Road Trip 2015: Chapter 4

Day 8: California Here We Come!

After checking out of the hotel, we stopped by an outlet mall to do a little shopping. We picked-up a few things, but with the dollar being so weak, there weren’t many deals good enough to make it worth shopping.

By early afternoon, we were on the road and headed for Vista, California. We rented a pool side guest house from a family through VRBO. The pictures on the website reflected a cute little pool house with all of the basic amenities. It’s always a little nerve racking when you rent through sites like VRBO or airbnb because there is always the fear that the pictures make it look way better than it is or that the property is located in the middle of a very bad area or worse yet, you are renting a place that doesn’t even exist! It “feels” a bit risky, but the pay off can be fabulous. It is suggested that you don’t pay with cash and that you speak directly to the owner, as a safe guard. Also, read the reviews…they speak volumes. (You usually have to pay up front and that can be scary. We paid with Visa as there is some insurance through our card.)

We were so excited when we arrived and found that the quaint little guest house was even better than the pictures revealed. The property is located at the top of a hill and we have great city views. We felt super safe and almost a bit “remote”. They have a gate yard and we were able to park on the property which was a huge bonus. It was very clean and the owners gave attention to even the smallest of details. It was extemely economical and offered great value. The decor was warm and cozy and beautifully decorated with a cottage feel. We loved not only the house, but the host family was very friendly and welcoming. 

The guest house is small, but super quaint and perfect for crashing at the end of a busy day. In the listing it says it accomodates up to 3, but the family was fine with one of the kids sleeping on the floor. We had our camping gear with us, so it was nothing to set Shay up on the floor and he was really comfortable there. His entire set-up slid right under the bed, so we didn’t have to pack it up during the day. Eden slept on the couch. For us, the size was not an issue, but it would be perfect for a couple. We are totally self-contained with a full kitchen and access to the pool. We booked 6 nights here and are really enjoying having a “home base” for the week. Vista sits about 30 miles north of San Diego. It is located close to the coast and is a pretty central location for visiting San Diego and other attractions along the southern coast.

Vacation Planning Tip:

*Finding a place with a full kitchen is really important when you are trying to travel on a budget. For extended vacations it really makes sense. I can’t really say that we have eaten super healthy, as we do end up purchasing some convenience foods that we would not normally purchase at home. (Who wants to slave over a hot stove when they’re on vacation?) However, it allows us to stick to a pretty tight budget of $50 US dollars per day for food. That may not seem like much, but it is actually quite attainable. We brought some food along with us and purchase groceries every few days. Unlike home, you are not purchasing any extras, only what is needed for the next day or two. We always have breakfast at “home”, pack a lunch and then dinner really depends on what we’ve been doing and when we get home. Because it begins to cool off and get dark pretty early in Southern California, we’ve been home in time for dinner almost every night. We’ve really only gone out once so far on this trip and that was in Vegas for Tim’s birthday. Even with that splurge, we’re actually still about $75 under budget right now. This nice thing about being able to cook at “home” is that you have extra money in the budget for those nights you want to eat out. It all balances out in the end.

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 1

After weeks of planning….its finally here, our 2015 road trip! This trip was really difficult to plan and I spent endless hours scouring the web for accommodations and attractions that were within our means. Travelling in the states when the dollar is so bad, really makes it necessary to budget carefully. In the end, I think we have quite a trip planned with lots of spectacular sights to see and adventures to keep it fun!

Days 1 to 3: Winnipeg, MB to High River, Alberta

The first 3 days of our trip were spent at a family reunion in High River, Alberta. We arrived around dinner time on Friday night, just in time for a family wiener roast. The weekend was packed with visiting and everyone had a great time re-connecting. My mom’s side of the family has had several losses in the last few years, so it was great to gather on a more positive note.

Most of the reunion events were held at the George Lane Memorial Campground. The facilities were great and the group camping easily handled the 100+ people in attendance. We wanted to camp with other family members at the reunion and this  meant we needed to bring our gear along on the road trip. The Canadian dollar has gotten so bad over the past few months, that we decided to do a combination of camping along with the other accommodations we’d already booked to help offset the poor exchange rate.

The campground is situated next to the Highwood River and the kids had lots of fun riding the mini-rapids on their boogie boards and skipping rocks in the shallow depths near the campsite. Shay did some fishing, but didn’t get so much as a nibble.

Although we have tented for years, I must say I was a bit apprehensive about tenting on this vacation. It meant we had to pack all our gear and take the chance of encountering poor weather each night we set up.  However, we agreed that tenting would certainly help make our 23 day vacation more affordable. We decided to take only our basic gear and leave everything that wasn’t necessary, at home. To make the set-up easier, we left our queen sized air mattress at home and purchased two more of the self-inflating mats. This made a huge impact on the set-up and pack-up times. Without the hassle of blowing up the air mattress and setting up the gazebo and camp kitchen, we had our tent set-up and beds made in 23 minutes. (I think it might actually be shorter than checking into a hotel and unloading the luggage.)

Day 4: High River, Alberta to Rexburg, Idaho

We got up early Monday morning to the sound of light rain…every tenters worst nightmare. We skipped making breakfast and packed-up as quickly as we could . With the tent only slightly damp, we dismantled the camp and were on the road within an hour.

It was a long day of driving, but the scenery was spectacular during much of the journey. We enjoyed the beautiful rocky mountains as well as a variety of other landscapes. There were lots of photo ops which Eden and I both loved! Between the odd bit of construction work, bathroom breaks, stops to fill the gas tank and the scenic bypass we added near the end of our trip, the anticipated 9 1/2 hours became 11 1/2. The kids were great and despite the length our spirits were high. Eden’s road trip playlist kept us going!

The highlight of this drive was definitely Mesa Falls which was located on a scenic bypass just of Highway 20 near Yellowstone National Park. The falls were spectacular and well worth the extra time (about 45 minutes) and $5 entry fee.

I had spent about 80 hours researching this trip. With the dollar being so bad, it took me longer to find affordable lodging and the most economical way to purchase attraction tickets. One of the resources I discovered was Our first stay in Rexburg, Idaho was found through this site. The site allows you to search a location and then find free and low-cost sites that suit your needs. One thing I found was that camping in or near small towns is generally cheaper. If possible, avoid the touristy areas and prices are much better. Beaver Dick Park was located 5 miles west of Rexburg. The park is situated next to a river (forget the name) and is very well maintained. The sites are well-developed, with gravel parking pads, grass tent sites, fire pits and picnic tables. There are several sheltered picnic areas and the park is really quite lovely. Although you can’t make reservations, we came prepared knowing that there were only vault style toilets and no running water. We had a lovely site and Shay was able to do a bit of fishing while we were making breakfast and packing up. Overall this was a fabulous campground for $5 per night ~ clean, well-maintained and scenic. Although there was no water and the toilets were only vaults, there were several bathrooms scattered through the small park for convenience. I would highly recommend this campground, but be aware of the limited amenities.

*We passed through a small town called Ennis, Montana while travelling south on Highway 287. It is just north of the Montana/Idaho border. Although we didn’t have time to stop, I would definitely take some time to explore this little town if we’re back this way again. The town store fronts had an “old west flare”, but not in a tacky way. It seemed really quaint and worthy of checking out. It was nestled near the mountains and really piqued my curiosity. Too bad we were already running behind schedule and had to pass through without stopping.

11 Steps to Planning a Successful Road Trip

Road TripIn 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:

  1. mapMind 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Columbus ZooTry 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. PouchPlan 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.

Lodging Tips:

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, 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!