When I was in the second grade, we were learning about geography and our teacher handed out blank maps of the United States with a basic set of instructions: color in the states that you have been to. At the ripe old age of eight, I had never stopped to count how many states I had traveled to, but as I started recounting previous vacations with my parents and began coloring in the map, I realized that I had been to more states than I thought.
Of course there was Colorado, my home state. But also the neighboring states of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico (we do share a common border at the only place where four states come together, after all). And then there were all the states that I’d visited family in – Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin. And a family road trip to Minnesota the summer before gave me that state as well as Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri on the way there and back. Finally, the requisite trip to Disney World when I was four gave me the far flung state of Florida.
And there I was at eight years old with 15 states under my belt. Some kids in my class had more, some had less, but I don’t think any other kid in my class was as profoundly impacted by that assignment as I was: it turned me into a state collector.
Today, it’s not something I like to talk about a lot for fear of being one of those travel braggarts, so rather than listing how many states I’ve been to in what would amount to an online pissing contest, I’ve decided instead to share some of my tricks I’ve used over the years for picking up states. If you’re a state collector, hopefully there are some tips in here you can use to inch you closer to fifty.
Get Creative with Road Trip Planning
Road trips are never about the destination, they’re about the journey, and when I plan road trips, I rarely plan the most efficient route. Instead I plan the route that will take me past the places that interest me the most, and hopefully I can pick up a few new states along the way. Road trips account for how I’ve picked up the bulk of my states.
When my sister moved to Florida for a semester in college, I helped her move. But instead of doing the drive straight through as fast as possible, we planned our route through some of America’s great cities that intrigued us. This roundabout route helped me pick up several of the states I was missing in the Southeast.
When it was time for her to move back to Colorado, I once again helped her make the drive. But instead of taking the same route back, we went a completely different direction, visiting some incredible cities and sites (and four new states) along the way.
The Alaska/Hawaii Problem
I knew Alaska and Hawaii would be the two most difficult states for me to visit. I certainly wouldn’t be able to pick them up as part of a road trip across the country – they’d have to be destinations in their own rights. Further complicating this issue is the steep prices associated with traveling to these far flung destinations.
In order to visit these states on the cheap, I began looking at the travel deal sites (such as travelzoo) for special pricing to the 49th and 50th states. On rare occasions, these sites will have ridiculously low prices for off season travel or last minute availability.
For Hawaii, I ended up finding a last minute flight + accommodation package (which I almost always avoid) for the ridiculous price of $337 for 4 days/4 nights on Kaanapali Beach in Maui. A coworker of mine spent close to four times that amount for his trip to Maui only four months earlier.
This deal had a limited range of available dates and required immediate booking, but I was able to convince work to let me take a few days off on short notice and took off for Hawaii a few days later.
Don’t Miss Opportunities at Border Cities
Cities like Washington D.C., Memphis, St. Louis, Portland, New York City, and many others have metropolitan areas that straddle state borders. If I ever found myself in these cities, I would make a point to spend some time exploring the portions of the city that were in other states.
Some border destinations to consider: Portland, Reno, Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Omaha.
While many destinations straddle two states, there are a few that occur at the intersection of three states. While the majority of the Memphis metropolitan area is in Tennessee, the city spills over the Mississippi river into Arkansas and south of the Tennessee border into Mississippi.
Another destination that lies at the intersection of three states is Yellowstone National Park. Though most people think of Wyoming when conjuring images of Yellowstone, small pieces of the park (and a good deal of lodging for visitors) lies just across the Wyoming border in Montana and Idaho. Visiting Yellowstone was actually how I first picked up Idaho, before a return visit to Boise cemented it in my list years later.
Find a Reason to Visit North Dakota
I don’t want to pick on North Dakota, because I actually really enjoyed my trip there. But before I ever went to North Dakota, I struggled to find a reason why I’d ever go there. It wasn’t on the way to or from anything for me unless I was going to Saskatchewan, and I didn’t have immediate plans for that.
To this day, the question I get most about this endeavor is, ‘how did you visit North Dakota?’ and my answer is simple: I made it a priority and found a reason to go. For me, that reason was Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which features broad, sweeping badlands landscapes with impressive buttes, herds of bison, and wild horses. Classic western vistas are the highlight of this park, and I wanted to see it for myself.
So I planned a weekend trip with a stop by Mount Rushmore on the way, spent a couple days at the park, explored the small town of Medora, and enjoyed every minute of it. Now when I hear people criticizing North Dakota, I’m quick to defend it and I always recommend Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
So the question to answer when trying to collect states is what is your North Dakota and how can you make a visit out of it? What is the state that is either impossibly out of the way or that you think you have no interest in actually visiting, and how can you get there? Who knows, you might end up finding something spectacular that you never knew existed.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting that destinations should not be visited just to ‘check them off’ a list. I think this can sap some of the fun out of travel. But, if I have the opportunity to visit a new place, I’m going to take advantage of it.
Now It’s Your Turn
Are you a state collector? How about a country or continent collector? What tricks have you used in order to visit a new place? Let me know in the comments.