Road Trip Planning – NW National Parks

I consider myself a pretty good trip planner, but my primary experience with kids is either international travel to well-populated areas (think Bangkok, Paris, Normandy) or places within a couple hours of our house.

Camping-driven road trips intimidate me. There, I said it. We have two young kids who don’t love long car rides and aren’t capable of entertaining and feeding themselves the way an older child can. I worry about days with 4+ hours of driving (not including stops!), and setting up camp at the end of a long day.

That’s why every time I’ve looked into road tripping to some of the big national parks, I’ve given up and thought “maybe when the kids are older.” This never-ending pandemic is driving me to new adventures though! This summer we’re going to drive from Seattle through Idaho to Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks before heading back through Spokane to get home.

I started with a Google Map (they used to call it MyMaps..) and every time I saw a random spot to visit in a Google search or blog post (like the American Field Trip’s delightful series), I threw it on the map. It didn’t need to be comprehensive, just enough to narrow down where we needed to concentrate time. I also used Oalley to test out where we could reasonably drive within 4-5 hours and then tried to look at accommodation in that area.

I waffled back and forth between driving our car and camping, staying in AirBnBs/lodges or renting an RV. We’re ending up renting a camper van through GoCamp for about 16 days and here’s why:

  • Food – Peter has several food allergies (corn, soy and peanuts are the biggest) that make it challenging to just stop somewhere and grab food if we’ve had a long day. We want somewhere we can make our own food, but not necessarily have to set up a full camp kitchen.
  • Drive length – some of our days are going to have 4-5 hour drives, plus we’ll want to stop and check out scenery along the way. I’d be okay with camping at some stops, but on those long days I want to just pull out the sleeping bags and hit the hay.
  • Distance from activities – these national parks are tricky. The lodges don’t typically have cooking facilities (I didn’t see any in the parks we’re visiting), but choosing an AirBnB would likely mean adding at least an hour’s commute in and out of the park every time we want to go hike.
  • Vehicle size – many of the campsites in the national parks have strict (and short) vehicle requirements and no hook-ups. The most famous is probably the 21′ long x 10′ high x 8′ wide requirement for Going to the Sun road in Glacier National Park, but spots for large RVs are extremely limited or non-existent. As a result, we wanted something shorter to make it more likely we can (literally) fit in.

At this point, almost all our camping reservations are complete (I still need to figure out Coeur d’Alene, ID), so now I need to nail down the activities in a detailed itinerary and that’s where you come in!

If you have a blog, Instagram post or other resource that you love for the nitty gritty details of your favorite stops along our route (as seen in the header image), could you please comment here or DM me on Instagram (@suitcasesinseattle)?


Paris, Normandy and Rome – My Maps Collection

I posted previously about how I love using Google’s My Maps product to plot out things I want to do in a city we’re visiting, which then helps me decide where we might want to stay, as well as plan specific days’ activities based on proximity to each other.

When I was planning the Rome portion of our recent trip, for example, I had originally booked an apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood, which is on the south bank of the Tiber river. It has a great reputation as being beautiful and walkable and feeling kind of artsy, which was true. However, when I started plotting out the things we wanted to do, particularly our day trip to Tivoli and getting to and from the airport, it became clear that staying in the area would make using public transit more difficult, primarily because of the length of the train trips or number of transfers. By switching awhile before our actual trip, we found a great studio near the Termini station that allowed us to walk 5-10 minutes to the train, and it was easier to walk to other destinations (like the Colosseum and the Villa Borghese). We still visited Trastevere for an evening, but didn’t spend large chunks of our stay commuting across town.

Since we were going to have date nights in Paris and my husband has several dietary restrictions (and was testing out gluten and dairy intolerance shortly before our trip), I also made a separate map for restaurants in Paris and categorized them by type (e.g., ones from a Food and Wine list I found that just looked like they would have options, vs. places that were specifically mentioned by other blogs or sources as accommodating restrictions).

If you’re looking to plan trips to Paris, Normandy or Rome, I invite you to take a look at the maps I created as good starting points. I’m no professional, but I loved using layers to split out things to do, restaurants, our apartment and transit stations (as well as markets in Paris, although we never ended up going to one), as well as using different colors and markers to differentiate sites from each other.

Rome Map

Normandy Map (limited to sites and our accommodations)

Paris Map (includes a few restaurants)

Paris Food Map

MyMaps Paris

You can also check out separate blog posts on staying in these areas at the following links:

Normandy – Treehouse
Normandy – D-Day Beaches
Normandy – Day Trips
Paris, Part 1
Paris, Part 2


What Time Of Year Should I Travel?

“Winter, spring, summer or fall,
all you have to do is call,
and I’ll be there”

– Carole King, “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”

Carole aptly describes how I feel about most travel. That being said, there are some definite pros and cons to traveling in each season and they can influence the quality and value of your trip. I’ll try to lay out some of what I consider below and some examples of trips we’ve taken in each season.


Rajasthan 2014
February in India: I think my baby fever started when a lovely Indian woman asked to take a picture of me holding her baby. Look at those cheeks!

Confession: I have never skied, and my limited foray into snowboarding (twice, junior high) was pretty disastrous, so I’m waiting for the day when I can “chaperone” a ski lesson or two for Julia and pick it up since all my friends are either not interested or already doing Black Diamonds and they don’t want to kill time on the bunny slopes. My job slows down a bit in February and I’m usually dying for a little break from the Seattle gray. So, while everyone else in the Pacific Northwest heads to the ski slopes or Hawaii, we’ve been to India, Egypt/Jordan and Spain/Portugal. What we’ve loved about those destinations:

  • Sunshine! I’m not even a sun addict, but while the weather can be unreliable in any place, these destinations all offered us sunshine at least 50% of the time we were there, which is significantly more than we would get back home.
  • Friendly locals – February is not peak season in Europe, so we felt like we got quieter streets and saw many more locals out and about when we went to Spain and Portugal at that time of year. People seemed more relaxed and were extra nice to Julia as a result. Also, India, Egypt and Jordan are still relatively less traveled destinations. Given the recent political turmoil in all of those places, it seemed like people were really looking out for us and had a sincere interest in making sure that we enjoyed their country. We always felt safe, and while there were touts in India and Egypt who only talked to us with a financial incentive, many people just wanted to practice their English or smile at a stranger.
  • Low season- because of the season and/or the lower cost of living than in the U.S. (Lisbon has got to be the most economical European city I’ve ever visited), we were able to spend more time traveling because we saved money on flights and accommodations. We also leveraged this on our babymoon to New Orleans by going the week after Mardi Gras.


Lambs in Ireland
April in Ireland: we saw lambs from the roadside EVERYWHERE

Commonly considered a shoulder season, I think it’s a great time to be in Europe (there’s a reason there’s a song about April In Paris). Peter proposed to me in Paris in May and we went to Ireland in late March/early April for our first anniversary. You can also still find snow, as we found out when we went to Banff shortly after Julia turned one. Here are my favorite things about spring travel:

  • Everything feels fresh and new – whether it’s lambs bounding across fields in Ireland, flowers blossoming in Paris, or the tulips coming up just north of us in Skagit Valley, spring brings a feeling of optimism that is really helpful when traveling (especially if you run into hiccups). I always feel like I’m more likely to look for the good in people and places when I’m around something green and lush.
  • Good for travel with young kids – older kids are still in school (with maybe a week of Spring Break), so you don’t have to compete with everyone for travel resources. It’s also not too cold, so if your little ones want to see snow, but aren’t up to super cold temperatures, it’s a great time to introduce them slowly. Banff still had snow when we went, but there were beautiful sunny days and we were able to keep baby Julia safe and warm while still enjoying the outdoors.
  • Spring food! – ok, this one isn’t specific to travel, but eating seasonally is a bigger deal outside the U.S. If you’re venturing abroad during the spring, you’re likely to be able to get some really tasty local specialties (asparagus, peas, artichokes, or maybe some cherries) at restaurants or local markets.


Family at the Colosseum
Two weeks in the summer heat of Europe and Dad is already voting us down. Luckily he didn’t know yet that a thumbs down probably meant “spared”

It’s high season in most places, but you may need to travel in summer because of school holidays. My family came to meet me in Europe in August when I studied abroad. It was crowded and hot (especially in Rome), but here are some tips for how we still enjoyed our trip:

  • Accommodations – putting four people in a hotel when you only have a single income is tough! I would never have guessed that the typical dormitory-style hostel would be suitable for families, but we saved money by staying in family or private rooms in hostels. I’m not sure I would recommend this for people with young children who might be bothered by frequent comings and goings, but my forever-young dad loved that he could chat with all the cool guys in the common areas. We typically shared a bathroom, but had a 4-bed room all to ourselves. Hostel hosts are also typically extremely friendly and able to provide budget-friendly restaurant and activity recommendations.
  • Schedule – take advantage of the jet lag. We got up early and stayed up late, often taking a siesta or a leisurely lunch in the middle of the day so that we could avoid the heat and the crowds. While I was living in France, being out later also meant that I could take advantage of night hours at local museums when they weren’t as crowded (e.g., the Louvre stays open until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays).
  • Delegate – Constant togetherness can be challenging, especially if you don’t have a vested interest in the day’s activities. We each chose a location or two to stay and the chooser was responsible for picking activities for their city. This was my mom’s brilliant way of making us feel we had a stake in the game. It kept us all much more cheerful and engaged knowing that either we had planned the day, or that our chosen activity was coming soon.


Another shoulder season! Now that we live in Seattle where the weather is beautiful in September/October and we actually have changing leaf colors (such a refreshing change for this California girl!), I love to stick around and enjoy the season change. However, September is the end of my company’s fiscal year, so I often find myself in the pleasant position of having one or two extra vacation days to “spend.” Several years ago, I visited a friend who was working in Thailand when I got a surprise week off in my public accounting days, and we have also done long weekend trips to San Francisco. Here are the perks of traveling in the fall:

  • It feels deliciously like playing hooky – older kids are starting to go back to school and the weather is starting to get cooler. Taking a mini weekend vacation feels like ditching 6th period because the beach was calling and you couldn’t say no. And who doesn’t want to feel like a rebel sometimes? If I had good grades (which could be based on the prior year), my parents would sometimes let me have a ditch day to have a family adventure. I plan to do the same with Julia when it’s her turn.
  • It’s rainy season in Asia, but you can still get good deals – Flights to Thailand when I went were pretty inexpensive because it was September (rainy season). We had torrential rains several of the days I was there and the humidity was enough to make even my friend’s trademark smooth hair frizz up, but we still had a great trip. We had little to no competition for the top sites, we were able to snag a relatively cheap flight to Bali for a few days for even better weather, and we took advantage of the cheap massages to spend two hours out of the rain.
  • Weather – if you’re like me and can’t handle high heat, this is a good time of year to head somewhere that might have been soul-meltingly hot a few months prior. My husband’s family is from the South and we took a long Labor Day weekend trip to see them, driving from St. Petersburg to South Georgia and enjoying the less humid scenery along the way. You can extend the late summer a little longer, too, if you travel somewhere like San Francisco or San Diego in September/October (there are still 70+ degree days as late as December in Southern California).

Hopefully the above pros (there are so few season-related cons for me, except for heat. *shudder*) above convince you that you can go almost anywhere, almost anytime as long as you set expectations ahead of time.

What’s your favorite time of year to travel? Did a trip ever become extra special to you because of the season you traveled?

Travel Planning Websites

My go-to tool for travel planning is and will probably always be Excel. However, there are a few sites that I use frequently for planning travel:

1. Google Flights

This is a new addition to my arsenal. I had previously used flight alerts on Expedia (and their family of brands), but found their e-mails to be less than helpful because they e-mail you the lowest price for a route, but not necessarily the itinerary you’re interested in. That might be fine if you’re mainly just price sensitive and are willing to take a less convenient flight in exchange for the cheapest price. However, traveling with a toddler and a full-time work schedule means that I also need a flight that won’t conflict too much with bedtime and won’t mean I take a day off just to spend half of it flying. With Google Flights, I’m able to track the specific itinerary that works best for me and view the tracked prices on a graph. When you’re ready to purchase, Google will provide you with links to the airlines (or multiple links when it’s a flight offered by partner airlines like Delta/Air France/KLM) so that you can book directly.

For our upcoming trip in April, I tracked a multi-city itinerary from Seattle to Rome, and then from Paris back to Seattle (I was already planning on using a small carrier to get from Rome to Paris) as well as our intra-Europe flight from Rome to Paris. I’ve kept tracking the flights after booking so that I can keep the info in mind for our next travels. The inter-continental flights were trending in the $4,000 range for the 3 of us on Air France’s website, but I bought them for $2,770 and they’ve still been trending down (the risk you take by booking 3 months in advance). The intra-continental options have been trending up, so I’m at least happy to have saved money there! One other tip, if multiple links are offered, check all of them. The Air France itinerary was still higher than Google’s quote, but the KLM website worked appropriately. I think it better understands the child fare, and does better at looking at the varying levels of fare classes.

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2. MyMaps

This is another Google product. I haven’t found the mobile app very helpful (it seems to have trouble with multiple layers, for example, and I don’t find it easy to edit a map in-app), but the desktop version is great for a couple of purposes:

a) I use it when I’m initially planning a trip to help me decide where to stay. I make a list in Excel of the attractions that I think we might want to see. Then, I plot them on MyMaps to see where they’re concentrated. We love to walk as much as possible when we’re vacationing in a city, so we prefer to stay near our priority “to dos” and good transit. As an example, I loved the place we stayed in Lisbon (The Lisbonaire Apartments) because we could easily walk or take transit to most key destinations. It also offered a simple bus from the airport within blocks of the door. Once I nail down an area to stay, I use the layers feature to add in our accommodations, restaurants, and key transit stations. You can customize the icons and colors to make it easier to see layers on the map.

b) used to allow you to see your “favorites” on a map when you had saved them, but seems to have removed that feature. I now use a temporary MyMaps layer to plot key contenders so that I can see where they line up with the things we want to do. I’m often willing to pay a little bit more for an apartment or hotel if it’s going to save me money on a cab from the airport, or time crossing the city.

Example from our Spain/Portugal trip last year:


3. TripCase

This is a mobile app that I love for keeping travel confirmations together on my phone. I still usually print out an Excel spreadsheet with the information to have on hand as a back-up, but this has been the easiest way to see things quickly on my phone. Once you’ve registered, you just forward the e-mail confirmation for your flight/hotel/car rental to, which is then scanned for key information and available in a user-friendly format. It does have trouble with some of the less common confirmation e-mails. For example, when I got a confirmation e-mail from VRBO recently, TripCase stored it in a new “Inbox” feature, but couldn’t pull out the key details. I was able to add them in manually (much easier to do with the desktop version), but just something to keep in mind if you’re going to be booking a lot of boutique lodging. I also really like this app for storing travel information that our families forward. I frequently find myself frantically trying to figure out what time my in-laws are supposed to arrive because I can’t find the confirmation e-mail that they kindly forwarded 6 months ago. If I’ve remembered to forward it to the app, I just pull it up and typically can see if it’s delayed or on time.

Desktop view of an excerpt from our trip to Spain and Portugal last year:


In addition to the above, I still primarily use to book accommodations for our trips because I like their user interface better than most other websites (better filters, easier to search with children added, lots of reviews). I typically cross reference it with TripAdvisor and the hotel’s own website (if applicable; I have to Google to find it because doesn’t show the website) to make sure I’m getting the best deal.

What are the travel planning websites and tools that you find the most helpful?