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How to prepare a road trip?

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Un aperçu du parc national de la Vallée de la mort.

This is May 2018. It’s time for us to prepare our road trip. This decision is making headlines around the world.

This article is the second in the series. If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to discover how the idea of a trip to the West Coast came to us

How to prepare your road trip?

For my part, I’m beginning to sketch out my travel plans for the following year in the West Coast. Sarah and I sketched out the broad outlines, listing the constraints, assumptions, dates and budget for our anniversary gift.

To prepare your road trip properly, you need to learn from past experiences

I decided not to follow the same pattern as in 2014 for the preparation of my previous trip to the USA. Last time, caught up in a busy professional schedule, I hadn’t organized anything at all a month before departure. Feedback is useful. Even though I’d made the most of my trip in 2014, I’d still missed out on a few must-sees. For example, I didn’t visite the Venice canals, the Griffith Observatory, a visit to Huntington Beach, etc.

Four years after these mistakes, with four more years of wisdom, I’m taking matters into my own hands. Preparing for a road trip means taking feedback into account.

To prepare your road trip properly, you need to know where you want to go

Sarah is going to do her best to spend time in San Francisco and the parks. On my side, I don’t intend to leave Los Angeles out… So it’s up to me to plan enough days there to exploit all my ideas for visits to the City of Angels. There are, of course, many :). Preparing a road trip involves deciding how much time to devote to each destination.

To prepare for your road trip, you need childcare

Sarah and I have agreed to leave in March-April, with a maximum duration of two weeks, which seems to us to be the right compromise. Three weeks seems to be the ideal duration for serene travel. Also, one week would really be too short to leave for the West Coast. But, let’s face it: three weeks would not be realistic insofar as we have two daughters to look after. The first of our daughters aged 2 and the second aged 10 months.

Since we doubled the number of children ten months ago, childcare with the family is less frequent and shorter. But that’s the way it is, and we’re determined to make the best of it. Preparing for a road trip isn’t always easy when children aren’t part of the adventure.

To prepare your road trip, you need to be rigorous 🙂

As a reminder, I’m a Project Manager and I like to manage my trips as projects in their own right. So, to sum up the “charter” of our upcoming trip, we have the following constraints:

Now that our vision is clear, and we know what we want to see and when we’re going to make the trip, we need to check whether our project is viable. To do this, I do a lot of research on specialized websites to check the weather for the target period, the different means of accommodation on the spot and I draw up a list of the activities I want to do. I ask my partner to do the same.

Los Angeles won’t be left out in the cold!

Unsurprisingly, the cumulative duration of the items we note is far greater than the time available on site, and we’re going to have to make some decisions.

I have to go out of my way not to leave Los Angeles out, especially as a two-day stay with the Angelenos is out of the question. Sarah didn’t like the city during her first visit, and I’m convinced it’s because of the short time she spent there. I’m taking on the challenge of getting her to appreciate this city, so I might as well give it my best shot.

Planning your road trip

Looking for experts…

As my travel-planning skills are limited, I turn to recognized resources in the field. I remember opening an account in 2016 on the French forum Sunset Boulevard. If the site is a real goldmine for discovering the American West – and even the East for that matter – and for organizing your trip, the forum is packed with members who are passionate about the USA and who have made numerous trips across the Atlantic, always ready to provide us with information to help us build our adventure projects on Uncle Sam’s shores.

As you prepare for your road trip, remember that you’re not alone. Others have probably already asked themselves the same questions as you.

A message on the SunsetBLD forum

One morning, I log on and write a message explaining my project, the circumstances, the context, the constraints, the imagined itinerary, the transport and accommodation envisaged, my budget and the purchases I want to make on the spot.

At this stage, I still plan to leave in March – April 2019, rent a Ford Mustang, buy a baseball bat and spare parts for my own Mustang that I’m restoring in France, sleep in motels and campsites, and visit Napa Valley. This last point is important to me because, coming from a family of winegrowers and having booked a visit to a vineyard in this winegrowing region in 2014, I hadn’t been able to get there because the car rental company I’d rented from wouldn’t accept my international driver’s license – not having my French driver’s license with me. Prepare your road trip efficiently in asking yourself a bunch of questions, such as “Will my international driver’s license be enough?

All this to say that a visit to Napa Valley is a form of revenge for my previous trip… 

Fast, efficient response

Less than three hours after my message, I get my first reply on the discussion forum. As I read the feedback, I realize that I’ve come to the right place, and that all my research was not in vain. The author, with over twenty thousand messages to her credit, tells me that the selected period (March – April) is relatively early in the spring, as the Sierra Nevada sector (Yosemite and Sequoia National Park) will be more difficult to access due to the snow.

Lots of tips for fast progress

She also advises me to consider taking the CA 1 route, which Sarah and I have been particularly fond of since our first visit. The idea is excellent, and I add it to my wish list. As for the rest, I’m not discouraged and consider the various comments to adapt my project.

Several alternative scenarios: Oregon, Nevada, the loop?

At the same time, Sarah insists on spending some time in Oregon and the idea of landing in Portland comes up, even if it doesn’t work out in the end. A stopover in Las Vegas was also mentioned.

Several itineraries were imagined, most of them forming a loop to and from San Francisco. However, after a great deal of persuasion, I manage to convince her that our trip will end in Los Angeles, with a small reserve of a few days there; even if this means we have to land and take off from a different location.

It’s important to start thinking about your itinerary as soon as you start planning your road trip. The later you make changes, the more expensive they are. For example, if you want to visit an additional park and you have to change your plane ticket (or your departure airport), you’ll be charged a supplement.

National park constraints

We’re on the right track, and the valuable advice from the Sunset Boulevard forum is all being studied with great interest. As the visit to Yosemite National Park is of considerable importance to Sarah, we decide to move our stay from March-April to May, to make it easier to get there and enjoy the place more.

In the course of discussions, the rental of a Ford Mustang also takes a hit: an SUV seems more practical and suitable for getting to the national parks, and it’s also less expensive, which will allow us to spread the budget more evenly.

When planning a road trip, it’s not always easy to think ahead and of everything you’ll need. For example, not taking an SUV when visiting national parks might have proved impractical. Advice from the forums is always welcome.

Airline tickets and reference itinerary

The year 2018 passes by at breakneck speed, and the travel plan remains unchanged until January of the following year. Childcare is proving more complicated than expected, and while the plane tickets are booked on September 19 at 15:27, we’ll have to wait until February to validate the program.

We’ll set foot on American soil on May 7, 2019 at around 3pm in San Francisco. We’ll stay in the Fog City until May 9, when we’ll leave by rental car for Point Lobos via Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The following day, we’ll drive to Cambria, visiting Big Sur, Ragged Point and San Simeon along the way. On May 11, we’ll drive to Yosemite, where we’ll stay until the 13th, before setting off again for Sequoia National Park. On May 14, we’ll sleep near Lake Isabella, then on the 15th we’ll head for Death Valley.

Finally, we’ll hit the road again on May 16, heading for Los Angeles, where we’ll spend the remaining days visiting Downtown, Long Beach, San Pedro, Huntington Beach, the Griffith Observatory, Santa Monica, the Venice canals, watching a baseball game, enjoying stand-up paddle and so on.

At least, that was the plan before we left, but not everything will go according to plan!

Reservations, currency and logistics

While I’ve taken care of the general organization of the trip and suggested itineraries so far, I’m happy to let Sarah take things in hand when it comes to booking plane tickets, local activities, vehicles and accommodation. It’s a part I’m much less interested in, and I trust her completely to unearth the good deals.


In October 2018, our travel dates are approaching, but our itinerary is still somewhat uncertain. What’s certain at this stage is that we’ll be leaving Geneva airport on May 7 at 9:10am with Swiss International Air Lines and returning with the same airline and to the same city on May 21 at 5:15pm. Sarah is booking accommodation on the Booking website – for motels – and AirBnB for private rentals, with a clear objective: the best value for money. However, unlike my experience five years ago, when the price of accommodation was a major factor, Sarah makes it a point of honor to be creative in finding us quality places to stay within our budget.

As far as bookings are concerned, there’s no question of doing a “one-two punch” operation consisting of booking everything in one evening. The aim is to take our time and not rush into the first available apartments.

ESTA, simple yet complicated

Our itinerary is still somewhat uncertain and is becoming clearer as we place our options on accommodation. During the same period, I take care of the procedure for obtaining our ESTA, the famous Electronic System for Travel Authorization when traveling to the United States. I hadn’t remembered having to fill in so much information: the procedure must have changed in five years.

I have to take several attempts to complete the (long) form for Sarah and myself. I’m still puzzled by the usefulness of some of the information provided, but you have to show your credentials, and I don’t mind filling in all the details required. However, I’m finding it difficult to get the precise address of our first apartment, which complicates the procedure.

Preparing for a road trip isn’t always a smooth ride…

What would a road trip be without… a vehicle?

Here we are, ready to go, with a US travel permit, an itinerary and accommodation for (almost) every night. We’ve been talking about a road trip, and there’s still one essential element missing: what’s a road trip without a vehicle, you might ask?

A Volkswagen combi?

Sarah was seduced by the Volkswagen Combis from the 60s, which can be rented for a few days. After some research, the budget and a quick feasibility study led us to abandon the idea.

A Mustang?

For my part, I was determined to rent a Ford Mustang to drive, hair in the wind, along the Pacific Ocean and towards the national parks; but as we saw above, it’s probably not the most suitable vehicle for our trip, nor the least economical. Nevertheless, I’ve secured my few days in Los Angeles and I’m ready to make a concession on the vehicle, especially as the arguments – which I put forward myself – seem relevant. Looking at the rental websites, we see several city cars at low prices.

No, an SUV!

While it’s tempting to pass on such a vehicle for the savings, we have to be realistic and find a compromise between budget, comfort and the “terrain” constraints of the trip. An SUV! I take care of booking our “Midsize SUV” – meaning a Group F vehicle: Ford Escape or similar, with air-conditioning and automatic transmission – from May 9 to 18, which we’ll pick up at San Bruno Sears and leave in Culver City.

We go through the German agency Drive-USA, which has very good reviews on forums such as Sunset Boulevard. Drive-USA will put us in touch with AVIS for the vehicle rental. In total, the nine-day rental (which we’ll later be extended by a further two days without any worries) comes to just under 425 euros, including insurance and taxes.

Travel documentation

Throughout the preparation phase of our trip, we try to record all the documentation online, in a shared space. It is, for example, our reservations, notes and details about the road trip. In this way, all this is accessible from home, from the office, or even from the U.S. later if needed. I’m starting to prepare a Road Book template with the documentation, which we’ll simply have to add to as the trip progresses, with our opinions on places visited, kilometers walked, miles driven and so on. This last was abandoned. I already do this work on my private blog for family and close friends. And I’m more inclined to type on a keyboard than write by hand in a car.


Now it’s time to pack our suitcase. To do this, we need to determine what we think is most important to bring with us.

I remember a concept I really liked, presented to me during a professional training course. The trainer explained that when he went in vacations with his wife, he asked her to make three stacks with the contents she wanted to put in her suitcase.

  • The first stack contained what you might need.
  • The second what would be necessary but not required,
  • And the third what was essential.

The first two stacks can be returned to the cupboards, and we won’t be taking them with us. With the last stack, we do the same exercise again, splitting the stack into three and leaving some things aside. If the contents of this new third stack fit into the suitcase without forcing, you’re done. Otherwise you start a third round! I really liked it and introduced the concept to Sarah. But, she probably doesn’t have the same sense of humor as I do.

Nevertheless, we decided to leave with a single hold bag (120 liters), in which we placed a second, empty bag. This one will be used to bring back the many souvenirs on our return. We also each take a backpack for everyday use and a suitcase of the maximum size accepted by airlines in the cabin. We packed everything without too much trouble and without making any major concessions.

Electronic equipment

As for computer equipment, I take:

  • My indispensable MacBook, as well as my hybrid camera (an Olympus OM-D E-M10),
  • Three batteries for it and half a dozen memory cards, so as never to be caught unprepared,
  • The various battery chargers – phone, computer and camera – are also on board,

We also added all the documentation relating to the trip, such as:

  • car reservation (paper format),
  • plane ticket reservations in paper format,
  • All the other documentation accessible online and from my smartphone, locally.


Similarly, our suitcases were packed with clothes appropriate to the temperatures of the places we visited in May. We had shorts, t-shirts, swimsuits and underwear for the coastal areas, and pants and jackets for the national parks.


On all my previous trips to North America, I had taken care to order dollars in advance. They were sent to me by mail. I know, the method seems archaic in an age when payment can be made easily with a smartphone. But, this habit has always enabled me to manage my expenses properly. In fact, during a trip to Budapest a few months earlier, I found myself borrowing money from a friend on the spot, as none of my three bank cards would allow me to pay in Hungarian forint.

For this new trip, Sarah had gone ahead and opened an N26 account. So, that we wouldn’t have to pay commission on our card payments abroad. Icing on the cake, no hidden charges for paying in a currency other than the euro (bank fees, exchange rates, etc.). The same applies to cash withdrawals. 

So here we are, ready to embark on our journey to the New World!

The playlist

There’s just one small detail left to do: prepare a great playlist for this road trip! This one is inspired by one of my favorite TV series, Scrubs. Here it is:

  • It Never Rains in Southern California, Albert Hammond,
  • Hole Malibu, Celebrity Skin,
  • I Love L. A., Randy Newman,
  • Sinnerman, Nina Simone,
  • Away, Leroy,
  • A Little Respect, Erasure,
  • Camera One, Josh Joplin,
  • On Fire, Sebadoh,
  • Have It All, Jeremy Kay,
  • Surrender, Chip Trick,
  • Hold on Hope, Guided by Voices