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Road Trip Planning 101

The Deal Detective
by , SmarterTravel Staff
The Deal Detective -Female
With spring temperatures, blooming landscapes, and less traffic, April is the perfect time to hit California's roads, especially along the Pacific Coast Highway. Starting in the palm-tree-lined streets of Southern California and winding its way along the ocean to the giant redwood forests of the north, this route is one of the most scenic and diverse byways in the country. You can spend weeks exploring the towns, attractions, vineyards, and beaches, so allow at least two full days for a quick trip.And don't let the rise in gas prices discourage you, because there are plenty of other ways to
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 23, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: national park, road trip, The Deal Detective, The Deal Detective, vacation package.

The Deal Detective is SmarterTravel.com's resident bargain hunter, Kate Hamman. She's always on the lookout for new travel deals and invites you, dear reader, to submit your own questions.

Jenny writes, "I am planning a trip to the U.S. at the end of June this summer. Flying into Denver and hiring a motor home for eight days to go through the Rocky Mountains onto Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Bryce canyon, Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. Dropping off motor home there and getting a car. After two nights in Vegas driving to L.A. for two nights and flying back to Ireland. Don't know anything about hiring motor homes and don't know if this trip is actually doable. Would it be too much of a rush to get around that distance in a motor home for us to actually enjoy?"

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With so many exciting landmarks and incredible landscapes across the country, planning a road trip can be a daunting, albeit exciting, task. In fact, there is so much to see and do that it's easy to try to pack everything into one short trip. But by doing this, you'll spend more time driving and less time enjoying the sites you most want to visit.

Begin planning your road trip by first choosing the destinations you want to see. I start routing most road trips by researching websites like RoadsideAmerica.com, which offers a wealth of information about quirky and historical things to visit across the country. Plus, you can create your own trip on the site by saving your desired spots in a folder for future reference. Another of my all-time favorite websites for hitting the open road is Roadtrip America, which provides tips, forums, articles, and recommendations to make planning a breeze. Since Jenny has already decided what she wants to see during her vacation (and most of it involves national parks), we can move onto the next step, which is mapping and timing.

Where you can go depends on how much time you have to travel. With this in mind, you can easily map out your road trip picks with MapQuest or Google Maps. Both services provide detailed turn-by-turn directions, as well as distance and estimated driving times. This is important when it comes to deciding if certain stops may be just a bit too far out of the way.

In Jenny's case, I believe she has allowed eight days to get from Denver to Las Vegas with many stops in-between. This will require driving about 1,921 miles or a total of 38 hours, meaning her shortest day on the road will be just less than five hours, while her longest day is almost nine hours. However, this is based on reaching each of her chosen destinations each day. Plotting it this way means that she will only be driving for six days, so she can take her extra two days of driving time to stop somewhere in-between to shorten those longer days.

Decide from the beginning how long you are willing to be behind the wheel before you set out on your road trip. And since you can't account for weather, traffic, or construction, it's always wise to underestimate than overestimate what you're capable of doing. This will save you endless frustration when you actually hit the road. You also may want to consider if you want to take the fast highways, or if you'd prefer to meander along the scenic byways instead.

Next, you will have to consider transportation. Renting a motor home can be a fun and sometimes more economical way to travel, depending on the amount of people traveling. A company like Cruise America offers RVs ranging in compact, standard, or large depending on the need and number of travelers. I priced a compact RV allowing for three passengers starting at $1,937 for eight days from Denver at the end of June. This included 800 miles of driving (each additional mile costs $0.32, or in Jenny's case an extra $359), state tax, and a $500 damage deposit that is refundable if the vehicle remains in good condition. The total price for Jenny's rental comes to $1,796 based on round-trip travel, and by subtracting the full deposit and adding in the price for extra miles. If you divide this total by three travelers and eight nights, each person would only pay $75 per night. Prices will vary based on the number of travelers and miles. Call the company directly for one-way bookings.

The benefit of renting a motor home on your road trip is that you won't need to worry about hotel rooms, which allows a certain amount of freedom about where and when you want to stop. However, you may not be paying for a room, but you will have to pay a camping or RV hook-up fee, which ranges in price based upon campground. It will be cheaper for overnight stays than at a hotel, which you can factor into the overall cost of the vehicle. Before you go, it's also wise to do a bit of research about campsites that allow RVs along your route and if you need to reserve in advance.

Regardless of whether you're traveling by car, motor home, or motorcycle, you'll want to consider the cost of gas in your budget. MapQuest offers an easy way to total the price of gas based on where you'll be driving multiplied by the distance. You can also use a website like Cost 2 Drive, where you enter the exact addresses of where you are going and make of your vehicle, and it tallies an estimate of what you will spend.

If you'd prefer staying in hotels, there are several ways to keep costs down. First, you probably won't need an RV if you decide to stay in a room, so your rental cost will be cheaper. Also, allow a certain budget for how much you are willing to spend each night, such as $75. Granted, this will fluctuate, but I find that when some nights are less than I can take the difference and apply it to other nights. Next, compare prices for hotels in the towns you want to stay to get a general idea of how much you might spend. If you want to book in advance, I highly recommend reading other traveler's reviews on hotels at SmarterTravel's sister site TripAdvisor before making reservations.

The last, and most important, thing to do is to have fun with it. There will never be enough time to see everything, so try to keep it to the things you most want to see on this journey, and save the rest for another time. Also, be aware that no amount of planning can prepare you for the ups and downs of the open road, so just enjoy the ride.

As for my other readers: Are you a road trip enthusiast? Do you know of any resources or have tips that will make any road trip the journey of a lifetime? Please share with everyone your suggestions below.

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All prices, dates, and booking details listed here were valid at the time of publication. Some information may have changed since that time.

 
 
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