Our Trip around the USA

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Our Trip around the USA

I always wanted to travel across the USA and the first opportunity I had was when I left AT&T. Unfortunately, I ended up going back to taking technical course and going back to my career before I could fulfill this dream. I recently left my job and before I get to my next career path, I decided to give it another go.

I had a month to plan for the trip but in reality, I spent a week to put together an itinerary and make all the necessary reservations once I found out that my son will not be able to join us on the trip. I put together a list of landmarks I would like to visit (mostly national parks) and using google map, I charted the navigation to get to those places. I decided to take the northern route going westward and the southern route coming back. I divided the routes into chunks of 6-8 hour daily drives in order to make it manageable. I also created 4 legs (NJ-Seattle, Seattle-LA, LA-Biloxi, Biloxi-NJ).

Years ago, I read about an article about a Total Rewards player who visited all the Total Rewards properties/hotels. You usually get free hotel stays on Diamond level but I had downgraded to Platinum last year. However, it still allows you to stay for free except for the resort fees and taxes which would be more reasonable than paying for a hotel stay. This would also allow me to stay a couple of days at their hotel since staying more than 2 days would normally be charged at regular rates.

I have a Marriot card that I got a couple of years ago when they offered a lot of points to join the club. I decided that this was the right time to use all these points as I would be able to get several hotel nights for free. I prefer using Residence Inn (suites) or Fairfield Inn. I would find out that the breakfast offered at Marriot places are similar so the only advantage to suites are bigger rooms with kitchen and laundry facilities.

Once I’ve created the initial route, I started making reservations except for the Las Vegas to Denver route (I could not find any Marriot hotels along the Bryce Canyon/Monument Valley routes. Eventually, we skipped this route and passed through Salt Lake City instead.)

Prior to the trip, I took the Honda Fit for service and had all the recommended maintenance completed. I have 2 new front tires and the 2 rear tires should still be ok for the expected 9K trip. I knew that somewhere on the trip back that I would need to do an oil change since the Fit has been averaging 7-8K miles before requiring an oil change.

Every morning, prior to departing, I would take an odometer reading and a google map snapshot of our destination. I calculated that the 3 longest driving days are the first day to Indiana, the trip through Grand Teton/Yellowstone, and the Portland to Nevada legs. I summised that the unknown part of the trip would start with Mount Rushmore since that is where the mountain drives would begin. I would imagine myself in Lewis and Clark’s position as I explore the unknown. Once these sections are done, the most difficult part of driving should be just a memory and only the Denver drive needs to be conquered.

Day 1 The first weather problem we had was an Ohio thunderstorm. We had to stop for half an hour as we were getting warnings over the radio and the rain was falling hard. We passed through the tip of West Virginia in order to get Pennsylvania to Ohio. We also had to pass through Kentucky in order to cross into Indiana. This was something unexpected and made us decide to drive back to Louisville the following day to visit the Muhammad Ali museum since we had an extra day. Horseshoe Southern Indiana is a steamship casino that is docked besides the hotel. There were no nearby establishments close to the hotel and we had to drive 20 minutes to find a place to eat at a local wings and fries restaurant in New Albany. We had Chinese buffet lunch after the museum visit.

Day 3 We started early as we plan to visit a couple of places. The first hour of the trip was uncomfortable as it was a narrow two lane winding road with lots of dips. This is where I first realize that the GPS is a good guide in seeing the road ahead. It was raining all day and as we approached Missouri, there were a lot of warnings on flooding beyond our destination. Luckily for us, we were headed north after the Gateway Arch where we got soaked up. The Lincoln museum is very modern and the live presentation is something that is comparable to Disney live shows. They have a Subway food place inside the museum which was surprisingly affordable. We stopped by to get food at Fazzoli’s on the way to the hotel.

Day 4 We visited Heidi and Roel (Juachon) Ramirez and their extended family. We had a wonderful Filipino dish courtesy of Basion. It was an hour away from the hotel and on our way back late night, the tire warning system light on the Fit activated. I stopped by a gas station to check the tires but they all turned up ok. This caused me to purchase a tire gauge the following day which came in handy since this warning light came on 5 times during our entire trip. Every time, I had to stop and check and recalibrate the system.

Day 5 We stopped by the Iowa welcome center to check what we might see on the way to our hotel. Surprisingly, we ended up spending a couple of hours at the Hoover museum and stopping by the site of Bonnie and Clyde's bank robbery and the Jesse James gang train robbery. We were excited to try a Mongolian restaurant near our hotel but that was a disappointment. It doesn’t even come close to the chinese buffet places in NJ that includes mongolian.

Day 6 We just relied on the highway signs to decide on which places to stop by. We visited Corn Palace which is a stadium where the building is decorated with corn by-products. The amazing thing is that they change the theme every year. All along the way, there was a sign for Wall Drug Store and free ice water and 5 cent coffee. It ended up to be a shopping complex but the free stuff is not worthwhile but a good gimmick. However, we ended up eating a Buffalo burger as I’ve been searching for a real buffalo as we entered South Dakota. We were told that we need to visit Custer state park in order to see one. We ate at Arby’s near the hotel and they have a new item that I tried – Smokehouse Pork Belly.

Day 7 Finally took us to our first big destination, Mount Rushmore. This was also the start of mountain driving. We decided not to stop by the nearby Crazy Horse as this would delay our arrival to the hotel. We instead went to Custer State Park which charges a hefty $30 fee. We watched a short film narrated by Kevin Costner where he did some of his western films. We saw some buffalos on the drive around the park but they were all around the park. Once a year around September, they have a Buffalo roundup where they herd all 1300 buffalo’s for sorting and branding. They try to keep this population in balance with the available land and resources.

Day 8 Ended up to be the longest drive of the trip and this is the only time google map missed some information. The drive from Mount Teton to Yellowstone should have taken an hour but the southern entrance to Yellowstone was not going to open for another 2 weeks. We ended up driving 3 hours around Idaho to get to the western entrance. However, the good part of this was that we were able to drive through Jackson Hole which looks like a scene from the West and Teton pass which I compared to driving through Kennon road in Baguio. We made it to Yellowstone just a half hour before the visitor center closed since it took another 45 minute to get there from the gate. Luckily, we were able to see the last film presentation for the day and old faithful geyser erupted as we got to it. The most scenic drive I enjoyed was on the way to Butte, MO. We drove on the mountain side on the right with a large lake on the left side also bordered by another mountain.

Day 9 An uneventful drive to Moses Lake, WA. This is one of the stops that I was able to switch a day before after finding that I could save a couple of hours by staying at a different hotel. This was a sleep stop to get us closer to Seattle.

Day 10 We visited the Space Needle in Seattle. If you visit this place, you should use their parking facilities since it is discounted with your tickets. You should also plan on having lunch at the restaurant since this includes admission to the top. There was a lot of traffic on the way to Portland and the only thing that eased up the trip was the HOV lane. We had an interesting dinner at our first vegetarian buffet restaurant. They meal included 5 kinds of soups and 3 different pastas.

Day 11 Drive to Reno was long and interesting as we went through a section where there were no services for 100 miles – no kidding. You do not want to run out of gas through this section. We also entered California before ending in Nevada. There was a checkpoint where they ask you if you are bringing in any produce. This also happened on the way to San Francisco. Once we got out of the no service zone, the first food place we found was a KFC where we had lunch. The drive to Reno included a section with high winds and RV vehicles were warned not to take this road due to the wind conditions. Reno is similar to the downtown section of Las Vegas. Dinner for the next 2 nights was at the hotel asian restaurant which served a variety of dishes. We drove to Lake Tahoe the following day. The first part of the drive was scenic until we got to the mountain section. The drive back was a lot easier as it was mostly downhill but with 4 lanes. We decided to check out Virginia City on the way back to Reno. This is an old mining western town. We only spent a quick stop to take photos. The drive back to Reno was the most treacherous road of the trip as it was 2 lanes and very winding downhill. If there is a car behind, you need to stop on a side road when it is available. We ended up the evening watching The Rat Pack is Back show at the Harrahs.

Day 13 Trip to the TWIT studio was rerouted near Sacramento by my GPS because of traffic. We passed through the Sonoma Valley area and through some wine plantations. Leo Laporte who host the weekend shows in TWIT was sick and for the first time in my watching the shows on podcast, he had to cancel his show and get a substitute for The New Screen Savers which we were going to attend. Fortunately, Father Robert Ballecer, SJ or Padre, a Jesuit Filipino, was his replacement. I ended up doing the opening monologue for the show. You can watch the episode here 51 seconds into the clip

Screensaver Episode#104

Full Episode iink:

We met up with Patricia at her dance studio and had a dungeness crab dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. We also had a tour of her place where you can view the city from her bedroom. It was late that night when we got to our Fairfield Inn hotel. This was also the only hotel which had a parking surcharge.

Day 14 This is the midpoint of our trip and a chance to reunite with most members of my family. We stopped by Kowloon in LA but due to mother’s day, it had closed earlier. I was looking forward to a taste of sharksfin siomai but had to settle for some pastries. We visited Christian and finally got acquainted with Alex at their Little Tokyo apartment. Finding a place to eat, my GPS navigated me to Boiling Crab for some hands-on shrimps. We then met up with Rene and Daisy Amparo at the Chino Hills home. It was late so even though the visit was short, it was memorable for Divine played a couple of songs for them. We finally ended up the night at Chito and Edelle’s place, who had to put us up at a moments notice since my brother, Bong, was not feeling well. Mom and Tita Deng were also there to welcome us along with Gabe and Victoria.

Day 15 Mom left for Las Vegas where we will meet her the following day. Bong picked us up and took us to Fry's and Portos on the way to the apartment of Yethie, who prepared a feast for us. Bianca and her kids, Jesse and Valerie. We missed seeing Anton, who was at work. Bong dropped us off at the Cananizado’s place and he left after Gabe provided us a musical flute number.

Day 16 We passed by the Joshua Tree visitors center and saw a lot of Joshua trees on the way to Las Vegas. It was desert highway driving and only a couple of service stations until we reached the main highway near the Primm casino area. Mom treated us to a dinner (oxtail and kalbi) at the Orleans Hotel before we finally checked in at Bally’s. Bende treated us to the Fifty Shades parody theater at the same hotel.

Day 17 We celebrated Jon Jon’s birthday at his house and met up with Bende, Dang, Eliza and Nanay. We dropped off Mom at her hotel and said goodbye as were leaving early morning. We watched the Righteous Brothers show at Harrrahs and took a ride at The High Roller and ended up dining at The Lotus of Siam, which I’ve heard of from Anthony Bordain’s Parts Unknown show. The food was great from the Northern Thailand area which is very different from the usual Pad Thai that we order. It was also crowded inspite of us getting there half an hour before closing time.

Day 18 This is one of the trips that we had to alter because of accommodation unavailability. However it turned out to be wonderful experience as Salt Lake City turned out to be the best city we’ve seen. The highways were elevated and exits were numbered so it would be easy to know what section of the city you are going to. The area around the Mormon Tabernacle Church was so clean and the lawns were up-kept. The city was bordered by mountains so the view doesn’t hurt at all. We had some salad from Zuppas which feels like a direct competition for Panera Bread. We left with a feeling that this could be a place we can relocate to.

Day 19 We got some news that Denver had a snowstorm and the roads might be treacherous. However, the sun came out and road snow was melted by the time we passed through Vail, which is a beautiful mountain resort overlooking the ski trails. The drive to Denver was unusual since we were driving on the highway that changed into the city roads without exiting. We spent a few hours visiting Molly Brown museum. I wanted to visit the Coors brewery but it had already closed by the time we finished the tour.

Day 20 Visited The Big Texan Steak Ranch which serves a free 72 oz steak with potatoes, salad, and shrimp provided you finish it an hour. I opted for a smaller 18 oz version. The steak was served in its own juice and was delicious. I normally use steak sauce to enhance the flavor but there was no need for this. We also ordered their special large fried mushrooms which we ended up taking back.

Day 21 The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is a timed entry, self-navigated audio tour. Unfortunately, they do not allow photos on the actual tour. We also walked along the grassy knoll. The experience takes you back to the unfortunate events that happened here. We proceeded to George W. Bush presidential library which includes a replica of the white house oval office. They have several films and video displays but I like the one that shows the humoresque side of the president. Our lodging for the next 2 nights is Horseshoe Bossier in Shreveport, LA which has 3 casino floors. 

Day 22 I took the car to a Honda dealer for an oil change. I still have 30% available and have driven over 7K miles already. Even though it was raining, I still took advantage of the free car wash provided by the dealer. We ate at a local seafood restaurant which served gumbo, etouffe, and fried crawfish. I also had a takeout order of crawfish boil which was a challenging food to eat. I watched a couple of online videos on how to open/eat crawfish but I still ended up a mess.

Day 23 I was low on gas and decided to take an exit that had a gas sign on it which turned out not to be a good idea since the gas station was a long way from the exit and the gps trek back to the highway was even longer. If I had waited a little longer, I could have made it to the next gas station by the highway. One thing that google maps can show your are gas stations and restaurants along the way but somehow, in this area, the distance to these service areas were not being displayed properly. They also don’t show you all the food places so I wonder if establishments have to pay in order to show up. We visited the Tabasco plantation at Avery Island. The walking tour was self-guided and includes 10 stops which started at their welcome center and through the manufacturing process. At each stop, you can watch a short video which provides information about the process. The final 2 stops are the gift shop which also has a tasting counter of all their products including samples of ice cream and soda with tabasco. The restaurant offered a sampler dish of local cuisines that included jambalaya, etouffe, and gumbo. We then drove to New Orleans but just missed the visitor center by a few minutes. We parked near the french quarter and spent half an hour walking on Bourbon street. Before reaching our hotel, we ate at the cheapest chinese dinner buffet ($8) I’ve been to. We arrived at Harrahs Biloxi late in the evening for our final 2 night hotel stay before we start our final leg back home.

Day 24 Casino hopping day. Hard Rock Cafe and Beau Rivage (MGM property) were both eye pleasing. We did not stop at Boomtown since there was no indoor parking. Golden Nugget is worth skipping and the indoor garage at Palace Casino was closed. Margaritaville Resort from the outside looked like a garage with a swim resort inside so we skipped it. Later on, I found out that it is a family entertainment center with no casino. We ate at the Harrahs buffet on our final night.

Day 25 My GPS guided me to a Shakeys parlor mid-day and we had lunch there all to ourselves. Although I’ve seen a Shakeys in LA from the outside, this is the first one I’ve visited since my college days. I was hoping to stop by Selma but it would mean a couple of hours detour just to see the bridge popularized in the movie. The GPS also keeps showing heavy traffic in Atlanta but we were lucky that it cleared up as we entered the city. Dinky and Malou welcomed us into their home with a couple of beer brands and saki. I quenced for the drink and had 4 bottles which is the most I had consumed all these years.

Day 26 The Eloriagas took us to their new baseball stadium which was also their first visit. The traffic just keeps getting worse in Atlanta and I hope that they figure out a better way to manage it. Hopefully the new road constructions to the ballpark would help. We stopped by Fat Cows for a treat of homemade ice cream. By homemade, they really create the ice cream with nitrogen in front of you. They picked up catfish and chicken at a special store that opens only on weekends. By the time we got home, Tito Jun and Tita Gie were already waiting for us. Mandy and Noemi later joined us in the evening. We wound down by watching Hidden Figures.

Day 27 We stopped by a couple of outlets not for shopping but to use the rest rooms. The GPS also advised of traffic and took us to a local route which took awhile. It probably would have been better to stick to the highway. The trip to Jenny’s place seemed remote passing only one town center. However, I found out on the way home that the busy areas were beyond their location. Tobias and Jenny took us to Lantern, an asian fusion restaurant at the UNC area. It was a treat to see Caeda, Clare, and Carina along with the Mendoza’s who also got there today. They had watched a show in Durnham and we met them back home.

Day 28 We said our goodbyes after a rendition of Hamiton’s Schuyler Sisters by the Stanelle sisters. We passed by Baby Sarangay’s condo in Alexandria, VA and luckily Claire and Carmi and their families were there. Unfortunately, Baby had a car accident a couple of days ago after she passed out while driving on the highway. She was lucky that her injuries were not much worse. After stopping by our favorite rest stop in Maryland, we finally made it back to NJ before midnight. We stopped by Applebees to end our journey but it was closing soon so we had to delay the celebration for another day. The odometer read 9705 miles.

Final thoughts: I am glad that we were able to accomplish this trip while we still can. Meeting family along the way who also provided for our accommodations was very much appreciated but more than that, just to be with them is a pleasure that doesn’t happen more often.

I’ve thought about RV travel as a lot of family members have suggested this. I’m not sure about the requirements for driving an RV but I would think that a commercial license is required for the bigger RV’s. Even an RV that sleeps 4 looks big enough. I don’t think it will be an issue with flat terrains but mountain driving is something else. You will have to consider the mileage issue as gasoline is expensive after awhile. I underestimated my gas budget and ending spending twice what I budgeted for. I also know that there are RV parks and cost associated with that. Hopefully, the difference in savings from staying in a hotel could justify it. I’ve also seen RV’s with trailing cars but I had a bad experience a long time ago where I saw an RV with a trailer on the opposite side going out of control. With a car, you can easily swerve and avoid an object but having a hitch would cause a chain reaction.

I spent a total of 8 days in a total rewards hotel for minimal fees and this helps in the cost and also convenience since these are top class properties and allowed me to recover my energy for a couple of nights. Having Marriot points in advance also allowed be to get free lodging for a few days.

The Honda Fit worked very well for the trip except for the Tire Monitoring issues. We traveled 9,705 miles and averaged 36.3 mpg during the trip. In city driving, I would get 32-34 mpg so I was expecting to get a lot more on the highway. When I got back, I experienced some unusual sounds when driving and decided to replace the 2 older tires. Once this was done, everything seems to be ok now. I wonder if I had this done prior to my trip if the issues would not have surfaced.

The Yahoo Map on my iPhone was the device/app that was my constant companion that I relied on during the trip and it took me back and forth with minor hitches. Use the search option on the map to see what is ahead of you. It even lets you know how far the services are from the highway. It is important to be aware of multiple park entrances and when they are open specially on off season months. Summer is the most ideal time to travel in order to avoid issues associated with cold weather. It is also very important to make sure that you have enough gas to reach your destination or the next gas stop. Whenever my expected mileage is down to under 100, I would start planning for my next fill-up. NJ and Oregon are the only two states where there is full service (the attendant has to fill up the tank). I also used an altimeter app that I used at higher elevations. 10K feet is the highest that I recorded in Denver.

Rest stops are abundant in the east coast but seldom in the mountain areas. You will also have regions where the services are just beside the roadway and does not require an exit. Once in South Dakota and beyond, the highway speed maxes out to 80mph. On automatic shifts, you might want to practice on using the extra shifts for mountain climbing. Some places post a sign that engine brakes should not be used by automobiles.

Dollar Tree is our go to place for snacks on the road. Clementines was a constant source of nourishment while driving. Bende’s water bottle spray helped at times when sleepiness was starting to creep in. Bong’s massager helped at the end of the day to relieve tired muscles. The star wars cooler came in handy but don’t expect a really cold beverage. Always have a large glass as it is easy to get ice at rest areas or gas stops with fast food.

Having a national park pass ($10 for seniors) helps you avoid paying the park entrance fee for up to 4 people. If you plan to visit all the presidential museums in your lifetime, you should get the museum passport ($5) as you would get a memorable gift once you’ve visited them all. EZ Pass is good in the East Coast up to Illinois. Beyond that, they use their own system. We went through the Golden Gate bridge and a month later, I got a $7 bill for crossing it. I also paid a toll fee bill of $4.50 for Salt Lake City.

I have an Automatic device installed on the FIT that tracks GPS information. At the end of the trip, it shows me driving 9063 miles averaging 8 hours a day for a total of $599 gas and 37.625 average mpg. However, my odometer read 9705 so I'm not sure why there is a difference.

Trip itinerary with Hotel, Mileage and drive times.

1-2 Horseshoe Southern Indiana IN 737m11h20

3-4 Harrahs Joliet IL 514m 7h42m

5 Fairfield inn Sioux City IA 505m 7h29m6

6 Residence Inn Rapid City SD 423m 5h56m

7 Residence Inn Casper WY 256m 4h18m

8 Fairfield Inn Butte MO 572m 12h5m

9 Fairfield Inn Moses Lake WA 519m 7h40m

10 Fairfield Inn Portland West Beaverton OR 320m 5h17m

11-12 Harrahs Reno NV 544 m 9h16m

13 Fairfield Inn SF Airport Millbrae CA 280m 4h41m

14-15 Edelle LA CA 413m 7h11m

16-17 Ballys Las Vegas NV 315m 5h30m

18 Residence Inn Salt Lake City Murray UT 413m 5h45m

19 TownePlace Suites Denver Southeast CO 530m 8h

20 Springhill Suites Lawton OK 645m 10h2m

21-22 Horseshoe Bossier LA 380m 5h36m

23-24 Harrahs Gulf Coast MS 420m 6h21m

25-26 Malou Atlanta GA 412m 6h4m

27 Jennifer Chapel Hill, NC 412m 6h1m

28 Home NJ 464m 7h18m

States visited: (33 states + DC)

New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio,

Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa,

Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana,

Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah,

Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas,

Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina,

North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC, Baltimore

Ben Lagua