This Summer our family headed out on a big road trip. With just a week to get there and back, we were on a tight schedule so I wanted to plan as much as I could. While putting the trip together I consistently had 10 tabs open on my desktop cross-referencing the map, timing and lodging. Mom’s type-a craziness was definitely in full swing, but in the end it was a good thing because our trip was perfect!
Here are some criteria I used to help me plan our trip. I hope it helps you.
Where are you going? Seems straight forward right? For us this changed 2 or 3 times; states, cities and destinations were all moved around the more research I did.
First you need to determine what the goal of your trip is – nature, history, adventure or just relaxation? You may also not want to travel 15 hours to get there so figure out a reasonable driving distance(9hrs) and measure that point on your map. From that, create a radius and that will give you an idea of places you can visit within that driving distance. We live in Southern Ontario so that gave us a huge area to travel within. We could get as far as Quebec City to the North East, Boston to the East, Virginia to the South East and just a little further than Chicago Illinois to the West. For our trip we chose to go South! We drove it years ago when we first got married. Back then, however, it was easier to go straight through. Now, with 2 kids(4 and 8), the trip had to be as exciting as the destination or they would have checked out quick.
First start with the best route and then scan nearby cities. We traditionally only stop for gas and in our car that would be around the 6 hour mark. When I started to plan our trip I looked for cities that match that point and researched what may be close by.
Create a list – As I found something interesting I would add the links to a page I had on the side of my screen. This also helped me plan our hotels. If I found a town or city that had 3 attractions that qualified as a place we would stay for the night. Just one, like a cool museum or park, would be a drive by or a quick stop.
Visit state or city tourism sites – Many states and provinces do a great job of promoting their best attractions. They also highlight small towns and unique destinations that you may not have found doing a larger search.
Cross reference the recommended attractions with user reviews on Tripadvisor – Found something that might be of interest to the whole family? Check what other people are saying to determine whether or not it is a good fit for your family. Other travelers also offer good tips that you wouldn’t have known about if you have never visited a destination. Does the museum or aquarium have a no stroller policy? Is there timed entry? These are surprises that you don’t want to find out when you arrive. I also found a small museum that is only open for 2 hours a day Thursday – Sunday. This is good to know before you get there because if it is something you want to see you will want to try to sync your schedule your theirs.
Budget – What is your daily budget? That includes food, lodging, parking and entrance into attractions. This is a tough one because there are so many variables. Most families road trip to stay on budget. To help keep this down search free activities within each destination or sandwich your $300 day at Six Flags with a few hours walking through a National Park. Also look to staying at a mid range chain like a Hilton Garden Inn, Embassy Suites or Residence Inn. Their rates normally sit around $125/night(except NYC) and they are usually within close proximity of many popular attractions. Most of them offer a free continental breakfast, which is a great way to start the day and a big money saver. Our hotel also had afternoon snacks that we could pick up on the way back from our day out.
We packed a cooler with drinks and packaged snacks to take with us each day so that we didn’t get stuck paying $3 for a bottle of water.
You can also check to see if you can get a discount for pre-purchasing tickets online. Retailmenot.com is a great place to start for online discounts. You can also put your destination into Groupon and look for deals and excursions or restaurants in the area. They will also show some tours or activities that you may not have known were available. GasBuddy.com will help you find the best gas prices along your route.
Still a little lost? Call the Tourism department for the state or city you are traveling to. On this trip I e-mailed a few different reps and they replied with a long list of ideas for our trip. For this getaway we were looking for historical sites and unique museums and they were able to list off a few that I didn’t see anywhere online.
The hotel may also be able to help as well. Last year when I was heading to Keystone the resort I was staying at was a great resource. The booking agent knew everything about the area and recommended must sees and activities. She pretty much helped me plan most of my trip before I even left the house. Plus, she had a list of tour operators that were reputable – something I really appreciated.
Booking a road trip is very different from visiting a resort because it is a ‘chose your own adventure’. It can be time-consuming and tedious but just be assured it is more rewarding. We drove through many towns and cities that we wouldn’t have visited if we had flown and ate in diners that had some of the best food we’d had. This was part of the adventure and it also gave us some trip ideas for next Summer.
Lastly, make sure that you car has been tuned up and inspected before your head out on your journey. The last thing you want is for your car to break down 8 hours from home. It happens when you least expect it, but you don’t want it to happen when everyone is expecting excitement.
* There are no affiliate links in this post.