These days, when it comes to travel, I am a planner. I don’t like surprises. So in order to make an informed decision, every vacation begins with consuming every review and article on every cruise ship and destination, reserving hotels and tours months in advance, and creating a spreadsheet itinerary containing every detail of the trip, reduced to a handy pocket-size guide to refer to when the need arises. I used to create a huge binder with obscene amounts of paper, but thankfully with the advent of iPhone, iPad and Dropbox, I am no longer an environmental hog. I drive my family nuts with the hours I spend making travel decisions. Just ask them. They would probably call it an obsession. I call it enthusiasm.
However, I wasn’t always this organized.
As a child growing up in the 60’s, I was part of a family that did not travel often. My dad’s idea of a vacation was waking up his wife and four children early one morning, telling us to get up, get dressed and pack a bag – we’re going on a road trip. With excitement and eager anticipation, my siblings and I would pack our stuff and jump into the old Chevy - no seat belts required. The old Chevy didn't even have seat belts. Our impromptu vacation would consist of two or three days to a destination within an easy drive, the scenery of which most often consisted of mountains and trees. Dad was not a city guy. That meant either the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts, the Green Mountains of Vermont or, on one occasion, upstate New York. We would drive all day, making a couple of pit stops along the way, and reach our destination late in the day. By that time, Dad had enough of driving and was ready to settle into a room for the night. Yeah, right! Try finding a roadside motel vacancy in a popular destination in the middle of summer without a reservation. I don’t know if it was just my family or if it was the way everybody traveled in those days, but there was no plan. No reservations, no itinerary, no spreadsheet. There was only a map. We vacationed the only way Dad knew … by the seat of our pants.
I particularly recall one such summer vacation. Dad was driving us further than we’d ever been – Penn Dutch country. We arrived in Amish country sometime around sunset, looking for a roadside motel with a vacancy. As we drove down the 2-lane highway, the no-vacancy signs glared at us, as if to say , “ha-ha, serves you right, idiots, for not calling ahead.” My brothers and I got very quiet, our choruses of “Ten Bottles of Beer on the Wall” replaced by fear and humiliation that we’d be sleeping in the car that night. Dad finally pulled into a sold-out motel and asked the proprietor where we might be able to locate a room around town. The man, with the most pitiful look he could muster, sent us to a local farm. Yes, that’s right … a farm – complete with tall cornfields, silo and maybe some farm animals. The details remain sketchy. The farm was owned by a nice elderly couple, most likely accustomed to taking in strays like us. I do remember my mom’s displeasure at staying the night in a stranger’s house. Not my dad, though. Being an avid gardener and lover of all things that come out of the ground, he was in his element.
My husband and I recreated our own by-the-seat-of-our-pants travel moment one summer early in our marriage. While on a drive through New Hampshire, we found ourselves lost in the woods of nearby Maine on a dark night, in search of a place to sleep. We finally found it – a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere, reminiscent of The Bates Motel. I clearly expected to see Anthony Perkins with that absurd grin waiting for us behind the counter or maybe those hillbillies from Deliverance with their dueling banjos. I don’t remember much about the room, but three words come to mind: “ugly”, “scary” and “dirty”. I would not have been the least bit surprised to find a family of squirrels living under the bed. Did we stay? Yes, but I think I kept my coat on the entire night and stayed clear of the shower.
Nowadays, I wouldn’t dream of setting out on a vacation without knowing where I am going to lay my head for the night. Although our preferences in accommodations have changed, much preferring the Hampton Inn instead of the Do-Drop Inn, even inexpensive roadside motels do have their place in vacation travel. All that is required is a little homework and some toleration for the basics. Advanced planning goes a long way in ensuring a great vacation with few surprises.
What about you? Should you plan ahead or travel by the seat of your pants? The choice is yours. Just remember the following rule if you happen upon a roadside motel some dark night in the middle of nowhere:
If the guy behind the counter goes by the name Norman Bates, and he says he needs to go check with his mother to find out if a room is available, run away – fast!