Where and How Will You Sleep?
There’s a lot to factor in here- cost, comfort, location, amenities, impact to daily car time, maybe even bucket list check offs. I suggest making a budget first, then working around that. For us, we spent just $300 less on food than we did lodging and that includes groceries, snacks, treats, and three dinners out. If we had stuck to national/state park camping only we’d have saved almost $1,000, but I knew that it was eventually going to get increasingly exhausting and decreasingly fun to have to set up/take down a full campsite every day for 10 days (we spent 3 nights with family) so I opted to splurge strategically throughout the trip and alternate low amenity camping with high amenity camping or lodging to keep the mood up and provide other forms of entertainment like a swimming pool or mini golf.
When we got to Spokane, WA, for example, there was a heat wave and it was 113 degrees outside in a place where it is usually like, 85. Luckily, I’d booked an air conditioned deluxe cabin there and we went for a lovely swim in the cool pool, watched a movie in our cabin, and enjoyed things like our own beds and separate rooms for the night. I’d say that was well worth spending the extra $150 for that versus a night at a random campsite in sweltering heat.
So, speaking of camping, it is an inexpensive option if you can borrow or already have the gear, have enough help to set up camp (I had two teens with me), and enjoy sleeping and cooking outdoors. There are lots and lots of places to camp in and near State and National Parks and you can choose something as wild as a remote camping spot for $30 or so a night in Glacier, or as bougie as a KOA in West Yellowstone that has a pool, a coffee shop, a BBQ place, wifi, and firewood delivered to your campsite for about $95/night.
You decide what matters most to you. If you do go the KOA route (which gets eight solid thumbs up from this crew, by the way) you also have the option of renting a cabin for the night instead of a tent or RV spot and they are quite cozy. We stayed in three different KOA Holidays (these are a bit nicer than a regular KOA) along the way and they were each a little different with unique amenities but generally met the same basic expectations- clean, well maintained, showers, laundry, a pool, and some on site activities like mini-golf or family bikes.
We also stayed in a National Parks campsite and while we didn’t have any of the KOA amenities we did have a much quieter experience that truly felt like being in the woods as opposed to a resort. If you do go the KOA route, remember to buy the membership, you’ll save 10% on all your stays, earn points for free stays, and get a free night during their rewards weekend. If you go the State or National Parks, or private campsites (such as can be found on Hipcamp) remember that they may or may not have things like showers, laundry, bear boxes, or firewood on site. It probably won’t be far (for example, in Grant Campground, showers, laundry and the camp store are all just a mile down the road at Grant Village) but you may not want to walk there after a full day outdoors.
If you have opted for more and shorter drive days, I recommend booking lodging that has fun amenities and making lots of planned stops before you arrive. Most places have a 3pm check in time so if you leave your last destination at 8am and arrive at noon you’ll be sitting around for three hours waiting. We tended to get up and get going to see or do something fun on the way, spent a few hours exploring there and made time for spontaneous stops at overlooks or random photo opps (also, slushies). Then we were able to unwind and relax for the afternoon at our destination for the night instead of rolling in at dinnertime, scrambling to set up just to go to bed and get up and leave again. If you’ve chosen long drive days you may be less excited about setting up a campsite that night, so it might be worth a hotel, or making that stop a multi-day experience.
One other option of course, is to do a camper van or an RV. This gets big points for being able to literally take your home on the road and makes nightly setup a breeze, but it is not an inexpensive option. Generally your gas and insurance cost will be higher in one of these options, and unless you already own or have access to one of these vehicles you will likely be spending at least another $1,000 to rent one plus your nightly RV slip fee, which is more than a tent spot but generally less than a cabin.
You also want to factor in how this impacts mobility. If you are towing a trailer you can of course keep it in your RV slip, detach and travel for the day to your activities in your vehicle, but if you are in a motorcoach or van you’ll have to take the entire deal with you, and that may not be an option for your location and/or may be a really challenging driving experience. I personally didn’t want to drive an RV or a trailer through National Parks, I also didn’t want to have to install and uninstall a carseat in a bench seat every day, and I just generally felt uncomfortable driving something so big for so long so I chose not to do this option. If we were only going to one place for a longer time I’d absolutely consider it though; I’m particularly interested in the Escape Campervan with the rooftop tent addition as that looks the most manageable to me as the solo driver and that can accommodate my crew.
If you are doing hotels, I personally prefer booking with Priceline because I have the option of seeing and choosing specific hotels at a good price, or booking a “surprise” with a few minimum qualifications like the area, number of stars, etc… for an even lower price. For short stays I tend to look for hotels that provide a breakfast, like Best Western, Quality Inn or Holiday Inn Express and that won’t totally blow my budget. If doing KOA, you can make reservations all online, though occasionally you’ll have to call to see if a spot is open. If you’re doing State/National Parks you can almost always book online but if you call instead be prepared for very long wait times during peak seasons.
Mom Hack: Another lodging option is hostels. Though these are often filled with the 20 year old and single set, they can also be a great option for families. Most have private room options, and some even have a private bathroom included. They are much cheaper than a hotel, have many group amenities like kitchens, game rooms, BBQ areas, and as a nice reprieve on a long journey- separate twin beds for everyone (because I do love my four year old, but I can only do so many nights of being kicked in the face while I sleep). The hostel we stayed at in Jackson Hole was at least half the cost of every other lodging option in the area and we were able to cook all of our meals there, enjoy the game room and be located right in the center of the resort and all of its amenities. If you don’t have a private bathroom, treat showering like you would at a campsite- wear flip flops, have a shower bag ready and be quick about it.
Making Reservations, the Order of Operations
I admit this can be the most frustrating part, and I also must confess that my first booking for this adventure sparked a panic attack that I got to work through before I could continue. Something about the adrenaline of finally doing something not-at-home plus the first trip post shutdowns plus the anxiety of the what-ifs of road trips turned into a little storm of fear that rose up and hung out for a while in my brain. Once I breathed my way through that, wrote out some ideas for safety assurances, and kept moving forward I was just fine, but just know that if you’re feeling anxious about this part (or any part!) you’re not alone and it’s totally normal.
Because the trip course is largely dependent on your planned stops being actual options, making reservations can be a overwhelming so I recommend trying this:
- Research the different kinds of lodging options in the places you’ve decided to stay for a few days. Don’t book anything, just familiarize yourself with the options in each area.
- When/if you find a must stay that’s available on a date you’re interested in going, start making a reservation but don’t pay yet
- Get a pad of paper out, write down your newly estimated dates and locations on the left-hand side
- Open up another tab on your device with your next destination point, and another with your previous day’s destination point and start working on lodging for each of those.
- Once you know that you’ll have a place to stay before, during and after that must stay, book them all. Write down your reservation number on the right hand side of your paper. Put it immediately in google calendar and save the confirmation email to a trip folder.
- Repeat as needed for remaining stops. You may end up having to alter your route slightly to accommodate lodging, but probably not a whole lot.
Travel hack: One of the sites we booked was RV only (no room for a tent), and as I mentioned previously we were not doing an RV- but- a vehicle can be considered an RV if you are sleeping in it. Enter the Honda Pilot tent. I didn’t want or have a rooftop tent, and I knew there was no way we could all fit in the car for a night so I did a little research and found out there’s a tent made especially for the purpose of converting your car into an RV. The Honda Pilot tent comes with what’s basically a big canvas tube that extends out from the tent and up to and over the open rear hatch of your car (you must turn off the lights so your battery doesn’t die), converting it into an RV. I called the campsite to confirm this counted, and they gave me the green light. This meant we now had the option to choose RV only sites, as well as tent sites because the little sleeve unzips and the tent can also be used as a stand alone, which it was most of the time. If you don’t happen to have a Honda Pilot and want this option, there are other choices for other brands available.