Road tripping in a minivan with five children is not easy, but traveling as a family certainly can be rewarding.
My family went on the most epic road trip a few years ago, and I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about it yet. Seven states in ten days!!!! Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York. We decided to cover as many of the New England states as we could. We had many factors working in our favor: No one was in diapers, our toddler could nap anywhere, and our little-bodied children could mostly pile in a queen-sized bed together. With all those big wins, we decided to conquer our first multiple-state road trip. What’s not to love about new places to see every day, fun food to try, and hiking through nature?
When we were “checking in” on Facebook at all these different sites, I remember people asking me if I was really visiting all these places. “How were we doing this,” they wondered. “What tips could we offer?” I found that most people were simply overwhelmed by the thought of a road trip and the preparation. So how can we make these trips less overwhelming and more enjoyable?
Prep…and Then Prep Some More
I like to be prepared and timely. As a child, I was the one sitting in the car with my dad waiting on my siblings to get to Mass on time. My personality, definitely more laid-back than “type A,” usually results in procrastination and lots of last-minute planning. However, when you are responsible for five little ones, you learn rather quickly that planning is not a luxury but a necessity. You either spend a ridiculous amount of money hitting CVS daily basis or learn what is essential in packing.
I like to start on Pinterest and print out a few packing checklists. It’s helpful to see what things people suggest that I didn’t think of. I usually create a little checklist for my children who are more independent and try to let them do as much packing themselves as possible.
I knew that packing seven people for a trip with only the trunk of our minivan would take some thought. How could I limit the amount of luggage that we were taking on our trip? How could I prevent my husband from having to take seven-plus bags into each hotel every night? This is the tip I am the most excited to share with you.
As I created multiple piles of clothes for each day of travel, it occurred to me–why not pack a suitcase full of all the needs for Day One and Day Two? We would only need to remove that one suitcase when we arrived at the hotel. Day Three and Day Four would have their own bag and so forth. As I prepared at home, I created piles labeled with “day one, day two, etc.,” and each child came through and put their outfit into the pile for each day.
As the kids reached piles nine and ten, we realized that by then many of my children lacked enough shorts, underwear, pajamas, etc, to complete their ten outfits. I dropped a note to myself of missing clothes in that luggage bag. About half way through our trip, I washed the already used missing items (shorts, underwear, etc.) so the kids could wear them in final days.
Additionally, we packed one bag of everyone’s toiletries, a small bag with one sweatshirt for each person, another with bathing suits, and a pile of beach towels. Day trips to public beaches became smoother with a bag of bathing suits and our pile of towels. Multiple nights the weather turned cool in the evening on the east coast, and we had our sweatshirts readily accessible as we walked beaches. My husband enjoyed being able to grab just one clothes and one toiletry bag for each hotel stay.
Each person also had a small bag at their seat for the car ride that they packed before we left. Their bags included reading material, snacks, small toys to play with, Madlibs, crossword puzzles, workbooks, and any money they wanted to spend on the trip. These bags stayed in the van and provided entertainment as we moved from state to state.
Have a Game Plan, but Be Flexible
Our game plan was to tackle as many states as we could in our ten days traveling as a family. We wanted the flexibility to stay longer in a state if we were enjoying ourselves, but also to be able to move on to another. In our case, we started out on a Monday from Pennsylvania to be in Boston by Saturday. We wanted to arrive by then to redeem a free hotel using my husband’s hotel reward points and save ourselves the $600 hotel expense.
We created a basic itinerary of the places that we wanted to visit in each state. We crossed off some places because the day was going to be too long or we decided we really didn’t want to go. You have to make sure your schedule does not ask too much of your family or young children. Hanging in the summer heat for long hours requires lots of hydration and early bedtimes.
Traveling with two younger children, we had to build in a day that allowed them to “recover.” When we were in Massachusetts, my husband took the three older children to Plymouth plantation, while I spent the day at the hotel with the little ones, using the pool and allowing them a much-needed long nap for the day. We found this day, about mid-week, to be essential for the rest of the trip.
Make Use of Technology to Save Money or Make Your Trip Easier
We downloaded the HotelTonight app on my iPhone, which allows you to find great deals on hotels for the evening or the next day. Since we only needed one room, we often were able to get places for just over or about $100.
Another great resource is the Rand McNally Tripmaker website. They have a great resource where you can plug in your origin and destination, and they will provide you with various historical sites, amusement parks, museums, and nature trails along your route.
Research the travel sites of the states you are visiting. They often have “things to do” suggestions on their websites, which may be “hidden gems.”
Two weeks before we left, I posted on Facebook and asked for suggestions of places to visit on our trip. Friends and family offered so many great ideas that we were able to research and add to our route as well.
I used Groupon for coupons and discounted tickets for places I was sure we wanted to go as well. Buying seven tickets for anything can get pricey, so discounted sites can create great savings for a few minutes of your time.
You Can Have High Expectations for Your Children – Just Make Them Clear
I expect our children to behave, and we communicate our rules clearly, chatting for a few minutes about expectations before we even exit our car. We remind them what’s acceptable behavior for the activity or location. For instance, if we were grabbing ice cream at a small-town shop, we might tell them that they needed to quickly decide on their ice cream flavor, so people behind us in line didn’t have to wait long. We might say, “After you get your ice cream, you are free to find a place to sit–just make sure you sit together.”
If we were going into a museum, we would pair the children up to walk around together. We would remind them that they could look at things, but only touch items they had permission to touch. They also needed to us “inside voices” and be respectful of the people around them.
Whenever we take our children in a museum or a place that we were asking them to behave, we also try to provide an opportunity for them to run around outdoors, or hit a park to climb and play.
When we dine out, our children know to be respectful of other diners and where they are eating. They must also look servers in the eye when ordering their food, keep a clean dining area, and be respectful of a quiet atmosphere.
Be Sure to Have “Something for Everyone” in Planning Your Trip
In our planning, we tried to make sure every person had something exciting to look forward to. On family trips, it is important to keep each person’s interests and hobbies in mind. And it is important for us to teach our children that we honor each other’s hobbies and activities.
My husband had gone on the Food Network and researched multiple locations for the best cheeseburgers, the best homemade ice cream, and other food specialties. He enjoyed a beer at the Cheers bar in Boston and our quest to find the perfect lobster roll during our travel in Maine.
Our children were eager to participate in the Boston Tea Party reenactment and toss tea overboard a ship. They climbed a large tower at Boston Children’s museum and created their own ice cream flavor at the Ben and Jerry’s Factory in Vermont.
I enjoyed hiking Cadillac Mountain in Maine and crossing off countless lighthouses along the coast. My favorite experience was renting bikes and sight-seeing on Block Island, a private island off of Rhode Island.
Think out the Needs of Everyone in Your Group
Do you have a child with an allergy you need to consider? What about car sickness? Do you have children who need a nap or break after a few days of non-stop going? Are there extroverts or introverts? Make sure you have activities that provide for rest as well as times to socialize.
I have a child who has a peanut allergy. Her EpiPen needed to be one of the four things (keys, water, phone, and EpiPen) that went on every hike and every outing. I made sure that I had plenty of her prescription topical cream and Aquaphor in our toiletry bag for her eczema outbreaks.
My oldest daughter struggles with car sickness. Before our trip, we made sure that we had peppermint candy, gum, and Dramamine to help her throughout the trip.
Our toiletry bag also included sunscreen, band-aids, aloe vera, and bug spray. Benadryl helped to keep allergies at bay, while Motrin/Advil helped with headaches.
Make Mental and Written Notes for the Next Trip
Road trips are a great way to travel with children. You can customize your trip to what best suits the needs of your family. Make mental notes of the types of places that all your family members enjoyed, and make sure you add those to your next trip.
Gather information and ideas for your next trip while you travel. Pick up brochures and write down suggestions from locals. Add websites that you want to research later as well.
Talk with your family after each outing. What did they love the most? What was their favorite part of the road trip overall? Did they prefer museums and guided tours, or were outdoor activities much more fun for them? This is an excellent opportunity to learn about your family’s interests and create your next trip accordingly.
Most importantly, the greatest gift we can give our family is time together, making memories and sharing experiences.