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Family road trips are making a comeback. As the USA begins to reawaken and families start to contemplate their next family vacation, most are turning to road trips. This road trip planner covers all the basics — where to go, what to pack, how to choose the right destination and stops along the way. And, perhaps most important, what snacks to bring along. Because how can you have a great road trip without great snacks?
Since the advent of the car and the post World War II creation of interstate highways, road trips have been the Great American Way to travel with kids. Parents in the front seat, kids in the back, the open road ahead.
But, as veteran road trippers know, getting a road trip right takes some serious planning. It starts weeks before the trip, choosing the destination, planning the route and taking the car for a check-up to ensure the vehicle is up to the challenge. (If it’s not, don’t despair. You can always rent a car — most companies offer unlimited mileage options. Check out these tips for saving money on car rentals.)
Travel is good for your mental health. And 2020 may be the year we all need that more than ever.
Let’s get started.
Road Trip Planner Step 1: Decide Where You Want to Go
There are 5 parts to this:
1. How many days do you have?
This is such an important question because a road trip is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. You’ll want to make time to investigate those intriguing roadside attractions and other points of interest.
2. How many hours a day do you want to spend driving?
If you’re a road trip rookie, err on the side of less, especially if you have younger kids who need to get up and move. Four or five hours a day in the car, with stops every two hours to let the kiddos out of their car seats to run around a rest stop can be plenty. If you only have a few days for your vacation and you only want to drive a few hours, that sets the parameters for choosing a destination.
3. Get out a map.
I’m talking about an old fashioned, paper map. Decide how many miles you can get in that five hour trip (five hours @70mph=350 miles). Draw a circle on the map of 350 miles out from your house and spend some time studying the destination options.
4. Have a family meeting.
Discuss the options that are within the family budget. As long as social distancing rules are in place, look for spots that are likely to be less popular.
5. Choose a Plan B destination.
It should be near to your chosen spot to be used as a fall-back if you arrive to find your desired destination is too crowded or closed to guests.
6. Check local requirements.
Closings, opening and Covid-19 requirements are changing fast these days — sometimes changing from hour to hour. There are several resources, according to Forbes, to check for a safer road trip, including:
MultiState COVID-19 State Reopening Guide, which keeps track of what’s open and what’s not so you can plan accordingly.
Road Trip Planner Step 2: Outline the Route
I’m a map geek so I like planning a road trip the old school way: I get out my Rand McNally book of maps and let my fingers wander, tracing the best route to my planned destination. What I like most about that is it’s easy to find fun detours. It’s how we discovered Plaines, Georgia, on a ride home to Chicago from Florida.
But then, I tend to be more of a spontaneous traveler. I like to be able to take the detours. We like the “blue highways,” those little blue lines on the map that connote the non-interstates. It lets us explore the small towns and the places that call themselves towns but feel more like a small gathering of houses along the road.
If you are a super planner who prefers having a well-laid-out plan, there are many easy ways to do that. You can simply let Google maps do the work for you. Plug in your starting and ending points, set a few parameters (highways or not, toll road or not, etc.) and the app will design the trip for you.
Or you can turn to one of the many online road trip planner sites and apps.
RoadTrippers claims to be the best road trip planner app and it gets kudos from others. Carrentals.com calls it the “holy grail” of road trip planning apps. Choose your starting and ending points, then build the trip with suggested attractions and hotel stops. There’s a free version and paid upgrade version.
Visit the USA offers a bunch of pre-planned packaged road trip itineraries in varying lengths and for different interests, including families, solo, couples, LGBT and more. It also has a option for planning your own road trip route.
Create your trip from hundreds of pre-planned scenic routes and thousands of recommended stops. One cool feature: This road trip planner will automatically divide a multi-day trip into manageable itineraries for each day.
This is the original trip planner — the one your parents used to plan a road trip, then print out the directions. But it’s matured since those days. Download the app to make it interactive.
The venerable mapmaker lets you plan your road trip, complete with rest stops, attractions, food and stops for “The Great Outdoors,” “Small Town Gems” and “Picture Perfect” spots. Create an account to save your trip.
Pet Friendly Road Trip Planner
As you suspected, Go Pet Friendly does all of the same road trip planning things with the added benefit of pointing out all of the Fido-friendly stops, including pet-friendly hotels and campgrounds, beaches and off-leash parks, veterinarians and pet supply stores. It even lists restaurants and wineries where your pooch is welcome too.
Road Trip Planner Step 3: Along the Route
You finished the route planner, now you need to figure out where you and the kids will spend the nights along the way.
Are you a camping family? If so, you’ll want to research campsites along the way. Do you prefer hotels? Airbnbs? And do you need to have the reservations made before you leave home?
Or does spontaneity work? If so, you’ll want to download the Hotels Tonight app. It’s the one I use to find a room nearby when we’re ready to stop for the night. I find the hotel with the pool, check the price and then call the hotel directly and ask the front desk to match the price. If so, I book directly with the hotel. If not, I book through the app.
Road Trip Planner Step 4: Pack Right
This is the getting-ready phase. It’s when you do things like make sure the family car is up to the task, the bags are packed, the apps are downloaded and the snacks are bought.
Road Trip Checklist
The first thing on this list should be making sure your family vehicle is up to the task. Take it to the mechanic for a once-over. Have the tires checked, including the spare. Put on new washer blades and fill the washer reservoir. Read this for more pre-trip advice.
Pack Right for the Trip
You have that whole big trunk to fill, right? Or that roof top cargo carrier you bought for the trip. But just because you have all of that space doesn’t mean you have to fill it. Packing light makes just as much sense on a road trip as it does when you’re flying. Extra weight in the car uses more gas, which can add up on a long road trip.
And, if you’ll be checking in to different accommodations each night, you’ll need to drag all of that luggage into the room for the night and back into the trunk the next morning. If that is your road trip plan, pack one “family” bag. It becomes the overnight bag. Include toiletries, pajamas, a change of underwear and bathing suits for each member of the family. (When you’re choosing the hotel for the night, choose the one with the pool. It can make all the difference to the kids after a whole day in the car.)
Road Trip Planner Step 5: Download These Apps
Your smartphone is your best friend on a road trip. In addition to whatever road trip planner app you use, download these apps for smooth sailing.
This app has saved me more times than I care to remember. Because we like off-the-beaten path road trips, we don’t see gas stations every few miles like you do along the interstate. Gas Buddy will find the closest station with the best gas prices. And, of course, those oh-so-bad-for-you gas station snacks!
TravelingMom Tip: Fill up any time the gas tank gets to half full. Don’t ask me why I know this.
What’s a road trip without a great road trip playlist?
Audiobooks are our favorites for a long road trip. The Harry Potter series read by the incomparable Jim Dale got us from Florida to Chicago several times, then on future Chicago road trips to St. Louis, Kentucky, Mackinac Island and more.
This app or another that provides roadside assistance is one of those peace-of-mind things. If there is a problem along the way, you’ll know who to call for help. AAA also offers hotel and attraction discounts. Find out everything they offer in our full review of AAA.
Got kids? You’ll need wifi. There are plenty of ways to find free wifi on the road. There also are apps for finding wifi that work on iPhones and Androids. Read the reviews and test the apps before you leave on your trip.
Pack the Snacks
Snacks are the secret to a successful road trip with kids! Actually, they’re even the secret to a successful road trip without kids — check out these man snacks for road trips. We’ve got snack ideas for teens, toddlers, kids with food allergies and a recipe for healthy trail mix.
Road Trip Tips
If you’re road tripping with kids, you need these tips we TravelingMoms learned the hard way:
Keep everyone charged up.
If you’re driving a newish car with a plethora of USB ports and a regular outlet, then I want to road trip with you. But, if you are an average American, the car you drive is more than 11 years old. I am only slightly better than average — my newest vehicle, a Ford F150, is a 2003. It has one USB port. Count ’em. One. So we supplement with adapters and this power inverter, which I use to plug in this power strip so everyone can plug in.
It’s a road trip. The whole point is to be able to meander. So take the detours. Stop at the roadside attractions. Get that Instagram shot of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Or whatever oddity you find along the way. At least that’s the way my husband, kids and I have always preferred it. But, some road trippers have a different approach:
Or stop as little as possible.
This is the advice offered by the TravelingMoms who road trip alone with the kids. Nasreen Stump, who regularly drives from Texas to New Hampshire and back again stops only when she has to. That’s because stopping involves getting four kids out of the car, letting them run a bit, then getting four kids buckled back in.
Choose the hotel with the pool.
Did I mention this already? It was always the “reward” for the kids after a long day in the car.