted to include some sites in Texas and Texas really isn't "close" to Atlanta.

We resolved this by coming up with our route I previously posted: basically, a big triangle. This made me MORE nervous because it was additional mileage and I already was a little on the fence about spending so much time in the car, but in the spirit of adventure, I agreed.

This was trickier than we had thought. Originally, we thought about going in September. Then we realized that we really enjoy summer and fall here in our own state and if we are heading south, then why not go when it is cold here? We originally had planned on the first week of November. Then we could not get a hotel to save our life in San Antonio, TX. It turned out that the marathon was happening the same weekend we were planning on stopping by. I toyed with the idea of doing the marathon, but that still didn't get us a hotel room. So we pushed back the trip a week and had no more problems with San Antonio.

WE DID have problems with New Orleans, though, given that the American Heart Association Conference was going to be occurring the same time we were there. Luckily we did find a hotel, and paid a hefty price for it, but the trip was on.
We decided 11.5 days would be sufficient - that and we both only had 7 days of vacation (.5 days really don't count!).

When considering driving almost 3500 miles, it is important to have access to a reliable vehicle. Both my car and Nate's car are getting up there in years (we have vowed not to get a car until a)one completely dies or b)we have a baby), however, my car is substantially newer and has cruise control (major plus!). We scheduled an oil change and "check-up" for it the week before we scheduled to depart. Thankfully no problems were noted and the guy even checked our spare tire, etc to make sure if we did get a flat, we would be set.

Although I have changed a flat tire before, we also wanted to make sure that we were ok if something DID happen along the way. We joined AAA, which reaped way more benefits that even we had thought of. First we got a break on our car insurance and we were guaranteed towing if the car broke down. AAA also helped in planning our route, giving us construction notices, tour books, and discounts on some of our hotels and some "touristy" stuff that we did. NOT BAD! I highly recommend joining pre-road trip! We made sure we had our insurance information and our AAA member cards pre-departure

We started by ordering the tourist packet from our major destinations (obtained by googling each city and going to their website), as well as asking people we knew that either a)lived in the places, b) knew people who lived in the places or c)had visited places for any recommendations. The free AAA books also helped. Everything we did we decided en route since all of the time in the car provided ample reading time. I was a bonehead and forgot to print out all of the recommendation lists before taking off, but luckily we did access the Internet at some stops to check. In hindsight, we probably should have gone through some of it before jumping in the car, although that is not as adventurous! Several restaurants that I wanted to go to in New Orleans, for example, were closed on Tuesday (the full day that we were there) or only open at weird times, which we did not discover until tracking them down and reading the sign.

In our destination cities, we pre-booked hotel rooms. I was very happy with this decision as we did not have to waste time trying to find hotels in each city, and several hotels had online discounts. The one exception to this is our hotel in Springfield, MO which was were we stayed on Night 1, and over halfway from WI to TX. We decided to drive as far as we could on Day 1/Night 1 and grab a cheap room to sleep and shower and get back on the road early Day 2.

Many hotels do give AAA discounts, which you need to request. Two hotels did give us "refunds" for our AAA discount, which was nice! We had a mix of booking through a travel site (e.g. Travelocity), the hotel's direct website, and city websites. One thing we came to realize is that many of the city visitor websites offer deals on hotels that end up being very cheap!

We agreed on a pre-set budget for everything trip related. We decided on an amount that we would stick to for hotels - some hotels were cheaper than this which allowed us to splurge on others. For example, our hotel in Destin was shamefully cheap and therefore we rationalized spending more in San Antonio and New Orleans. Overall, our average cost/night ended up being around our pre-set amount. Getting good deals on hotel rooms does require research though as I mentioned above.

When we originally budgeted for gas costs, we figured $4/gal. Given that we never paid over $2.15/gal, this was a HUGE savings for us. Our total gas costs were only about $230, which seems crazy to me!

Food obviously took up a huge chunk of the budget, although we found that we weren't always hungry for three meals a day, especially after eating platefuls of beignets in New Orleans! Some of our hotels included breakfast, which also was nice. Can you say Texas-shaped waffles in Austin?!

When all was said and done (I spent most of our time through Indiana adding up receipts), we ended up coming $500 under budget, which was exciting for us because we did not feel that we scrimped on anything and we did everything we wanted to. I'm telling you...AAA discounts! Gas prices played a major role in this surplus as well, because we way overestimated the amount of gas we would use.

Next Up: Photo Montage

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