With more than two years of research and traveling back and forth to the Smokies, we learned these things the hard way. Learn from our mistakes.

smoky mountain cabin interior

1. Rent with friends and family. A group of four or more can rent a nicer cabin with more amenities for a lower price per couple. Have each couple plan and cook one nightly meal.

2. Arrive before dark. The area's steep, narrow, windy roads are daunting enough in the daylight. There are no streetlights, and navigating in the dark can be difficult. (Plus, there's not much room to turn around.)

3. Plan to cook dinner and breakfast. You'll save money and time, and you'll enjoy more leisure time in your cabin. You won't want to drive to town for every meal (and you may not want to find your way back after dark).

4. Plan meals and grocery shop at home. The area's two or three grocery stores get crowded with tourists on weekends. Don't waste valuable vacation time doing what you can accomplish at home.

5. Pack these essentials. Many cabins lack good knives, coffee filters, a wine opener, and maybe your own pillow. Some cabins have games and DVDs, but it wouldn't hurt to bring those, too.

6. Take a sack lunch to the park. There are no food vendors in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Savvy visitors have an early breakfast at the Appplewood Farmhouse, the closest restaurant to the park entrance. You can buy a nice sack lunch and beat the crowds.

7. Pack light, and do laundry. Most cabins have a washer and dryer. (Make sure to confirm this before you rent.) Bring detergent.

8. Bring a bathing suit. Even in the winter, hot tubbing is a favorite cabin pastime. Most cabins have privacy screens for the modest. Before you rent, make sure to ask if your rental company drains and cleans hot tubs after every guest. (Most claim they do.)

9. Break into smaller groups for outings. This prevents group-lag, whining, and getting on each other's nerves. Reunite for meals. You'll still have plenty of time together.

10. Plan for downtime. Don't try to cram in too much each day. The whole point of renting a cabin is being able to lounge in your pjs on the deck, watch a spectacular sunset, and cozy up by the fire. You may not want to leave the cabin at all―and that's perfectly fine.