It’s that time of year again…. when the fiancée gets restless at work and we find ourselves hitting the road for a much needed vacation. Now if I was really motivated, I’d start planning trips ahead of time (knowing he’s going to drop the “I want a vacation” bomb on me with only a week or two to plan) but I haven’t gotten to that point yet. Instead, I find myself once again planning a last minute road trip with only 2-weeks notice. Fortunately I’ve got the planning process down to a science.
One of the reasons I don’t plan ahead is that I never really know where he’s going to want to go. You may ask why he gets to choose and not me? For one thing, he’s the one paying. For another thing, if you’ve been to my bucket list page, you may notice I want to see pretty much everywhere in the world, so it’s very likely that I also want to go see whatever he chooses. This year it happenes to be Salem and Boston, Massachusetts.
You may find the idea of planning a trip like this to be pretty daunting, especially since I’ve been given a very tight budget of $2000 for a 9-day trip! Let me break down my planning process for you.
First… is it doable? I look at the cost of driving (it’s about 1000 miles each way, plus a couple tanks for excursions/detours), the cost of hotels in the area we want to stay (if we have the car, we can stay outside the city and save some cash), the cost of the activities we want to do (in this case whale watching is a big one) and how much it’ll cost us to eat. If he’s giving me a budget of $2000, can we do it? In this case,
- Hotels on the road ($100/night x 3 nights)
- Hotel in Boston area ($150/night x 5 nights)
- Fuel (80 gallons @$3/gal = $240) – my car gets awesome gas mileage
- Tolls (about $80)
- Parking (Salem- $10/day, Boston $30/day)
- Whale watching ($60/person = $120)
- Souvenirs ($50) – my fiancée collects Hard Rock Café shot glasses and we’re planning to pick up 5 of them on this trip!
- Food ($60-70/day x 9 days = $600) – we’ll pack a cooler in the car on driving days so we can eat at nicer restaurants when we’re in towns.
That total comes to about $2200. Our general budget is pretty close to the target and, if we can cut a few costs here and there, we can actual get in right on budget. For now, we’ll leave the budget at $2200. If you’re interested, check out the final road trip stats on Day 9 to find out how we did.
Once the trip is a go, I start planning the driving portion. In this case, we’ll take 2 days to get there and 3 days to get back, leaving us 4 full days in the Boston area. I look at the direct route… 15 hours total. Then I start to look around the middle of that route (thanks Google Maps!)… looks like Niagara Falls is exactly half way for us… sweet! So our first night we’ll have dinner, see the falls, and stay somewhere in that area. On the way back, we’re going to stop at 4 Hard Rock Cafes to expand our shot glass collection (Connecticut, the Bronx, NYC and Pittsburg). We’ll hit the first 3 on driving day 1 and try to make it as far as Hershey, PA before finding a cheap roadside motel. The next day we’ll stop for lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Pittsburg, PA on our way to Cleveland, OH, where we’ll find another cheap hotel. Then the last day will just be driving from Cleveland home, which is only about 5 hours.
Next, I fill in some leg stretch stops. I don’t like rest stops for leg stretching. Sure they’re convenient, but I’d much rather get off the road a short way and see something interesting. We’ve always enjoyed this in the past. Our favorite leg-stretch-spot was Elephant Rocks in Missouri. State parks often offer free admission and wildlife refuge areas are also nice. In this case I’ve added stops to see Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Eagles, and Dinosaur footprints, as well as our tour of Hard Rock Cafe’s. We’ll also be driving through some cool cities like Albany, New Haven and New York City, so there may be opportunities to stop there. I’ve already created my google maps drives with all the stops plotted along the way, and sent links for those to my phone so I’m ready to navigate.
The next step in the planning process is to decide what we’ll do on those 4 days in the Boston area. I make a huge list of everything I can find to do in the area and what the weather is expected to be on the days we’re there. Then I block out our days.
- Day 1: Salem
- Day 2: Whale watching (AM)
- Day 3: Boston
- Day4: play it by ear
That gives me an easy framework to put all the must-do activities into. In our case, we want to take advantage of all the free walking tours and historical sights because we want to save money, but also because there are so many interesting things to do are that are free and we figure they’re worth taking advantage of before we start throwing money at things. Salem has walking tour maps available online, which I downloaded and printed. The same is true for Boston. On my itinerary I added links for information about relevant sites we’ll see on those tours so we can read more about them as we walk. I also checked the hours of things we wanted to stop at to make sure they’ll be open. Then I added all the other items to the 4th day, categorized by location, so we can see how we feel and what we really want to see… but also to allow room for spontaneity. We may find something that wasn’t even on my radar that we feel like exploring and there needs to be time to do that. I call it our “flex day”.
Side note: We noticed we’re visiting a lot of National Park Sites, so we picked up a National Parks Passport Book to start getting our visits stamped. It was only $10 and will be a nice encouragement to continue to visit National Parks in the future.
Finally I start booking the things that need booking. In this case, the Boston area hotel and the whale watching excursion. Turns out we have a free night we hadn’t redeemed yet and we found a hotel for around $135/night instead of $150. It’s about 1/2 hour drive from everything we want to do, which is convenient enough for our needs. We saved a little over $150 total on that, even with all the outrageous booking fees. Then I looked at the offerings for whale watching tours. The one I’d originally used to budget left from Boston and cost $60/person. There was another that left from Gloucester (closer to our hotel) that only cost $48/person, plus they offered free parking…. yay! When I was buying our ticket, I noticed a place to enter a Groupon code, so I quickly popped over there and got an amazing Groupon for 1/2 price tickets with no blackout dates. I bought the Groupon and used it immediately to buy our tickets. Our whale watching excursion only ended up costing us $48 total… saving us $72 off what we budgeted…double yay!!. We have already saved more than the $200, bringing our budget back under that $2000 mark, and we haven’t even left yet. We did decide to buy a couple pairs of travel binoculars with our “windfall”. They only cost $10/each on Amazon (including delivery within 24-hours), but I think they’ll help make the whale watching experience more rewarding.
Speaking of leaving, that happens tomorrow morning! Today is laundry and packing day. We checked, replaced and topped off all the fluids, bulbs, tires, etc in the car earlier in the week; and we have gotten the house mostly ready to leave (alert the neighbors, clean out the fridge, etc). In the morning we’ll let Alexa know she should listen for unusual noise in the house (did you know she could do that for you?) and take out the trash on our way out the door.
I’m going on an adventure… and you should too!