Our guide to great road trips in the US

From November of 2014 to May of 2015, we road-tripped across the USA and Canada in a Roadtrek van. We have compiled some tips and ideas that 1) helped our trip work well and 2) kept us to a reasonable budget.

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Below find:

Tips for making life easy on the road

Getting some deals and keeping costs low

Must-see attractions

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Tips for making life easy on the road

 

  1. Get a gym membership. We chose Anytime Fitness because there are a ton of locations across the US. It became our daily routine, our source of internet, our place to shower and our place to meet locals. For a relatively small monthly fee, we had 24 hour access to the gym which was so convenient.
  2. Take on a mindset that you are traveling and not just on vacation. So of course, enjoy yourself, set out to see the sights and have a great attitude. AND also consider that you are traveling for months as opposed to going to a tropical resort for a short vacation. For us this meant setting up routines like hitting the gym on the daily, setting a weekly budget, drinking moderately unless it was a special occasion, getting lots of sleep, keeping our diets clean, keeping vitamins on hand, etc. These are things that aren’t that important when you’re only traveling for a couple weeks, but when away for several months, it’s good to keep all of this stuff working well. We didn’t want to return from our road trip having gained 30 pounds or being broke.
  3. Keep digital copies of all important information. We took photos of all of our cards, emergency info, van registration, health insurance, etc and kept it well-organized in the cloud. So if we ever lost something, we had a back up and could access it through Evernote on our phones.
  4. Get a bank account. If you have ID and a little starter money, most banks will allow people from out of the country to set up an account (especially easy between Canada and the US). We set it up through TD Bank which meant we could transfer with minimal fees and a better exchange rate between a TD Canada account and a TD US account. Paying with debit and being able to get cash back was very convenient.
  5. Unlock your phone and get set up month-to-month. It’s nice to have the convenience of being able to call ahead for reservations, stay in touch with folks back home and arrange to meet up with new friends.
  6. Get a GPS. We started by using GPS on our phones and the data costs were piling up. So we switched to a GPS that attached to the windshield. It saved money in the long run and saved a lot of arguments throughout.
  7. Always go to the nicest part of town for parking (especially overnight parking). Find a place that is well lit. Don’t leave valuables in sight in your car and go old-school like we did and get a club for your car’s steering wheel. The optics of the club as well as security stickers may be enough to deter crimes of opportunity.

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Getting some deals and keeping costs low

 

There are a ton of ways to have fun for free or cheap! Here’s how to do it.

  • Get apps on your phone for Groupon, Living social and any other discount/coupon sites that allow you to buy tickets and gift certificates at a discounted rate. This is also an excellent way to review a short list of activities and restaurants in a city while getting a great price.
  • Consider housesitting. This is a great way to escape small living quarters. The trade off is taking care of a house/property/pets while getting to live in someone’s place. These are often free, but sometimes paid. Lots of sites exist to facilitate the relationship between homeowners and potential sitters. We used the site housecarers.com. We housesat in Orlando, Florida for 5 weeks over Christmas.
  • Always google “free things in X city” and “weird things to do in x city” before heading to your next stop. You’ll hear about the free nights at the art galleries, random events happening at the university, outdoor spaces to visit, etc. Social media – especially Facebook – is a great place to go to see what’s happening as well.
  • Review the events listed on Eventbrite.com (you can search by cost). If it’s a big town or city, there are often lots of free events on offer.
  • Go to the Goodwill for any clothing, kitchen or book needs. The Goodwill is cheap. You can donate things back once you’ve used them too.
  • Sign up to bonus programs at restaurants so you get a meal for free, a free meal on your birthday and regular coupons/specials.
  • Use Redbox (found at 7/11, grocery stores, Walmart) to rent movies for $1-3 if you’re living in an RV. If you don’t have good internet and you don’t want to carry your own DVDs but you have a way to play them, this is a great activity for a rainy day.
  • Download free podcasts to listen to. Podcast Republic is a free app that we used to download our favourites: TED Radio hour, Freakonomics radio, Mystery show, Serial and anything from NPR.
  • Park in Walmart parking lots for free. Walmart allows campers to park in most of their lots overnight for free (excluding places with bylaw restrictions). This was so convenient because we didn’t have to drive way out of the city to find a camp site. We were downtown in places like Miami even staying for free in the comfort of our own van. Often it means 24 hr restroom access too. Tip: Go to sleep when it’s dark when you’re sleeping in a van in a parking lot, because you’ll wake up with the sun and the morning traffic.
  • Cook your own food. Food is generally cheap in the US. You can make meals  with good food (especially in places with long harvest seasons) for a couple bucks per meal.
  • Download the Gas Buddy app to track where the cheapest gas locations are along your route.

 

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Must-see attractions

We were so blessed to have months to tour 26 US states as well as 8 Canadian provinces so we saw a lot. The below list are the things that really stood out to us.

  1. Hike the Grand Canyon
  2. Shoot guns in Texas
  3. Visit the Senora desert
  4. Explore the Sonoma caves
  5. Go jet-skiing in Key West
  6. Be a beach bum in Florida (Daytona Beach, Miami, etc).
  7. Roam the streets, drink and listen to music in New Orleans
  8. Drive the Coastal highway in California (hit up San Francisco, Yosemite Park, the Redwood forests)
  9. Do your own photo tour of Charleston
  10. See the monuments and museums in Washington DC
  11. Check out Myrtle Beach off season for lots of fun without the line-ups
  12. Drink, shop, entertain yourself in Portland, Oregan

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Body (mind) transformation

By Jackson
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See me post-triathlon (2012) above, working my ass off but still with a gut.

To be clear, I’ve been working out and aware of my “diet” for over 14 years. I’ve been a lot of places with my body but never here. My shirts don’t fit in the arms and I can see my abs. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say,I’ve found my flow.

The shift for me began in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I was alone in my van for the weekend waiting for my wife. She was hanging with friends and I had no interest in shopping and pedicures. We had recently begun our 6 month tour of the US in my parents’ 17 foot camper van (Road Trek). Sitting outside of the laundromat I had this unexplaiined urge to drink booze. This thought came on strong but passed as soon as it arrived. I spent the night in a Walmart parking lot by myself (other campers will know they allow campers to park overnight for free). Before I fell asleep, I was drawn to the Walmart to buy something. I was in a fully-stocked van wanting for nothing. However, I found myself roaming the ailses aimlessly with an armful of crap food.

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There was an announcement in the typical unenthusiastic Walmart voice “Hello shoppers, we are now closed. Please bring your items to the front and thank you for shopping at Walmart.”

A bolt shot up my spine and the urgent need to grab more crap off the shelves overcame me. …

In my van I was surrounded by crap food and a bunch of booze I would normally never drink (premixed margaritas and the like). I was confronted my my actions, so alien yet so decisive, so desperate. But why? I slipped into a confused introspective sleep.

I awoke to the grunt of an old truck whizzing by at 6am. I posted on FB a question about vulnerability and heard back from my community on what it was like for them to be vulnerable. That was helpful to feel connected. I was not capable of understanding what had shifted for me at the time but a transformation was imminent. After a quick and effective browse of “Eventbrite” (a social website that lists events and gatherings happening), my day was booked. Lego wars, a right wing political rally and a jello-eating competition filled me day.

It first struck me on a short jog to the lego war around noon. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. So I grabbed a candy bar in the lobby and then joined the crowd of 500 screaming 12 year olds. Side note – I went to the restroom and a middle-aged man followed me and stood against the wall. He did not use any of the facilities – just waited for me to finish and left when I did. I didn’t see him again until the event was over and I went to the rest room again. There he was. Standing off to the side, not staring but not looking away. Then it occurred to me I was solo at a child’s event 🙂 I guess I come off as a predator.

I found the candy bar in my pocket at the political rally when reaching for my wallet. CRAP it was 5pm and I hadn’t had a bite to eat. All was well because it was a catered event with finger foods. I chucked the bar and began schmoozing. After a belly full of finger crabcakes and an ear full of right wing US politics, I was on my way to watch people stuff their faces with jello.

Acutely aware of the age of patrons this time, I restricted my restroom breaks to one and kept my hands visible at all times.

Here’s the insight/epiphany

I use food, shopping and drinking to deal with life. I was confronted with the question “am I worthy of love?”. The answer was normally drowned in distractions like shopping, drinking and eating. Now to deal with my “coping mechanisms.” I worked out, set a budget and added structure to my drinking.

From that point on food tasted different. I lost the push to eat. I wouldn’t remember to eat. Erin would say “have you eaten today?” at 3pm. I would look back in my memory rather then checking how I felt (unlike before where I would constantly check in “do I feel hungry?”). I was free to choose.

I chose exercise – Body Beast by Beachbody. It’s a 90 day workout program focused on body composition. Within 2 months I was on the shores of Key West in a transformed body and mind.

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Since then

Since I had a ‘change of heart/mind’, that old way of being has not returned. All of my old rules around calories, types of food to eat, equations of how long it has been since I’ve eaten last, etc doesn’t have a hold on me. I still play games with food, but it’s not a heavy (significant) process. For a couple weeks I even had a diet mainly consisting of cheesecake and found myself losing even more weight. Once my mindset changed around food, I was in charge and food wasn’t in charge of me.  And I’m really living it up in the gym. It’s how I start my day with my wife.

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Oktoberfest, Vankleek Hill

By Erin

It wasn’t that long ago that I realized that I have a pretty strong German heritage. Although my family has been settled in Canada for many generations, I find it novel to explore my European roots. And what better way to take a light-hearted approach to celebrating this heritage than Oktoberfest?!

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In Vankleek Hill, about an hour’s drive from Ottawa, Beau’s Brewery hosts a weekend celebration that includes competitions, music, costumes, beer and bratwurst. The competitions range from holding beer steins full of beer and seeing who is the last man or woman standing, tossing kegs and tug-o-war. The music didn’t necessarily reflect German roots all that much, but it was fun nonetheless. Check out the festival site here

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The above beer stacking challenge was not an official festival event, but this man took it on very seriously. When he finished several hours later, a huge cheer swept the tent and then he ceremoniously destroyed it….and then an even louder cheer followed.

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The crowd gathered above to cheer on the tug-o-war teams. Lots of falls and great team spirit!

Even vegetarians could eat to their hearts’ content. The lentil kaesespaetzle with homemade BBQ sauce from Two Six {Ate} in Ottawa hit the spot on a cold day. It tasted great served with Beau’s Kissmeyer: Nordic pale ale.

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The Beaches from Toronto were this rockin’ all-girl band who got the best crowd of the whole festival probably.

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We had to cuddle to stay warm! Thanks for the invite Jeannine and thanks to Lesley, Igga, Rob and crew for a fun day.

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Leadership school reunion

By Erin

In 2005, I graduated from the Renaissance College faculty at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. When I started the program in 2002, this undergraduate interdisciplinary leadership program was only 3 years old and didn’t yet have any graduates. I crossed my fingers and took the leap. I was lucky to get accepted to a small class of just 15 – which turned into just 9 graduates (some of my favourite people in the world to this day).

Some of the highlights of my education:

  • Canadian internship working for Intergovernmental and International Relations, Government of New Brunswick
  • Community leadership project shadowing a woman who ran one of Fredericton’s most heartening senior’s residences
  • International internships in both Japan and Thailand
  • Tough public policy projects on anything from the fisheries industry to land disputes
  • Worldview classes and visits to several different places of worship
  • Some of the best book discussions/debates found on earth
  • A cross-years project on wealth (which reshaped my whole perspective on money, wealth, quality of life, etc)
  • Profs/instructors who inspired, classmates who challenged and so much laughter among all
  • Being able to integrate my other Majors (Psych and International Development Studies) into some of the complex problem-solving projects we were given

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(Above pics from Thailand)

For the 15 year anniversary, and during UNB’s homecoming celebration, the faculty of Renaissance College invited the students and faculty from all years to return. You can imagine that a leadership faculty would attract a certain array of colourful thinkers and indeed it has. Although no one else from my grad year was able to attend (I missed you guys!), I was delighted to meet so many other movers and shakers – people involved in community transformation, the health sector, law, government, entrepreneurship, arts, etc.

 

Highlights from the reunion:

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A coffee house where anyone could share any of their talents. And my gosh, there was some great talent! The hosts also reworked some popular songs into Renaissance College tributes by cleverly changing the lyrics.

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Jackson shared a joke and I performed a song (Dance if you want to by Rose Cousins) on guitar. It was my first live audience! Thanks for being a warm audience.

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We did a bus trip out to Jemseg to visit Jemseg River Farm. It is an incredible farm that started out of discussions in class many years ago. Mike Carr, a former student and instructor at Renaissance College has taken the lead on making this dream come true. He works with Gerry Clarke (a former professor for citizenship class) and a few apprentices to run the farm. Mike is featured in the photo above holding the carrot. The farm sells produce at the Boyce Farmer’s Market in Fredericton. Learn more about the farm here

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My friend Juliane joined me for the day trip and since she works selling the produce at the market each week, she was pleased to see where it comes from. Great vegetable model!

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Final brunch with former dean Pierre Zundel (now President of the University of Sudbury) and other students Carolyn, Jeremy and Katie.

Thanks to the organizers!

Learn more about Renaissance College leadership program here

Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, Fredericton

The Best Fest

By Erin

Every year people convene in Fredericton, New Brunswick coming in from around the Maritimes, Canada and beyond to partake in a fun and ever-evolving festival – Harvest Jazz and Blues. Some of Canada’s top talent is enjoyed as well as the vocal stylings of folks from the Southern US and even further abroad. 2015 was a sparkling year for the festival with more than 400 musicians and over 150 performances packed into one week – September 15-20. Although I’ve attended nearly a dozen years of the festival, I’m impressed with how much it has grown. Queen Street in downtown Fredericton was so bustling, you could’ve mistaken it for Toronto or Montreal. Great vibe.

Top moments:

Watching Tomato Tomato from Saint John, New Brunswick rock out the Hoodoo tent with a decked out old-fashioned washboard instrument. The couple is adorable on and off stage. They embody the Maritime kitchen party. Hear them here: http://tomatotomato.bandcamp.com/releases

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Watching Old Man Ludecke from Chester, Nova Scotia (where our cottage is) play a variety of stringed instruments while telling very relatable stories with his lyrics. Katie and I enjoyed the view from the sidelines. All smiles.

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You might appreciate this one:

Late night jamming with the Backyard Devils and then getting to be the MC for a few minutes to close the show. This band has crazy great energy!

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Seeing Fredericton’s own Stephen Lewis who brings a certain Reggie Watts vibe to the crowd – he records himself in snippets in front of the audience then loops it while he plays with it – basically he is the whole band. Got our dance on at 2 shows that he played. Alert – rising star!

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Being in the very front row with friends Katie and Seth to witness New Brunswick’s now appropriately famous Matt Andersen with the most soulful concert. So much talent. My gosh!

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He has a ton of great songs he’s written himself, but I still have a favourite cover:

Double dance party with Sugarbomb, a motown revival band playing all of your favourite sing-alongs from the Four Tops to the Supremes. This band is comprised of Fredericton’s best performers – all of whom are in other bands of different styles too. With high school friend Liz and a bunch of fun people, we got a dance party started both at the 2pm show and the 10pm show. We perhaps made the waiters struggle a little to move around, but we got people dancing that haven’t danced in decades. Go Fredericton!

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Plan to be there next year folks! Great times, good music and East Coast charm!