A Guide to Planning the Best Family Road Trip
These tips will help make your vacation a memorable one
Road trips are the perfect mode of transportation for family travel. On these kinds of vacations, families can enjoy the scenery along the drive, avoid expensive airfares and spend more time together en route. Road trips also allow for more flexibility – allowing for multiple stops along the way and adjustments to the start and end dates of your trip. They also enable distancing from other groups and more privacy on your vacation.
My family decided to take a road trip this summer to ensure that we were able to visit all of the destinations that we wanted to experience, while avoiding airline crowds and travel restrictions. Our road trip took us through five states and a similar number of cities, where we explored both new and nostalgic places. While the details of the trip took intricate planning to determine exactly how and where we wanted to go, it was well worth the effort. The result was a family trip that I will never forget.
With adequate planning, families can ensure that their road trip is a safe, inexpensive and memorable way to travel. Here are some factors to consider in order to plan a fun family road trip:
Choosing your Destinations
One of the first things to consider when planning a family road trip is where you and your family would like to go. The choice of destinations affects almost every other facet of the trip, so it’s key to decide where you’d like to go early in the process. It is important to involve every member of your vacationing family group in planning the trip together. Experts have found that the most successful family vacations are those in which both parents and kids are included in choosing the destinations and planning the trip. Ask each family member what they would like to do and where they’d like to go on your road trip – then try to incorporate as many of these activities and destinations as possible. It can also be beneficial to talk about any expectations you have for the trip, daily schedules and rules of the road before you head out on your trip.
Road trips offer families plenty of vacation flexibility, as they can choose the number of stops they wish to make and the duration of their stay. If there’s one or more main destinations that your family would like to visit, consider stopping at other places along the way. Some cities may be worth spending the night in lodging facilities, while others may be best for a day trip while en route to your next destination.
On my family’s summer road trip, we started at our home in Chicago and then stopped mid-way through the drive in Lexington, Kentucky for food and sightseeing. Our next stop was Knoxville, Tennessee, where we visited the college my sister will attend in the fall. After one night in Knoxville, we drove to Nashville, Tennessee to see the city for the first time and explore. We spent two nights in Nashville before driving to St. Louis to see our favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, play the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. We did some sightseeing in St. Louis before heading home to Chicago, stopping at my dad’s former college campus in Peoria, Illinois on the way for a nostalgic visit.
While planning your road trip, you’ll also want to consider how much time family members can spend in the car and add destinations along the route to take a break from driving. These added stops can also be a convenient and entertaining way to split up the amount of driving during each day of your trip. Road trip planning apps include Roadtrippers, Google Maps, Maps.Me and Roadside America, which highlights roadside attractions. These are beneficial tools that your family can use when mapping out your trip.
Selecting your Lodging
As soon as your family has decided where you would like to stop on your route, it’s a good idea to start planning where you’d like to stay overnight and reserve accommodations. Traditional hotel lodging may work well for a more urban setting, but camping options can be a good choice for National Park areas. Short-term lodging rental sites like Airbnb or Vrbo are great options for those who want plenty of family room and an inexpensive way to be immersed in the culture of an area. Airbnb and Vrbo rentals can range from a modern downtown apartment to a cozy lake house. Short-term vacation rental policies can vary substantially, so carefully read property descriptions and understand what’s included with your rental.
When considering accommodations, think about how secluded your family wishes to be from other guests and how well room sharing may work after spending long hours of cramped together time in the car. On my family road trip, we spread out between two hotel rooms at each destination. This ensured that we could relax and spend some time alone after days filled with driving and exploring together on our road trip. We also booked hotels that were affiliated with our hotel loyalty programs, so some of our hotel accommodations were free. It is important to find the right option for lodging so that your family can easily relax and have fun together on your road trip.
Preparing your Vehicle
When preparing your car for your road trip, you’ll want to ensure that the vehicle you’re taking is ready for longer distance driving. Check to see if your car is due for an oil change. For an older vehicle, it may be helpful to take the car into your local mechanic for a check-up to make sure that everything is working properly.
Verify that your car’s insurance policy is up to date and that your records are stowed in an accessible compartment in the car or on your cell phone in case of an emergency. Consider investing in a roadside assistance program like AAA to help with any unforeseen car and travel issues. If you plan to take younger kids on the road trip, make sure that you have the correct car seats if needed, depending on your children’s ages and size.
If you plan to rent a vehicle for your road trip, try to book your car rental as far in advance as possible. When choosing a rental car, consider your family’s seating and accessibility needs as well as fuel efficiency. Rental cars are available through Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Hertz, Budget Car Rental, National Car Rental, Avis, Alamo and others. You may also wish to consider renting an RV for your trip.
On my family’s road trip, we set expectations for behavior during longer stretches of driving and made plans to take turns behind the wheel. My sister and I also acted as “copilot” at various times while sitting in the passenger seat – helping with navigation, setting up directions, distributing snacks and water, and looking for food or gas station stops.
While on the road, consider using your cell phone’s GPS apps function which allows you to search for food, coffee, gas stations and more while driving to your destination. This function is great for road trips because it enables families to search for convenient stops, thus minimizing diversions from your planned route. To save money on gas throughout the trip, consider downloading an app like GasBuddy, which provides information on service stations that are selling the cheapest gas in a particular area. Many national gas station chains including Shell, Mobil and Speedway, offer rewards programs allowing drivers to save money by entering their rewards account information at the pump.
Preparing the Week of the Road Trip
Once the main aspects of your family’s road trip are planned out, it’s important to consider the smaller, day-to-day details of the journey. This includes taking steps to ensure your family’s comfort while on the road. During longer driving days, family members may get hungry while in the car. On our way to Tennessee, we packed a cooler with water and an assortment of non-perishable snacks that were easy to eat in the car and less likely to spill or make messes. We also brought pillows and blankets along as well.
Since you never know what potholes you might hit along the way, it’s wise to prepare for unforeseen circumstances. Before the trip, consider downloading apps like Waze and HotelTonight in case hazards necessitate a major detour or an accident requires you to unexpectedly need a place to stay overnight. It’s wise to pack a small first-aid kit along with motion sickness medications or natural treatments in case car sickness occurs. Families might also want to pack an extra change of clothes in the car if they are traveling with younger kids.
It is also important to arrange for in-car entertainment options for your family to avoid the dreaded “Are we there yet?” hassles. It’s easy to download movies and music through streaming services including Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, which enable playback without an Internet connection. Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music also have a variety of road trip playlists that families can use. Families can also collaborate to put together a shared playlist on Spotify or Apple Music. This allows multiple family members to make a “Family Road Trip” playlist filled with favorite songs to enjoy on the drive. It’s also useful to pack headphones and chargers for your devices that are compatible with your vehicle’s charging ports.
On the Road Trip
With the right planning, your family is sure to have a fun-filled road trip to remember. To capture and share memories from your trip, find a way to document your destinations along the way. Take a family photo at a memorable stop in each destination using your cell phone or a disposable or Polaroid camera. To make a treasured family souvenir, you might want to place these photos in a keepsake album or a photobook at a later date.
Dining is a key part of family vacations. One of my favorite memories from my family road trip was sampling local foods in each town we visited. My family loves to eat and try new restaurants, so it was fun to pick out unique restaurants in each area to visit as a family. Use a search engine and review app such as Yelp at each stop on your road trip to find the best local restaurants. If you are traveling with younger kids, make sure each restaurant has a kids’ menu. You can also search for a highly-rated ice cream parlor or dessert shop that’s popular with local residents.
Once you’re on your journey, savor the well-earned family time and enjoy the scenic routes along the way. With adequate planning, road trips are the perfect option for family time spent together on vacation. My family and I absolutely loved our recent road trip and we’ve already started planning to hit the road together next summer. We can’t wait to do it again.
By Gina Musso