Eenie, meenie, minie, mo! We're (ok, I'm) on the impulsive side which means that until our flights or our lodging is booked, our future plans for travel are subject to change. While we always have some loose plans in mind, any number of factors could sway us from one coast to the other, or from taking a trip on our anniversary in January (the usual) to postponing until months later. So how do we fickle travelers end up choosing our next destination?
Awhile back Brandon and I talked about how smart it would be to visit the states farthest way from us first. We figured that if and when we have children, family road trips to the states nearby would be easiest and least expensive, while flying to the far corners of the country (since we happen to live pretty much in the center) would be a bigger commitment. This idea was probably bolstered by the fact that we had already traveled to some of these outer-lying states so we sort of had a pattern going.
Well, in the summer of 2016 it occurred to me that we could squeeze in a cheap mini trip if we drove somewhere nearby for a long weekend. So the desire to explore prevailed and our tenuous pattern fell by the wayside, not that we really minded. It turned out that shorter road trips are a ton of fun and allow us to travel more often and for less money. They're also usually more concentrated because we tend to stay in each state longer than we would if we were farther away from home when we're trying to cover as much ground as possible.
Aside from an overall strategy, another deciding factor for some of our first trips was how sick of winter we would be when our anniversary rolled around. Since we live in Minnesota (the state that rated number one for worst winters), the answer is usually pretty sick. For a couple of years that lead us to tour about half of the southern coastal states, but when those are all checked off we'll be out that decision aid as well.
There are a million reasons for choosing a particular region and season and we're not experts on any of them, but here are some of the questions we ask ourselves when planning out our next trip.
1. What are our resources? This obviously can be a limiting factor, but it doesn't have to make or break your travel plans. It's true that flying, staying in hotels, eating out, renting a car and/or paying entrance and tour fees can really add up, but there are a lot of ways to economize. I'll go into more detail about how we try to save money another time, but for the purposes of choosing your destination, determining how much money you want to spend should be one of the first steps.
2. Do we have (or want) a strategy? As I mentioned above, we considered starting with the states along the edge of the country because we thought it would be be easier in this stage of life. Maybe you have a goal to see all the states in a certain amount of time, or maybe you're working your way through the national parks or doing some epic coast-to-coast road trip. Having some sort of order to follow can make the planning a lot easier and potentially more efficient. We usually try to visit more than one state on each trip so planning ahead helps us not leave one unvisited state in the middle of a bunch of states we've checked off which would make it harder to visit in the future without backtracking over the states we've already seen (not that that would be the end of the world, but it's certainly not efficient). Looking at a map of where we've been it's pretty hard to discern any sort of pattern, but you can see how we've tried to visit several states in the same area.
No matter what your plan is, be prepared to deviate from it from time to time. We've traveled to some states in order to visit friends and family which, in most cases, was a limited-time opportunity (I squeaked in a visit to my friend in Arizona just a couple of weeks before she moved back to Minnesota). No matter what your big picture plan is, it's a good idea to allow for some flexibility and spontaneity so that you can take advantage of opportunities that come up on the fly.
3. Are we traveling for a special occasion? Our honeymoon not only got us hooked on traveling together, but it set a precedent for traveling on or around our anniversary. We haven't traveled for every anniversary but we have been in lots of cool places around that time of year and it's made for some really memorable experiences. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, graduations and many other special dates fill the calendar. Choose one of these times to travel and you'll not only have a great celebration, but you'll have a built in reminder of your special trip for years to come.
A fun twist on the option to travel for a special occasion in your life is to travel for a special occasion in the "life" of your destination. We started looking for events that are unique to each state to help us decide when to visit. We totally loved visiting Nebraska by itself, but it's extra special to us because it's where we saw the total solar eclipse in 2017. Visiting Tennessee during the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., going to Boston for Harborfest or to Georgia for the Cherry Blossom Festival are other examples of things we've considered to make our travels coincide with a meaningful event in that location. Just keep in mind that lots of other people may be making the same plans. Be prepared to spend more for travel, parking and local accommodations, and to be around more people. Even if we were interested in being down south for Mardi Gras, there's no way either one of us could handle it. Crowds and noise and craziness are a turn off for us. Special events can be really cool and exciting, but if they'll end up causing a lot of stress you may want to pick a more low-key time to plan your trip.
4. When is an ideal time to go? We pay attention to the climate of each state when making our plans, partly because neither of us does well in heat and partly because we'd love to experience certain seasons in certain states. I've been to Arizona in the middle of summer and Florida in October. Both were hot and, if I could help it, I wouldn't want to go anywhere south of Missouri in the summer months. I'd rather go north in the winter than south in the summer.
It's fun to go somewhere that's different than what you're used to at any particular time of year, but even though we have traditionally opted for a change in climate for our anniversary trips in January, I'm dying to see if what they say in White Christmas is true in the winter: that Vermont is beautiful with all that snow. We came pretty close to planning a winter trip to New England last year but chickened out and went south instead. One of these years we're going to plan a trip to enjoy and appreciate the winter somewhere else instead of just suffering through it at home (I suppose we could try to enjoy and appreciate it at home too, but that's just not as fun). There's natural beauty in every state and every season, but if you really want to get a taste of what makes a certain location unique, you may want to plan to be there at the peak of a particular season, like when the fall colors are at their height or the flowers are blooming in the spring.
Or you may want to avoid the tourist season by going during a non-peak time. When we found ourselves in New York City on St. Patrick's day in 2012 we got as far away from the hubbub as possible (retreating from Manhattan Island to Ellis Island), but not before getting lost in a sea of green in the subway. If you do decide to try to beat the crowds, call ahead to any attractions or tours that you'd like to see as they sometimes shut down during slower months. I've experienced this both during the summer in Arizona (because apparently no one tries to be in Arizona in July) and in the southeastern states in the winter. Don't get your heart set on a shrimping boat tour in South Carolina in January; it's not going to happen.
In addition, you may want consider, or at least be aware of, some of the weather you could experience while you're away. Remember that each each region has its own unique weather patterns and potential for natural disasters. While it may be unlikely that you will be affected dramatically, do your research ahead of time and plan for contingencies. In Arizona we experienced a downpour, which apparently isn't uncommon in their monsoon season, and the roads were so flooded that it totally freaked me out. Luckily, my friend was the driver and she took it all in stride (like all the other motorists who were used to it). I found out, though, that flooding is such a problem in Arizona during that time of year that entire roads and neighborhoods get blocked off because of it. Being aware of the unique local dangers and the laws regarding them can help keep you out of trouble. Don't just assume that your car will behave the same as always in high altitudes or low temperatures, or that your body will tolerate high heat or low oxygen (I learned the hard way when I started blacking out while climbing a small hill in a high altitude region of Perú). Taking the proper climate precautions will help avoid major delays, inconveniences or even health problems.
5. What sounds interesting right now? Brandon and I both love so much about traveling and learning new things that we're just not picky when it comes to deciding where we will go next. That makes planning both easy and difficult. We could ask a random person on the street to choose for us and we could find something to get excited about no matter what they said. I might see a picture of the "Grand Canyon of Michigan" or read an article about California's super bloom or hear about a conference in Memphis and suddenly I'm ready to plan a whole new trip from I what I had in mind before.
Sometimes one trip inspires the next. Brandon is on a Civil War and Revolutionary War kick ever since visiting the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi and would love see Gettysburg, the National Archives, the Smithsonian or even revisit a war history destination here at home, Fort Snelling. After learning about the pioneers in Nebraska, I became even more interested in the Oregon Trail and also in exploring along the path of the Missouri River. Experiences like those help point us in new and interesting directions.
Even our DNA gives us ideas. Brandon's an ancestry buff and has a list of places to see that are significant in his family history stretching from southern Minnesota to an island off of Massachusetts (and, really, back to England but that's a little too ambitious for us right now). There's travel inspiration everywhere! We typically let the ideas roll around for awhile and when it's getting closer to when we want to travel or to an upcoming event, we ask ourselves these questions, and after lots of "are you sure?" we pull the trigger.
Bottom Line: there are so many good reasons to travel! Whether it's an hour away, or on the other side of the country, you can have a great time anywhere you go if you put a little bit of thought into the process up front. There's a lot to see and do in this country so any time is a good time to make a plan and decide on your destination!