The Great Rockies Road Trip Advance Planning

mapWe began planning on this trip in April 2018 (for a trip in August 2019) which is pretty far ahead for us.  We normally plan trips about 6 months ahead.  However, the driving force (!!) here was that we would be staying in National Park lodging for some of our trip and that needs to be booked super early.  Like on the day booking opens.  Of course you can be lucky and pick up rooms in Glacier NP and Yellowstone NP at medium to short term notice, but it is quite risky and you are not likely to get much choice in rooms.  In short, you are likely to be looking at someone else’s cancellation.  Booking for both these parks opens up over a year in advance.  They actually publish the date on which it will open, so May 1st 2018 for September 2019 bookings etc.  That meant establishing at least an outline route for our trip before that date too, otherwise we couldn’t make the lodge booking.

Once the national park reservations are out of the way, we could relax again for a while because typically normal hotel/accommodation bookings don’t open till a year in advance or less.  Not all National Parks require this type of advance notice but in the most popular parks or those with relatively sparse accommodation, you do need to book far ahead.  Worth checking.  Of course, you could simply opt to stay outside the park itself but this could mean a long journey every day.  Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier are absolutely huge, Yellowstone for example incorporates 857,000 square miles.  In fact, in Yellowstone, we are staying in three different lodges in three different park areas in order to reduce travel time.

Again, great thanks to the helpful experts on the TripAdvisor forums for this planning.  I would never have dreamt that you had to book so early if I hadn’t read it there.

The other thing to note about National Park accommodation (apart from the fact that they are always in fantastic locations) is that you get comparatively little for your money (apart from the fantastic location.)  The hotel rooms are little more than 3 star and generally a bit dated looking.  They don’t come with amenities like tvs, whirlpool baths, or kitchenettes.  Cabins can be pretty rustic and again do not come with tvs or kitchens.  Often they are not air conditioned.   Sometimes they don’t come with private bathrooms! Despite these “hardships” expect to pay top dollar.  Most are well in excess of $100 a night, often two hundred, or over three hundred for a room with a view.  Breakfast not included!  You pay for the luxury of being deep in the park surrounded by nature.

Apart from the need to book early for park accommodation, there were other planning factors that had to be taken into account early on that would shape the trip significantly, and these concerned transport.

If money were no object, then how we got to the Rockies and how we travelled around once there would not figure in our planning.  But it isn’t and therefore we had to think about this.  Denver appeared to be the best entry point for an international flight, although we did look at Seattle.  BA flights into Denver were about £1000 return each and Seattle not a lot better.  We could have flown into New York or Chicago and then got a cheap onward connection but this added a lot of time into the journey and also by the time you factored it all in, didn’t make it that much cheaper.

We looked at car hire.  If we flew into Seattle and then drove east to Glacier NP and then south to Colorado, we faced a long drive back at the end in order to return the car to Seattle. One way drop off fees for the car were brutal and car rental was more expensive in the western states than we were used to in more foreign tourist centric Florida and California.  So, a round trip would be cheaper based out of Denver to eliminate the extra car rental costs.  Then, we found Norwegian Airways flew from London to Denver at a fraction of the BA cost, like £240 each way for their ticket which included luggage and meals.  So, that decided the outline shape of our trip: a great circle starting and ending in Denver.

The other driving force on the route planning was weather.  We planned to arrive at the beginning of September.  We quickly learned that this was already a risky time to plan to be as far north as Glacier National Park, where the season closures start around 4th/5th September and snow is by no means unusual by mid September.  Come earlier, was the advice.  So, we pulled our arrival date back as early as we could to August 20th but this still meant that the advice was to get north as fast as we could and then follow the autumn south through the mountains to Colorado.  And to expect to see snow there before our leaving date of October 12th.

We shopped around A LOT for our rental car because we were quite…. surprised….. at its cost in comparison to other rental cars we’ve had in the States.  It seemed, and was, quite expensive.  In the end the best deal we could find was through the Rentalcars site with Dollar.  A Hyundai Accent for £1300.  This included the nearly 8 weeks rental, unlimited miles, extra drivers and many insurances and taxes!!!   The excess was zero (not like some European rentals) and the fuel policy was a fair full to full.  The deal also included windscreen cover and tyre cover.  The only thing we’re not covered for is loss of keys and roadside assistance.  We’ve been very impressed with Rentalcars.  They have been particularly helpful on the phone, even telephoning Dollar in Denver to clarify some points.

As you will have noted, it became apparent very early on in our trip planning that this would not be a cheap trip and that we would have to take measures to ensure it was even affordable.  Being retired, we no longer have a large monthly income, and the days when we could afford to be laissez faire about travel spend have long gone.  On the other hand, it would be pointless to go, if we couldn’t take part in certain activities and experiences that would make the trip special.  So, we would have to economise where we could and this would mean economising on our food and accommodation budget.

In my next blog, I’ll cover how we plan to do this.

We used Roadtrippers to build up our route online.  Roadtrippers   It doesn’t cover every place we’re visiting along the way, but it does cover all the overnight stops and a selection of the visits.  Have found Roadtrippers another excellent resource for trip planning.   It allows you to build a route and the software highlights points of interest, accommodation and that sort of thing along the way.

Our road trip route

It won’t take the place of our trusty Delorme large scale road atlases or the gps for planning actual driving routes, but it was useful none the less.  It shows for instance that our route is around 4350 miles, involving 86 hours of driving and costing $319 in petrol.  I’m sure it will be longer than this as we plan on taking quite a few back roads.

So, next time I’m going to post about budgeting for a trip like this and how we plan to economise to keep within our budget without sacrificing enjoyment.