Optimal Road Trip Planning

If you’re like me, planning your travel is nearly as enjoyable as actually travelling.  I probably spend one hour planning per day of planned travel.  There is a spectrum of planning from 0 (loudly proclaiming “fuck it”, hopping in your car and heading west) to “We’ll visit the museum from 2:36 to 3:18, it’s a 6 minute walk to the restaurant, leaving us 14 minutes to eat before our reservations at….).  Somewhere between the two is to optimal amount of planning. 

There is also an optimal balance between joy that comes from the anticipation of the trip (and the activities you have planned) and not having too high of expectations so you can enjoy the actual trip.  There’s a level of joy that comes from surprises and spontaneity.  Maximizing joy in life is what I’m optimizing for in travel.  It’s not check marks on my bucket list or Instagram photos that will increase my followers.

Personally, joy in travel includes a slower pace of life, being outdoors and experiencing different cultures.  I’m sure I could add to that list but it’s something I’ll need to think more on, but generally I’m happy if I have those three things.   

Optimal travel planning varies based on different factors for example; personal preferences, type of travel, and time available.  Some people get anxious without a detailed plan – and that can ruin a trip more than feeling rushed the whole time.  Others would rather miss out on some things to not feel rushed.  A little more planning is needed if your trip involves flying or taking trains vs. having a car.  Ironically, the longer you will be in a place the less planning you need to do and should do.  You can learn and plan on the ground from the locals far better than anything trip advisor will tell you.   

Now that we know what we are maximizing for (Joy in my case) we can start to think about our constraints.  The two obvious ones are time and money.  Another constraint is weather.  Despite being native Minnesotans, we much prefer warm weather, whereas I have a cousin who prefers winter (insane right?). 

My planning varies on whether I have a long weekend or 90 days off after a long set of orders.  I generally establish some sort of goal budget to stick within.  I have a second optimization goal of minimizing expenses.  However, it’s easy for this goal to override the main goal of experiencing joy.  In addition to setting a target budget number I also establish a left bookend of an amount I can spend without any guilt or remorse so I can make decisions while traveling and exclude the cost variable.  For example in planning our upcoming road trip I’ll have a number set aside so if the weather is terrible I can keep myself from saying “I don’t feel like setting up the tent in the rain and I’d rather sleep in a bed and have a hot shower but I’m saving $90!”).  I trust my instincts to not exclude budget on every decision and end up staying in the Ritz Carleton for 2 weeks instead of camping. 

We can complicate this by adding in another variable: who are you travelling with?  What ends up happening is a sort of Venn diagram of the factors that I’m optimizing for, what your travel companion is optimizing for (hopefully the same thing but not necessary) and what the trip will provide.           

Example of my mental Venn for this trip

I will apply my optimization logic to an upcoming road trip as an example.  My optimization goal is to maximize joy.  My known constraints are: I will leave Texas on XX day in October and have 3 weeks to return to Minnesota (be back by October 31st for annual Halloween party).  I’ll be driving.  My wife will join me.  I’d like to minimize cost (this is a part FI blog after all), but can spend $500 without remorse (in addition to basics like food and gas).  

Now comes the fun/hard part of changing variables to maximize joy (subjective and you’re never actually certain but you can get closer than no planning), or in other words; planning the trip.  Being a former Army Scout and current Geospatial Analyst in the Air Force, I generally start my planning with a map I use google my maps (https://www.google.com/maps/about/mymaps/).  You can save your route and add different markers for different kind of stops and easily share it with others. 

I start with the direct route as a baseline.  I’ve made this drive thrice in the past, and it’s not the most exciting.  Since we have 3 weeks, I’ll look to deviate a bit.  I start by thinking about main target destinations and then work in finer stops and details.  I’ll add in another constraint here; we prefer not to drive more than 4 hours per day and would like to not have to drive every day so I’ll limit the total length to under 3,200 miles (#days willing to drive * 4 hours per day * avg 50 mph). 

Baseline route

For example, my wife would like to see New Orleans, I’ve never really explored Arkansas yet and we have friends in Chicago so I’d plug in those additional stops into google maps and see what the route looks like.  After running several options, we decided to go with a route that allows us to visit relatives in Missoula, Montana.  This should be a gorgeous drive along the Rockies.      

Now that I have the rough route mapped out, I’ll start to tweak it.  Factoring in weather we’ve already decided to alter our constraints a bit and plan to spend more time in the south and take two long days to finish the Missoula to Minneapolis trip quickly (not much reason to linger in North Dakota in late October). 

Looking at the new route we realize I will be passing through New Mexico and have been meaning to visit Sante Fe and Taos as recommended by some friends, so I update the map with that stop added in. 

Awesome!  Now this route passes us right through Moab, UT.  We will definitely plan to visit the national parks there.  We’ve never been to the Yellowstone area either.  This just became a national park themed trip.  Which is great since I get free admission and 50% percent off camping at national parks for being in the military.  The season will be on the later end than preferred for camping with cooler weather and snow, but not undoable with preparation.  Plus, crowds should be light.  From here a little more research discovers we can hit up Carlsbad Caverns (plus option to hike to the highest point in Texas), visit Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and visit our cousins in Salt Lake City.  We decided to save Glacier National Park for another trip given the weather and preference (slight) to spend more time with my brother’s family.        

Next comes the fine point of balancing over and under planning.  I like to have the rough logistics hammered out with some planned flexibility. 

From here I’ll plug the itinerary into excel to help me visualize and adjust the trip.  I start with the actual date in column A and add the day of the week in column B.  It’s a bit redundant but I like to know quickly what day of the week we will be places- I prefer to be at hotels and tourist sites on weekdays if possible and visit friends and family on weekends.  I like to use excel for the functionality to quickly shift things around so I can see what the trip looks like if we stay in a place a day longer or leave a day earlier. 

Column C is where we will be waking up that day and D is where we plan to sleep that night.  Column E is the hours of driving to get from C to D according to google maps.  This will be just drive time from google maps and doesn’t factor in any planned stops on the way.  We generally don’t care how long it takes to get somewhere just that we aren’t sitting in the car for 14 hours.  Column F is where we plan to stay for the night.  This gives me a quick visual of how many nights we have planned for camping vs. hotels.  I have a column for general notes; things like things that we want to do/could do, notes on lodging- like if camp site is first come first serve only.  I added another column for expenses so I can update this post after the trip with more detailed information. 

This is a custom spreadsheet for the road trip and I would alter it for different kinds of travel and considerations but you get the general idea of what I’m trying to do.   

Next, I start looking at the stops a little more closely and tweak the itinerary from here.  I may learn about this really cool thing that we would want to detour a day out of the way for and adjust to see what that would look like.  I may learn that Arches National Park really only requires one day to explore the highlights and is really crowded so we should shift a day of hiking to Canyonlands or Tetons.  I learned that we will just miss some of the campgrounds being open and others are popular and first come first serve only.  In this case I’ll research a few back up options so if we get to a campsite and it’s full, we’ll not have to panic and know our next steps.  I’ll read a few books/blogs on hiking in the different national parks to get an idea of what options we have.  I won’t decide exactly what hike we will do; we save that until the day of or before to see how we are feeling, what the weather is, etc. 

Generally, I like to know what different “paths” we have on the route and leave the decisions for when we actually hit the forks in the roads and to know where the “boulders” in the road are so we can avoid them.  Any smaller rocks we can handle as we come across them on the way.  Part of the enjoyment of travel is being surprised so I try not to over research areas so I can preserve that feeling.  On the other hand, I want to avoid that sucky feeling when you drive several days just to find out Walley World is closed. 

Which is what would have happened with this trip if I didn’t do a little more planning.  Yellowstone will be “closed” by the time we would get there.  Technically you can still go in the park but all lodging and camp sites are closed so we’d have to stay outside the park and drive in every day.  Since we are so excited to visit, we’re willing to wait and do it right so we can camp and hike from our tent someday in the future.  Instead, we’ve modified our route to go through Idaho, a state we’ve only dipped our toes into.  We love natural hot springs and Idaho has an abundance.  They should be great that time of year with chilly weather setting in.  A little more research and we have our final days planned out.    

I like to take a general look at what are sleeping options are every night.  One thing I like to avoid on road trips is being very tired and relying on chance when you pull into the first available hotel on your path.  I’ll check out the campsites to see that they are: 1. Open 2. If they require reservations 3. And likelihood of availability.  Often times they are first come first serve and so it’s good to know what your back up options are and have them ready to go.  For planned hotel nights I’ll take a quick peek at a site like hotels.com to see if there are ample lodging options to give us the luxury of time.  I like to book as late as possible to reserve flexibility or book somewhere with a good cancellation policy.  Last time we road tripped through Montana a blizzard kept us in Missoula for 2 extra days (highlight of the trip actually) so we had to push back the rest of the itinerary.  It’s nice to have that flexibility.  I also like to note if there are hotel brands where we can use points if we have them and make a note of where the best points values are.      

I’ll do a quick glance of the route and stops to see if there are any “destinations” that we wouldn’t want to miss that might require advance planning or reservations.  It sucks to walk up to the Ghibli museum in Japan to learn you need to get tickets months in advance.  On the other hand, some of my best travel experiences have been surprises, so I try not to over research.  For example, last time we drove across Utah we saw a billboard for the Young Living essential oil headquarters (my wife is a big fan).  With a short break we got a private tour of the facility and learned all about the process of making essential oils and stretched our legs in fields of lavender.  I save much of the fine planning for the drive between destinations.  It helps pass the time and gets you excited about the next stop. 

Then we wait for our go date.  For this trip I’m doing a little extra “equipment planning” since it’s our first real car camping road trip.  With the cooler weather planned I’m upgrading my wife’s sleeping bag and air mattress and planning on picking up a portable heater.  Expenses that should pay for themselves if they allow us to camp one extra night rather than wimp out to a hotel.  I plan to follow up this article with a packing list and load plan…and follow that up post trip with lessons learned.  Stay tuned!      

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