In 2011, our family embarked on a fabulous 17 day road trip. I’m pretty organized and must say that the thought of spending endless hours in the vehicle with two young children both excited and terrified me. At times, I thought the whole idea was ludacrist, as we couldn’t seem to make it across the city to piano lessons without a royal battle commencing in the backseat. We had been on many 4 hour drives to my hometown and although the kids did occassionally “fight”, it seemed like scooting around the city was more of an issue than when we were in “vacation” mode. I was cautiously optomistic, but the teacher in me decided that the best way to ensure survival was to plan lots of activiites for the van. I can honestly say I must have spent about 50 hours or more planning this trip. Some of the time was well worth the effort, but some was an absolutet waste of time. Let’s just say I learned a lot from planning that first big trip.
At the time, our kids were 9 and 7. They owned iPod shuffles that had their own music on them, but did not own or have access to any kind of “device” to occupy them with video games, so it was up to me to figure out how to fill the 100 hours we expected to be on the road. Yep, that’s right 100 hours, (10,000 km) in 17 days! Our days on the road averaged at around 7 to 8 hours per day, but we did do a couple of 11 hour days as well as some short trecks as well. The trip was packed with long days of travel, pit stops and lots of adventure.
Planning the travel details like the route, places to stay and major attractions was well worth the time and effort. Likewise, the bit of research I did about the 22 states we travelled through kept us entertained and counting down the miles to the next stateline. The kids were intrigued by the fun facts and trivia we learned along the way. I also think it helped that the places in which we stayed were in some way intriguing in and of themselves. We stayed at several Bed & Breakfasts, many of which were historical homes with lots of history. The kids enjoyed meeting the owners and learning about the homes and towns we visited, just as much as Tim and I did. I really strived to stay away from the hotel strips and find quaint little towns or neighborhoods within the areas we wished to stop.
On the flip side, the crate full of activities I researched, made, purchased and collected was for the most part an absolute waste of my time. I had travel bingo games, card games, sketch books, books to read and numerous other activities. The crate full of “time killers” was big, took up lots of room and was virtually untouched. I totally underestimated my kids. There were exactly two conflicts/meltdowns on the trip….and both were after long days during our week stay in Florida (not on the road). There was not one single dispute or complaint during the entire drive. I did make the kids passports with the intention that we would collect ticket stubs, stickers, etc. along the trip to add to their passports. I thought this was a great idea (and still think it is), but we honestly just kind of forgot about them, as we were too busy having a great time! The sketch books and maps were the two things the kids used.
11 Steps to Planning a Successful Roadtrip:
- Mind Set ~ set the stage for a positive road trip. Although we planned to spend one week of our vacation in Florida, we never talked about our trip in terms of a “trip to Florida”. It was never about the destination, but rather the adventure of being on a road trip with many stops and adventures along the route. I think this really helps to eliminate the “how long until were there mentality”.
- Map out your route and make copies for the kids. Our kids loved highlighting our route as we travelled and enjoyed filling in points of interest and personal memories on their own maps.
- Take a GPS. If you don’t have one, it really is a must. We visited lots of little towns and it was so simple to find the addresses of the Bed & Breakfasts with our GPS. I assume most people have one or access through their phones, but it really is a necessity if you don’t have one.
- Take your vehicle in for servicing before you go. Be sure all the fluids are full, tires are in good condition and that your vehicle has been completely checked over (especially if its an older vehicle).
- Find interesting facts about the states or areas you plan to travel through. We passed through 22 states in 17 days. As we crossed each state line, I would share some interesting facts about each state. The kids’ favourites were learning what famous people live in or came from a particular state, town or city. They also loved the crazy list of 3 or 4 state laws I managed to did up. These took the form of “Did you know it is illegal to _____ in _____?” (For example, “Did you know it’s illegal to cross the state line with a duck atop your head in Minnesota?”) Of course, there is a website completely dedicated to sharing dumb laws, so its pretty easy research and lots of fun for the whole family. Another favourite was learning about popular foods or “dishes” in certain states. Whenever possible, we tried to sample some foods that were either grown in or unique to certain areas. (Like the Fried Green Tomatoes and Peach Pie in Georgia or a Po-Boy Sandwich in New Orleans. Mmmm.)
- Try to plan your stops ahead of time. This gives you a goal for each day and by pre-planning, you don’t have to worry about finding a decent place to stay. We wanted to maximize our time at our stops, so we planned a few long driving days. This allowed us spend more time in the places we really wanted to explore. My husband loves to drive and he was more than happy to do all of the driving. Pre-booking your accomodations can also help the budget, as there is nothing worse than breaking the bank on an unplanned expensive hotel stay because you’re in a “pickle” and can’t find anything else.
- Entertainment: We did have a DVD player in the van, but our kids only watched one movie, twice. We were going to visit Universal Studios and neither of them really knew the Harry Potter series, so we bought the first movie for the trip. We took a whack of others, but they were too engrossed in the trip to watch movies. Go figure? There was no “shut-eye” either. With so much to see everyone was wide awake. Eden did not fall asleep once and Shay slept for about an hour on the last leg of our 100 hour road trip. Now that’s a road trip!! I loved that they did not have video games. We spent the entire trip listening to great music (from a pre-made iPod playlist with great tunes both old and new) and talking. To this day, the kids will often have a road trip memory when they hear a song from our playlist. It was facinating just to watch the change in topography as we travelled from state to state . We literally saw mountains, hills, plains, ocean, beaches, dessert, and forests – it was amazing! The architecture was also intriguing. One of my favourite memories was of all the incredible barns we saw when we exited the interstate to make our way to our first Bed & Breakfast in the little town of Whitehall, WI.
- Try to break-up the trip with some longer stops along the way. We really found that having a “fun” destination after a long day or two of travel kept everyone excited. After your stop, try to rattle off another couple of hours driving before stopping for the night. This helps to cut the driving time on some of the other days. Everyone is tired from the day’s activities and more than happy to sit and relax in the van for a few hours before calling it a day.
- Of course, you need to budget. Although you aren’t paying for flights, you will be paying for gas, lodging, food and entertainment. Depending on the nature of your holiday, we found that if you spend wisely on some days, you can afford to be more extravegant on others. For example, amusement park tickets are expensive, but the beach is free (other than parking). Planning ahead really pays off. Many park passes and attraction tickets are cheaper to buy online. Try to avoid paying escalated gate prices.
- Take a cooler. Plan snacks and food for along the way. Make sure you bring condiments like salt & pepper, mustard, ketchup and butter with you. We had a variety of fruits and healthy snacks to munch on, but also made wraps or sandwiches for lunch. On long travel days, we would sometimes breakdown and hit a fast food drive through for dinner, but this only happened a few times. Packing healthy snacks and food is super important. No one feels good if they’ve spent days on end in the car eating Cheetos and McDonald’s. This will save you money, prevent sugar lows (moody kids) and keep everyone feeling well. It also makes those occassional ice cream pit stops a highlight for the whole family.
- Plan some activities for the kids. Again, speaking from experience, don’t over do it. Of course, this totally depends on the age and interests of your kids. Our kids were 7 and 9 at the time of this trip. If I were doing it again, I would take prepared maps, sketch books, writing and colouring tools and a chapter book each. I might also bring a couple of trivia type games or car bingo that we can all play. Movies are a good idea, although my kids weren’t interested in watching them. One thing I would suggest is some kind of a small tub and pouch to keep their things in one place. Here is an example of what ours looked like. The pouch was picked up at the dollar store and rigged it up to attach to the front seats. It kept all of their pens and markers. (This little tub sat between them and worked well. You can’t see the huge red crate with all the other activities that they didn’t even touch.) It’s Always Autumn has a great post with 20 awesome road trip ideas and there are also some great ideas on Frugal Family Times. There are many great resources on the internet, so don’t bother reinventing the wheel – it will save you lots of time and energy.
Balance is Key:
When you are planning a long vacation, you really need to create a balance between high and low cost choices. The sacrafices you make some days will allow you to go all out on other days.
Have each family member create a list of what they would like to do on the trip. Compare the lists and try to come up with a plan that balances out the inexpensive and more pricey activities.
The same can be true for meals and lodging. When we reached Florida, we rented a condo for the week. Often renting for 7 days is less expensive than paying a nightly fee. The condo also allowed us to save on food. We ate breakfast at the condo and usually packed a lunch in a cooler before leaving for the day. (Some parks will not allow coolers, so research this first.) For dinner, we did a combo of eating in and out. Little things make a big difference. For example, you could order pizza for $30 or more, or pick-up frozen pizza for under $10 to throw in the oven after a long day. You may not feel like preparing big meals, so consider simple short cuts and convenience foods like “salad kits” or canned spaghetti sauce. This may not be the way you would shop at home, but it can save you both time and money. Try to think about buying groceries to create meals that are both easy to prepare and at least somewhat nutritious. Those store roasted chickens are another great meal. For $10, you can have dinner and possibly enough leftovers for lunch the next day. It really is worth thinking through the possiblities for easy meals before you go (or while you’re on the road), as it really beats the expense of eating out everyday.
Again, renting a place with a kitchen is a great way to extend your money when you’re on a long vacation. The other thing to consider is booking your single or two night stays at places that include breakfast. We did try to stay away from hotel chains, as we were really looking for unique experiences. Whenever possible, we stayed at either Bed & Breakfasts or historic hotels that were built in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. Bed & Breakfasts can be very elegant and expensive, but many are very affordable. The nice thing is that there are nearly always plenty of reviews to help you figure out what is the best fit for your family. When travelling as a family, we are basically looking for B & B’s that are safe and clean with great hosts. You can often get a feel for the hosts through the reviews. When we were booking in 2011, I was using a site that had a “family friendly” filter. Many Bed & Breakfasts are designed for adults only. If you go to www.bedandbreakfast.com, you will first want to put in your destination, dates and number of guests. Once you press search, a button for + Advanced Search will come up. You’ll want to click this and under the ammenities, select “children welcome“. This will save you lots of time as it will only give you properties that welcome families. Bed & Breakfasts are a really great way to learn about the places you travel and connect with people. We love sitting around the breakfast table and chatting with the hosts and other travellers from around the world. So interesting! The best tips and information generally come from the locals and B & B owners will often offer coupons or discounts for local attractions. I just love picking their brains ~ “If there was one thing we must see what would it be?” You often get insider tips that aren’t even in the travel brochures!
If you want to know more details about our 2011 road trip from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Florida via “the scenic route” check-out part two of this post. The post will include the route, stops, lodging and attractions we took in. Stay tuned.
If you have never taken your family on a road trip, do it. The bonding time and memories from that one trip far out weigh those from our trips to the Dells or Disney. It is truly a chance to unplug and intimately connect with your family. Conversations go deeper and life gets a whole lot richer within the confines of a car!