Step 1: Determine the length of your trip.
How many days will you have? Do you have a week? Two weeks? Consider whatever length of time your spouse gives you as starting point for a negotiation. One week. Well that’s really 9 days because you can add a weekend on each end? Can you tie a two week vacation into a holiday and make it 16 or 17 days? Sure you can.*
Step 2: Determine how far away your husband is willing to travel.
This may vary based on where he most wants to go. If he wants to go to the Rocky Mountains, you can entice him with a week in their majestic splendor.* You are not likely to convince him that he wants to spend his vacation shopping for antiques at flea markets in Vermont. Start with the main prize.
Step 3: Book non-refundable accommodations.
These accommodations should be for the main event at the furthest location from home. Give yourself adequate travel time to and from the location based on your new expanded vacation days. You want enough time to “explore” along the journey. Once you book the main event, you have an insurance plan. You are definitely going on vacation.
Step 4: Research things that are “Close by” or “On the way.”
Close is a relative term. For example, we live in NJ, so Houston is “close” to New Orleans in comparison to New Jersey.* And “On the way,” means more the general direction. Of course one must go a little off the beaten path to find some of our nation’s greatest treasures. One cannot simply drive to one’s destination. This is a road trip. Research oddities like Foamhenge in Virginia*, The Lunar Lander Exhibit in Mississippi**, and the Buffalo Museum in North Dakota,* all things one can swing by as short pit stops to break up the monotony of a long drive. Other locations like say, the time we visited Yellowstone on our way to our “real vacation” might take a little longer to explore.* Keep these ideas secret until you have gathered many options, mapped out your trip, and determined the realistic cost of such items. Check hours of operation and compare them carefully to your own travel dates and times. No one wants to get all the way to the Forbidden Gardens in Katy, Texas only to find out that you can’t see the recreated Terra Cotta Warriors because they aren’t open on Mondays. You can however sometimes call and arrange for a private tour of some places because how could you miss a room size model of the Forbidden City when you were just studying Ancient China in school?*
Step 5: Stick to a budget that you will end up exceeding while on vacation.
With your research in hand and a budget to live by, start picking and choosing from your list. How cheap will your motels will be? What restaurants are in the area? You aren’t going to want to skip BBQ in Memphis* or The Parthenon in Nashville.* Sure, you might end up staying in some sketchy places to make that happen, but you didn’t come to enjoy the splendors of every hotel chain in America. And honestly if you have to ask, “Do you think the building is on fire?” because the room is sweltering, you have just made memories.* Spend your money on food and activities and keep your luggage off the floor so you reduce the risk of bringing home bedbugs.
Step 6: Sell your plan.
You can’t sell it all at once. Know where you want to stop and when. Start with booking those accommodations. (Again, I recommend non-refundable because they are cheaper, and you want to make sure your husband can’t back out once hear hears the rest of your crazy scheme.) Then, with your map and ideas in hand, begin singing the praises of hiking with llamas in the hills of Massachusetts* or scaling Cadillac Mountain in Maine because it’s the highest point in all of North America along the Atlantic seaboard.* How could you possibly not stop by the home of Uncle Remus in Georgia, considering you still have the Disney record from your childhood?* Exclaim, “It’s just a little bit out of the way!” And know your audience. Sure, driving 3 hours out of our way to see the bats fly out from under the Congress Street Bridge in Austin isn’t going to appeal to my husband the way it does to me, but letting him know that nearby is world famous Stubb’s BBQ (with live country music) just might tip the scales.* “World Famous” is a phrase I tack on to many places I am interested in seeing. Having extra ideas that are lame in comparison to the ones you really want to do provides your family with a sense that they are participating in the voting process.
Step 7: Create a detailed itinerary
This should include the length of each leg of driving, accommodation information (confirmation number, address and phone- trust me on this!), activity information (hours of operation, admission price- again, learn from my errors!), and the best options for restaurants. Give yourself ample time for late starts, traffic, and children who might vomit in the backseat.* Submit the plan for “approval.” This might be where you book dinner reservations and discover that the weekend you’re at the Culinary Institute of America is actually their spring break and every restaurant is closed.* Are you going to “hop over the border” into Canada while visiting Maine?* Think about passports and making sure you call your bank so they don’t shut off your debit card just as you’re about to fill your tank of gas.*
Step 8: Enjoy your trip, but expect the unexpected
Itinerary in hand, set out on your grand adventure. Sometimes along the way, you will find out that you are only a few minutes away from a good friend who moved to Florida, and you’ll meet up with him at a gas station parking lot for a few minutes.* You might discover that hotel reservations that you absolutely booked and gave a credit card number for never went through and and now you are standing by Old Faithful booking a room in Montana in the opposite direction of Grand Teton National Park where you are headed the next morning.* Be flexible and think on your feet. Sobbing in the middle of a visitor’s center because the hours of operation changed, and they are closing and won’t let you in, might just get you into Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas for free, even if it’s only for a few minutes.* Sometimes severe weather or other disasters impacts your plans (like tornados,* hail*, the road melting due to abnormal geothermal conditions*, or fire alarms in the middle of the night*). You will need to call an audible. Go with the flow.
Step 9: Avoid Chain Restaurants
It’s almost impossible to avoid eating at chain restaurants, especially fast food places, as you spend hours on the highway. But whenever, possible go local. Why stop at Starbucks when you can stop at Bearscat Bakery (Bismarck, ND) and eat bear scat donuts?* Why eat at Applebees when you can eat at the Wildhorse Saloon (Nashville) with free country line dancing classes.* You’re only going to be here for a little while. Don’t waste your time on restaurants that you can eat at 5 minutes from home.
Step 9: Let it go!
Towards the end of the trip, it is possible that your family’s patience and love of being with one another will dwindle. You might need to let go of your hopes of touring Abilene, Kansas because no one else cares that that’s where the Chisholm Trail ended* or skipping St. Louis, MO because they prefer a day of rest before heading home.* You might need to drive straight through West Virginia without even seeing the Palace of Gold, but know you are going to have another road trip later, and you’ll see it then.*
**Sadly, we missed the exit for this as we drove through Mississippi, and now we HAVE to go back to Mississippi because how can you actually call that visiting the state?