Friday, October 15, 2010

Wild Western Road Trip

Dear Jamie,

Congratulations on the new edition of your book! Thank you, too, for your kind offer of free road trip advice! Can I take you up on the offer?

Here’s my situation. I’m married with two young boys (4 and 3 respectively). We’re New Zealanders presently living in Dubai. In about eighteen months or so (approximately summer of 2012), we hope to leave the Middle East and return home to New Zealand. Our dream is to return home via the USA and visit some family I have in central North Dakota. After spending a couple of weeks with them, we’re thinking of doing a road trip west, eventually winding up either in LA, San Francisco, Seattle or Vancouver – all of which provide easy access to flights to New Zealand.

Essentially, we’re looking to spend around 3-4 weeks on the road (though this is flexible). We need to travel fairly comfortably, but also affordably. Our main purpose is to give our boys (by then, they’ll be about 7 and 5 years old) some opportunities to enjoy wildlife and nature up close. Visiting national parks and wilderness areas is our hope.

What would you suggest? Specifically, which route/s would you suggest? Also, what would you suggest is the most cost-effective way of travelling from the prairie states to the west coast over a period of 3-4 weeks? I’ve considered buying, using, then selling either an RV or an SUV. Renting one seems very expensive, but then perhaps there are good deals? We’d probably be travelling in August or September of that year.

I’d be very grateful for any help you can offer!

Thanks so much for your time.



Dear Jonathan --

Many thanks for writing in to Road Trip USA. I hope I can help you have a great trip -- even if the trip doesn't start for 18 months. Planning such a big adventure can be almost as much fun as taking it, though nothing beats the real thing. I did a similar "family road trip" with my Dad & brothers when I was little, and I still remember the thrill of seeing bison and bald eagles, and rivers and waterfalls, up close and personal.

You seem to have seen quite a lot of the world -- New Zealand to Dubai -- but I think you'll find the US has quite a lot of unique beauty of its own to offer. Having an entire month, in summer, to explore the country is a real luxury, even if your budget doesn't stretch to full-time resort-style pampering. (Luxury is wasted on youngsters anyway -- I generally find that kids are happier camping out and running around outdoors than they are anywhere else.)

Seeing as you have family in North Dakota, my first impulse after reading your letter was to say: get someone there to find you a mini-van or small SUV, one which you could use to go car-camping. Not necessarily full-on RV-ing, but one spacious enough to keep all the tents and stove and fishing gear you'll want to have, so you can appreciate the Rocky Mountain "Wild West." (And don't forget Canada -- the Canadian Rockies are spectacular, and in many ways better set up for family travel, with lots of inexpensive but very well-maintained hostels, in places like Banff and Jasper.)

I cover a lot of this region in my US-93 chapter, aka "Border to Border", online and in my Road Trip USA book; see also the US-2 and US-20 routes. There is just so much wonderful stuff to see, it is a perfect locale for what you seem to want to do.

For foreigners, the real difficulty about buying a car in the US is mostly the legalities -- you need to register it to drive it on the road, and to do this you need a permanent local address. You'll also need to arrange insurance, though if your ND "family" is agreeable and capable, maybe you can get them to add you as a driver to their insurance policies. Cars themselves are often very cheap in the US.

Still, it's worth looking into getting your own vehicle, because as you suggest, renting a car, or an RV / camper / combi, can get very expensive, very quickly. Not outrageously expensive, once you factor in savings on hotels etc, but it still adds up. I myself would rather spend the money on a nice tent I could use later in life, rather than just saying goodbye to a few $1000s of dollars in rental fees. If you buy something, you could mentally "depreciate" the cost of the vehicle against what you save from not renting an RV -- an any residual value you get from selling it when you leave is a bonus.

(That said, by 2012 the US dollar may have lost all its value and no longer be worth anything, so you may be able to live like kings on your UAE dirhams!)

Or as another option, maybe you break your trip into 2 parts: could rent a camper or RV for a 2-week Rocky Mountain wilderness and wildlife tour, maybe out of Denver? (must sees: Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Glacier and Banff!).

Then for the 2nd leg you could fly to the West Coast, and do another, more town-based driving tour in a rental car, maybe looping between SF and Seattle and LA. (Or take the train -- there is a spectacular Amtrak route from Glacier NP to Seattle, called the Empire Builder, with bedroom compartments!)

However you get to the West Coast, here a few of the many must sees: San Francisco (where you really don't need or want to have a car, so maybe this would be a good plae to fly in and out of?); the Humboldt Redwoods on the Northern California coast; Olympic National Park, west of sensational Seattle (where you look for "killer whales" while you ride ferry boats with your boys, out to the lovely San Juan Islands!); also Yosemite National Park in California, which to me is the most spectacular place on Earth.

Hope this scattershot reply helps with your planning -- please feel free to write again once you get closer to a plan.

With best wishes,

Jamie Jensen
Road Trip USA



Anonymous Tom said...

Hi Jamie,
My wife and I rented a campervan and followed the Road Trip USA Route 66 book through the western states. After reading the book, we built in time to follow the side trips and take pictures.
Thanks for getting us off the freeway and the explanations to what's out there. We will be using the Pacific Coast book to plan our next trip.
Our unlimited milage campervan cost $2100 for 22 days. We drove 7800 miles and stayed in state, national, and KOA's campgrounds for a average cost of $22. We drove from San Francisco to Great Smokey Mountains and back in October 2010.

11:38 AM  

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