The countdown is officially on at my house! My family limped, clawed, and dragged our way through the end of school to summer vacation. And now we're ready for our road trip!
This is our first summer back in the U.S. after three years overseas, and one of our biggest takeaways from our time in Europe is the fact that the United States is . . . BIG.
Really, really big.
And after visiting more than 20 European countries, I’m ashamed to admit that the number of U.S. states we have visited pales in comparison, which brings me to our summer plans — the Great American Road trip! I’m talking national parks, national monuments, the World’s Largest Whatever, a few great diners, and miles of open road in between.
No strangers to the road trip, one recent summer, we drove 5,000 miles. In preparation for our upcoming “windshield extravaganza,” I’m reminded of a few road trip nuggets that've helped us along the way. No matter your destination, these tips can help make for a more enjoyable (and affordable) trip.
1| GET ON THE SAME PAGE.
This is step # 1 for a reason. Let’s say your family loves a good road trip. They love the idea of getting away from it all — a few hours on the road each day, plenty of time at the destination to explore, hike, swim, relax and play, with leisure time to spare.
Meanwhile, you, who also loves a road trip might be thinking, we’ll knock out 600 miles today so tomorrow we only have to do 400. We’ll see X, Y, and Z along the way, and get to the hotel by midnight.
See the disconnect?
Before you set out on the open road, ask yourself and your family these questions: How far do you want to go every day? What are you hoping to accomplish on this trip? What do you think is a realistic amount of time in the car each day, given the attention span and abilities of everyone involved?
When I think about being on the same page, a purple sand beach comes to mind. On a previous road trip through California, my husband had a particular purple sand beach on his list of must-sees. We were already hours behind schedule, and by the time we finally arrived at this beach, it was DARK. One child was sleeping, and the other needed to be.
When I first realized how late we were going to be, I automatically assumed this beach was off the list. But as I sat in the car with my sleeping son and watched as my husband and daughter disappeared down a dark, wooded trail to the beach with nothing but a dim flashlight, I learned then and there to never assume anything.
The takeaway? Discuss these things before you set out. Manage expectations. Set limits. Give yourself permission to deviate from the plan when necessary. Figure out a set of rules that everyone can agree on.
(Fun fact: In the dark, purple sand looks exactly like regular sand. Truth.)
2| SHARE OWNERSHIP.
Give everyone ownership of the trip. With the exception of babies and toddlers who can’t yet tell you, Yes! We can’t wait to visit Niagara Falls, let everyone have a say-so in what you do and see along the way.
I find that my children are more engaged when they are involved in the planning and choosing of what we do and see. Provide travel books ahead of time for each person to browse, and then compile a must-see list.
For young children, take the time to tell them what’s available that you think they would enjoy. There will likely be a lot of overlap in what people want to see and do, which works out great, but when each person also has the anticipation of seeing or doing their special thing that they picked, something extraordinary happens: the kids are more patient, more interested, and generally happier when we do something from their must-see list.
Also, depending on the ages of your kids, finding books that have some connection with where you are going is a great way to increase interest and engagement (think non-fiction, but not travel books for this).
We did a road trip through Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic and as we drove, we read aloud from an autobiography of a Holocaust survivor. It truly was one of our most memorable trips. Reading about an experience while being in the very place where it happened made the trip more meaningful for all of us.
Visit the library before you go, and find books tailored to your travels. Maybe you’ll be following the route that Lewis and Clark took when they came West — read about it along the way! Passing through the Sacramento, CA. area? Maybe check out a book on the gold rush of 1849. Wherever the destination, there’s likely a book that would pair well and with a little planning, you can be prepared with some relevant materials for you and your kids.
Include everyone in decisions about what and where to eat. Even very young kids can voice an opinion on what they feel like eating. And if they know that in two hours you’re going to be at the restaurant they helped pick out for dinner (thank you, Google), they're more excited, and better able to resist the urge to ask, “Are we there yet?”
Pass the time by reading and sharing some basic facts about the city or area, pull up the restaurant website and read the menu (this also helps keep things on track once you get there), and talk about what you hope to see at your next stop. It may go without saying, but the common-denominator here is communication.
People of all ages do better when they are in the loop and know what’s going on!
3| GROCERY STORE PICNICS.
Eating out is one of the biggest costs of a family road trip. Three words — grocery store picnic —are the backbone of a successful road trip. Grocery stores are in nearly every town, no matter how small, and offer options for everyone to eat what they want at a fraction of the cost of a traditional sit-down restaurant.
Take your grocery items to a local park or riverfront and have a picnic. Let the kids play and run around for a bit before piling back in the car. When my family travels, the goal is to avoid eating in restaurants (this includes fast food) whenever possible, which helps keep costs in check.
Bring some items from home that don’t require refrigeration. Peanut butter, a loaf of bread, crackers, oranges & apples are always staples when we travel .
4| CHAIN HOTELS.
Chain hotels, while sometimes lacking charm and local culture, are a great tool in the road trip arsenal. There's comfort in consistency and predictability, and this is what chain hotels almost can provide. Especially for children (and even for adults), the closer reality is to expectation, the better the outcome. Since most chain hotels are pretty similar, this takes some of the unknown out of the picture, which for some can be a source of stress.
Other benefits to a chain hotel are that they are often located in suburban areas, just outside the city, so they can be easy to get to at the end of a long travel day, and they tend to be very close (walking distance) to public transportation. Parking is usually free, or nominal, and you can just leave your car and take the train or bus to and from the city.
Join whatever "priority" or membership club the hotel has, as there is always some benefit to this. If Wi-Fi is not free, hotels usually waive the fee for preferred members, and Wi-Fi is essential to planning your travel for the next day. Best of all, chain hotels almost always include breakfast — a variety of innocuous food that everyone will eat. EAT this food. You’ve already paid for it.
5| BE FLEXIBLE AND ROLL WITH IT.
Car trips are an adventure, there will be highs and lows. Your kids will pester each other when they get bored. You'll get grumpy. You might drive the wrong way down a one-way street and find three lanes of traffic heading straight for you. We did. You'll live through it.
Your car might develop vapor lock and stall out just inches away from a 1200-pound moose. Ours did. You'll live to tell about it.
You might contemplate jumping out of your vehicle moving at high speed when things get to be too much. Ok, we never did this, but we definitely considered it.
On a family road trip, the good almost always outweighs the bad, and even the bad always makes for a funny memory when it's had time to fade a bit. Perhaps Dan Stanford said it best, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”
You'll also share countless moments and laughs, bringing you closer together. And your kids will definitely remember the journey – maybe even more than the destination.
Here's to the open road. Safe travels!