Friday, August 25, 2017

Things I've learned planning an eclipse vacation

We went to Salem, OR for the Great American Eclipse of 2017. We had a blast and the trip went really well, particularly because we made a lot of the right decisions. Here's what I've learned in preparation for a vacation to see a total solar eclipse:

  • Take the weather into account. The 2017 eclipse was in August, which meant clear skies could easily be predicted over most of the eclipse's path. The big exception to that was the Oregon coast, which like a lot of coastal areas has its share of morning fog. It turns out they did have fog, but it burned off in time. Still, when you're going to the trouble to buy airline tickets, its safest to shoot for places with historically good weather. Of course, you just have to ask the Hawaiians in 1991 how that worked out for them, but you should do what you can.
  • Plan very, very early. What I found was that there was about a ten minute gap between "Our computers won't take reservations that early" and "We're sold out." Your vacation will likely require air travel, a rental car and a hotel. Work the travel websites starting at least 18 months in advance and poll them regularly for the instant that reservations open.
  • Book your hotel in totality. The ultimate back-up plan should be that if the weather is good, you can just walk outside the hotel and look up to see the eclipse (assuming the weather cooperates).
  • Book a rental car. If the weather is bad in your target city, you don't want to be stuck with no option at all.
  • Stay in a large city. Large cities can handle influxes of visitors far, far easier than rural areas. Cities have lots of parks which can be impromptu eclipse viewing areas. 10 miles away from the centerline will cost you a few seconds of eclipse time, but will save you huge hassles when the eclipse is over.
  • Plan to view the eclipse from as close to your hotel as you can. If you are staying in a large city or town, going from your selected viewing site back to the hotel will be easy.
  • Don't try to leave the same day. Our experience in 2017 was that traffic before the eclipse was almost completely unaffected. People naturally spread out their planned arrival times over the course of a couple of days. However, once the eclipse ended, everybody tried to leave all at once. I-5 Northbound North of Salem and Southbound South of Salem were both parking lots for the rest of the day and most of the evening. The trip to Portland - normally an hour - was reported by some to take 5 hours or longer. I have no doubt that lots of folks missed their flights by trying to go home that afternoon. Stay put, let the big exodus wave crest and ebb, and the next day things will be back to normal.
  • Don't go to an eclipse "event." Again, once the eclipse is over, everybody is going to leave at the same moment. It may take an hour or more just to get out the parking lot. The eclipse is going to look the same to everybody, and having a narrator or cheerleader doesn't add much value to the spectacle.
  • Don't expect a lot of businesses to be open or operating at capacity on eclipse day. We had a lot of trouble finding a restaurant for lunch after the eclipse. The folks who live there want to see it too, and you can't just suspend a restaurant for an hour.
  • Try to spend 4 or 5 days at your target location. Again, the idea is to do your traveling hopefully when there's less of it going on. You may still wind up with a full flight (on our flight coming in, the flight attended asked for a show of hands for those traveling for the eclipse. The Saturday before, it was almost everyone), but hopefully the airport won't be a mess. And if your flight is delayed by weather or something, you've got plenty of time for the airlines to fix things.
  • Since you're likely to be spending a few days there, and the eclipse will only be a couple hours, try to find a place with some other tourist attractions to visit the rest of the time.