Sunday, February 28, 2010

RV Adventure Planning 101

I thought I’d start out by showing you Harry, the ‘Cubs Win!!’ Snowman, from down the street.
Yes, Harry, is dreaming of Springtime but I’m thinking it will be another ‘cold day’ and not in October before his 2010 dreams come true!!
For us, this spring will be our longest extended trip in our motorhome to-date. Our plan is to be on the road for approximately seven weeks this time.

For me, half of my enjoyment of RV travelling is planning and researching, mostly online, the options we have for routes and adventures. In my past life, as a project director, I had a particular knack for detailed planning so I guess this is just a natural extension of 30 years experience in that area!
I have found our virtual RV family to be extremely helpful when rookies like Ken and me have questions and are looking for ideas. And so, I’d like to pass on what we’ve learned so far to those even newer at this experience than we are. The techniques for RV Adventure Planning that I note here have proven successful for us so far. As you’ll see from our notes below, a lot has to do with the kind of adventures that are of most interest to you. For example, while we look first of Corp of Engineer parks you might be more interested in private parks. While we like to search out wildlife and obscure attractions, you might have a different hobby or interest, such as wine-tasting or architecture that requires adding some different searches in to your planning.
I’d love to hear from the ‘old pros’ on other ways they’ve found to perfect their adventure planning.

For Ken and me, these are some of our primary tools:
1. – I find this the easiest and most flexible online map tool. I put in my known destination(s) and then start breaking the trip down in to approximately 200 mile segments. It’s really nice not to have to be in a hurry, so we are trying to go with the RVers Rule of 2’s driving no more than 2 hundred miles a day, arriving at our new site by 2 pm and staying for at least 2 days.

2. – because Ken has a Golden Access Pass, it is our preference whenever possible to find Corp of Engineer parks where we can get nice sites, usually for ½ price. This website provides the additional critical info about the sites such as the site lengths, and the site grade which is very important in a motorhome with a hubby that is very touchy about being level. Based on whether we are staying over a weekend or what the availability looks like online we might go ahead and reserve a spot. Of course, I prefer not to if possible to leave our options open. For this spring’s trip we are not making many reservations, except for over holiday weekends, since we will be travelling before schools are out and most parks appear to still have lots of availability.

3. – we use and contribute to this site regularly and have found it to be the most reliable online source for opinions on various campgrounds. Because you have to enter at least 3 different campground reviews before this site will publish any of your reviews, most reviews are legite and not from owners and employees trying to market their location.

4. – there is an annual $44 membership fee but for us this has been worth it based on the number of items we’ve used this. If we can’t find Corp of Engineer parks in an area, we will next look for a Passport America member park where we can receive a ½ price site. We’ve found it is important to compare these parks to the RVParkReviews since Passport America does not always seem to set a high standard for member parks. It’s also important to carefully check the rules of when they offer ½ price – usually not on weekends and seldom for more than a couple of nights at a time. Since we currently aren’t carrying our own internet access, I like to look for private PA parks with wifi to intersperse between our state and federal park stays where there is seldom wifi.

5. Campground Directories: Woodall’s, Trailer Life, Escapee’s - we use both of these directories but have found that, in Woodall’s and Trailer Life their ratings take in to account a lot of things we don’t really care about like children’s activities and recreation facilities onsite so while we might find a campground using one of these directories, we usually go back to RVParkReviews to check recommendations. This next trip will be our first experience staying at an Escapee’s Park in Alabama and we are really looking forward to that. We also belong to Good Sam’s but have really not found their online campground directory very useful compared to others and have found their trip routing tools generic. The one thing that is kind of slick with Good Sam’s routing is that you can put in your route and see where gas will be the cheapest along the way, this can say you a few bucks when filling up 100 gallon tanks!

6. RV-Dreams, RV.Net and Escapees forums – the folks contributing to these forums are usually very helpful when I have questions. For example, I received website links from folks that helped us better understand our I-40 detour options and also helped us decide where to make our stops to make the most of our limited time in the Smokey Mountains. I try to use these forums after I’ve done my best to get the information figured out myself as best as I can. That way I’m not badgering people for info that is easily gleaned from online searches myself….don’t want to wear out your welcome you know. Again, I think it is important to do your part on the forums that you use and try to not only ask but answer when possible.

7. Blogs and trip journals of other RVers – on the left sidebar of this website you’ll see the blogs that we follow regularly. Most of these folks also have RV blogs that they follow regularly that aren’t on our list, but I follow many of them as well! By drilling through these, I can often find interesting information on areas that they have visited that offer ideas on where to eat, what to see, etc., often with pictures and ideas that are more specific to RV travel. For example, it is through these folks that we’ve make our decision to include Betty’s RV Park in Louisiana in our itinerary.

8. The Next Exit – while we don’t normally use this in our preliminary planning, we’ve found that once we are actually moving this book is our primary resource for planning stops for gas, groceries and dining. Let’s face it, when in a 40 foot motorhome you don’t want to be making last minute decisions on which exit to take, which lane you need to be in at the top of the ramp, and whether or not the fuel station or restaurant is capable of handling a big rig. The notes in this book take the guesswork out of making pitstops. I’ve heard some RVers go as far as to say this is the most important directory they have in their RV. I only wish it covered US highways as well as Interstates, but even as it is I would hate to leave without it.

9. – When we are headed in to an area, I will use Tripadvisor as one source to find the best rated attractions and restaurants in the area. For example, when we found ourselves in Grand Rapids, MI, for a few days, this site pointed us to both the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park and the Heritage Hill Historic District where there are some great Frank Lloyd Wright houses. When we finished those explorations, we used the sites restaurant advice to find a wonderful little café, Marie Catrib’s. (see Aug 27, 2008 blog). This meant that we went to the #1 rated attraction and the #1 rated restaurant in Grand Rapids and left with a great impression of the community. Unfortunately, there are a lot of smaller towns without reviews since coverage is only as good as what individuals freely contribute so, again, I am trying to discipline myself to also write reviews here as well as search them.

10. – guide to unique, offbeat tourist attractions; ok, maybe this doesn’t float your personal boat, but Ken and I love to find the obscure. You’ll notice that from past blogs where we’ve included photos of the goat tower, the two-story outhouse, and of course, the best hamburger in America at Moonshine.

11. Facebook – I have developed a growing number of RV contacts on Facebook and we continue to get ideas every day from what these folks post about places we’d like to visit and ideas on how to make the most of our RV travel. Some folks who don’t blog regularly, do put out great photos and comments on their travels on facebook.

12. Day’s End Directory – this is an Escapee’s 400 page downloadable document containing hundreds of boondocking and low-cost parking opportunities, submitted by traveling members and collected and organized by an Escapee’s member who updates regularly. This list is available to Escapee’s members for $5 with updates available through a Yahoo group. Ken finds it difficult to sleep in truck stops, Walmarts and such (I think he is in an extra protective ‘on guard’ mode and wakes at the slightest sound). So, we haven’t used this much but it’s good to have as a backup if other overnight plans get blown out of the water. We are going to have to start working these low/no cost alternatives in to our budget so we will look for opportunities to work one or two such nights in to this next extended outing.

13. General Google searches – of course, very often I have to do additional searches based on information I find using the resources above. For example, there is supposed to be a wonderful walking tour of historic Charleston but I don’t know the times or costs so I have to start googling. Now I know the tour is not available on Monday or Tuesday so we can take that in to consideration in our planning.

The downside to this way of planning is that almost everything is online. For this reason, I try to download pertinent information to my laptop assuming that I won’t have internet access when I need it. I hate printed paper because of the room it takes, the clutter it creates and the trees it kills. Of course that means more likely than not I’ll miss downloading a page that ends up being critical like when we decide we want to do a restaurant but haven’t downloaded the phone number or hours of operation.

We still have 18 months on our AT&T contract so I’m holding out until May hoping that rumors are true and ATT will start selling the Palm Pre so I can carry my wireless hotspot on my phone versus buying a separate air card. Until then we are stuck on this trip with searching out wifi internet access. Because my Kindle has some basic internet access I can use it to, at a minimum, find some sites in an area that offer wifi. We have found our two most consistent ways to get internet in the small towns to be local libraries which almost always have free wifi, or McDonald’s where you can get online for $3 for 2 hours. Most GPS systems will get you to the nearest library or McDonald’s. If not, I haven’t encountered a state or federal campground yet where the hosts couldn’t tell me the closest spot to get access.

Because I end up with a lot of data for lengthy trips, I set up a summary spreadsheet with one row for each leg of the trip and then include links to the related documents on my laptop from that spreadsheet. This gives me a sort of drilldown capability to retrieve information as we need it.

We do have a laptop based GPS system that we use for the actual turn-by-turn routing, but plugging in the next destination is a pretty simple matter once we have the larger itinerary organized.

I’ve just about completed our 7 week plan and will publish soon hoping that there might be inputs from some of the ‘pros’ that can help us with refinements.

Hugs, C


Margie M. said...

For a semi-newbie, you have a real grasp of how you want to tackle the RV life. Great read today! We sometimes...OK, always....plan our adventures. Not down to gnat's behind, but we want to have some sort of an idea of where we're going and what we want to see when we get there. We utilize CG's in our membership programs, and it is necessary to make reservations for those. Bruce used to be a production planner at a plant in CA, so he loves all that planning stuff. Enjoy your upcoming trip and I look forward to checking your blog often to see some of those *oddities* you mention. We LOVE those!

Frerx Adventures said...

Thanks for the comments, Margie!! We are going to continue to research other membership programs like you said you use. I should have asked in the blog which programs others are finding worth the money.
I really enjoy reading your blog, especially since you are maintaining at my goal weight. It reminds me that healthy eating is a lifetime commitment!!
Hope we get to meet in person down the road!!



LakeConroePenny,TX said...

Have you looked at:
for looking for different places and things to see and do?
It is online, so no books to carry.
Happy Trails, Penny, TX

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