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Forget That Spendy Family Vacation And Take Your Kids On A Road Trip


It’s popular to take your kids on glamourous, extravagant vacations: Five days in Disney or a week in Atlantis to the tune of $10,000 or more for a family of four is a goal for many. Unfortunately, that can be expensive, hot, and simply impossible for a lot of families due to the time or cost. About one-third of Americans plan on taking a family vacation in the summer and, of that, nearly 80 percent will make it a road trip.

With low gas prices now, it’s easy to see why. In the spirit of versatility, cost-benefit analysis, and adventure, I see you an all-inclusive vacation to Sandals and I raise you a road trip to to see family or friends.

First, Weigh the Logistics and Cost

A lot of people like to take a drive; I’m not one of them. Since I can remember, I have scoffed at the adage “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” because destination is where it’s at, baby. Anyone who has hauled down I-95 to South Carolina knows the smooth sands and clear ocean water beat traffic any day.

I’m not really a road trip kind of person (and wasn’t even before I had kids) and I’m not going to say that it’s any more or less fun than the beach, Disney, or Acapulco. But road trips do have their special charms, which may or may not include finding goldfish crackers in crevices of your car you didn’t know existed.

For starters, road trips are comparatively economical, although they do take time (which is worth money, as we know). Before you embark on a road trip, you need to figure out where you’re going and why, and whether a car ride there is worth the time it will take, versus how much it would cost to get there faster.

Recently, my four kids and I drove to Minnesota from Virginia, a 19-hour drive, over the course of two days. While flights would have been much faster, the cost was about $2,000 for all five of us. No one wanted to spend that. Suddenly, 19 hours of driving seemed like no big deal.

It cost about $400 one way, including food, hotel, and gas, and took two solid days. A flight would have cost five times that and probably still have taken up most of one day. In this instance, the cost-benefit ratio of a road trip made sense, so we went for it.

Staying Sane On the Road

One must build practical measures into the successful family road trip in order to produce the coveted “memories” or even “character-building” that every parent aspires to in order to feel good about his or her efforts. Full tummies, empty bladders (sorry not sorry), and solid entertainment provide the trifecta necessary for road trip nirvana.

While some websites claim food can be pricey on a family road trip, with a little planning and strategery, the right beverage and snack situation, combined with entertainment, can calm tummies and thereby pave the way for quality time and good conversation.

Shopping ahead for food at wholesale stores will cut down on the $4 per kid snacks at a gas station, although that is a trick I employ about halfway through the road trip at the everything-is-devolving-into-chaos-and-we-are-desperate-stage. Send each kid into the gas station with $2 to spend, and it will produce one hour of much-needed quiet and sanity once you pack up again. So. Worth. It.

A lot of people don’t eat in their cars, and that’s recommended if you want to resell your car for some kind of real, American amount of money, but I gave up on that a long time ago in exchange for temporary peace at a vehicle loss of extravagant proportions. If you’re at all OCD, you’ll wish you could unsee my car. As I regularly tell my family and friends: I have other strengths.

At the least, you can stop at a park or gas station, let the kids munch while sitting on a bench, and continue onward. A cooler of water or other beverages will save on purchasing overpriced drinks.

The morning of a car trip, fill the kids with as much protein as possible: eggs, bacon, cereal, and milk. We either eat at a place like Chick-fil-A or snack through most of the day and try to eat a “real” meal for dinner. On this last road trip, I ordered a pizza when we were close to our hotel, and by the time we got settled, it had arrived. Glamorous? No. Satisfactory? Yes.

Another tip: Book a hotel with “free” breakfast and a swimming pool. It’s worth it to get to a hotel before it gets too late and let the kids burn off all that pent-up energy swimming. Also, parents get some time to relax, check their phones, or even work using the hotel WiFi. Continental breakfast in the morning isn’t exactly five-star resort-worthy, but it will stave off hungry tummies until lunch time.

Entertainment is the trickiest part: We have a DVD player and I’ve thanked all the gods 7,000 times over for the drop-down gadget that magically plays movies for my kids. Whoever invented and started installing that in minivans is owed a debt of gratitude for at least the next one million years of family road trips.

We used to bring movies we owned, but then another selfless inventor came up with Redbox, and I care more about this person than probably my own family. We rent three at a time for long trips, and it’s worth the $1.75 (an increase!) and any fees in lost cases (probably the cost of one child’s yearly food budget). If you stand between me and a Redbox on a road trip, you might as well breathe your last.

To ensure that a road trip does not entirely rot my children’s brains, there are mandatory one-hour breaks where the children must—wait for it—look outside, read a book, talk to a sibling or a parent, or even rest their tiny eyeballs. I suggest employing this first, or the heathens will revolt at the mandatory brain use, but it helps provide balance nonetheless.

Forced Family Fun Builds Character

At first it might seem like a road trip with four small children is fun the way getting your teeth cleaned is fun. Some people might see the inherent value but feel unconvinced by the practical pain and frustration involved. They wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

But it’s those slivers of time when the DVD player is off and the music is blaring or the kids are quietly reading or conversing that the magic happens. (It also happens when the driver gets an iced coffee at about 2 p.m., but I digress.)

During car trips, I’ve had more valuable, intense conversations with my older children, who can sit in the front seat, than almost any other time. It’s the parent-child equivalent of early morning coffee, late-night bedtime routines, and other slivers of opportunity where one-on-one conversations enable a child, especially in a big family, the freedom to open up.

In the front seat, we talk about God, politics, geography, history, and relational dynamics. I learn about them and they learn about the world through what little I know. Quiet, quality discussions with my children, one at a time, make up for five stops at gas station bathrooms, nine DVD rentals, and 4,456 questions asking “Are we there yet?”