Panoramic from Mather's Point

Panoramic from Mather’s Point just after sunrise.

This summer I took my family, my brother and wife, and my parents on an epic vacation to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce, and Zion. Follow along on how I planned a relatively cheap and comfortable vacation trip for a party of eight.

It begins in the hospital

My grandmother was dying. She was in the hospital with congestive heart failure. My aunt told me she had said her peace and was willing to talk to us and the grand kids one last time. We signed on Skype to say good bye. The call didn’t go so well. Or perhaps it did. Grandma immediately started bawling over the video feed when she was the grand kids.  She cried out “I am not ready to go yet”. She wanted to see her grand kids grow up. We let her go with tears in our eyes.

The next day, expecting the worst, we received an email saying she miraculously recovered. She regained her strength, checked out of the hospital in a few days, and started living by herself within a month. Wow.

The plan

Picture of Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C

The Plan

So when my brother and his wife tossed the idea of vacation plans this summer, we knew we had to stop by and see Grandma. And with typical Mah fashion vacations, it was planned last minute. The launch point was Eugene, Oregon where my parents live. It was a 6 hour drive from Eugene to Susanville, California. If we were heading in that direction, it was only another 8 hours to Las Vegas and the great national parks in Arizona and Utah. I’ve always talked about visiting the Grand Canyon with my family.

In 6 weeks we would take off. I knew with such a short lead time, all the best value lodging was taken. So I started to look for camping areas around all the parks. It would be tiring but doable. Thats when we asked if Mom and Dad wanted to go. They said yes. Hmm-that totally changed the lodging situation.

My mom was having back pains after a recent car accident. Sitting in car for 40-50 plus hours wasn’t going to help her. And the hiking would be fairly strenuous. Having her sleep on camping pads would not be a good idea. Time to look for some actual beds to sleep in.

Itinerary, Routing, and Accommodations

Putting together the final itinerary, route, and accommodations was like driving at night without lights. I knew where I wanted to go, but had no idea if I could make it. I certainly could have picked a route and then find accommodations, but I didn’t want to be forced into a destination where there was no reasonable place to stay. Travel time was also another factor. The amount of driving to each destination should be tolerable–ideally 2 to 3 hours at most.

There must have been six or seven iterations where I checked destinations, travel times,  lodging price and availability, air fare, and rental car rates. At this point, I hadn’t booked my air travel and explored the possibility of launching the trip from Las Vegas. Google Maps, Google Docs/Sheets, and Orbitz proved invaluable in managing all these variables.

After a few hours of digging out pricing and availability, the trip started taking shape. It was 1/2 the price to rent the van in Eugene and airfare savings flying into Las Vegas wasn’t significant. Plus, I would have to find a way to get everyone to Susanville which would have complicated everything. So the route ended up looking like this:

2017 Mah Family Vacation route.

2017 Mah Family Vacation route.

DayMiles TraveledLocationLodging
00EugeneHome
0-3341Susanville, CARelative
4-5531Las Vegas, NevadaOff strip hotel-Polo Towers
6-7275Grand Canyon National Park, South RimYavapai Lodge. Side trip to Hoover Dam on the way.
8-10134Page, ArizonaVRBO home rental in Page. Side trip to Horseshoe Bend before Page.
11151Bryce National ParkLa Verkin. VRBO home
12-13127Zion National ParkLa Verkin. VRBO home
14462Ventura, CaliforniaRelative
15326Sunnyvale, CaliforniaRelative
16560Eugene, OregonHome
Total Miles2,907

Accommodations

Part of figuring out where we wanted to stay was contingent on where we spent the night. Since camping was now out of the question, I had to look for places with beds (and air conditioning). Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon were the two locations I knew I would have the most trouble so I started there first.

Las Vegas

View of Polo Towers

Polo Towers

I had been to Las Vegas a few times so I knew the general lay of the land. Something on or near the strip was the most desirable but also the most expensive. My go to search engine for hotels, flights, and cars has been Orbitz or Expedia. On this trip, I used Orbitz for both flights and the Vegas hotel. Searching for a room to hold 8 people was futile. I either found 1000+ dollar suites or no availability. This wasn’t a good sign. I ended up changing my search to 6 adults and came up with the kinda off strip Polo Towers. It was a suite with two bedroom, living room, and a kitchen. I figure slipping in two little kiddos was doable. At the price of 230 a night (including resort fee) for 8 6 people, this was a great deal.

Grand Canyon

Navajo Point

Navajo Point

While the Grand Canyon is probably the most spectacular of all the sites, I also knew it was the most inaccessible. To appreciate the Grand Canyon, you must hike into its bowels and then climb back out again. Not on this trip. I figured we only needed two nights at this destination. A quick Orbitz and Expedia search turned up nothing in the Grand Canyon Village. I was not surprised as people plan their Grand Canyon vacations a year in advance here. There were a few room available just outside the park entrance 20 minutes away, but I knew that park entrance could be a severe bottleneck.

I then turned to the forums on Tripadvisor to look for recommendations. Yavapai Lodge came to the top of the list as it was relatively cheap and located in the Grand Canyon village. Searching their site directly and I found availability for two rooms in their West Lodge. Since I couldn’t book two rooms at once online, I called them to make a reservation. She confirmed there were only two rooms left for that date and secured them for me. At 325 a night for both rooms, this ended up being the most expensive lodging on the trip. In reality, this was one of the cheapest lodging (aside from camping) in the village. I could have found similar priced rooms outside the village, but the location was key. The downside to these rooms was no air conditioning. They had ceiling fans, but I was concerned at how comfortable we would be.

Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell

Horseshoe Bend Panoramic

Horseshoe Bend Panoramic

Knowing we wanted to head onto Bryce and Zion, I looked for a place to stop on the east side of the Grand Canyon. Lake Powell popped on the map and I thought it might be a good place to recover from the frantic Las Vegas and Grand Canyon walking. For a more relaxing stay, I searched on VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owners) for some houses to rent. I did not bother with AirBnB for this trip. There were still a number of fantastic properties available for 200-250 a night. With all the choices available, I started looking into the fine details to make my selections. One thing I noticed was the cancelation policy. Some rentals had no refunds and others had 100% up until 14 days and 50% until 7 days.  Since Page wasn’t that big of a town the location wasn’t that big of a deal. I ended up booking a 5 bedroom place overlooking Waheap bay for 260 a night.

Searching around for things to do in Page, I found Horseshoe Bend. I’ve totally seen this picture before, but never knew where it was located. This would be a great stopping point before arriving in Page.

Bryce and Zion

Angels Landing panoramic

Angels Landing panoramic

The final rental was for Bryce and Zion. I originally looked for something in between two parks, but anything in the middle would have been an hour away from each park entrance. .That would have wasted too much time if we had 3 visits. Since I’d been at Zion previously, I placed my bets there. There were a number of rentals in La Verkin, which was 20-30 minutes outside of Zion. Since the crowds weren’t as big as the Grand Canyon, I was fine staying that far away from the park entrance. La Verkin also had the additional benefit of being closer to Las Vegas where we needed to hit on the way back.

Other notes

The above was the final itinerary I booked. I also entertained heading back up north through Arches, Moab and finishing the journey back home through Idaho. Since we wanted to see some relatives in California on the journey back home, I killed this idea and routed us back through Los Angeles and San Francisco.

RV or passenger van?

Picture of an Recreation Vehicle

RV

None of those options seemed sexy. While the routing and planning was going on, I had to find transportation. Two vehicles would have been easier to find, but it would have ruined the dynamic of the trip. If we were going to drive for 50+ hours, we should all enjoy it together! I briefly thought about an RV, but the stress in driving one would have sent me over the edge. It would be crazy enough driving together for 50+ hours, if we had to sleep in a confined space for 14 days, that would truly drive me insane. I talked to a few people on the trip who rented RV’s and the economics didn’t make sense. You might save some time in terms of unloading/packing, but from a cost saving perspective, renting an RV wasn’t going to save you money. I’d love to explore this option in depth later.

I ended up getting a 12 passenger van from Eugene. It seems that Eugene prices for vans were way cheaper than Seattle, Portland, or Las Vegas. After an online coupon, I was able to rent a 12 passenger van directly from AvisOrbitz didn’t help me out here. I was concerned the type of van I would receive as this would play a large part in everyone’s comfort on the trip. I read online that Avis replaced most of their vans with 2016 Ford Transit 350, but there was no guarantee we would receive one.

So everything was set and booked. The only  thing that remain was to enjoy the trip! Stay tuned for to see how the trip actually played out! Stay tuned for the next post!

 


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