Do you dream about taking your family on a great American road trip? Do you long to see the national parks of the West and the natural wonders that make America truly unique? Summer family road trips can be the perfect way to see so much of what the USA has to offer!
Taking my kids on a multi-week cross-country great American road trip was a long-held dream of mine, but I knew that this needed to be something that they wanted to do too. Something that they would enjoy so that they would welcome the idea that this would be how they would spend their summer.
And to make that happen, I needed to understand their vision of taking a cross-country road trip- what would make it really great for them? What sites did they want to see? What did they picture in their heads when they thought of the “Great American West”? What types of activities would make this their version of a “dream vacation”?
It was time for a road trip planning meeting!
#1- Generate an American road trip “dream list”
For several nights over dinner, the kids and I brainstormed a list of things that would be cool to do and see on our cross-country road trip. They told me they wanted to see the Old Faithful geyser (they had heard about it in school and wanted to see it first-hand), and they listed the Grand Canyon as a place that they wanted to visit. This is what they pictured in their minds when they thought of the western states!
Next we focused on activities and not ones that necessarily have anything to do with the states that we were visiting! They listed things that they love such as playing mini-golf and they wanted to visit a water park. Then they listed some vacation-specific activities such as going on a horseback ride (and they immediately jumped all over the mule-ride idea when I shared with them that this was an activity that we could do while at the Grand Canyon), going down an Alpine slide, and going white water rafting.
This list gave me a great starting point to begin planning our trip. I knew if we could make these things happen on our trip- it would be awesome for all of us!
#2- Put the “dream list” into action!
Armed with this list, I set about planning our road trip. I specifically looked for destinations that would allow us to do at least one of the activities on our list.
For example, when we visited Rocky Mountains National Park in Colorado I specifically decided to stay at the YMCA of the Rockies because they offered multiple swimming pools, mini-golf, and horseback riding on the property- and right off the bat I was able to knock several things off of the list that the kids wanted to do while on vacation! Might I have enjoyed staying in a different hotel that's not a… um… YMCA? Perhaps. But this is about making the whole family happy! (Side note: the YMCA of the Rockies ended up being all kinds of awesome! I loved it as much as the kids!)
#3- Consider making this trip an extended family event
While the kids have the summer off from school and my work-from-home career allows me to travel for weeks at a time, my husband doesn't share that same flexibility. So while he would be able to join us for 10 days of our trip- traveling for an entire month with us wasn't possible. But I didn't see that as a reason to not take the trip!
So we invited the grandparents to join us for portions of the trip! My job was to make the long cross-country trek with the kids in the car- and then my husband, my parents, and my in-laws flew out to meet us at different points of the journey. It made our adventure even better by getting to share it with those that we love! Not to mention having grandparents join us made the trip quite a bit easier for me!
#4- Consider the daily distance for travel
My kids have a high tolerance for time spent in the car because we've taken them on so many long road trips. So I know that they can handle a 12-hour day in the car without a problem. But since I was going to be the only adult and therefore the only driver on the trip I wanted to make sure that we would never travel more than 8 to 9 hours on any given day.
So as I mapped out our journey I spent a lot of time using Google Maps to determine the distance between destinations that we were considering and whether or not I needed to add an overnight stay with activities somewhere in between. This is where the overnight stay at a water park fits in!
#5- Consider the types of accommodations vs. your budget
There is no doubt that a multi-week cross-country road trip is going to be expensive. Gas, food, souvenirs, and activities for so many days are really going to add up (and it is important to take the time to carefully plan your expenses and make decisions to help you stick to your total vacation budget in advance!).
But the largest expense of the trip overall is going to be accommodations.
I knew that we could make our American road trip more economical if we stayed in lower-priced lodging such as campsites, but I had to balance that against the fact that for a long stretches of the trip I would be the only adult which would make camping quite challenging (setting up and taking down the tent, sleeping bags, walking kids to bathrooms during the night, cooking, etc.). So we limited the camping only to nights that my husband would be joining us.
I also had to make sure that our accommodations allowed for me to cook frequently which would save money on meals, and they needed to have laundry facilities which allowed me to pack more efficiently for this trip. So I made some carefully-considered decisions regarding where we would be staying based on amenities offered.
#6- Plan, plan, and then plan some more!
Look- I am all about being flexible while on the road- stopping at some attraction or activity that looks interesting to everyone- changing up the planned schedule when everyone needs a break, etc. Altering a plan is all good! But you need to at least start with a plan when you want to take a trip of this size with your family!
As I am planning a road trip- I'll put all of my notes into a Google doc- jotting down ideas of what we want to see and do- listing address so I'll have easy access to them later, making notes of admission fees and hours, etc. I'll even take some time to research dining options in each area we'll be visiting so I have a go-to list of possibilities if I need one.
I'll create a folder in my email system to hold all of our reservation confirmations- for hotels, campsites, activities, etc. It allows me to easily locate them along the way.
Once I've done my research and note-taking- I'll fine-tune that Google doc into a daily game plan- even listing start/end times of activities and drives so I make sure that I don't over-schedule a day. And then I'll print out that document and use it all on our trip- so everything I wanted to remember about a particular location is right in front of me!
You all know me- I have to keep a great American road trip organized, right?
Planning a road trip?
You might want to check out these other posts that offer tips and advice on planning and packing for road trips:
- Packing for a Road Trip: How to Pack the Inside of Your Car
- The Best Car Coolers for a Family Road Trip
- 8 Must-Have Road Trip Essentials!
And if you are looking for some cool family road trip destinations:
- 5 Amazing National Parks for Your Summer Bucket List
- Things to Do in Williamsburg with Kids!
- Things to Do in New Smyrna Beach Florida with Kids!
- 5 Reasons to Visit Mammoth Caves with Kids
Hi Sharon, I know this is an old post but I just saw this. Our family loves road trips and we try to do one every year. We’re a family of 5 and 2 of my girls are in wheelchairs and walkers so it’s not easy flying carrying everything and it’s VERY expensive to rent a modified vehicle–so we just take our own. We live in Florida and have done the states close to us and our longest trip was Niagara Falls with stops along the way in WV, PA, and NY.
This year we were kicking around Grand Canyon but I’m now interested in Acadia NP with a stop in Salem, MA and may add on a few days in Washington DC to break the driving.
My planning is similar to yours except I should break down the activities with times and a schedule more. It’s just not that easy for me but it’s a really good idea! 🙂 I also have to “wing it” and get creative as many places are not wheelchair accessible and we must improvise to make it happen.
We’ve been able to get all our girls on a zipline, horseback riding, and white water rafting!! It’s the best to accomplish those things with them and seeing their smiles. Not sure which adventure we’ll do this year that goes with those fun past activities.
Thanks for sharing your tips with us!
Southern California RV Parks says
I also love the road trips in the green vallies.Playing on the green grass is very enjoyful moment.
We are a road tripping family. Only blessed with one son who will be 10 in the fall. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been to every state except for Alaska (the only one still on my bucket list), Hawaii & South Carolina. So our son has been to many states as well. I’m clearly reading this backwards so ignore my previous tips. I have some friends who have a second home in Estes Park. So feel free to send me an email & I’ll connect you with them if you wanted some specific tips. Also, in St. Louis make sure you visit the City Museum. It has a bus on the roof with perhaps half of it hanging off the roof & you can go in the bus. I recommended this to the friends who have the Estes Park home & they visited & said it was one of the best museums they had ever visited. I actually haven’t been but my parents took my son there last year. We’re in Atlanta and my hometown is in Paducah, KY & St. Louis is about 3 hours from there. My parents love to take Rob on trips. My husband & I are always invited but don’t always get to come!
Thanks so much Carol! We had an amazing time in Estes Park- it is so beautiful there! I wish that we had more time to spend enjoying it! And thanks for the tip on City Museum- I wrote that one down!
Christa Graham says
I just found your blog and I’m in love already 🙂 What an awesome trip you have planned! Any big plans for Columbus, OH? I went to college at Ohio State and it’s my favorite city up north!!
I love road trips. We are having baby #6 in the fall, but we’re planning a trip down from Oregon to Southern California and back. Praying for an easy-going baby! 🙂 We drove to Yellowstone last summer and absolutely loved it. Make sure you stop at Lower Falls- the most breath-taking sight I’ve ever taken in. We stayed in Jackson for five days, and we all basically wanted to move there. There is a really fun experience called the Bar-T Covered Wagon cookout, where you get to ride in covered wagons to a campsite and eat a bbq dinner. They do a really fun show with music and comedy with audience participation. We’ve visited Colorado Springs before, and there are lots of fun things to do there too. Can’t wait to see how you do on your big trip! 🙂
Angie- congrats on baby #6! And I love hearing that you are a road-tripping family too! Thanks for the tip on the lower falls at Yellowstone. I was thinking that we might skip the canyon area at Yellowstone since we are also going to the Grand Canyon. But your tip sent me looking into it- and now I know it is a must-see! Thanks! We are doing the covered wagon campout with entertainment at the Grand Canyon too! That idea was definitely on our to-do list!
This is a great post! I’ve always wanted to take a road trip across America. This can sometimes be difficult with small children, but it’s nice to spend quality family time.
Barb @ A Life in Balance says
Sounds like a fantastic road trip! I can’t wait to see the updates.
Love reading your posts about this trip. We head out on our great Canadian/American road trip with our five year old twins and 8 month old baby in a few days. We will be gone four weeks. We also plan on visiting Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Have a great trip! I admire you for doing this on your own.
I am quite impressed with what you are doing! Two 5-year olds and a baby! Way to go! Can’t wait to hear what you think about Yellowstone- and I can’t wait to see it!
Can’t wait to follow along on your road trip!
Thanks Barb! It’s going to be an adventure!