Using the Internet and other sources can help travelers formulate exciting, well-conceived excursions.
By Rhonda Ostertag
Trip planning has become much easier in recent years with so many more resources available to assist in the process. By using this wealth of information, travelers can turn a humdrum trip into an exciting adventure. In fact, trip planning may just become a favorite new hobby that can take you to places you never even knew existed.
Maps and travel guides remain an important part of the discovery process, but a 20th-century phenomenon, the Internet, can lead to entirely new ideas. With a computer, information from around the world is available right at your fingertips. No longer must you face dead-ends at bookstores and waste time and money with endless phone calls. Searching the Internet does not require expert computer skills or even the ownership of a computer. Most good-size (and even some small) public libraries have computers that are connected to the Internet. With a couple of startup tips from the librarian, you can begin clicking your way to your next vacation. Another plus to using the Internet is that the information is generally more current than you’ll find in books and brochures. And the hunt is less expensive.
When researching using the Internet, you don’t even need a well-formulated idea to get started. Web page links can take you to various clubs, little-known places, and valuable contacts. In the end, the actual trip may bear little resemblance to what you originally were considering, but that’s part of the fun. Besides helping you decide where to go, using the Internet can assist you in finding RV parks and services within the area you plan to visit.
But don’t rely entirely on the Internet, because myriad other sources can help you create an exciting travel plan as well. The new state atlases; the proliferation of specialty magazines that cover birding, history, archaeology, antiquing, camping, canoeing, bicycling, etc.; and casual conversations with fellow travelers all will keep travel ideas popping.
The Internet can play several roles in your trip planning, either as a spark for ideas or as a convenient reference to check dates, phone numbers, and services. Plus, many Web sites include direct e-mail addresses that you can use to request additional information. When contacting multiple agencies via e-mail for the same information, copying and pasting can help you speed requests. Simply write a basic note that says you’re planning to visit the area, request a brochure (or whatever other information is essential to you), and provide your postal address. Copy the original message and paste it into each e-mail you send. This will save the expense of making multiple phone calls, and you can send the requests at your convenience, evenings or weekends, instead of during regular business hours.
If you are unfamiliar with using the Internet to search for information, here’s a primer. Once you’ve established a connection from your computer to the server (essentially the switchboard to the Internet), select the icon for a browser such as Netscape or Explorer, two common on-ramps to the information highway. From there, you either can type in the Web address if you know of a specific site you want to visit, or select a search engine (HotBot, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, Google, etc.) to search for information about your topics. Google is my choice, but try several to find one that fits best with your thinking process.
Let’s say you’re interested in birding. You can type the word “birding” in the search line, but the sheer number of results that come up might send you running for the door. Try narrowing the search with a more specific term such as “birding Nebraska,” “Pacific Flyway,” “Audubon sanctuaries,” “whooping cranes,” or perhaps the name of a specific wildlife refuge or park. As the search sites appear, open those that best address your travel interest or curiosity.
Within the Web sites are subcategories and links to related sites that can help you hone your search. Whenever you find an especially useful source, take a moment to copy the Web address into a text file, store it as a bookmark, or print out the page before venturing on. Sometimes duplicating or backtracking your way through the Web can be difficult, if not impossible.
When investigating a locale to visit, national, state, and local government agency Web pages provide a logical start. State and city government pages typically include or link to tourism bureaus where maps and general travel information can be requested. For recreation and/or camping information, possible pages to visit are the U.S. Forest Service; the Bureau of Land Management; the National Park Service; state and local parks; and national and state fish and wildlife services and their associated areas.
Other searches can round up museums, botanical gardens and arboretums, bird sanctuaries, historical societies, etc. The selection will depend on your personal travel interests and hobbies.
The next step is to check out public and private campgrounds. You might start with FMCA’s Web site, www.fmca.com. Once you reach the home page go to the Business Directory, Campgrounds page; type in your criteria; and click on “Search” at the bottom of the page. Or, you can pull out your favorite dog-eared campground directory and use the Internet to double-check phone numbers, facilities, length restrictions, reservations, gate closures, and other tidbits. For still more listings, try running a search on either “campgrounds” or “RV parks” paired with the specific town, park, or area. Some phone calls may still be necessary to learn about parking conditions at stops along the way and other motor coaching concerns, but the Internet can get you well on your way.
Besides gathering information, it’s essential to have an organized method of compiling your travel ideas. Consider creating a text file categorized by travel idea that lists the key Web addresses, can’t-miss attractions, and suitable parks and campgrounds for quick referral. The computer’s copy-and-paste feature can save finger strokes and prevent you from making typing errors when transferring the information. A printout of this file then can be carried in the motorhome for referral while traveling.
Maps, Atlases, And Calendars of Events
The Internet, however, is only one trip planning tool. New state atlases and updated U.S. Forest Service maps are great assets when planning your trip and once you are on the road. The state atlases partition states into grids, providing a zoomed-in look at each area. The greater detail is invaluable. The lone drawback is that you’ll likely need to flip between several pages for the overall picture of the route and destination. A perk for many travelers, though, is that bound atlases are much easier to handle than traditional road maps, and they don’t need to be refolded.
State atlases typically include more routes, attractions, and town listings (helpful in the RV park search). Grid maps can show the locations of museums, gardens, public parks, private RV parks, trails, scenic drives, boat launches, fishing spots, golf courses, natural sites, and more.
Newer Forest Service maps also provide improved detail. Most indicate the nature and surface of the various travel routes and some include topographic lines, helping you to assess the steepness of any passes. The indicated campgrounds, landmarks, waterways, routes, and trails fashion a tidy snapshot for assessing an area’s destination appeal.
You shouldn’t be intimidated by maps. These inexpensive travel agents can save a trip by helping you find a detour, an alternate camping situation, or a way to fill out the day should weather, mosquitoes, or a “closed” sign cancel your original plans. Most people get into trouble by waiting until the last moment to open an atlas or map. By studying the appropriate map pages before leaving on a trip and referring to them along the way, travelers eliminate the fluster when plans must be altered. When en route, always pull into a rest area or a parking lot to consult a map. It’s safer, and an unhurried look usually produces the best results.
Maps also can be used to conveniently store and retrieve travel information. As longtime road warriors, my husband, George, and I now keep an annotated “working” atlas for the states we frequent (national atlases are just too congested). On the pages of these state atlases we circle key features, attractions, and camping options. But we also keep an unmarked second atlas or road map strictly for reading the routes.
By circling key attractions and inserting our personal notes (good and bad), we reduce the chances that we might miss an attraction or take a bad road again. Plus, we have alternative options available at a glance. When we find ourselves saying, “I’d like to go there,” we note it on the map, where we may actually find it when we need it. George even puts in photography notes: “mountain view, good turnout” or “barn, a.m. light.” We further avoid missed opportunities by organizing our collected brochures in the order of our intended route.
In addition to our annotated map, we keep weekly planners or calendars to track annual and seasonal events. Flower blooms, apple harvests, fish runs, festivals, meteor showers, bird migrations, ruts, and breeding seasons all can suggest travel themes or a terrific side trip. A planning calendar is the best way to keep track of what’s going on and where. With natural events, though, travelers should still plan on telephoning the appropriate travel bureau, refuge, or park, since nature is unpredictable.
Planning puts a trip on a good foundation, but don’t forget to take chances as well. Those silly, bizarre, unexpected roadside finds can still make the best stories. Just remember to add such discoveries to your atlas for the next time you’re in the area.
Time off is such a valuable commodity. Why not make the most of it with a little planning?
Helpful Web Sites
Bureau of Land Management
Government Agency Index:
National Park Service
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: www.fws.gov or http://offices.fws.gov/statelinks.html
U.S. National Forests
American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta
Family Motor Coach Association
The Nature Conservancy
Worldwide travel offices, directory