"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Thursday, April 4, 2013

How We Plan Our Travels

A lot of the people we meet on our travels ask us how we make our plans. As our Internet mentors on RV Dreams have said, “There’s no one right way to full time.”  Some people always wing it and make no plans or reservations, but we do make plans, and in this post I’ll explain how.

(Why do we make reservations? Well, I just can’t imagine dismantling our temporary home, driving some distance and showing up somewhere only to find there is no site, or only a crummy one, and then having to find another place. It just sounds exhausting and stressful. Why not make a reservation?)

OK, first the overview: We are not seasonal travelers, so we are not in any particular repeating pattern. It’s all new to us, which is exciting and also kind of labor intensive at times. The planning work is divided between us.  I create a draft itinerary for a few months out, Rick looks it over and offers feedback. When we basically agree on our stops, he plans the details of the actual detailed route we will drive to get to those places.

Now the nitty gritty, if you’re interested.

My first step is to look at a big map of the US in a large paper atlas I’ve been using since we started full timing. I have been highlighting all the places we’ve been and the routes we’ve travelled. By looking at the big picture I can sketch out a rough plan of where we might like to go.  Fortunately we are pretty like-minded about where we want to go.

I then look at the state maps in the atlas and sketch out general routes through the states we’re considering.  If there are very popular areas we want to visit in high season, I jump to those locations many months ahead of time to select a place to stay, maybe for a whole month, and contact those places to make reservations. Then I set to work filling in the details up to, or between those long-term reservations. (We like to stay places for a month when we can, but in between those places, we often need to make many stops.)

My next step is to go to the website RV Park Reviews. By the way, RV Park Reviews is basically the only directory I use.  It's reliable, user friendly, bug free and has a wealth of the kind of information we need. Sometimes if I’m really stumped I’ll check in with Big Rigs Best Bets, RV Dreams, We Called it Home, Wheeling It or RVersOnline for their recommendations. I very rarely use the KOA, Passport America, Good Sam or Woodall's guides, even though we are members of the first three for their discounts. I just don't find their listings very informative or useful.

On RV Park Reviews I start by looking at the towns we are passing through along the general route I’ve drafted. If there are particular places we want to visit, like a national park, botanical garden, or friends/family, then I start in the towns closest to those places. RV Park Reviews lets me pick a location either on a state map or from a list of towns in a given state. If there is nothing I like in that town, it will show me the next closest towns that have RV parks, and in what direction they are from the original town.

Each campground is listed with links to its website and a live Google Map of its location from which you can zoom in or out and select map or satellite view, as usual on Google Maps. There is a series of shorthand guest ratings of the park overall from 1-10, a basic check list of amenities, and many detailed reviews written by campers who have stayed there.  The first thing I look at is the series of 1-10 ratings. If there are lots of 8,9 & 10s then I look further. If there are not, I don’t bother.  At this point, I read the reviews. What I am most concerned about is if the place is really big rig accessible, if it has full hook-ups, and any red flags that folks may mention, like no cell phone service or sites too close together.  If all seems OK I look at the map to get a sense of its location (not in the middle of an urban area is good), the lay out of the park and if the sites are clear enough of the trees to get a satellite signal. If that all checks out, then I go to the park’s own website. On their website I’m looking for photos of the park, their rates, and the overall feel or quality.  We’re looking for big enough sites, pull-throughs if possible, full hook-ups with 50 amps, and room to park both our vehicles in our site.  Extra good things are natural bodies of water, pools, hot tubs, biking and hiking trails, nice landscaping, access to nature, and nearby points of interest. 

Once I’ve selected a park it goes on the draft itinerary, becoming a one in a series of stops, each about 1½ to 3 hours away from each other. I keep a draft itinerary going as a Word document that I can tweak as our plans evolve, with the date, name of the town and the rv park, its address, phone number and a live web link. That itinerary also serves as a record of where we have been and when.  

When a draft of the next few months is complete I email it to Rick, who looks it over and approves or makes suggestions.  Of course during the creation of this draft I have been talking to Rick about it to get his general opinion about our direction, so it’s not a surprise when he gets the itinerary email. If he approves the plan, I make reservations by phone for the next few locations, being sure to ask for a pull-through and a clear view of the sky for satellite if possible, and continue doing that as we travel, just a week or so ahead of ourselves.  (The exception is the reservations I've made months ahead for high demand times and locations.)  I also put all our confirmed stops and reservations in my iphone calendar, with addresses and phone numbers.

About a week or so before we are about to move to a new location, or a series of locations, Rick creates a route on Google maps. He looks at every detail of the route in both satellite and map versions, to avoid any problem spots, like low railroad bridges, switch back turns, or tunnels.  He also prefers four lane highways, especially in the hilly states, but not necessarily interstates. It’s a drag to drive along a two lane highway with car traffic building up behind the fifth wheel, especially if there are no pull offs, as is the case in some states. When he is satisfied that the route is safe, he prints out turn-by-turn copies for each of us.  The night before we travel we each review the route by looking at Google Maps live again, just so the route is familiar and fresh in our minds.

The day of our move, because we drive two different vehicles, we each have our printed routes, I have my atlas, and we use turn-by-turn navigation on the Google Maps App on our iphones as a GPS.  We use walkie-talkies to keep in touch as we drive. I lead the way, and act as a scout for Rick, as he pulls the fifth wheel. If we get off course, we use Google Maps to help us find a new route. I also double-check our location on the live GPS map in the dash of the Subaru. (I don’t use its directions; we’ve found them to be inadequate.)

So that’s basically how we do it. It's a nice team effort and is part of what makes this adventure as fresh, fun and satisfying as it is.

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