Three kids, two weeks, one car: Toronto to San Francisco vacation, or "if you like it so much then quit your job!"
March 4, 2010 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Late-March roadtrip from Toronto to San Francisco, or wherever we end up by the time we have to head back. We've got two weeks, or sixteen days if we really need it. There's three of us. We currently have no plan and only vague notions of freedom on the road and driving into podunk towns to see giant balls of twine. As such, we have tons of logistics questions, which I will attempt to summarize:

1. We plan to rent a car. We'd prefer to do this in Toronto, but we've heard that such cross-border tomfoolery is usually not allowed by rental companies. Can we do a straight shot from Toronto to San Fran, or will we have to bus it to Buffalo before picking up our ride?

2. Got any recommendations for a car? We're thinking a full-size car like an Impala will be spacious enough to give us all room during the inevitable duller moments, but fuel economy is a bit of a concern too. Plus, at least one of us is not an experienced driver; I doubt the type of car we get will matter here, but it's worth noting.

3. TIME. We're sort of caught in between a rock and a hard place. We want the trip to be interesting, but we also want to actually spend some time in San Francisco, and not have to head back as soon as we get there. My friends seem to think three or four days each way is a reasonable amount of time, and that five days would be luxurious (and still give us five days or so in SFO). What sayeth you, Metafilter?

4. Where should we sleep? I don't think we're going to do any camping if we can help it, just because it's still sort of winter are we aren't really equipped for camping anyways. We figured we'd just stop at roadside motels or small towns and do things that way. Thoughts?

5. Finally, the most important question: what should we see and where should we go? We have no route at the moment, aside from whatever we pulled out of Google Maps for "Toronto to San Francisco." Side roads and cute towns are definitely welcome respites from eight hours of cornfields and the like, so whatever we can fit in while keeping reasonable time is welcome. We're purposely not planning this out too much but it'd be nice if the trip wasn't just a straight shot down a highway.

Thanks for reading this long-ass question. I promise to take lots of pictures and show you all my boring vacation slides.

(P.S. 6. Can we just plug an iPod into most rental cars nowadays or are we gonna have to bring along an FM transmitter? Okay, I'll stop now!)
posted by chrominance to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Plan to drive straight through from Chicago to Colorado. There is nothing worth stopping for. Save your time for SF.
posted by desjardins at 5:00 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

IN San Fran: Pirate Supply Store do not question, just go. Also, practically next door to THAT is the weirdest eco-friendly/TAXIDERMIA((some fakes))/random SHIT gardening store I've ever seen. The kids would love it, *I* loved it.

California Academy of Sciences for the Aquarium portions ALONE, the biodome looked awesome as well but the line was too big when I went. Once again, totally kid friendly.

Cheap and awesome--- Golden Gate Park. Just spend an entire afternoon there and you will never look at High Park the same way again.

For OUTSTANDING food, you MUST MUST MUST go to Brenda's French Soul Food. There is a LINE and it is WORTH EVERY MINUTE. I can't stress how delicious and buttery and rich and flavourful and just plain 'omgwow' her food was. The kids should like it unless you are vegan.

These were the things that stood out the most to me during my trip, I'm sure I'm forgetting some things, will repost if I remember!
posted by darlingmagpie at 5:08 PM on March 4, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, just to clarify: WE are the kids. We are not bringing actual children with us. But we do love pirates.
posted by chrominance at 5:10 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Weather can be an issue going through the mountains that time of year, so if you can, don't commit to an arrival date in SF.
posted by lukemeister at 5:13 PM on March 4, 2010

I've driven coast-to-coast (SF -> NY) three times now. You can do it in 4 days if you drive 8-12 hours a day, though your route will be a little shorter. So if you want to stop a lot along the way, plan more time. If you're willing to have some marathon sessions and rotate drivers, you'll be able to do it in 4 days with some stops.

Since it'll still be late winter / early spring, there is the possibility of delays crossing the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada if there's a snowstorm.

I've generally had no problem finding chain motels to stay in, except one time in Billings, Montana when it turned out we were there the same day as the livestock show and basically got the last room in town.
posted by pombe at 5:17 PM on March 4, 2010

I can speak to #3 somewhat - Last July I packed everything and drove two dogs, a cat, and a kid from San Diego to Toronto and made it in about 4 days without rushing. This was in a Honda Accord. If you can get a car with more space, ffs, do it.

As for #4 - I did a load of research on where I might stop each night, and then came up with a list of hotels in *every* major city along the way. This was essential as I was traveling with pets, and needed to be sure hotels would accept them. I probably would not have researched if it had just been me - and the trip might have been a lot tougher. I ended up staying in a lot of La Quintas. They're comfortable without being overpriced, offer the free continental breakfast deal, and they were willing to let my dogs in. Even without pets, I was so incredibly glad I researched. A lot of the places that look decent online (even in real life, as I drove past them) were reviewed on the net, and it was nice to have a list of places to avoid. Even chain hotels can be hit or miss. You might find the La Quintas (for example, not speaking out of firsthand knowledge) in Iowa overall are nasty, but there might be one in Des Moines that's spectacular.

#5 - See everything. Photograph everything. You have a crazy amount of time compared to what I had, so you should have plenty of time to take that one hour jog north into a major national park, or an hour or two to hike around and see things. Also - Yelp should be your friend, when it comes to food. Yelp took me out to eat almost every time we stopped, and Yelp reviews almost never let me down.

As long as the endless driving doesn't get under your skin, you will have a blast. I was shocked at how VAST the US is, when I took that drive. I wasn't on a vacation, so my joys were small things, like trying to get a photo of every "Welcome to X State!" sign.
posted by routergirl at 5:28 PM on March 4, 2010

Best answer: I've done this drive twice each way. I agree with desjardins, just blast through to Colorado as quick as you can (two days), probably on the I-80. After that I strongly advise either a detour north through Wyoming to visit Yellowstone and some of the beautiful mountain terrain, or a detour south through Utah and Arizona to see the painted desert, monument valley, and the Grand Canyon. Given the time of year, the southern route is probably preferred to avoid snow.

The first time I did this drive I was 21 and heading to San Francisco for a summer internship with a few classmates. We didn't really plan our route in advance and decided midway through Colorado that we wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, but we had to go to the South Rim (North Rim is closed in spring due to snow), so we detoured south through Moab, Utah, and by dumb luck followed US 163 which happens to go straight through Monument Valley. I swear the scenery on this drive changed my life. Living a sheltered suburban life I didn't have much understanding of space or scale or what it's like being away from the city, nor did I have any idea how beautiful the world could be. It never would have occurred to me that national parks are the things you can't afford to miss on this drive, and I am really thankful that one of my travel partners insisted.

Given your constraints you'll have to push to make the southern swing work. It will cost you a lot of time. Don't stop in Chicago; instead try hard to make it to Grand Junction Colorado by the end of day 2, though this will take some discipline to achieve. The third day you can drive through Moab and Monument Valley all the way to the Grand Canyon and see all the amazing scenery along the way, you can stay in a motel in Tusayan for the night. Day four, spend time hiking in the canyon for a few hours and finish the night in Las Vegas. Day five drive and you'll finish in San Francisco. Spend five or six days there. Then on the way back, just burn it on the I-80; it's about 40 hours driving so you can do it in two days with shifts if you need to, or in three days if you decide to stop for the nights.

By the way hotels are plentiful along the interstate, every town has a cluster of fast food/gas/hotels, they're all about the same. Hampton Inns usually include a pretty good breakfast which is key. Try to venture into the downtowns and find the local diners for your meals; you'll get pretty sick of fast food pretty quick. Have fun.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:32 PM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

First: Take the southern route- it's only about 4 hours longer, and much of it follows the path of the old mother road (US 66). Think the scenery from "Cars" in many places. You can see the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, enjoy the scenery in New Mexico.

Or you can smell the cow shit all the way across Nebraska and Wyoming. Your call.
posted by pjern at 5:36 PM on March 4, 2010

Based on my recent ordeal with the Buffalo border coming from Toronto I would say:

- bring proof of residence that you live in Canada, rental, mortage, bills, etc.
- bring info about where you are staying in San Fran

Otherwise they can reject your right at the border, as they did me - :-(
posted by simpleton at 5:39 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check out if you CAN rent a car... Under 25 can be iffy, under 21 almost impossible.
posted by Marky at 5:49 PM on March 4, 2010

Minor correction to PercussivePaul's awesome comment. I-80 doesn't go through Colorado; it goes through Nebraska and Wyoming. I-70 goes through Kansas and Colorado.

If you can find time to go to Yellowstone, do it!
posted by lukemeister at 6:09 PM on March 4, 2010

Oh right. You have to switch to I-76 in Nebraska and then I-70 in Colorado.
I-80 goes through southern Wyoming but it's a pretty boring stretch. The scenery isn't bad but it's so much better on the other routes.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:26 PM on March 4, 2010

Best answer: Roadside America is worth checking out then.

We've always done frequent road trips, and still do with our actual six year old, and love the weird stuff. We live in Toronto too.

To answer your questions:

1,2) My parents live in Buffalo, and that's where we deposit the dog on our way out of town - car rental is WAY cheaper from there. We use the Budget Rent a Car by the airport, as that's the cheapest of all after much poking around. It's cheaper when you walk right in, too - better than online. And as much as we enjoyed the red Mustang one year from Buffalo to Chincoteague VA, it was too small so far as the trunk, backseat and everything goes. Especially if you have the flea market and thrift store habit we have. We have CAA, and that helps with covering the extra insurance and stuff they try to upgrade you to, and the money is better spent on the size upgrade and marginal gas increase. DO remember to take out health insurance policies before you go, if you're not covered by any others - you can do that through CAA too. Boo-boos in the 'States can get expensive.

3) Your sense of time allotted is fine, but be careful of hitting major cities around rush hour or bedtime. You lose precious travel time and it can be more expensive to stay right in a city (though airport hotels/motels are often charmless, they're way cheaper than downtown). We find staying right outside the city and then hitting them right after rush hour when attractions open around 10 or 11 works better, then lunch and hitting the road. We find a place to eat off the highway for dinner to hit some scenic stuff while there's daylight, then drive more on the highway before bed. Unless there's night-time stuff to do that is awesome, we're usually too tired to go out and just want to crash.

4) Sleep? I like this Mom and Pop Motels site, but I try to cross-reference them with any reviews I can find online. Because, as I mentioned, we have an actual child, it keeps us out of the porno hotels but helps us find the charming ones. That said, staying in the big chain right off the highway has its high points - after a long day in the car, I really like a nice swim or a good shower and fluffy towels. They also give CAA discounts, or you can find coupons in magazines or brochures at roadside diners. And if they have the breakfast buffet included right there, it can save an hour of trying to find a place, eat and leave town in the morning.

5) To do? Eat in diners, whenever possible. This site has a state by state guide to help find the great-looking vintage ones, with reviews to keep the food poisoning away. And the Roadside America stuff. Boy, did I ever love the museum full of instruments of torture that we saw in Atlantic City once. I also have priceless pictures of me holding up any giant and oversized fibreglass things we could find, like barbells and rearing stallions... Talk to locals, find the best pie. Also, I have a new fondness for well-written travel articles. Thanks to this article, we found a place with a meringue pie I loved so much that I bought a whole one, carried it with us, and ate it for four days.

6) Some yes - but almost all will have CD players. We made some mix-CDs, especially of silly stuff like the Bickersons. But we also take our iPal, for music in the hotel room or wherever. But we scan a lot of AM radio, looking for college stations and talk shows. We love hearing some mind-blowing polkas and some fantastic gospel by chance as much as we realize that sometimes it's just time to blast the Sonics.

And, as a side note, we have noticed over the last thirteen years of road trips (usually going south, like to Memphis and Nashville and then Austin, but regularly now to Chincoteauge through Baltimore and Philadelphia and frequently through the Finger Lakes region) that roadside America has changed. Strip malls have taken a lot of business away from the small towns, and so they often don't have as much going on in them as one would hope. A little main street with a used bookstore and cafe is as much as we can hope for, and it can still be an effort to dig up one. We still log our hours through cornfields, and love stopping off at National Parks and such - but we have started to see the value in making time and just hitting something major in a bigger town is a better use of our time. If we want to find the fun and funky, we usually try to search for a concentration of brick 'n' mortar vintage clothing stores, or a tattoo shop, and ask the folks there for recommendations. I also bring my laptop, and try to research the next day the night before.

Have fun! Keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down!
posted by peagood at 6:30 PM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I rent various cars. The Chevy Impala LS is a swell car. Rent it. The fuel costs a bit more than a cute little economy model, but the ride is nice, and it is worth it. If you chew the fuel pennies too hard, you might want to stay home.

Big recommendation: buy a Rand-McNally North America Road Atlas right now, and spend your evenings staring at maps of States. This is a fun part of the prep.
posted by ovvl at 7:48 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rent a GPS so you don't waste time getting lost looking for a gas station/rest stop/motel.
posted by desjardins at 8:31 PM on March 4, 2010

Best answer: Weirdly, almost everywhere I've lived in my life has been along your roadtrip route: SF, Boulder, Chicago, Toronto. There is so much to see. My advice to you is to realize that in two weeks you will only scratch the surface, so don't kill yourself trying to see and do everything; pick a few things that sound great to you and take time in each place to let them sink in. Resolve to take another trip next year.

That said: PercussivePaul's suggested route is a good one, and if you were only going to take one trip across this piece of the country this would be a great way to go. My own preference, though, would probably be to save the Grand Canyon for a different trip: it deserves plenty of time on its own, and is a pretty big detour for you.

My own, semi-autobiographical route would go something like this: Drive to Chicago. Eat Mexican food (Chicago has an insanely huge Hispanic community, an insane number of tasty Mexican restaurants, plus Mexican is imho one of the only cuisines that Toronto does really really poorly), and maybe some pizza too. Wander along the lakeshore. Go up to the bar at the top of the Hancock building and take in the view (while enjoying an admittedly-overpriced cocktail). You're going too early in the year to take a tour by boat, but the Chicago Architecture Foundation does other kinds of tours too -- if you are into architecture at all, you will enjoy this.

Drive to Colorado. (There are neat little sights here and there along the way, or not too far from it -- college towns, the World's Largest Prarie Dog!, possible detours to St. Louis, bbq in Kansas City, etc -- but maybe save those for another trip.) Maybe spend a night in Boulder (nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains) or Denver (if you prefer to be in a city, admittedly a sort-of-sleepy one) or Estes Park (if you want to be in a little touristy town up in the mountains, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain Natl. Park -- you could even stay at the Stanley, inspiration for "the Shining"). Go snowshoeing in RMNP, maybe, or just go hiking along one of the eleventy billion trails that line the foothills (the high-elevation trails will still be snow-covered). Have one of the (many) local beers.

From here you have a few different choices. The fastest route would probably be to go back up to I-80 (at Cheyenne) and head west, through Medicine Bow Natl. Forest, on to Salt Lake City and Reno and then finally San Francisco. That way has its charms (the salt flats in Utah are kind of eerie; the hills in Wyoming are gentler than the ones farther south, but still beautiful in a kind of barren windswept way), but it's not the route I'd choose. I'd go west on I-70, up through the Eisenhower Tunnel that runs underneath the Continental Divide. If there's been a recent snowfall, you could stop at one of the ski resorts along the way -- Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, A-Basin, Copper Mountain -- and spend a day sliding down mountains (they'll still be open in late March). Go on, driving alongside the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon, towards Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. You could take a detour south to Arches or Canyonlands, or you can just dart west on route 50 to Reno. Maybe stop and look around Lake Tahoe a little, then pass west through the Sierra to San Francisco and the Pacific.

Christ, I haven't even gotten to describing San Francisco yet, and this is already too long. Just ... talk to people. Drink wine and eat good sushi and go to Bourbon & Branch for a drink; drive up to Muir Woods for an afternoon; get lost wandering around the city.

You have so much to look forward to. Enjoy!
posted by chalkbored at 10:50 AM on March 5, 2010

Oh, and re: logistics -- I haven't had a problem taking a Canadian rental car across the border into the US. I do remember reading somewhere that Canadian residents are not technically permitted to take a US-plated rental car into Canada, so maybe be aware of that.
posted by chalkbored at 10:54 AM on March 5, 2010

Response by poster: Lots of great answers here, I just marked the ones with the most information. Still trying to decide on a route but the southern route definitely sounds like the right call. Route 66 sounds appealing but I think we're trying to hit Las Vegas on our way west, which looks like it would require a bit of a detour.

More research to come, but the three of us are super excited. Thanks a bunch, and keep the tips coming if you've got any!
posted by chrominance at 6:51 PM on March 6, 2010

I was thinking about this a bit more. Assuming you choose to follow my route, you'll need three days to make it to Grand Junction, not two, because your first day you'll be slow out of the gate and getting your rental car and stuff, and it's a long way. Either way though, aim to stop in Grand Junction; it sets up the next day really well. You want to do the scenic parts in the daylight. Also when you leave Grand Junction take the little highway through Cisco and Dewey, it's really pretty.

Also you are going to get bored of your music, no matter how much you have. You will be amazed how quickly you burn through an album. I suggest podcasts and audiobooks, something really engaging like a lecture series. I would hope a rental car would have a way to plug in your ipod to the stereo; my car didn't, but i got around that by bringing some portable speakers, less than ideal but functional. Don't bother with FM transmittors, they're a pain in the ass. Also, it's handy to get a power inverter like this one so you can charge ipods and cameras and phones since you might forget to do it in the hotels. Have fun.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:46 PM on March 6, 2010

Road Trip USA (and the books, which of course are much more detailed) might be useful for the parts of your trip when you're not on interstate highways. Have a blast!
posted by lukemeister at 9:25 PM on March 7, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, hey, so I totally forgot to come back to this. Anyways, the roadtrip was a huge success! The southern route was definitely the way to go—we came back along the northern route, and though it only took us three days of almost-solid driving to get home, it was dull as dishwater except for the part through the Rockies where we had to buy tire chains from a guy in a truck at the side of the road. (They're now sitting in my living room as trophies.) On the way there, we drove pretty much straight to St. Louis, then cut across Oklahoma to the Texas panhandle. Drove through New Mexico and Arizona, skipped the Grand Canyon and headed straight for Zion National Park, then hit Death Valley and Las Vegas before driving through Bakersfield to get to San Fran. Highlights, in case anyone else reads this and wants tips:

St. Louis City Museum. Great if you like giant jungle gyms masquerading as educational experiences. There are crazy caves and a ten-story spiral slide inside, and an insane climbing labryinth constructed from metal rebar, the hollowed-out chassis of several planes, and all sorts of other random detritus. Wasn't so fun for me because I'm hella afraid of heights, but my two companions had a friggin' blast.

Pie Town, New Mexico. Easily the winner of "most adorable roadside cafe," we stopped in at the eastern pie place (there's another one on the other side of town, a scant minute away), had some great pie, chatted with a local rancher, and traded stories with an Arizona couple who loved visiting native burial grounds. As a destination, it's lacking in things to do, but as a lunch stop, it's perfect.

Zion National Park. This is probably a "duh" for most people, but yeah. I'm not an outdoorsy type by any stretch, but I found some neat trails to walk and take pictures of. My friends, meanwhile, did the Angels Landing hike—you know, the one where near the end, you walk tightrope-style along a ridge about as wide as an escalator, with sheer drops of hundreds of feet on each side—and loved every moment. It's probably the most beautiful place I've ever visited.

Marble Canyon, Death Valley. Very different from the Zion hikes, but equally beautiful. We went near sundown, which was great because we practically had the whole inner valley to ourselves.

There's a bunch of stuff we never got to see like Arcosanti or Flagstaff, but I guess that's why they give you vacation time EVERY year. Thanks to everyone for all the tips!
posted by chrominance at 7:13 PM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (oh, and dude, the Musee Mechanique in San Francisco is so amazing.)
posted by chrominance at 7:13 PM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

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