The Great American Road Trip… Pandemic Edition

2020 started off on a normal note, with a planned road trip to Disney World at the end of January.  But as we all now know, 2020 has proven to be anything but normal.   After three months of quarantining with my four teenagers, and for the first time with absolutely nothing on the calendar, we decided to make the best of things and plan yet another road trip…this time, cross country to visit my brother in California. 

Sadly, my husband had to stay home to work, so I offered an invitation to my parents to join us.  My mom was onboard immediately but my father just offered us his best wishes for a safe drive- he wasn’t interested in going on the road. He didn’t give a reason but I suspect four teenagers might have something to do with it. 

Let me just start with this: THIS TRIP IS WORTH EVERY PENNY…and it’s not as expensive as you may think. Some of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen have been on the first leg of this trip.  I planned this trip in less than three weeks, and spent countless hours figuring out how to save money any way I could, in order to justify some of the splurges on the trip.  If this is something on your bucket list, I highly recommend you keep on reading.

First decision: RV or SUV? As much as I thought the space would be great in an RV, the size, speed, gas mileage and the hidden fees were a little too much for us. So, we decided to rent a GMC Yukon XL. I mean, if Chevy Chase can drive cross country in a station wagon, we can do it in a luxury oversized vehicle, right? We got a great deal through Hertz, and because my mom and I are both AAA members, I was able to add my mom as an additional authorized driver without any additional fees, plus Hertz offered us an exclusive AAA monthly rate. With the extra savings, we added the Sirius XM, and GPS to our rental.  The Hertz team detailed the car then sprayed a sanitizing solution into the car that kills all germs within 60 seconds. The piece de resistance: Hertz delivered the car, filled with gas, to my house the afternoon before we left. It was so nice not having to run out to go pick it up…I had no idea Hertz offered delivery (within 20 minutes of an office) before this trip, but it was super helpful and I’m excited that they’ll pick it up at the end of our trip too. 

Second decision: Where to stay?  This was something my mom and I were initially concerned about.  Hotel occupancy rates are low, but we were worried about cleanliness and armed ourselves with a tote filled with cleaners.  Thankfully, we heard about Best Western’s “We Care, Clean” program, which ensures a higher level of cleaning procedures.  I can say that our hotels were pristine.  Another perk of staying at a Best Western is free breakfasts; which, are all now “grab and go!” To add to the We Care clean program, the hotels have even installed a plexiglass area with a masked employee to greet you with your breakfast. Our plan was for me to check in, and then the kids and my mom would come inside once I had keys and go straight to our rooms where we’d eat, sleep and continue on. It has worked out beautifully.

Third decision. The route?  We started in Pennsylvania and decided to start off the trip by stopping at the Haines shoe house.  It’s only an hour and a half from my house and such a cute stop, although the teenagers warned the trip had better get a bit more exciting than a shoe-house.  Noted.  It’s cute though, right?

The Great American Road Trip route:

Day 1: We forged our way to Columbus, Ohio for the first night. It was great, however the hotel I drove to, was in fact, not the hotel I booked. Unfortunately my boys had already seen and gotten super excited about the basketball court outside the Best Western Plus Residence Executive Inn in Columbus. Thankfully, the front desk agent was able to help me cancel the other reservations and make a new one for me there.  We also found out we were the only guests at the hotel as they just re-opened that day, so we didn’t feel like we needed to stay inside our room for the night when the manager presented a brand new basketball for the kids to play with. First night= success. 

Day 2:  We left early and headed to St. Louis in order to see the Gateway Arch, which basically meant jump out of the car for a picture and head to the hotel.  We stayed at the BW Plus Pontoon Beach. It was super spacious and we had adjoining rooms. There was a family dollar that mimicked a grocery store, so we snacked and then ate microwave meals in the hotel and played cards.  The hotel was super clean and we were very comfortable, even though we vowed never to eat a microwave meal again. 

Day 3: We headed to Sioux Falls but made a quick stop in Omaha, Nebraska along the way. It’s been on my bucket list since my college days when I would blare the Counting Crows CD from my boombox. “Omaha…somewhere in Middle America”. (Did you sing that line too?)  We walked over the BOB pedestrian bridge and stood in between Iowa and Nebraska at the same time.

It was the 4th of July so we got back on the road and arrived at GLo Best Western Dawley Farms, just before sundown. Unfortunately when we arrived, we realized that when my son decided to get his sunglasses out of the cargo carrier on top of our car, instead of putting the keys back in the glove compartment, he left them on top of the car…which probably flew off some 182 miles away.  We searched the car for an hour before coming to that conclusion. Thankfully, there was a huge shopping center next to the hotel so I would just get up the next morning and grab new clothes and toiletries until the spare key could be Fed Ex’d to our next location. Things could be worse!

We checked into the hotel, which actually glowed, and was super cool looking. The kids loved how modern it was. I loved the comfort (and convenience of being near shops…first we had seen in awhile.) The best part was arriving to our rooms and having the PERFECT viewing point for a tremendous fireworks show from our window. Super cool.

Day 4:  New clothes and accessories were acquired and we were off to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse before heading to BW Golden Spike Inn and Suites, which again, was super comfortable and very clean. They surprised us by upgrading our rooms to suites, so we had so much room and were able to really relax that night. The next morning we were driving out and saw Bear Country USA, which we decided to check out.  WOW. I highly recommend. You drive through for 30-45 minutes and see a wide variety of animals including, Arctic Wolves, Elk, Caribou and bears. LOTS of bears…some come right to your car. It was pretty cool. I would definitely do that again. 

Day 5:  Off to Cody, WY.  Some people stay here for their trip to Yellowstone, but it’s still a good 2.5 hours away so we just decided to make it a pit stop and I’m glad we did because BW Premier Ivy Inn and Suites was my kids favorite hotel to date.  It was the first hotel to offer room service from an onsite restaurant and that was delish!  After living on drive-thru’s and peanut butter and jelly for five days, this was a welcomed change. The hotel room reminds you of one you’d find in a metropolitan chic area, but bigger and more comfortable.  Cody is known as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the town is super cool to walk through.  We did a bit of shopping and looking around at tee-pees around town.  So neat. 

Day 6-7: Kelly Inn, West Yellowstone.  I was nervous to book our hotel initially because the online pictures of the outside of the hotel weren’t the best, but the ratings were excellent. And this is exactly why I write blogs like this- to share my recommendations because word of mouth is the best you can get, right?  This is a must-stay. It’s actually really nice…clean and spacious and the perfect location for a visit to Yellowstone (3 minutes outside of the West Yellowstone entrance)….which leads me to our first excursion. This was a splurge for us initially because we weren’t sure what it would fully entail, but because we are trying to social distance ourselves, we decided to book a private tour through Viator.com

Our guide’s name was Derek and he picked us up promptly at 8:30am and drove us around all day until 4:30pm.  He was so knowledgeable and made things so interesting…even my kids were engaged and entertained. Derek took us to all the spots that we wanted to see, and then took us to all the places we didn’t even know we needed to see. One location was more breathtaking than the next.  Parking can be an issue at certain places, like Grand Prismatic Springs, but with Derek, he dropped us off right in front and waited for us to return. It was great, the pictures don’t do it justice and even they are gorgeous….I can’t recommend him and this tour enough. 

Speaking of Viator, I booked all three of my excursions for my trip through them. The ease of searching and booking is awesome and the communication is best I’ve had from any site that I’ve booked with ever. Definitely take a peek here at what they have to offer- even if it’s not a cross country trip, they have tours and adventures practically everywhere…

Day 8: We drove back through Yellowstone and headed to Jackson Hole via the Grand Tetons.  What magnificent sights along the way. The snow capped mountains are a view to behold.  When we got into Jackson Hole and went straight into town to see the arch of antlers in the middle of town.  Each spring the Elk shed their antlers and they are gathered and that’s how the arch was formed.  It’s quite impressive.

We did some shopping (masks are required here- which we wore our entire trip any way and got really good at taking them off quickly for pictures) and headed to the Lodge at Jackson Hole. This is a beautiful hotel and also has room service, but because we walked passed so many great smelling restaurants, we decided to use Uber Eats to try something locally owned. The food was so good. We watched a movie and went to sleep fairly early.  We wanted to visit Jenny Lake and do some whitewater rafting, but sadly a bunch of water excursion companies are shut down this year, leaving the remaining ones booked up with lots of people. We will have to come back…it’s a beautiful area!

Day 9: Headed to Utah.  We arrived in Mount Carmel, UT at Arrowhead Country Inn and Suites. The town is super small and cozy…perfect time to stay in a town like this. We rented a two bedroom cabin. The biggest perk? A washer and dryer in our cabin…who would have thought I’d ever be so excited to do laundry!? But seriously…waking up to this view? Can’t beat it!

Our second excursion was with East Zion Experiences…wow, wow, wow.  You can find it here: East Zion Experiences UTV Slot Canyon Tour

Our tour guides were Rob and Connor and again, the most amazing day, and not just because it was my 45th birthday.  My kids had smiles ear to ear as we drove along the bumpy, sandy roads in a Can-Am (ATV) towards Red Hollow Slot Canyon.  Once we arrived, Rob and Connor helped us climb rocks and experience the beauty within these slot canyons. I’ve never seen anything like them in my life.  They were so experienced- they even helped my 67 year old mother climb…they said they’d never seen a grandma climb like such a boss in the canyon. Go mom!

The only thing I would recommend to do differently is to book the full day tour!  We did the two hour tour and we want more!!! With the full day, you can rappel down the canyons and have lunch inside.  The guides said rappelling is actually easier than the climbing we did.  Next time for sure!! Seriously, don’t miss this. 

Day 10:  We arrived in California. Yahoo. 1/3 of the trip complete.  

Time to make memories here…stay tuned. 

xoxox,

Melissa 

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