Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. See here for more information.
We did it, my friends. Eleven days (five on the road). Over 2,000 miles. Three kids.
We’re exhausted, but everyone is happy. The kids hardly fought. We only barely went over budget.
We are masters of the American road trip.
I know, it sounds a little arrogant. Just what exactly makes me brilliant or a master of road tripping?
Marc and I have loved to travel ever since we first met (on a mission trip, incidentally). As newlyweds we drove the length of every major highway in Alaska (only three, but still). When my oldest son was one and I was three months pregnant, we drove over 4,000 miles as we relocated across the country to central Illinois (nine travel days). Since then we’ve taken a family road trip almost every year. We’ve been to the East Coast, the South, and the West Coast (see that epic trip here).
We’ve learned a few things.
Most recently we took a relatively short little hop over to New England, two days each way, with an extra travel day so we could get a glimpse of Niagara Falls in New York. Piece of cake.
This has been one of the smoothest and cheapest vacations we’ve ever taken.
To celebrate our return, I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the road. My most important piece of advice is to enjoy the journey. Don’t rush the travel time; make it enjoyable. I know some people like to go at a grueling pace that includes driving all night; that just seems exhausting and not fun. Make the most of these moments with your kids when you have hours upon hours together to talk and make memories. What an incredible opportunity.
Getting ready to go
Give yourself adequate prep time
If you’ve ever gone on a trip, you’ll know there is a ridiculous amount of stuff to do before you leave. Try to clear out your schedule the week before.
Clean out and wash your car
Your car is going to get trashed anyway, but you will have such an easier time on the road when you’re not dealing with dirt on top of dirt.
Do necessary repairs/oil change on your car
You really do not want to be wasting your precious vacation time in the shop.
Go grocery/supply shopping
You might need more than you think. Make lists for food, supplies and entertainment. Don’t forget the sunscreen, bug spray, etc.
Plan to get rid of your perishable food
Eat it, give it away or freeze it.
Clean your house
You’ll thank yourself later. Break it up into five days if it helps.
Make arrangements for your pets/plants/mail/etc.
Don’t save it for the last minute. Do it early so you’re not scrambling.
Plan laundry accordingly (and try to pack light!)
You could take dirty clothes along and plan to wash them later…but you don’t want to.
When you have family, especially little kids who require diapers and toys and bedding, your trunk space can fill up quickly. Where possible, do laundry (call ahead to where you’re staying to see if they offer it). Bring along a small bottle of detergent.
One other trick I learned this past trip: pack a separate bag for your travel days. That way when you pull into a hotel or wherever you’re staying for the evening, you don’t have to take in aaaaaalllll of the luggage. You can consolidate everything when you arrive at your destination.
Make a packing list…and pack
Stating the obvious here, but don’t put this all off until the night before. Put stuff you need to pack aside in the days leading up to your departure.
Prepare your electronic devices
I have a 16GB phone and it’s always packed…and so if I want to take any photos I better be sure it’s pretty empty when I leave. Load up all the games/music/whatever and delete the stuff you don’t need before you leave.
Contact your bank/credit card company
Too many times we have had our cards suspended because multiple purchases across state lines was deemed suspicious behavior! Let them know your travel plans.
If you’re into bringing homemade stuff on the road, by all means, do that. I am not. We like to run up and down the aisles at Aldi and go crazy with the snack packs. My advice from this last experience is to go easy on the sweet stuff because you will get sick of it. Dried fruit and beef jerky are big winners for us. Be sure to pack enough for the journey there and back, as well as for on location.
Our rule of thumb is to try to limit eating out to one meal a day. So we take a small cooler full of lunchmeat, cheese, yogurt, produce, etc. along with some bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Don’t forget the paper plates and utensils.
I prefer water, but we do bring a few juice boxes for the kids and cans of Coke for the husband. I bring my thermal coffee cup and try to fill up for free in the mornings. Here’s a fun tip: bring water bottles and fill them up with filtered water at the soda fountains at rest stops.
Well it is vacation, after all. Here are some ways to save money:
- Go to restaurants on weeknights where kids eat free.
- Split meals instead of ordering individual entrees for everyone.
- Have everyone drink water.
- Make sure your hotels have refrigerators for leftovers. Also leave a little room in the cooler.
- Stay at hotels with breakfast provided.
Miscellaneous on the road
Check for tolls
I was raised on the West Coast where toll roads are practically nonexistent. Not so in pretty much every other part of the country. Check on a digital map, which should indicate if there are tolls. If there are a lot of them, see if you can get a transponder that you can mount on your dashboard so that you don’t have to stop at each booth you pass. Our I-PASS for Illinois works in multiple states.
Find points of interest
Your trip will be so much more enjoyable if you intentionally enjoy the journey. You’re exploring the continent, so why not see what historical and geographical sites you can visit? These stops have created some of our favorite memories.
Keep trash bags, paper towels and wipes handy
I hate myself when I don’t.
Fill up on gas whenever you stop
Just a good habit. Coming from people who have gotten pretty nervous when the gas light went on.
Get THIS tool
Want to avoid kids crying and whining because they dropped their favorite toy? Or help distribute snacks to the back seat of the van? You’re welcome.
Books, books and audio books
We always take a trip the library before leaving on vacation so that everyone has a fresh stack of reading material. My husband and I are also huge fans of audio books—and just tried Audible for the first time (get your first book free—or three if you’re a Prime Member)! As the kids get older they can start listening in.
Don’t go light on the batteries/chargers
Just sayin’. We limit electronics at home, but I’ve got nothing against them on the road. Get a plan for keeping all those devices charged. A car charger with multiple USB ports is a great idea if it applies.
Load up the kids with fun/engaging activities
Coloring books are…okay but not awesome. Here’s what we like:
- Sticker books (we love Usborne—you can adjust for age)
- Melissa and Doug coloring pads
- Bubbles, Frisbees, fun outdoor activities for rest stops
- Dry erase activity books/boards
- Portable games: Travel Bingo is always fun. My boys also like checkers on the iPad.
Road trip games
Here are some of our favorites…you can choose and adjust according to age.
- “I Spy”: Someone picks an item outside or in the car and tells people what color is it is; everyone has to guess.
- “20 Questions”: Someone thinks of something, and everyone has to ask yes or no questions to guess what it is. We actually don’t limit the number of questions; if it goes on too long, we offer clues.
- “Categories”: Pick any category about anything: a genre of movies, certain celebrities, even a type of food. Take turns naming something within that category. Whoever can’t come up with a unique answer is out.
- “Would You Rather?” Ask crazy questions: “Would you rather do X or Y?” Like would you rather not be able to talk or not be able to taste for a day?
- “License Plates”: This doesn’t have to be competitive but it can be. See if you can find license plates from as many states as possible.
- “First Person To See…”: Name something you’d expect to see on the road: a logging truck, a pink convertible, whatever. Whoever spots one first gets a point.
Connecting with others
Contact friends and family along the route
We have saved tons of money simply by letting old friends and family know we were passing through town. It’s not easy housing a family of five, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Many people are willing to put you up for a night or two—or at least host dinner.
Stay on location with extended family or friends when possible
We always either travel with family or stay with them at our destination. Splitting the cost of a vacation rental property can be so much cheaper than paying for a hotel room night after night.
Keeping it Godly
Being in tight quarters for long stretches with the people who tend to annoy you most can be a bit of a challenge. Here’s how to stay centered.
Make expectations clear to your kids
At the beginning of the trip, make your kids aware that it will be a long drive and that they need to exhibit patience, gratitude and kindness. Hmm that sounds a lot like the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23.
Pray together at the beginning of each day
It’s a great way to start the day together as a family whether you’re at home or on the road. This is a good time to ask God for safety and to remind kids about those expectations.
Do a family devotional
You’re all sitting together so why not? Have the kids turn off the games and sing some songs, talk about the Bible, or listen to a sermon.
Give yourself time to recover
Think about all you have to do when you get back: unpacking, grocery shopping, laundry, washing the car, organizing your life…sleeping. In the past I would complain about how it took a whole week to recover from a week’s vacation. This time, I devoted a whole day (and part of the next one) solely for recovery. It made a huge difference in my personal sanity. So, don’t go back to work or school or normal life the very next day. Your reentry into your daily routine will be much smoother.
Plan your return meals
The last thing I want to do when I come home is to go out to eat, but I don’t want to cook either! I suggest having some food in the freezer that is easy to put together on your first night or two home.
What other questions do you have, or what road trip hacks do you have to offer? Leave a comment below!
Are You a Mom Losing Your Mind?
You can get anchored in truth, with Bible verses that speak to moms' hearts. Sign up to get scripture lists for when you're exhausted, overwhelmed, grumpy and more—plus ongoing encouragement in your inbox.