The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition
I dropped some hints about our big summer plans in my last post, and now it’s time to make it official! We’re going on an almost month long road trip to Canada by way of Kentucky and Michigan. For those following along with my early retirement journey for the past few years, you might be experiencing deja vu because doesn’t a month long road trip to Canada sound familiar?
You aren’t experiencing deja vu. In 2014 we did set out on what was supposed to be a month long road trip to Canada that turned into a two and a half week road trip when we came home early. The exhaustion that comes from superintending a rambunctious two year old combined with a disappointingly dirty Airbnb apartment rental persuaded us that it was time to return back home to Raleigh for some true R and R.
The 2014 Canada trip included visits to Montreal and Quebec City. After leaving Quebec City we intended to visit Ottawa and Toronto, then stop by Niagara Falls on the return trip south to Raleigh. We never made it to Ottawa, Toronto, or Niagara Falls. On this summer’s trip we are headed back to Canada to enjoy the mild summers and hit some of the stops we missed two years ago.
The Great Triangle
This road trip evolved from our desire to see Niagara Falls and Nashville. Students of geography know those two cities aren’t near each other. They aren’t even in the same direction if you start in Raleigh. In fact, the straight lines from Raleigh to each of those two cities are approximately perpendicular. For the record, Mrs. Root of Good chose Niagara Falls and Nashville as our summer destinations (she’s less a fan of maps than I am).
If we want to travel along two perpendicular lines, why not make a triangle spanning the eastern half of the United States (and extending into Canada)? By combining my clever knowledge of geometry with Mrs. Root of Good’s shotgun approach to destination selection, the Summer 2016 road trip was born.
Instead of taking a 17 hour round trip to Nashville then a 22 hour round trip to Niagara Falls for a total drive of 39 hours, we decided to make a triangular shaped journey from Raleigh to Nashville to Niagara Falls then back to Raleigh that would take 30 hours. By taking the hypotenuse of the triangle in a northeasterly direction, we shaved nine hours off of our total driving time.
Back in our working days with the constraints of a one or two week vacation upon us, we might be happy with seeing the booming city of Nashville and a natural wonder like Niagara Falls. But we have all summer and wanted to add some value to this road trip. If I’m driving 30 hours I’d like the trip to be more epic than “just” Nashville and Niagara Falls.
That’s when Toronto re-entered the picture. Arguably the most metropolitan city in Canada, Toronto was on our wishlist during our 2014 Canada trip but it didn’t happen. On Canada trip round #2, we’re going to make it happen. It’s only two hours north of Niagara Falls. A very logical addition to our road trip since we’ll already be “way up north”. It’s also a destination with tons of stuff to see and do, unlike Niagara Falls which is mostly just a waterfall (though admittedly a very very big impressive waterfall with lots of water). Nothing wrong with a two week layover in Toronto when you aren’t in a hurry, right? Just another benefit of the slow travel mindset.
Along with Toronto, we decided to add two full days exploring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We’re staying down the road in Bowling Green, Kentucky. After leaving Kentucky, we will head north toward Toronto with a two night pit stop in Detroit. On the return trip back to Raleigh from Toronto and Niagara Falls, we will stop for one night in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near the Dulles Airport (the kids didn’t know what the Space Shuttle was, so we’re going to see one up close).
The trip will cover around 2,100 miles and 34 hours (assuming light traffic).
So far we don’t have anything specific planned in any cities other than visiting Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, and the Air and Space Museum in DC. Eventually we’ll get down to business and find something cool to do in Detroit and Toronto (and feel free to suggest anything worth seeing in the comments!).
The whole trip will last 24 nights with stays in the following cities:
- Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
- Nashville – 1 night
- Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
- Detroit, MI – 2 nights
- Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
- Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
- Washington D.C. – 1 night
- Back home in Raleigh!
We usually put together a rough budget for our big summer trips. For the 24 days we’ll spend traveling through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia, we expect to spend around $2,100 after our valiant travel hacking efforts. Numbers for the curious:
- 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $363 (after $220 airbnb referral discounts and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus)
- 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from credit card rewards)
- 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
- 2 nights x 2 rooms Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
- 2 nights x 2 rooms Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
- 1 night x 1 room Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
Transportation (Gas, Tolls, Parking, Transit) $500
- 2,400 miles at 22 mpg and $2.50/gal. gas = $275
- Tolls = $25 (2 international bridges; PA/NY going south toward DC)
- Parking or Transit – $200 (10 days at $20/day)
- Restaurants – Once per day at $30 per meal average = $720
- Groceries – No more than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra
- 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96 (already booked)
- Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $100
- Random museums/parks/etc in Toronto and elsewhere – $200
- lots of pictures and memories – $0
All of the lodging and $96 of the entertainment expense was paid in March. The other $1,600 we’ll spend in July and August during the trip.
Travel hacking our way to glorious savings
We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points. We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.
I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year. That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.
We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer. The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night.
Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $500 using credit card reward points and hotel points. Not a bad deal at all.
Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks for $4,500. If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.
Another travel hack of ours is renting apartments for a week or more. Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family. We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite. The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight. If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.
Hitting the Road
We are leaving in mid-July and returning home in mid-August. We have our new (to us) minivan which will make for a very comfortable and luxurious touring vehicle for this road trip. One of the goals of the trip is to skip the typical rush rush rush that accompanies the normal one week American vacation and travel at a slower pace.
Other than the hotels and apartment rentals, our daily routine is very flexible so that we can take a vacation from sightseeing if we’re feeling lazy or exhausted. We’ll have a swimming pool at our hotel or apartment during most of the trip. The kids promised to make the pool an often used luxury.
The trip budget includes dining out once per day. We spent an average of $19 per day on restaurants during our last trip to Canada, so $30 per day should let us dine out more than we did last time. The Canadian dollar is about 20% weaker this time around so our USDs will go farther. We’ll probably dine out more when we are staying in hotels and less frequently when we’re settled in to our Toronto apartment for almost two weeks (if Toronto’s amazing food scene doesn’t prove overly tempting!).
Maybe we go absolutely crazy and spend way more on dining out than we budgeted. That’s okay too because we increased our travel budget to $10,000 this year. Beyond the $2,100 budgeted for this trip and a little under $2,000 budgeted for our December Caribbean cruise, we won’t be spending much on vacations during 2016. With around $6,000 going unspent in our 2016 travel budget, I think we can afford to live it up a little while on vacation. Though we’re already talking about a big 2017 trip (Mexico again? Europe?) so any unspent money could be used next year.
Any tips or hints for the cities we’re visiting? Any hidden gems? Free family fun? Any can’t be missed favorites?