A part of me wonders if perhaps I should’ve been a travel agent. For me, planning a trip is as much fun as actually going on a trip. It’s one of the few areas in my life where I am completely organized. My meticulous planning is based, at least in part, on nervousness. Since I’m often traveling on my own with four kids, I gain a sense of security knowing that all has been planned out ahead of time.
The first thing is to decide where you’re going. For last summer’s road trip, we had planned to see family in Rehoboth Beach and Cape Cod, so that’s where I started. Both destinations are popular summer beach venues, so I booked our rooms early. A little tip for those of you wanting to visit the Northeast – most schools don’t let out until mid-late June. Why does this matter? Lower rates. Also, smaller crowds, which means shorter lines and wait times at parks and restaurants.
Once I locked in our reservations for Rehoboth and the Cape, I got my maps out. For me, a personal goal is to explore all fifty states. Since I grew up in New England and have travelled there frequently, we’ve checked several of those states off our list. Still, there were other sites that we’d missed. Acadia National Park was a bucket list item, and since we’d be so far north, it made sense to venture into Canada. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island all made our itinerary.
In my experience, driving into Canada hasn’t been a problem; it’s getting back into the USA that gets tricky. The summer we returned from Niagara Falls, we were interrogated extensively. In fact, the guard zeroed in on my autistic son, who can admittedly look suspicious, and kept asking him his name. I stared at the border officer like, seriously? My first Canadian crossing was made on my own, so I was nervous. To get across, you need an ID that proves you’re an American citizen. A passport will suffice, obviously, or you can have a government issued ID card and your birth certificate. For my kids, I decided to get passports. Passports are expensive, but there’s an economic option. The children have “mini-passports” the shape of a credit card, which can be used when crossing the border by car. If you’re flying internationally, you’ll need a regular passport. Four years ago, the “mini-passport” was $40.
Once I mapped out the trip, I calculated the miles between each destination. I try to limit the drive time to four hours a day between cities. We travel in the morning, usually getting to our destination in time for lunch, and then spend the afternoon sightseeing. If we have a big driving day, I’ll plan to stay at a hotel with a nice pool to keep my little ones happy.
As for hotels, I take full advantage of the membership rewards programs. If you’re going to use points – book early! They only reserve so many rooms for those purposes. When choosing a hotel, I always check out reviews on TripAdvisor. The site has never failed me. The few times I’ve gone rogue and ignored a bad rating, I’ve been burned. I also try to include stops to see family and friends, who often invite us to stay with them. I always take advantage of their hospitality and their washing machines. Laundry rooms are available at some hotel chains. It’s a good idea to investigate so you can plan your laundry days in advance (which helps when packing).
When traveling with children, especially growing teenage boys, it’s ideal to stay at hotels that offer free breakfast. The food isn’t always the best, but it’ll save money. Some chains also offer complementary family style meals during the week. When on the road with the kids, I often dine early (yes, early bird and happy hour specials), and frequent restaurants with good children’s menus.
When it’s the five of us, we squeeze into one room, but that’s our secret. For years, my little one was quite happy sleeping in a pack-n-play. Not sure how this is going to fly this summer, as he’s now seven, but we’ll find out. Sometimes we have to enter the hotel in shifts, so we don’t alert the front desk that we’re over capacity (and/or incur an extra charge). When Dad is with us, we splurge for an extra room. I call ahead the day before and ask to be “pre-blocked” into connecting rooms.
I’m frequently asked how I decide what to explore when we’re in a new city. I have a variety of methods and resources. Last summer, on Prince Edward Island, I had to see the home from Anne of Green Gables, a favorite childhood book. Anne is a fictional character, but the author grew up on PEI. No one in my crew was interested – so Dad and the kids watched a movie in the car while I revisited my childhood. I love to visit National Historic Sites, because I’m a history buff – and they’re usually pretty affordable. Big ticket items are the amusement parks, aquariums, and tall buildings! You don’t even want to know what I paid for the five of us to go to the top of the Sears Towers (excuse me, Willis Tower) in Chicago.
For sightseeing, once again TripAdvisor is a great place to start. Also ask family and friends for input. Sometimes I’ll post an inquiry on social media and I’m rewarded with tons of suggestions. As the children have gotten older, I’ve learned to get their input about what they want to do. Every road trip usually includes a zoo, a beach, some sort of boat ride, and an amusement park. It buys me some good will for the presidential libraries, art museums, state capitols, and sites that mean nothing to them – like the Mary Tyler Moore statue in downtown Minneapolis.
I keep a road trip budget. When making reservations, I record the room rate and taxes. I calculate the miles we’ll be driving and estimate the gas expenditures. I investigate the charges we’ll incur at the places we’ll visit, too. I’ve started doing preliminary research after I experienced sticker shock at a few museums. It’s easier to decide if something’s too expensive from your computer screen, than when a ticket agent informs you that it’ll be $75 dollars to visit the Clinton Presidential Library – I kid you not! Mr. Clinton has since slashed his prices. If you know you’re going to pay top dollar to see Graceland (totally worth it, btw), then you can balance it out with some free sites. You’d be surprised how many art museums let children in for free, and then charge a nominal fee for adults.
While I’m planning, I put together a road trip bible, which comes out on the road with me. It contains all our reservations, maps, and any information I’ve gathered about our venues. It’s my life line, and it also serves as a great record of what we saw. Once the trip is planned, it’s time to start making your packing list!
As you know, I am currently on the road with the kids for our annual summer road trip. This blog is coming to you from the suburbs of Detroit! We are staying with my sister Kelly. In the last week we’ve visited friends and family in Louisville, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Toledo. We’ve ridden on roller coasters, toured the Motown Museum and seen the Detroit Tigers play. You can read recaps and see pictures at Road Warrior Momma. In a few days we’re hitting the road again and heading out west. With the exception of Chicago and Minneapolis, all destinations will be new to us. I’m getting very excited.
This article was originally published in My Foryth Magazine. I’m posting it here for the Finish the Sentence Friday link up. This week’s sentence is, “This Summer I’m going on a road trip.” I’m co-hosting this week, along with Kristi (Finding Ninee), Lisa (The Meaning of Me ), and Reta (Calculated Chaos).
Do you have any tips for road trippin’? Do you have any funny stories from the road? What are you plans for this summer?