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Road trip planning -- take the time to do
it right

Good road trip planning is the single most important thing you can do to ensure that your travels bring you the pleasure you anticipate. It’s something over which you have complete control, and if you plan a road trip right, your RV travel can be the carefree experience you want it to be.

My wife and I hit the road not long ago. By the time we were done we had traveled for more than a year and had logged more than 30,000 miles poking into the four corners of the country. It’s no exaggeration to say that virtually every day was an adventure.

Except for a few flat tires and one minor accident in which I ran our fifth-wheel trailer into a campground signpost, we never had a negative experience that was travel-related. That’s because we took our road trip planning seriously. You can do the same thing, and here are some hints about how.

Karen and I started to plan a road trip well ahead of time -- a couple of years, in fact -- that we were going to do this trip, and we began to think about it, to discuss it and to plan for it almost immediately. You need to do the same. There’s no substitute for a carefully thought-out approach, and the more time you allow to do it, the more thorough your planning will be.

In our case, we intended to be gone for a year or more. This was significant in several ways. For us, it meant that our travel would be RV travel, because the cost of an extended trip would be prohibitive if we tried to do it any other way. Hotels and seven-days-a-week restaurant dining were out. RVing and cooking most of our meals ourselves were in. What we eventually found out was that we could -- and did -- live well for a year on the road, traveling almost constantly, for less than it had cost us to live at home.

Another way the length of a trip is significant is that you may have to make arrangements to be away from work for an extended time, and figure out what to do about your home while you’re gone. In our case, both Karen and I worked. But for us, the job part was easy, as we both were retiring. If that hadn’t been so, we’d have had to arrange for leaves of absence, and relied upon savings and perhaps part-time work along the way to live on while we were gone. A lot of people do it.

If you live in an apartment, vacating your home is relatively simple. If you own yours, as we did, you have three choices: You can let it sit empty or hire a house-sitter while you’re gone, you can rent it out for the duration of your trip, or you can sell it.
In our case, we sold it, and put most of our household goods in storage with a moving company. We thought our goods would be safer in a bonded moving company warehouse than they would be in a self-storage unit, and the plan worked fine. When we returned from our trip and moved into another home in a different city, the moving company delivered our goods to that address. The goods already had been packed securely before storage.

We also had to sell a boat, which we had no good place to store while we were gone, and also a car, which we didn’t want to sit idle while we were on the road.
We traded our small pickup truck for a larger, diesel pickup, and shopped around over a couple of states for a good used fifth-wheel trailer. We had done some homework with the truck dealer and with fifth-wheel dealers, and were confident that the truck we bought had adequate pulling power and braking power for a fully loaded trailer of the size that we wanted to obtain. It took us months to find the trailer we wanted, but finally it turned up in a town only a few miles away from where we lived. The trailer was five years old, in like-new condition, and cost us only half of what a new one in the same class would have cost.

The last thing we did with our RV package, and a very important thing, was to install an exhaust brake on our diesel truck that enabled us to downshift when descending steep hills so as to slow our speed by means of engine compression. Without an after-market exhaust brake, shifting to a lower gear won’t slow a diesel, a dangerous situation when you’re hitched to a heavy load.

A lot of the details of our planning and the strategies Karen and I employed for living on the road I cover in my book, In Search of America’s Heartbeat: Twelve Months on the Road. Here’s an excerpt from the book that gives an idea of some of the things you have to think about:

“We don’t realize how complicated life has become until we begin to get ready to hit the road. How do you pay bills on the road? How do you get bills on the road? How do you keep in touch? How do you get medicines? How do you do taxes?”
To this point in our lives, Karen and I had been probably the only American couple who didn’t own a cell phone. I didn’t want one. Didn’t want to be tethered to the office 24-7. Most of the time, I was perfectly content to be out of reach. Karen felt the same way.
That changed, though, as we prepared for our road trip. We needed a way to talk with family and friends, to obtain help in case of a breakdown, to operate a laptop where wireless Internet technology didn’t exist. So we consulted Consumer Reports, and bought a cell phone and cell phone service which that magazine said provided the best geographical coverage nationwide. Some cell phone providers, we discovered, provide better service in certain parts of the country than do others. But we wanted the company that was best overall, and Consumer Reports identified it. We also signed up for a cell-phone plan that imposed no roaming charges. Because we’d be away from our home constantly, we didn’t want every local call that we made while on the road to be a long-distance call. With the plan to which we subscribed, we could call from anywhere to anywhere else in the country with no long-distance charge as long as we didn’t exceed the number of minutes our plan allotted for phone use each month.

We bought a laptop computer -- our first -- to take the place of the desktop that we used at home, and also a small portable printer to go with it. With the right hardware and software, the laptop was able to work off the cell phone to access the Internet, allowing us to communicate from anywhere that was in range of a cell tower.

We switched our accounts and our credit cards from a regional bank to one that was part of a national chain, so we’d be able do business face-to-face almost anywhere in the country if the need arose. We arranged for our pension checks to be deposited electronically into our checking account, and for the credit card people to withdraw payment automatically the first of each month to cover our credit card expenditures. That way we avoided interest payments. If we needed cash, we’d use an ATM at a local branch of our national bank, for which the bank charged no fee. We were able to check our account balances on-line from anywhere in the country by means of our laptop and cell phone combination.

We set these systems up several bill-paying cycles ahead of the start of our trip, to be sure they were running smoothly before we hit the road.

To handle our mail, we rented a personal mailbox from a company that specializes in that. You can find these services in any city of medium size or larger. Here again, we started this transition several months before our trip began, gradually changing magazine subscriptions and other regular correspondence to the new address. We also provided our private mailbox as a forwarding address to the U.S. Postal Service, and for the last few weeks before we left town we received all our mail at the private box to be sure the system was working smoothly before our road trip began. For an added monthly fee, the personal mailbox company agreed to forward mail to us periodically anywhere in the country. We left them a couple of hundred dollars to cover postage, and approximately every two weeks we’d call with the address of a campground, and they would forward a package to us by Priority Mail. When the postage ran out, they’d let us know and we’d send them a check for more.

We visited our doctors for checkups shortly before we left town, and got prescriptions for 90-day supplies of medications they thought we’d need. We then could order the meds on-line and have them sent to our personal mailbox. I need to obtain periodic blood tests to monitor the efficiency of a particular medication, and I left my physician’s office with a fistful of authorizations that he had pre-signed. I was able to go to any medical laboratory, hand them an authorization, and they would draw the blood and phone or fax the results to my doctor.

Eventually, all the road trip planning details will resolve themselves. After you think you have everything in place, hitch up your RV and head off on a test trip. In fact, take several. You need not go far, but spend as many days as you can in your RV before your actual road trip begins. Hitch and unhitch the rig. Connect to utilities, and disconnect. Use the stove and the bathroom. Dump the tanks and refill the propane. Communicate with family and friends. Uncover any glitches before your RV becomes your primary life-support system. If you’ve done your road trip planning well, your test runs will go smoothly. But be sure.

People ask Karen and me what we should have done differently, in terms of planning. The answer, we tell them, is “nothing.” Our planning worked well. No doubt a little luck played a part. But the takeaway message, I think, is that road trip planning needs to start months in advance. Given adequate time, you can plan your RV travel carefully enough to do it right the first time.