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Planning a USA Transcontinental Road Trip via Route 66

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Route 66 sign - introducing

no one deals like we do!

This is an ongoing case study of planning an extensive transcontinental 3-month+ road trip across the United States with a focus on Route 66. Your suggestions are very welcome in the comments.

Bonster and Chopster are an extraordinarily friendly and nice couple. A flood of suggestions has flowed in. With so much to suggest, I asked permission to post tips online.

Bonster and Chopster itinerary map

Monster Voyage USA itinerary map from New York City to Los Angeles

Image above: Monster Voyage itinerary as of 16 February 2019.

For their current itinerary, cllick Monster Voyage and then zoom in to see detail. The blue dots not linked represent possibilities if time extended.

24 February UPDATE

New tentative Monster Voyage eastern USA routing via Blue Ridge Parkway and New Orleans.

Bonster and Chopster have decided to use Amtrak (or perhaps fly between New Orleans and Chicago), as well as several very short bus rides, for portions of their trip in order to save time and money, as well as not having to drive continuously for the more than three months they will be in the United States.

They now will be driving the gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway and visiting Shenandoah National Park. They now also have time to include New Orleans.  

Meet Bonster and Chopster

Bonster and Chopster will arrive in New York City on 31 July 2020 and leave Los Angeles on 10 November. They are considering an additional four days in Orlando.

Immensely social, they have arranged meet ups with Twitter friends that may alter the usual itinerary considerations at times. 

They plan to attend the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque in early October.

Their longest planned stops are currently

  1. New York City 5 days,
  2. Chicago 3 nights
  3. Great Smoky Mountains 7 days
  4. Albuquerque (Balloon Fiesta) 4 days
  5. Flagstaff 5 days
  6. Las Vegas 5 days, and
  7. Santa Monica (Los Angeles) 6 days.

Bonster came to the United States twice over 10 years ago visiting Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami. Chopster has been solely to New York City.

Bonster and Chopster follow a no carbs diet. Wish them luck with that! In the U.S., the temptations will be endless.

Always wanting to be helpful, I declare that New Mexican blue corn tortilas, southern pecan pie, the batter on chicken fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and yams are not carbohydrates for the duration of their trip. Surprisingly, the latter two already rank low on the glycemic index, but certainly not after American chefs get their hands on them!

Eastern USA routes

Washington Square arch, Greenwich Village, New York City

As the scope of their trip expanded Bonster and Chopster expressed concern about their budget.

They should not worry. The cost can be reduced even while providing a deeper and more enjoyable experience for them.

The focus east of the Mississippi River has to be on >

  • Directing their itinerary to areas with more to do,
  • Eliminating some non-fulfilling driving,
  • Using alternative transport when appropriate,
  • Controlling vehicle rental costs, and
  • Booking accommodation in a way that saves money.

Here is my advice for them >

It comes in four parts – eastern routes, western routes, road trip accommodation tips, and vehicle rental. 

What would YOU suggest after reading the below?

Dealing with the hot and humid

You may encounter people saying do not visit this or that eastern U.S. city due to summer heat and humidity.

While true that seemingly everyone who can evacuate NYC in August to cooler retreats does so, you can fight back. 

Imitate those Americans who some Europeans believe dress so slovenly during summer in their great cities. These Americans are operating in the habitual survival mode that keeps them more comfortable and less prone to heat strokes at home.

Embrace the slovenly.

Once you have a vehicle, stock up on thin natural fibres at a Target store and then wear as few of them as is legal.

You MUST stay very hydrated in these often extraordinarily hot and humid conditions.

Living in the UK, you may not be in the habit of drinking so very much water, so please remind yourself for the sake of your health. Beer or other alcoholic beverages do not count toward good hydration. Drink too much and they make you feel worse.

Moreover, in your accommodation and in your vehicle keep the air conditioning at the bear minimum to keep you comfortable without sweating. That helps the body deal when it ventures outside, without shocking its physiology.

New York City auto rental rates

In the USA, nearly universally the higher the percentage of leisure travellers renting vehicles the lower their prices. That explains why New York City and its region feature some of the very highest rental rates in the country.

I am not saying you will not find a bargain, just that your odds are less.

On the other hand, no region of the country offers more convenient rail and bus service. New York Penn Station—one of the city’s two major rail terminals—serves more passengers per day than the three busy NYC-area airports combined.

Eastern Itinerary

NYC to Erie/Niagara Falls/Cleveland

Above: Access this tunnel to the back of Niagara Falls from the Ontario side. The video starts out rather boringly, then you find superb views of the face of the falls, and then finally views behind the water falling near the end of the video.

I suggest you use Amtrak to access your friend in Erie, PA. Click on "Schedules" at the top of the page to access timetables.

The first two and one-half hours of this trip are among the most scenic in the U.S. Even before leaving Manhattan, you pass below a virgin old growth forest.

Be sure to sit on the left.

You have two choices >

Both include that terrific scenic sector.

Take Amtrak directly to Niagara Falls, Ontario. You enter that city by passing over the impressive deep gorge of the Niagara River. I used to live not far away on the Canadian side.

Then after visiting Niagara Falls take a bus to Erie. Current cost for August is $29 Canadian dollars.

Or, travel Amtrak directly to Erie from New York City.

That option’s downside is that the one train a day currently arrives in Erie at 1:54 a.m.—and it has one of the worse Amtrak records of running on time. The Niagara train operates completely in daylight.

When comparing rail to vehicle costs be sure to include in the rental costs 1) fuel, 2) collision and liability insurance per day, 3) probably one extra night of accommodation along the way, and New York Thruway tolls.

Erie to Cleveland

Entrance area & ticket office, Rock & Roll Museum, Cleveland, Ohio

The Rock & Roll Museum!

Via bus (very cheap) or via friend.

Cleveland to Washington, DC

Via Amtrak.

Amtrak Superliner high-level lounge car, with floor to ceiling windows for great viewing.

Above: Amtrak’s Capitol Limited between Cleveland and Washington offers high-level seating, including in its dining car and in its sightseeing lounge car shown above. A group of ladies from the Midlands was enjoying the trip immensely.

The route becomes gorgeous at times between Pittsburgh and the Washington, DC area, as it transits the Appalachian Mountains.

Washington, DC

Visit the Air and Space Museum. Take a hike if you have an extra day. View the replacement for the White House you burnt down. You are in a fascinating city.

Washington, DC area walking

Above: Washington makes a great city for walking to explore on your own. Amazingly, the city still to a large degree maintains the basic urban plan designed by Pierre L'Enfant, a French-American military engineer, with the exception of the Georgetown district, which was already there. 

Or, join a group hike >

Sierra Club Potomac Regional Outings

Try for one in the city (such as the northern area of Rock Creek Park, which is operated by the National Park Service) or very nearby. Usually by donation. Rides often available if needed. Arrange in advance. Share the expense of that.

Washington to Smoky Mountains and Tennessee

I believe you will love this! (Note: I am so very pleased that Bonster and Chopster have chosen to take this route.)

Not far from Washington, you pass through Shenandoah National Park, one of the most well-known U.S. parks and deservedly so. Access via the I-66 and Front Royal VA.

Above: Excellent Blue Ridge Parkway overview.

Next comes the Blue Ridge Parkway, a linear park operated by the U.S. National Park Service. This much beloved highway provides a truly memorable experience.

Driving the entire parkway takes time. You will the find narrow road very winding and well used by cyclists.

You may want to skip portions of it and use faster highways. I and others can give tips about that.

Nevertheless, please allow ample time. You will not run out of activities.

There are great short trails such as the one to Linville Falls I enjoyed and nearby towns to explore such as Boone NC, your planned stop Bristol, and Lexington VA.

Tennessee

So much of what you want to experience in this state is relatively (by American standards) close together. That should make it easy for you to be in your Smoky Mountains cabin or another suitable place over the Labor Day Weekend with little backtracking.

Memphis

Memphis – New Orleans – Memphis

(Note: Bonster and Chopster have chosen this option to reach New Orleans, but then either fly or take the train from Neww Orleans to Chicago to start the Route 66 portion of their trip.)

I had to include New Orleans for you. Memphis has jazz, but not an airport named Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. You will not find a more unique major U.S. city.

You do not need a car there.

Current times >

Leave: Memphis  6:40 a.m.
Arrive: New Orleans  3:47 p.m.
     
     


The City of New Orleans offers high-level viewing.

New Orleans – NOLA!

Laissez le bon temps rouler!

Be sure to join a guided Garden District tour.

You can reach nearly anywhere a New Orleans visitor would likely want to experience via its historic streetcars.

NOLA streetcar guide

Although it does not show the new but short Rampart line, the following map is the clearest I could find:

NOLA streetcar map

Twenty-four hour passes currently cost $3. You may purchase them as you board. Have exact change or dollar bills.

Follow Visit New Orleans at @VisitNewOrleans for latest events. Stop by its office on the St. Charles streetcar line. Very nice people.

Although I usually opt for a funkier (in American English “different but cool”) coffee place, I found the far from any tourist area Starbucks at 7700 Maple Street, off the St. Charles streetcar line, a wonderful environment to attack the laptop.

Budget for at least one grand NOLA-style meal

Above: Note that NOLA-sized butter patty!

I recommend Galatoires (the historic restaurant, not its steakhouse, where I have not dined) in the French Quarter. Its menu offers you no carb and low carb choices (such as with sauces with a bit of flour to thicken, etc.).

Galatoires provides a simply wonderful dining experience, which comes at a significantly lower price than equivalent high-quality restaurants in many U.S. cities.

Queue up before Galatoires opens for lunch and ask for a table in the street-level dining room. That is where locals come to celebrate robustly special occasions. At lunch the restaurant will let you in if dressed “smart casual.” That means for you Chopster a regular shirt with sleeves, regular shoes with socks (no sandals), and no jeans. You need not wear a tie.

A New Orleans accommodation recommendation

Hostels in the U.S. have been moving toward providing more private rooms for couples and other people who no longer wish to sleep in dormitories.

New Orleans has a great one called India House. During 2018, its remodelled en suite rooms went for $60 per room and $45 without bath. These usually must be booked far in advance.

The India House environment provides you additional safety in a high crime city. It has guides that take you on special interest tours at night such as its oyster dining crawl and also gives you easy access to join groups going out on their own.

And—drumroll--it has a swimming pool.  

A two-minute walk from either Canal Street streetcar line gets you there.

I have grown used to a lot more luxury than during my primary backpacking days, but still enjoy an occasional well-run hostel such as this one.

Chicago

I love Chicago.

Rapid transit takes you downtown from either airport.

I super highly recommended the Chicago River tour of the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Book in advance. If you are familiar with London Walks, these tours are of the same quality. Others I have enjoyed include its downtown historic and modern architecture walks and a bus tour highlighting Frank Lloyd Wright's work.

Western USA routes

Some potential problems

  1. Weather
  2. Not enough in-depth experience in Southwest
  3. Efficiency of routing (backtracking, etc.)

Weather

Planning to arrive in Santa Monica around the 5 November puts you in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah during October.

That means snow could come to portions of your route in these states and snow will cover the vibrant landscapes that you so want to experience.

I do not want to exaggerate the concern. For example, snow may not arrive in Flagstaff until November. Nevertheless, it is a concern.

Some stats >

  1. Northern Arizona record low temperature: -40.
  2. Flagstaff record low: -30f / –34.4c
  3. Flagstaff annual snowfall average: 100.3 inches / 254.76cm

Dealing with weather

Sunrise in Grand Canyon at South Rim - a storm has passed leaving pristine Skies and a rainbow.

Plan A

This speeds you along a bit, but does not eliminate completely the threat of snow.

I propose that you schedule a variety of New Mexican experiences before you arrive in Albuquerque for the beginning of the Balloon Fiesta. You already plan not to stay for the entire event.

You could accomplish that for example by hauling—using the British term—arse on the I-40 in western Oklahoma, Texas, and eastern New Mexico, with extra-long hours of driving. You could also cull less worthwhile experiences prior to New Mexico. (Note: I found out that only Chopster will drive on this trip. They should stick to a more leisurely pace for the sake of enjoyment and safety.) 

Plan B

If conditions become too difficult to enjoy, evacuate to lower elevations along the I-15 or I-17. For the I-15 connect at Las Vegas to central and southern Arizona via Needles and Parker. Booster and Chops will not be bored in central and southern Arizona.

The Grand Canyon is an exception. Snow actually gives the canyon even more appeal. Its sides tend to be too steep to hold snow, while the snow that covers the duller flatter areas highlights its stunning sides.

Western itinerary

In the tips below, I have eliminated one national park but added four others plus a national monument. I have eliminated two iconic Route 66 cities but added another smaller but nevertheless iconic Mother Road community. I have substituted two-portions of Route 66 for another one.

I dislike most the backtracking you planned to do from Flagstaff, first to Monument Valley and then to Zion National Park. Why not use that wasted time to connect from Monument Valley to Zion and experience some of the best scenery in America?

You need to research my choices and decide how much time to devote to each and which do not appeal to them. Most of the places mentioned have already been chosen by you.

Tentative western itinerary

On the way from St. Louis to Tucumcari New Mexico I suggest no changes.

I cannot tell from your map if you are driving the short portion of Route 66 that passed through Kansas. Please do so. That area has not been subject to the pressure of development that wiped out so many Mother Road icons.

You may be disappointed by the I-44 route through the Ozarks in Missouri. The State allowed it to become lined with a seemingly endless wall of billboards creating a linear eyesore. A shame.

Amarillo, Texas

Welcome to Texas!

Texas modelled its state capitol building in Austin after the U.S. national capitol in Washington, DC, but of course made its larger. 

Above, the Big Texan Steak Ranch may be the most well-known restaurant in Texas because of its eat a 72oz (2.4 kg) steak and get it free promotion that has continued since 1962. The steak comes with a salad, a bread roll with butter, a baked potato, and a shrimp cocktail, which must also be consumed within one hour.

Failure costs you $72.00.

The Big Texan has been a Route 66 icon since 1960.

Have received word that Chopster is up for the challenge. That cannot possibly be healthy. Go big or go home, though, I bet that is his motto! 

Tucumcari, New Mexico

Tucumcari takes pride in its Route 66 heritage. I have never been through at night when its shows off its historic neon signs.

Las Vegas, New Mexico

A Las Vegas once more wicked than Dodge City

Chama, New Mexico

(Optional – two nights)

A day trip to Antonito, Colorado, on the Cumbres & Toltec steam railway here offers a truly western experience.

If you have time, I recommend day-long steam railroad experience in Durango more. For one thing, there will be more to do in the evening. Both offer great scenery, but the other's is more spectacular.

Taos

Nearby Pueblo de Taos is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Taos attracts many artists and its residents radiate a very gentle vibe.

Take the “High Road to Taos”

(From Taos to Santa Fe)

This is a must do! Allow ample time.

Check locally if the Rancho del Chimayo restaurant in Chimayo remains outstanding.

High Road I

High Road II

Santa Fe

From Santa Fe, drive south toward Albuquerque on State Highway 14. When reach the I-40 continue under it and then right on State Highway 333. This was Route 66. As you reach Albuquerque 333 turns into Central Avenue—also Route 66—all the way across Albuquerque.

Albuquerque

Outside view Frontier Restaurant, Central Avenue,Albuquerque, NM, opposite the University of New Mexico.

I love restaurants packed with hungry university students and Albuquerque has a lively, fun and cheap one, the Frontier, across from the University of New Mexico at 2400 Central Ave SE. Do not expect gourmet food! I like its homestyle cheese enchilada combo best.

In New Mexico, say “Christmas, please” when you want both green and red salsas put on your plate.

The Frontier takes up half a block along Central Avenue. I gave up trying to count the astonishing number of John Wayne portraits on its walls.

I dine here every trip.

Gallup

Colourful bluffs rising up behind the former Route 77 & Santa Fe Railroad near Gallop NM

Mesa Verde National Park

(Optional - Would rather you enjoy a live learning experience with Native Americans, but do not know what to recommend.)

(Via Cortez, CO)

Canyons of the Ancients

(Optional)

(On my bucket list, but have not been there.)

Durango, Colorado

(Optional – two nights)

Day trip on the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railroad train.

Silvertown is a well-known Colorado former mining town. The Durango & Silverton route to it is very scenic and rugged--different from what you have experienced so far--and was quite an engineering feat.

Durango is fun to explore and offers much more to do at night than Chama mentioned earlier.

Monument Valley/Mexican Hat

Moab

(Via U.S. 191)

Above: Great overview of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

This funky mountain-bike crazed town is the base for Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

Above: Wonderful nearly zen-like views of the beauty of the Moab area.

Reef National Park

(Via Green River and Hanksville)

You need not spend a lot of time in all of these parks. For example, Capital Reef, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse Point can easily be experienced in “drive by” mode merely stopping at view points and perhaps taking very short hikes.

Bryce Canyon National Park

(Via Boulder on Highway 12)

Zion National Park

Drive nearly to west entrance and turn back.

Grand Canyon South Rim - Day trip or or overnight?

Grand Canon at South Rim, with sunrise partially illuminating its sides.

Visiting the canyon as a day trip? I hope not. The best times to view by far are at sunrise and sunset.

However, the canyon in winter is not usually shrouded by the haze that comes mid-day during summer in part from coal-burning power plants miles away.

Nevertheless, the best viewing times remain by far sunrise and sunset.

Grand Canyon South Rim

View of where the Colorado River flows into the Grand Canyon from the Desert View Watchtower near the canyon's east entrance.

Above: In this northeastern view from the Desert View Watchtower viewing point, but not from the tower itself, you see where the Colorado River enters the Grand Canyon. Prior to that it had been flowing along a deep, but very narrow canyon in the distance. 

Make the Desert View Watchtower on your right your first stop after entering the park’s east entrance. If arrive too late, go back the next day.

Make Grand Canyon Village your base for two nights. Again, you should view the canyon at both sunrise and sunset.

If you find accommodation too expensive, stay the second night in Flagstaff (or Williams) leaving the canyon late in the day.

Wi-Fi is precious in this area. Find it free in the park’s library and for a fee in the grand lobby of the historic El Tovar Hotel on the rim.

Visit El Tovar, one of the most famous naitonal park hotels, even if not staying there. If wish to dine, arrive before it starts serving breakfast or lunch and ask for a rim view table. The best chance of a rim table comes at breakfast, as are not competing with day trippers.

Although its management company has a different name, El Tovar and other facilities at the canyon are still managed by what was the famed Fred Harvey company.

Fred Harvey’s company built and managed many of the most well-known hotels and restaurants along or near the Santa Fe Railway and often adjacent Route 66. It was a class operation in every way.

Flagstaff

Looking across Route 66 (Business 40) in downtown Flagstaff. with mountains behind.

Image above: Looking across Route 66 at downtown Flagstaff. It retains a considerable Route 66 vibe.

While driving on Interstate highways such as the I-40 that replaced much of the original Route 66 pavement look for exits marked “Business 40” and such. These usually lead along the roads Route 66 used through cities.

Sedona, Jerome, Prescott

(Via Oak Creek Canyon - U.S. 89a)

A friend, who will host Bonster and Chopster in Flagstaff, will help them plan visits to these.

Williams

Above: Grand Canyon Hotel, a Route 66 icon, in Williams, Arizona. I wish tha $3.50 price on that sign was not so historic!

(Via Ash Fork from Prescott)

I love Williams. It takes great pride in its Route 66 heritage. Unlike many Mother Road towns Williams has not grown very much. That means its downtown does not look that much different than 50 years ago.

I stayed at the very historic Grand Canyon Hotel here, not to be confused with the nearby modern Grand Canyon Railway hotel. Check if the same owners are on hand as were there in 2012. They are wonderful people. The hotel offers accommodation ranging from hostel beds to private rooms with bath. All with historic décor. The owners will place a British flag on the check in desk to mark your arrival.

Back to Ash Fork and then west

At Seligman west of Ask Fork, historic Route 66 branches off to the north. Continue on it until Kingman.

I love this portion of Route 66 most. It remains very much as it was. Please pick the stops want to make before driving on a map. Some are easy to pass by.

Kingman

Instead of staying overnight here consider Laughlin, NV, beyond.

Oakman

For Grapes of Wrath migrants from the Dustbowl, who had little or no money for vehicle repairs, the rugged climb of Route 66 from Kingman to Oakman became truly scary.

Tiny Oakman retains much of its Route 66 heritage. You will likely enjoy it and surrounding rather unforgiving landscape, which gives a glimpse of the miles ahead migrants faced trough the Mojave Desert.

Laughlin, NV

(Via Bullhead City)

Although much smaller. Laughlin on the Colorado River ranks as Nevada’s third major casino resort city. It markets heavily to senior citizens. It lacks the sparkle of Vegas--the video above shows it in its best light--but happily also its prices.

Casino hotels here go for much cheaper—wildly much cheaper--than in Las Vegas. You may wish to spend a night and save. Typical is $20 per night mid-week at Harrah’s, the Tropicana, both of which also have Vegas Strip hotels, and possibly the Golden Nugget, whose Golden Nugget in Las Vegas is the top-star downtown hotel.

Harrah’s on the Colorado River seems to have the most amenities. Ferries operate between it and the other hotels along the river.

Casino entetainment tends toward country and older bands. While I was there Dolly Parton, the Marshall Tucker Band, and REO Speedwagon were due in. 

Las Vegas

Las Vegas Welcome to Las Vegas lit at night with neon.

Avoid weekends if at all possible. $$$$$$$$

Beware of “resort fees” hidden in small print. These can actually cost more than the room price. A despicable practice that masks true prices in online booking displays.

Use the Strip monorail if have been drinking. I suggest a Uber-type service to the Fremont Street area downtown, the original Las Vegas casino area. They can also take a bus down Las Vegas Boulevard.

One reason I like Uber is because it lets you know its price below booking. Sad to say, some elements of the U.S. taxi industry lack the honest reputation of London’s Black Cabs. Its current well-respected CEO has worked hard to address its corporate culture and driver problems. Download its app.

I do not recommend staying in the somewhat sleazy downtown area. However, visit there especially in the evening during the Fremont Street light display.

Consider hiking in the nearby Red Rock National Conservation Area—in the early morning if the day will be hot.

I still have not visited the Mob and Neon museums in Las Vegas. On the bucket list.

Yermo – Calico Ghost Town

Prior to Barstow, the County of San Bernardino preserves Calico. That was the site of the largest silver strike in California, with some 500 mines. I recommend it. Exit the I-15 at Calico Road in Yermo. Drive north.

Barstow and Victorville

Between Las Vegas and San Bernardino, take Business 15 through Barstow and Victorville. Both have Route 66 museums.

Between Barstow and Victorville take the National Trails Highway (County Route 66) via Helendale. That interrupts the monotony of Interstate driving.

San Bernardino

San Bernardino offers a variety of Route 66 sights along E Street and West 5th Avenue.

Although the McDonald’s corporation says that the original McDonald’s is in Illinois, the founder of the current McDonald’s purchased its franchise rights from the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino. It was they who pioneered the fast service. The brothers’ outlet on E Street pulled in troves of Route 66 travellers. You now find a museum there. A sad history existed between the brothers and their aggressive new franchisee. In a legal battle he even took away the brothers' right to use their iconic arches. 

Foothill Boulevard

West 5th Avenue turns into Foothill Boulevard, much of the way toward Los Angeles.

As it usually is very much slow stop and go driving, decide what want to see and then, if you wish  take one of the two alternate freeways when possible to save time.

Foothill turns into Colorado Boulevard, the site of the New Year’s Rose Parade, which I believe is broadcast in the United Kingdom.

Beyond Pasadena, Route 66’s route changed a number of times. You may wish to study those routes. Controversy still exists about where it actually ended in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica

View of Santa Monica pier from the northwest on a sunny day with many people on Santa Monica Beach.

Above: Santa Monica Pier, used as a location in seemingly endless films and television shows. (Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Two super helpful road trip resources

National Geographic's

National Geographic’s Scenic Highways & Byways

Superb descriptions of scenic routes in every state. Very compact for easy packing. Although published in 1995, this is the best such resource I have found. I love it. 

Roodfood.com

Roadfood.com reviews much beloved local fave cafes and restaurants throughout the United States. Most are budget priced. The site was founded by Michael and Jane Stern formally with Gourmet Magazine (regional food writers) and then with National Public Radio. Verify these locally. A new chef or owner can change everything. 

Accommodation Tips for Road Trips

Locations

On a road trip, the places where you overnight vary considerably in price.

Typically, more well-known cities cost more. A classic example is beachfront but much cheaper Carpinteria, CA, compared to Santa Barbara 11 miles away.

Or, you can camp in Las Padres National Forest shaded by oaks above Santa Barbara for $30 per night. Flush toilets and drinking water included. Recreatiion.Gov

Seeking these opportunities can be a huge money saver.

Cancellation deadlines

Especially when you will be driving, focus on booking accommodation that can be cancelled on the booked day of arrival without penalty.

Usually, you must cancel by 4:00 or 6:00 p.m., in order to avoid being charged for one night. Write down the cancellation number or at least the name of the person who served you and the time.

Not only will you not waste money if your plans suddenly change, you will stay safer. You will face no pressure to drive on if feeling tired.

Vehical Rental Considerations

Cautions

I URGE you to research and book as soon as possible. Problems with finding good rates could upset major portions of your trip. You want to know about and act upon these situations as soon as possible.

Nearly all USA vehicle bookings have no cancellation penalties. Because you are reserving so far in advance and changes are possible, do not book at prepaid rates that are not fully refundable.

Also, if you are depending on using the vehicle insurance coverage of one of your credit cards or such, be sure to read that company’s policies carefully. Moreover, restrict your booking to major rental companies. Smaller ones may not accept your outside coverage.

Note that most USA rental car contracts forbid driving on dirt or gravel highways. Nothing an agent verbally promises you otherwise is legally binding. The law goes by the rules on the contract you sign.

Reliability

Pick a well-known company that has branches reasonably close to every place along your route (within let’s say 150 miles). That increases your chance of a newer vehicle and a better maintained one that will not need repair or replacement, but if it does quick service.

Make sure that the vehicle has a radio. Not all do. Hope for Sirius XM Satellite Radio access if not too expensive.

Price

Typically, vehicle rates are cheaper in the DC area than north of it. Check its three airports—Ronald Reagan National DCA, Dulles IAD, and what I believe will likely be the cheapest Baltimore/Washington BWI.

Also, check places on your Northeastern U.S. Amtrak routes, including Toronto, which is not far from Niagara Falls. You may find a bargain.

Flexibility applies to the drop off location. You do not need to drop off the vehicle at LAX in Los Angeles. You may find a better drop off rate at a nearby airport such as BUR, LBG, ONT, SNA, and even SAN or a nonairport location.

In fact, also look at the San Francisco Bay Area—SFO, OAK, and SJC. These are just a five and one-half hour drive from Santa Monica.

Not every company will rent for more than 30 days. If must switch vehicles, put some padding in your itinerary, so that you will be there on time.

Try to find a situation where the company gives you an incentive to drop off their vehicle in a certain place.

You will come near Tucson and Phoenix near the start of their peak winter season. Twice in the last six years in that situation I rented one vehicle for $7 and the other for $9 per day, with no drop off charges. One I kept for 24 days on a camping trip. These were win-win situations.

Please enjoy very moment of your trip!

Comments

Chopster & Bonster
March 1, 2019

What can we say! Touched by your blog and overwhelmed by the insight and depth. We are already making alterations based on your recommendations. Can’t thank you enough!

Watching the videos makes the trip feel ever so more real and reading about the history and people we hope to meet along the way has got us both smiling from ear to ear!

Once again, thank you ever so much Don!

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Don Nadeau
March 2, 2019

Thank you so much, Bonster & Chopster! Absolutely my pleasure.

I love anything to do with scenic road trips and rail travel and as you can probably tell a good percentage of my travel experience has emphasized these.

Am already thinking of your next trip up the California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska Pacific coastlines, with inland excursions into the Canadian Rockies and some of the best U.S. national parks in the Northwest.

In the meantime, trying to think of a way to talk you into including Arches, Canyonlands, and Capital Reef national parks in this trip. Go for it. :-)

All the best to you.

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Kath
March 11, 2019

What an awesome trip this is going to be! All great suggestions, I agree with Don, you should try to at least visit one of Arches or Canyonlands (both are very close together) . We’ve done a lot of national parks and regret not visiting Canyonlands when we went to Arches.  A suggestion for housing, campgrounds such as KOA often have inexpensive cabin rentals..Just don’t wait until the last minute to book near the national parks.

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Don Nadeau
March 11, 2019

Thank you so much, Kath!

We have over a year to convince Bonster and Chopster to visit Arches and Canyonlands and I am optimistic! These parks—by American standards—are so close to the Monument Valley/Valley of the Gods area that they already plan to visit.

Moreover, the two parks are just a short drive from each other. Perhaps they could do a couple of short and easy hikes in Arches and then drive over to Canyonlands for its views.

I cannot agree more with your suggestions to book early and to consider alternative accommodation choices. They already plan to rent a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area. As for camping in UT, they are arriving late in season and would need sleeping bags suitable for cold nights. I have camped in those conditions but am not sure they would be willing to.

Thank you again!

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