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You’ve been asking for it so we put together this episode on the 12 best tools we use to planning a rad adventure.
Start with a healthy mix of smartphone apps and old school maps. Throw in a mild obsession with travel books and we’ve got this road trippin’ thing nailed down to a science.
Yeah, yeah I totally plan the hell outta these trips and that may not be your style but early on I learned that we couldn’t wing it cause we’d inevitably miss out on something super rad and we also couldn’t cram every awesome thing in so I started coming up with a ton of options.
The whole options thing really works well for couples especially because as the master planner, you still retain your control freak status over the whole enchilada but all of the choices give your significant other a loose sense of empowerment.
…planning the trip can be just as exciting as going on it.
Since we like to travel in the off seasons to save a little coin and avoid the summer log jams its preferable to have some ideas in the cooker so you can pounce when the time is right. I might read an article or see a show about a particular destination and immediately add it to my home screen or start a folder so I can keep adding regional goodies and create a trip chock full of the crazy stuff I really wanted to check out.
Pinterest is also a super fun way to collect trip ideas and keep them organized. In the old days I would clip a picture or rip out an article and stuff it into a file never to be seen again but in this modern age of instant information organizing our travel ideas has never been easier. The iPhone is my personal travel assistant and on it you’ll find an entire page of folders for upcoming trips and another whole page for future trips and possibly maybe even a page of bucket list ideas. We also can’t forget the folders devoted to SoCal entertainment and local adventures.
Okay truthfully, my iPhone probably has more travel related apps than anything else but they all leave me missing something. Paper. I love the reliable feel of paper maps and losing one’s cell signal has never led to a melt down when a real paper map is handy. So let’s get to it.
#1: Large Scale Road Atlas
You simply can not replace a large scale road atlas with any piece of technology.
My friend Amazon always has a Road Atlas ready for every state that we travel to waiting patiently in my cart until trip planning commences. Seriously though, don’t order the atlas until you’ve settled on the destination cause those suckers take up a lot of room on the shelf.
I totally recommend purchasing an Atlas for each state that you plan to visit. They are far more detailed than any paper map you’ll find at AAA and you can flop those great big pages open and actually see for your self what other good shit is in the areas you’re contemplating. I say contemplating cause we often run across a little town or natural wonder that is too good to pass up and changes the direction of our driving plans.
But most helpful is the ability to see and create a driving radius of amazing side trips and selecting a home base somewhere in the middle. Did I mention that we love maps! I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve changed plans midstream because I found something interesting on the map and Googled it.
Hot Tip: Don’t start making reservations until you have your driving route planned out and on the same note make sure to check out the availability of lodging in your chosen areas before committing to a driving plan. Sometimes an awesome lodging possibility will also force a change of plans but remember, where you stay is just as important as what you do.
#2: Chamber of Commerce
This is a useful old school trick that I remember learning back in grade school. Nowadays you can simply go online and Google the Chamber of Commerce for the city you plan to visit. They often have a wealth of information on lodging, restaurants and things to do in the area. Most businesses join their local Chambers and as a result become part of the info readily available.
This came in particularly handy when planning a week long trip to Paso Robles wine country. We were looking for a more unique place to stay with a working winery vibe.
After requesting the Paso visitors guide from the Chamber I came across just what I was looking for in the very back of the guide. A real tree house above the wine tasting room on a active vineyard.
I looked everywhere to find the perfect place and literally couldn’t believe this listing wasn’t searchable online. The owners were real working folks without a lot of internet savvy but I found their little gem in the Chamber guide anyway cause I like to comb through the materials as part of my planning hobby.
For me, planning the trip can be just as exciting as going on it.
So Google your location and request the visitors guide to find a good starting point for adventure ideas.
The visitors guide for Moab, Utah was ultra handy in helping us choose a local off-road guide to take us out on Hell’s Revenge, a real 4×4 doosey for us girls.
#3: Yelp & Trip Advisor
…all was right and good in the world as we did not miss out on the best BBQ meal of our entire life…
We are big fans of review apps like Yelp and Trip Advisor. Once we’ve narrowed down our route it’s time to start investigating the food offerings, local guides, attractions and lodging.
Yelp is a food lovers paradise while Trip Advisor is great for lodging and activities. Pay especially close attention to the photos section to find out if the food looks good or if the ambiance is up to your standards. I’m always searching thru the pics for a look at the interior and exterior to see if I can request a cozy booth or romantically lit outdoor patio seating as Yelpers are helpful types who love to post lots of visuals.
If you can’t find your venue on Yelp tap on over to Trip Advisor which has a substantially larger user base and a shit-ton of reviews.
Between both these apps, if you can’t find what you’re looking for it probably doesn’t exist and that has totally been the case on several of our road trips. Some little towns actually roll up their sidewalks at 6pm and you literally can’t find a place to eat let alone anything to do.
We found this out the hard way when these two noobs took off to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon in the early spring to play in the snow and discovered the kitchen at our bed and breakfast was only open for breakfast during the off season. The surrounding towns had little more to offer than a liquor store with TNT Tamales and Slim Jims so we spent 3 hours driving around searching for a diner until we came across an Indian casino with a snack shack.
So give Yelp and Trip Advisor a quick search to check your destination for food choices and be sure to do a little extra homework to see if these places are going to be open when you are there.
Many tourist towns near national parks close up shop for off seasons like winter and dining choices can be super limited.
Oh and remember that reviews are all relative based on whats actually available in the area. California is jam packed with foodies so competition is fierce but in small town America the local diner may not only be your best option but it could also be your only option.
Hot Tip: Throw out the most extreme low star reviews and the super gushy five star blabber mouths. If it sounds too good to be true, someone’s buddy probably wrote it and if it’s really bad, a competitor could be trying to drive business away. Either way, look for the most common comments to get a better sense of what is really happening.
#4: Websites & Travel Blogs
One of the first things I do when I hear about a cool new place is Google it. A quick little search and I can bookmark a few websites like Wikipedia to return to when its time to hit the road again.
See an unusual place and wonder where it is? Ask Google your question. “Where is the abandoned town that Big Fish was filmed in?” Odds are that if you want to go somewhere someone else has probably already written about it on a travel blog so scan these pages for photos, suggestions for stuff to do and other insider information.
I’ve gotten some excellent tips from blogs about when the best time is to take photos in many of our favorite national parks. These parks can be enormous with long distances in between scenic points of interest so these tips helped us to plan which sites we should see first in order to get the best shots at the right time of day.
Sometimes you must prioritize your itinerary when you can’t be in two different places at sunrise which also means getting your ass outta bed super early to be on the road to your photo op just in time for the good light.
And if you didn’t already know, the best time to get great natural lighting for your scenic photos is the hour before and the hour after sunrise and sunset so check out sunrise and sunset times for your location to plan those epic shots. Now even if you’re not into Instagramming every aspect of your trip you can still utilize info like this in your plans for the perfect sunset dinner or catching the massive morning fly off at the lake.
Any way you look at it, if there’s something you want to do, Google that and add words like “best time” or “best view” to get more focused suggestions.
Flex your internet key word searching skills as well as browsing Google images for a broader look at your destination. If you see something that peaks your interest you can tap on over to the website that it comes from and refine your search to include more cool stuff like that.
Hot Tip:Here’s a quick list of equally awesome search words to use in association with researching your next adventure:
Unusual – Off the beaten path – Strange – Perfect – Romantic – Haunted – Weird – Boutique – Best time of day- Lodging – Pet Friendly – Nearby – Historic – Scenic Highway or Byway – Must Do – Day Trip
If you haven’t heard of the Evernote app, consider your life changed from this moment on. Evernote has a little green icon with an elephant on it and you will probably move this right onto your homepage. This little green gem will keep your travel plans and any other thing in your life wonderfully organized and everyone will be on the same page. It’s a note taking app unlike any other.
It’s accessible from any device and syncs with all of them. We currently use the basic version on our MacBook, iMac, iPad and iPhones so we can access our notebook on the go with whatever device is handy at the time. Or from any computer with an Internet connection.
This is especially helpful since we always seem to have our phones nearby nowadays. You can also upgrade to a premium version if you want to share more notebooks or need higher storage limits or sharing access with a larger group of people.
The sharing feature is certainly the most awesome part of this app, you can start a check list of items to purchase and pack for your upcoming trip and share this with your significant other. Now they can access the same list you created and add items left out or check off the item when they purchase it and move it to the ready to pack list.
We use this app for everything from grocery lists to blog post notes and upcoming trip ideas.
When I’m at lunch and suddenly remember that I used the last Q-tip this morning I can quickly open Evernote on my phone and update our shopping list so that when Lena stops at the store on the way home she will see the updated list and bring me my Q-tips!
You can also use this app for evil and make a honey-do-list then share it with your honey.
Another primo fancy schmancy feature is the ability to photograph hand written notes through the app and it becomes searchable with no need to type it out. What more could you ask for. Photograph receipts, business cards or anything else you may need to organize and possibly search for later.
I admit it. You we’re right, Lena Starbird. This app is the shit.
Glossy magazines aren’t quite dead yet but they are slowly moving into the digital reader age which just makes it even easier to access great trip ideas on the regular.
Flipping through the freshly inked pages looking for our next great adventure was always at the happy heart of my trip planning process so I’m still getting used to swiping through the new breed of digital zines but help is on the way with the incredible bonus of additional digital content not available in the paper versions. Lots of magazine subscriptions are now offering the digital version free to their subscribers most likely in an effort to ween us off the paper.
Sunset, Backpacker and National Geographic Adventure magazines are stuffed full of additional online content with lots of behind the scenes video footage, video gear reviews and bonus photos that couldn’t possibly be crammed into the article. You can see so much more stuff than ever before since they don’t have to be concerned with the lack of physical page space anymore.
Too many great photos? No problem, stick them into an album and add the link to the article. Got a time lapse video of a driving tour? No problem, feature it in the digital article and tell those old timers reading the paper version that they can find this bonus stuff online.
Digital magazines may have also saved our lives. My little travel book obsession totally included a magazine subscription nightmare of hoarder’s guilt with tall stacks of dog eared magazines too precious to throw out after many a tree had been murdered for my reading pleasure. Luckily the digital revolution came along and likely saved us from being trapped under a metric ton of travel tips and glossy photos.
Oh how I miss the smear of my ink stained fingers after a session with a mag fresh from the mailbox but I just made myself feel instantly better by copying the link from a killer new article on the Aurora Borealis into my Evernote bucket list so I can float the idea to the little woman for an possible upcoming trip.
#7: Twitter & Facebook
Now what I’m not talking about here is tweeting or posting pics all over social media about your trip. That’s to be expected and don’t forget to hashtag #2GirlsTrippin when you do.
But what we’re getting at here is looking up your destination, hotel, tour guide, restaurant, brewery, dive bar, distillery, tourist attraction, national park, or festival and following or liking those places and businesses on Twitter and Facebook to stay in tune with event updates, news and promotions.
We follow a bunch of travel related pages and have gleaned numerous tips and special event notifications not easily found elsewhere. Your favorite national park totally has a Facebook page or Twitter account and will frequently make announcements and post beautiful photos of current events like the beginning of wild flower blooms or first of the season snow storms and road or attraction closures.
A great example of this was just 2 months ago where the Burning Man social media accounts were abuzz with up to date information regarding the delayed opening of the festival and road closures this year due to an inconvenient rain storm keeping thousands of shirtless attendees from entering the muddy festival grounds.
Not all social media accounts are created equal so some accounts may go dormant in the off season while others post daily so we recommend checking out the recent postings before clogging up your feed and remember you can always unfollow after your trip.
For your own customized calendar of cool shit to do locally try following your favorite brewery to stay informed about special limited releases, upcoming beer festivals and brewery events like trivia nights and food truck lineups.
Heck we’ve followed Anaheim’s newest brewery Bottle Logic since before they opened and have scored some super limited bottles of their award winning brews and they even tweet “Help Wanted” listings as they expand their operation to keep up with demand for their delicious drink.
Follow the local police department for interesting community updates and alerts especially if you’re traveling to a location with a reputation for turmoil or crime problems.
We probably don’t even have to mention this but if you’re not already following your favorite bands and festivals then you most likely don’t want to know when those surprise shows and new tour dates are announced anyway.
#8: Department of Transportation
Even with a boatload of planning some trips can go awry due to angry weather patterns or natural disasters so another great tool to add to your travel arsenal is DOT. Every state we have road tripped through has had a DOT app to keep us informed of road closures and traffic conditions.
For our most recent adventure thru the Southwest I downloaded the UDOT app for Utah and enabled push notifications. This provided us with current traffic conditions which allowed us to avoid construction zones and highway accidents easily making our trip more enjoyable.
There’s nothing worse than running into a traffic jam on your way to #DoFunShit. Once we got home I disabled push notifications for the UDOT app and deleted the ones for New Mexico and Arizona since we don’t anticipate returning anytime soon and just because sometimes you gotta make room on your phone.
#9: America’s Byways
If you love road trips like we do then you must bookmark this website or buy the book for a lifetime reference of scenic driving opportunities.
…I have made dramatic changes to our driving routes in order to accommodate staying at a truly awesome place.
When planning a road trip first select a destination then look thru the Scenic Byways in each state to see if they can be integrated as part of your driving route.
We absolutely love driving through scenic areas and have religiously chosen the longer more scenic route over the faster highways. In fact, we try to stay off the main roads and hit every scenic byway or beautiful country backroad we can find.
Most of these byways have lower traffic speeds and will usually add significant drive time to the trip so keep that in mind when planning.
Seriously though, if you’re road tripping it to Oregon you can avoid the 5 Freeway almost entirely by cruising up Pacific Coast Highway 1 which is one of the most beautiful coastal highways in all the world.
Now for the return trip home, I prefer to make the most our slow crawl back to reality so we chose the historic Gold Rush Highway 49 which you can pick up near Vinton in the top northeast corner of California and take this Instagrammer’s dream through a bevy of richly preserved olde tyme towns all they way back down to Yosemite before having to move over to a more lackluster highway to take you over the grapevine and back into Hollywood land.
#10: AirBnB & VRBO
Lodging ranks high as one of the most important enjoyable parts of our trips. Why go stay in a boring motel when you can stay in a tree house or a castle. Why not choose a modern cabin or a boat house over a chain hotel for relatively the same price.
Our travel philosophy includes a heavy dose of alfresco showers, claw foot tubs, bidets and whatever other mini-luxury we can squeeze into our experience. Why go stay somewhere normal when you can search AirBnB and VRBO for an impressive array of unique and interesting amenities to add to your dream vacation.
Try renting a 2nd story loft above a micro-brewery in Portland, Oregon and grabbing a happy hour pitcher of craft beer to drink upstairs in the comfort of your pajamas. Or instead of staying at a touristy hotel in Taos New Mexico search for a restored adobe hacienda within walking distance of historic downtown. Or how about calling a boat house in Sequim Washington your home base for a week of exploring Olympic National Park.
AirBnB and VRBO have long been my go-to resource for our travel lodging and we have never had any problems to this date. It’s recommended to search both sites for availability in the preferred location as it seems that most rental listings are not duplicated but if the offerings seem limited, try expanding your search to a larger area including other nearby towns.
I’ll admit that while browsing the listings I have made dramatic changes to our driving routes in order to accommodate staying at a truly awesome place.
While searching the listings add keywords like alfresco shower, infinity pool, lake view, claw foot tub or any other amenity that tickles your fancy and you might just find what you’re looking for.
Rental Tip: Read all of the rental policies to make sure you agree with them. Do not wire transfer any payments. Most rentals will accept checks, credit cards or PayPal so there is no need to do business with someone requiring only wire transfers. That is shady at best.
First, search for cats. Then search for videos of the places you want to see and the things you want to do.
Thinking about going on a ghost tour on an old plantation in New Orleans but not sure if its worth your pennies, search that shit on YouTube. Every human records their experiences nowadays so do a little video research to see if it’s up to snuff.
Curious about taking your vehicle off road at Hell’s Revenge in Moab, Utah, check out the numerous videos and then reluctantly determine that opting for a guided Hummer tour for this piece of craziness would be the best course of action.
YouTube can also help you figure things out. If you want to learn how to play Creep by Radiohead on the ukelele, look on YouTube. Wanna turn your old Band Hero drums into an electronic drum kit, find out how to hook it up on YouTube. Need a quick tutorial on how to get the most out of your new GoPro 4, you’ll find that on YouTube too.
Hours can be lost staring at humanity so set a timer or tell a buddy, just make sure your have an escape plan.
#12: Google Earth
Amazing. Street views. Use this to look at the physical address and surroundings of your rental.
We mulled over staying at a super funky inn near the 9th Ward in New Orleans a short 3 years after hurricane Katrina but were cautioned by unfavorable news reports of slow recovery. The property was extremely unique but a healthy fear prompted me to investigate further when I decided to try Google Earth’s street view feature.
I entered the property address and immediately had access to a 360 degree view of the neighborhood including the Inn and ample street parking. We were sold and booked our outstanding accommodations for a great “recovery” price and all was right and good in the world as we did not miss out on the best BBQ meal of our entire life at The Joint.
Our FJ Cruiser has been known to encounter parking problems in tight urban areas especially with the roof top bag protruding upwards so my concerns about the parking situation at our loft rental in Portland was answered on Google Earth in addition to also getting a good look at the exterior making our arrival less stressful as I had easily recognized the building from the street view. Thanks Google.
That’s it. 12 of the best tools and resources we’ve used and recommended over and over again to help cram our vacations full of fun shit. Now we have heard rumors that there are a ton of other useful travel tools out there but since we already spend way too much time in front of the computer screen you must do us a favor and tell us all about your favorite tools. We’ve shared ours, now it’s time to share yours in the comment section below. Get to it.
Lena & Kristina