trip planning

Before we embarked on our long trip, a friend suggested that we should get a TripReward card as it can accumulate points for a free stay in the future each time we stay at a participating hotel. We got one because we thought we would have a lot of opportunities to use it as we were anticipating staying at least a couple of times per week in motels. Of course, because the lure of free stays, every time we needed to stay in a motel, we would take our time to look for one of the participating hotels. The one we used the most was Days Inn. Although we didn’t stay in Days Inn or motels often (less than once per week), Kadia was able to recognize its logo and shouted out its name every time she saw it.

When we were in Missoula, Montana, we were looking for a motel to stay. We checked out Days Inn and Super 8. One of them was full and the other one had a vacancy but it was on the 3rd floor and was about $90 plus taxes. And because its underground parking was being painted, we also had to park on the street. I didn’t like the idea of a 3rd floor unit and had to park on the street, given our van was vandalized before. We decided to try another place.

We called another Super 8 motel on the outskirt of the town; it had a second floor unit for about the same price but with parking. As we drove toward it, we passed by a motel we had never heard of it, Brooks St Motor Inn. It looked deserted as we only saw a couple of cars. On a whim, I made a U-turn and decided to check out the place. Based on the name, we figured it must be an independently owned motel. I didn’t have much of expectation but was surprised to find the reception area clean and the hostess friendly. The price was only $50 and we could park right in front of our motel room. Whenever we arrived in a motel, we typically needed to do laundry, repack luggage, clean things, etc. This required us to move a lot of things between the van and the motel room. One thing I didn’t understand was why some of the motels were more like a hotel than a motel now. Instead of being able to park right in front of the room, we had to go through a lobby and an inside hallway to get to the room. I despised that. So we decided to stay in this motel.

Although the motel only provided one tiny soap bar (no shampoos or other amenities like in Days Inn), it was clean and quiet. We didn’t need any of the amenities as we had them anyway. There weren’t many customers there so it could seem to be spooky for people from out of town but we had a pleasant and convenient stay there. I felt bad that it didn’t have many customers as most of people nowadays stayed in motels belonging to some chains like we had previously as well. It was unfortunate. Just like the Wal-Mart Superstores driving the local grocery stores out of business, motel chains are driving independently owned motels out as well.

I knew one reason for us to stay with a motel chain is the sense of security as we figured it probably would be safer than an independently owned but unknown motel. But sometimes I think that is just a false sense of security. The part of getting a free stay didn’t justify staying at a motel chain because it charged more so even with a free stay we would ended up paying more per stay anyway. We decided to try local motels more in the future and used our own judgment on the safety. Although a motel belonging to a motel chain is also a local business, we feel more of a kinship with an independently owned motel, its character, free spirit, and courage to be different. We don’t need more cookie cutter establishments.

Human are creatures of habits. I was great that we broke out of our habits of staying in chain motels and tried out something different. It felt strange at first but it provided us an opportunity to learn something new, a different way of traveling and staying. We should always keep open-minded in trying new things, breaking out ruts so we can experience new things and perhaps be rewarded with somewhat memorable if not better things. Sometimes there isn’t anything wrong or bad with the old habits but trying new things can energize our existence to live more fully.

As I mentioned in the last post, we lost all of our wallets when our van was broken into. As everyone knows, whenever a credit card is stolen or lost, the first thing is to report the missing card. Now without the luxury of being at home, it would be difficult to remember whom to call to report the issue. Luckily, every time before a long trip, I would always email myself all the important information such as credit card numbers and phone numbers for the worst case scenarios. I never had to use the information but this time I was glad that I did that.

We went back to the hotel and logged on to my yahoo account to retrieve the information then started to cancel all the credit cards–one of the credit cards was used already for gas a couple of times. Chase had the greatest service of 3 credit card companies as it was the only company willing to fed-ex a replacement card to us in 2 days. Bank of America also fed-ex a replacement ATM card as well. Luckily we were staying at a hotel for a week as it was our timeshare exchange so we didn’t have to stay longer to wait. For two days, we didn’t have any money so we had to charge to our hotel account for food. Although I did have another credit card hidden away in the van for emergency, it didn’t have auto-payment set up so I preferred not to use it.

We also reported the theft to the local police and later were told that they were able to obtain a videotape of two persons using my credit card for gas but they didn’t recognize them. We also tried to get the window fixed for the 2-month returned trip home; otherwise, it would be an invitation for more theft. After talking to the Toyota dealership in Rutland about our problem, we were assured that they can order the parts needed to fix the window in 2 days. We were relieved.

However two days later, when we took the van in to fix, we discovered that they ordered the wrong part and it would take another 5 days to get the new parts. Not only they didn’t fix it, they made it worse by removing a piece of the broken part, made it difficult for us to tape the window shut. We were disappointed that the dealership did not make efforts to help us. We had some duct tape for emergency and this qualified as such. We taped the window shut from inside so it would appear to be normal from outside. We drove home like that for 2 months, replacing the tape many times.

I remember one time I traveled at France with my friend, Steve, and we accidentally put leaded gas into our unleaded-only vehicle. It was hard to put the pump into the gas tank but I managed to do it. We drove only a couple of minutes to our hotel afterwards but for some reasons I didn’t feel right and we walked back to the gas station with our French dictionary and discovered I did put the wrong gas in. I called my friend, Thomas, back in the USA to find out the consequence of such action. He explained to me that the catalytic converter would be completely destroyed but we were lucky that leaded gas may not have reached there.

Steve tried his best to explain in French to the owner of the gas station. Eventually the owner understood and sent a tow truck to bring our car back to the gas station. He didn’t believe how we could put leaded gas in the car and made me demonstrate how I did it. I showed him and he shook his head then told us to come back in a couple of hours while he drained the leaded gas. When we came back, I was expecting the worse, like a few hundred dollars for the labor and everything. Instead, the owner only charged us one tank of new unleaded gas. I couldn’t believe it. When I got home a few weeks later, I wrote a letter and had someone translated it to send back to the owner of the gas station to thank him again. What a service! And I have always had since and forever will have favorable impression of French people.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad. The biggest lost was actually our National Park pass. It was not replaceable so we had to purchase a new one. It was a lot of hassles though. We made sure we had our wallets with us the rest of the trip. Luckily we still had our passports so we can use them as IDs and were still able to go to Canada. We hid the passports well for the rest of the trip.

Appalachian Trail is one of the famous trails in the United States. It goes from Maine down to Georgia for 2,175 miles. Each year, thousand of hikers attempted to hike the whole length and about 1 out of 6 would succeed after months of toiling on the trail. When we were in Vermont’s Green Mountains, we had a chance to hike a section of it and we would not miss the opportunity. Deer Leap MapThe AT Trail passed through the Green Mountains where the trail crossed a busy road, Route 4, near the hotel we were staying for the week. We packed up some lunch and parked at a trailhead off the Route 4 for the hike. Unlike Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian Trail goes through many densely populated areas so it has to cross many roads.

The trail started out flat and went through a dense shaded vegetation Dense Vegetationarea with many bugs. There weren’t much to see so we quickly walked through that area to escape bugs. After about 1.2 miles, the trail branched off and became steep as we started climbing toward our destination, Deer Leap Overlook. Hiking up a ladderWe had to climb a little section of a ladder (nothing like what we did at Badlands National Park) and finally arrived at the Deer Leap Overlook, a big chunk of rocks. We had a great view of all the surrounding areas. Deer Leap OverlookWe had our lunch there.

Instead of going back the same route, we made a loop back to our trailhead even though it meant that we had to hike along Route 4 for a little bit. We got back to the van and put Kadia and Bryden back in their car seats to get ready to go back to our hotel. I went to the glove compartment to get my wallet that I had decided to leave in the car the last minute before the hike as we didn’t need it. But it was missing! I knew right away something was wrong but there wasn’t anything else looked out of place or any evidences of the van had been broken into. Susan thought I might have misplaced the wallet but I was pretty sure. Susan had her wallet in a bag in the van as well and when she looked for it, it was gone as well. Then I knew, someone somehow got into the van and took our wallets away.

I held on to the faint hope that whoever took our wallets might have discarded the wallets outside somewhere after taking the wallets out of the van to take the important things: cash and credit cards. I searched and searched in vain but there was no luck. They were gone for good. We took a quick stock of our things and it appeared that nothing else was obviously missing, not my cell phone and telephoto lenses that were laid near the glove compartment nor were our passports and our van’s spare key that were stored underneath my wallet in the glove compartment. It could have been much worse.

Soon I noticed something was weird with the rear side window on the driver side. When I shut any door, the window would open slightly then close again. Actually I didn’t even know that it was a window that can pop up slightly to vent, I thought it was a completely closed window. I checked it and found out it had been pried opened, the locking latch was broken and someone had forced it open wide enough to get inside of the van through it. What a bad design to have such a weak latch.

Here we were 3000 miles away from home and both of our wallets were gone with all our money, credit cards, and IDs. What a costly hike! What were we going to do?

Susan and I both like to take pictures. With digital cameras, we can take pictures abundantly without costing us an arm and a leg when developing them. We estimated that we might take about 200 pictures a day at 1 MByte per file. This came out to 22.8 GBytes (200 * 114) of files. Then there would be many video clips we would take with our cameras so that may be another 10 to 20 GBytes. I had a Toshiba laptop from work but it only had about 20 GBytes of free space. Also it did not have a DVD/CD burner as I would like to burn DVDs along the way to mail them back just in case something happened such as theft or computer crashing. We needed to have something else.

I was hesitated to bring expensive equipment on this trip as we cannot carry them with us most of time. They would be in the van and attract potential thieves. After debating getting an external DVD burner for a couple of weeks, we relented and decided to get our own laptop with a DVD burner. This was a once a lifetime trip and we wanted to have a backup system so we wouldn’t lose anything. We bought a Dell laptop, our first, and I started to put needed software on both laptops: Microsoft Streets and Trips, Magellan MapSend and Garmin MapSource. It was a hassle to have two systems but we didn’t want to take a chance.

We uploaded pictures into both machines as we traveled. After we had more than 5 GBytes, I would burn a DVD to store as a backup. But we were lazy to send out the DVD we burned. After the scare in Vermont in July where our van was broken into and our wallets were stolen but luckily not our computers, we did not procrastinate anymore and sent back all the DVDs we had burned up to that point. And we started to hide the computers in the van underneath a lot of things.

We were happy that we didn’t run into any more problems after that. One computer filled up around mid-August and the other computer also filled up in early-September. Luckily we were close to home so we filled up all the memory chips and made back home without having to delete pictures from the computers. We didn’t want to delete any pictures just in case if the DVDs we sent back had gotten lost or damaged. It had happened to us when we traveled around the world and one of the packages we sent back from France never arrived. We learned from our past mistakes.

Was it necessary to bring two computers? Probably not. However, they gave us a peace of mind and now we have 20,000+ pictures to edit. It has taken us longer to edit all the pictures than our whole trip but it is fun as we have a chance to re-live our trip.

When I started this blog, one of the goals was to improve my writing. Two methods to improve writing are to have someone providing editorial comments and to re-write over and over. I finally got someone to edit my blog (see here) so I am re-writing the post, Commercial Tour vs. Self-Guided Tour, here.


We take almost all of our vacations as independent tours as opposed to commercial tours. I know friends who swear by commercial tours because they don’t have to do much planning but we like to travel on our own because we enjoy the freedom of going to places whenever we want, the flexibility of changing our schedule and the adventure of the unknown. There are advantages and disadvantages of either tours and let’s look at them.

We took a commercial tour to China a few years ago. Some people take commercial tours because they don’t feel comfortable going to places where they don’t speak the language. Therefore, it was ironic that we took a tour in China because we do speak Chinese. It may seem to be scary to go to places where they speak a foreign language. But most people are friendly and are willing to help if we respect of them and their cultures. We have been to many places such as Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Indonesia where people didn’t speak any English (or Chinese) and we were able to get by on our own. Once we were in Spain where we were lost and had to ask for directions. I managed to ask the question,”Donde está la estación de tren?” by consulting my phrase book but we couldn’t understand the answer. The lady was friendly and drew on the dirt where we were and where we needed to go to get to the train station. As we followed her direction and got back on the main road, a bus drove by and the driver honked at us. He pointed the direction of the train station as he probably had guessed that we were lost and were trying to find the train station. It was a memorable story.

So why did we take a tour? It was safety. We were told that it was not convenient and safe to travel in China on your own, especially for us who liked to travel to countryside although big cities were okay. It was and still is not easy to obtain information from China. Therefore we decided to err on the safe side. However, although it provides some sense of safety, it is a faulty one. A commercial tour does not always guarantee safety, notably the Thousand Islands Lake massacre in China in 1989 and cruise ships being robbed by pirates. With that noted, we may still take a commercial tour such as on African Safari and in Nepal trekking where safety is a concern.

Some also believe that a commercial tour is a cheap way of traveling. It may be true in some cases, especially for a solo traveler, but the cheapest way is always on one’s own. There are many ways to save money: camping, make your own lunch/dinner and hiking instead of going to amusement parks, for example. We spent an average of $104 per day, which included every expense: gas, lodging, food, entertainment, car maintenance, gifts, ferry tickets, supplies, souvenirs, etc. That was not bad for 4 persons and we ate well and very little fast food, less than once a week. I doubt one can find a commercial tour charging $26 per person per day for a cross-country tour.

A commercial tour has its advantages, the biggest one being everything is already planned: lodging, transportation, points of interest, and even food sometimes. Some people also enjoy meeting fellow tourists. The only thing to decide is which tour company to go with and the rest is to sit back and enjoy. And, typically, it can be educational as tour guides often provide interesting tidbits on places and people. Although one can probably obtain some similar information from tour books and internet, it requires some efforts to research and read. Vacations should be relaxing, not stressing out from planning. No wonder commercial tours are big business. For our tour in China, we stayed in a 5-star hotel and had a 10-course meal every night. Everything was well-orchestrated and we got to see many things and learn many stories from the tour guides. However, I felt that it was a trip I watched on TV; it wasn’t personal and I didn’t feel connected to it. It just wasn’t for us.

We don’t like to plan either. An independent tour does not always mean a lot of planning. We like to think a trip is an adventure. Detailed planning will often turn out to be disappointing as things usually do not go according to plans. And most people who do detailed planning do not like surprises. We like surprises. I had many memorable adventures and some of them were unplanned. Of course, there probably wasn’t any tour that we can join to visit the country for 4 months. We didn’t plan too much for this trip: no reservations and no fixed schedules. We skimmed over some information initially, no more than one would read to decide which commercial tour to choose. We had a rough itinerary so we could monitor our time and get back home in 4 months. Picture Rocks National Lakeshore We typically waited until we were physically in a place before we read more about it. There was always time for that. The one disadvantage without planning ahead is some places may require a reservation months in advance but one can always improvise.

Although we missed staying in Arches National Park because we didn’t make a reservation and most likely missed out on some information that a tour guide might provide, our method of leaving open-ended itinerary had its advantages. We had many adventures in places we never heard of or unaware of also with things we never didn’t know: fossil hunting, synchronous fireflies, the Green Gable in Prince Edward Island, Apostles National Lakeshore, Picture Rocks National Lakeshore (see right), Effigy Mounts National Monument, Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Jewel Caves in South Dakota, COSI Columbus, Seneca Rocks and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, and many others. I find that when we visited a place, read about it on our own, saw it on a map and navigated to it, we remember it better. We feel connected to it and it becomes real to us, unlikely a reality show.

So what is for you? Do it yourself or have it on a plate delivered to you?

We take most of our vacations as self-guided tour except for our trip to China a few years ago. It was ironic that China was the only place we took a commercial tour because we speak Chinese. We have been to many suburban places in Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Indonesia where people didn’t speak any English (or Chinese) and we were able to get by on our own. Once we were in Spain where we were lost and had to ask for directions. I managed to ask the question, where is the train station, by consulting my phrase book but I couldn’t understand the answer. The lady was friendly and drew on the dirt where we were and where we needed to go to the train station. It was an adventure.

We like to tour on our own because we enjoy the freedom of going to places whenever we want. Commercial tour has its advantages, the biggest one being everything is already taken care of: lodging, transportation, points of interest, and even food sometimes. Some people also enjoy meeting people on tours. The only thing to decide is which tour company to go with and the rest is to sit back and enjoy. And, typically, it can be educational as tour guides also provide interesting tidbits on places and people. Although one can probably obtain some similar information from tour books but it may require a lot of reading. Vacations should be relaxing, not being stressed out from planning. No wonder commercial tour is a big business. Of course, there may be places where we may not want to be on our own such as African Safari and Nepal trekking.

Of course, there is also the money issue. Some think that a tour is a cheap way of traveling. It may be true in some cases but the cheapest way is always on your own, hitchhiking and camping. We spent an average of $104 per day that included every expense: gas, lodging, food, entertainment, car maintenance, gifts, ferry, supplies, souveniers, etc. That was not bad for 4 persons and we ate very little of fast foods.

We don’t like to plan things. We like to think a trip is an adventure. Picture Rocks National LakeshoreGetting lost can be an adventure itself. I guess we enjoy unknowns. Of course, there probably wasn’t any tour we can join to tour the country for nearly 4 months. We didn’t plan too much for this trip: no reservations and no fixed schedules. We skimmed over some information initially but read more and asked around as we neared places. There were tons of information just about anywhere we went. Although we most likely missed out on some information that tourist guides might provide, we also had a lot of unplanned adventures on this trip: fossil hunting, Mt Baker, synchronous fireflies, the Green Gable, Apostles NL, Picture Rocks NL (see right), Effigy Mounts NM, Bruce Peninsula, Jewel Caves, COSI Columbus, Seneca Rocks, Harper Ferry, and many others. And we met many friendly campers and learned about the camping world where many people camp in RV for a whole summer. I have found that when we toured a place and read about a place on our own, we remember it better.

So what is for you? Do it yourself or do it for you?

A 112-day trip is not a trip that people take every year. We are not sure we will take another one therefore this one was special to us. I have watched movies, read books, and heard stories where 19 century pioneers made their way across the U.S. I always wondered what it was like and how they did it. Now after the trip, I still wonder how they did it.

To put things into perspective, imagine this: after a whole week of excitements going to new places, it dawned on us that, relatively speaking, we were just at the end of the first day, if our trip were 16 days long. This usually means people arriving at their destination after a long flight and the trip is just about to begin. And, after two weeks, people usually are thinking of going home and we were completely relaxed by then and started getting into a habit of going from place to place. This was hard to explain. You have to experience it yourself.

Given the trip was long, it was important to for us to pace ourselves so we didn’t get burned out too soon. We had our ambitious days when we did a lot and we had our lazy days when we didn’t do much. We stayed with friends and relatives: these stays were wonderful and recharging. We spent a lot of time in nature but we also spent some time in cities. We camped a lot but we tried to find different kinds of campgrounds. It all worked out well for us. We didn’t get homesick or felt like the trip was long. In fact, when the last two weeks came about, we were sorry that the trip was about to end and was thinking of planning another one in a couple of years.

The trip had an impact on Kadia that we weren’t expected. She started believing that our van was our house as if we were nomads. She had already forgotten she had a home and many other things. She was ecstatic to find she had many toys when we got home. They were all like new toys to her. We could have gone on and continued to travel for a couple of years, she might not think twice about it and thought that was a normal life. This made me thinking that, to some pioneers, perhaps their way of lives were only ones known to them.

Although the trip was long for us, we always knew we have a home to go back to and most of our routes were known. We were not real explorers: we were accidental explorers at best or factitious ones at worse. This was different than how early pioneers traveled without the safety net of a known home waiting for them in the end. They traveled, bravely and some willingly, into the unknown where food and safety were in question. They were true explorers. We were just tourists. Although we couldn’t explore like early pioneers did–we had comforts of our van, hotels, grocery stores, maps, tour books, campgrounds, ATMs, etc, we got to see many places with many stories to last a lifetime. It was well worth it. If you ever get a chance, don’t hesitate, just do it.

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