How we make family roadtripping sane(r) & cheap(er)

Right now, I’m writing this post in the passenger seat of our car, en route to Texas from Oregon. I think we’re in New Mexico. Pretty sure it’s the Middle of Nowhere at the moment.

When I Instagrammed a few pics from California a few days ago, more than a few people made the general comment of, “Wow—you guys sure like to travel!” That’s true, of course; we do. But that’s not really why we’re traveling. We’ve got a family wedding down in Austin and well, over half our family is there, so it makes for a good excuse to make extra time to see those fine folks while we’re still living flexibly. We haven’t yet bought a house, our bags are still packed from #WorldwideOx, and well, we can still do our work and school from anywhere. So we figured—let’s go sooner than later, while we’re still in travel mode.

I’m realizing what fabulous travelers our kids have become. They weren’t too shabby before, but life out of backpacks for the previous school year has made them downright malleable in all the right ways, so I’m grateful they think nothing of sitting in a car for over 2,000 miles.

This isn’t the first time we’ve made a long-haul road trip—we went up both east and west coasts for our Blue Bike Tour, from Austin to New York City, then from Seattle to San Diego, and several years prior, we drove to Oregon from Texas to move, making a stop over in Montana.

So I guess it’s true—we love to travel. Here are a few ways we make roadtripping sane and cheap(er).

1. Picnic foods.

Aside from the occasional In-N-Out on the west coast, we almost never eat out while we road trip. We’d rather save that money for quality restaurants at our destinations; plus, it’s no fun to have a queasy tummy full of fast food in the car.

So we stop at the grocery store every few days and fill our insulated picnic basket with basic picnicking foods—cheese, fruit, raw veggies, deli meats, and the like. If we’re camping that evening, we’ll get something simple to heat up on our camping stove (see number 3). Everybody likes the food, it’s lightyears healthier, and there’s almost no prep work.

picnic

2. Stop at playgrounds.

At lunchtime, we try to find a city park with a playground on Yelp or Google Maps. This way, the kids get a chance to get out some wiggles, we can easily eat our picnic fare at a table, and the grownups get to stretch their legs, too. Ideally, we do this later in the afternoon as well.

3. Camp.

When it’s not too cold, we far prefer camping over staying at cheap roadside motels. Yes, it takes a bit more packing, but not too much more (we use a car top canvas bag for all our camping gear), and this way, we can sleep in our familiar tent with our familiar pillows and sleeping bags for far less money. Plus, nature.

tent

And when I say “camping,” I don’t mean roughing-it style—I mean, making a reservation at a KOA or similar campsite, taking full advantage of clean showers and well-lit sites. They’re just as plentiful as the ubiquitous nameless small-town motel.

4. Airbnb, HomeAway, or with friends.

We’ve become massive fans of services like Airbnb and HomeAway; this is what we mostly used on our round-the-world trip. They’re not always a bargain, and they’re definitely easier to find in bigger cities, but they’re still cheaper than a hotel—plus, you can cook. This is our go-to service when it’s too cold to camp or when we’re staying somewhere more than one night.

breakfastfriends

Even better, we love staying with generous friends along the way. Our various jobs throughout the years have bestowed us with friends scattered all over—a bummer sometimes when you wish people were closer, but a gift when you’re traveling and they open their doors wide. My favorite memories of the Blue Bike Tour were staying overnight with friends and watching our kids play together. The best.

5. Audiobooks.

We’re just now at the stage where all three kids can fairly quietly listen to an entire audiobook. Our new (to us) car helps enormously, because each seat has an audiojack that allows the kids to listen via headphones, straight from the CD playing in the car—easier for them to listen; easier for Kyle and I to grab a conversation. Even better, when we rent a car with bluetooth, we can play a digital audiobook straight from our phones and pipe it through the speakers. Our local library has a great children’s audiobook collection, and I think more and more are making it a priority.

(In my next personal newsletter, which I’ll send out this week, I’m sharing our current favorite children’s audiobooks.)

6. Sunset movies.

We all get the stir-crazy feeling by the time evening rolls around, which is when we (at long last) break out the movies. No in-house DVD player here; we simply pull up a movie downloaded on to our iPad or laptop and let a kid in the middle hold it for all three of them. This headphone splitter makes traveling a godsend—one of our favorite purchases for our round-the-world trip.

7. Go slow.

Like most everything else, roadtripping is more enjoyable when you go slow. If we’re hauling a long distance with kids, we don’t even try to “make good time.” We might have one or two days of eight-hour driving; otherwise, we aim for four to six.

bay area friends

The leisurely pace means enjoying the scenery, and it also buffers time for pit stops, playground breaks, scenic detours, and seeing friends. Enjoy the ride, in other words.

It’s the start of summer here in the northern hemisphere, so I’m sure more than one of you has roadtripping on the brain. What are some of your go-to tricks to making it fun?

7 ways to make roadtripping wiht kids sane(r) and cheap(er)

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44 Comments

  1. Jennifer

    Thanks for the info. I am so looking forward to getting out of town this summer. If we can keep the cost down that’s just more we can do!

  2. Jaime

    Awesome post. I also recently wrote about our experience road tripping with our 3 year old and twin 2 year olds from WI to AZ. We love playgrounds and picnic lunches too! If you want to read how we planned and loved our road trip, visit – experimentwithless.blogspot.com

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Nice! And with little ones, too—glad that doesn’t stop you.

  3. Melissa W

    We are about to head west to Oregon and Washington from Missouri. We’ve done it before, but not with a 1 and 2 year old. We also do books on CD…love them. We have built in stops along the way for stretching…places such as waterfalls with short hikes, botanical gardens, and a walking bridge in Omaha. We also plan to picnic as much as possible. We don’t do the movie thing…just lots of music. The kids have some cool games that can be played in the car too…spot it, guess who, and a few others. We’ve been blessed with good travelers. Hoping the two littles turn out the same…the bigs are 15, 13, and 11.We are only planning 5-6 hour driving days except for one in which we’ll just haul it to get to our next stop, lol.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Enjoy the Pacific Northwest! The most beautiful spot of North America, in my opinion. 😉

      • Melissa W

        Thanks! I tend to agree. Hubby’s from Washington, but we fell in love with the Oregon coast years ago.

  4. Ashley

    We drive from VA to TX every summer and have even driven from CA to VA a few years ago. All with littles. Our oldest is 6.
    We eat in the car to keep little hands busy and run and play at every stop to get out all the energy. We have a few games/toys/crayons and the iPad. And I let them watch as many DVDs as they want. They don’t watch a lot at home but I don’t mind for a 2-3 day trip.
    We also drive really long days- we’ve learned that the kids get really restless the longer we’re in the car so keeping the number of days to a minimum is best. We try to leave around 5-6am (our kids are up by 6 anyways) and drive until 6-7pm with several longer stops to play.
    The kids are great travelers which really helps!! I can’t wait for them to be a little older so we can enjoy some of the sites along the way and can go at a little more leisurely pace.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Wow, those are some long driving days! Glad that works for you.

  5. Bree Hobgood

    On really long road trips, like the trip we have planned in a few weeks from Colorado to coastal Alabama, we make them all a little care package with a new coloring book (or origami paper or a clean notebook) and a few other little treats, like stickers or card games. We also do the KOA thing and the picnic at parks thing. I love it, because it really feels like you experience more of the country that way. We’ve recently discovered that lots of state parks have KOA – style cabins for rent, but it’s a much more pristine experience than an actual KOA, so we hit those when we can.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      It really does give you a better feel for the lay of the land and the general culture of a place, doesn’t it?

  6. Natalie

    Planning an epic road trip with our 4, 5 & 6 y/o…up to Niagara Falls/Toronto then around Lake Huron and down to Michigan, ferrying across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin, eventually ending up at a wedding in Minnesota. My question is how do you handle the adventuring into unknown territory? And do you arty any protection when in the back woods?

    • Natalie

      Carry not arty lol

    • Frances

      Do you mean protection from wildlife? Speaking as a Canadian kayaker/backpacker (lots of time in bear country): honestly, stay together and make lots of noise while you hike, and each adult should have bear spray. Keep a clean campsite. Be aware gun laws are different in Canada and firearms are not allowed period in our national parks.

      http://www.bearsmart.com/

  7. Alycia

    We also do a lot of traveling (both by car and plane) and our son is the best traveller of the 3 of us. When driving by car we also try to limit the travel time to 6 hours or so. One thing we recently discovered at our local library are PlayAways – they are Audiobooks on MP3 players that you can checkout. Our son loves listening to books and we were able to listen to many of the books that are part of our homeschool curriculum while on the road!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes! We did digital audiobooks on our round-the-world trip—hooray for instant downloads. 🙂

  8. allison

    Silly question, maybe: what kind of car do you have with audiojacks? We always buy used cars, so maybe our “old” cars aren’t up to date enough yet!! 🙂 It would awesome for our kids to have headphones.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      We buy used, too—it’s actually a 2005 Volvo XC90. Who knew they made those 10 years ago?

  9. Rea

    This is a timely post as we just started considering a road trip from SD to NC to see my parents this summer. It will probably be two 10-12 hour days of driving each way, which is long, but kind of necessary since we don’t have unlimited time to spend on a trip. The boys usually take a stack of books, fortunately neither of them gets car sick easily! Later in the day when they’ve exhausted those we break out the DVD player (portable one that we cram between the two front seats). My husband and I usually listen to audiobooks.

    With the longer days of driving we don’t really have time to deal with setting up and tearing down a tent, but looking into KOA-type cabins sounds like a good idea. (It hasn’t been an issue before because I worked for hotels and got discount rates, no more though….sadly.)

    The hardest part for me is food. The husband and kids love to stop for fast food because it is the only time they get it, but endless days of that make me cranky. Plus, I’m now a vegetarian so…yeah. I will have to work on them with the picnic thing. Maybe if I promise them a daily stop for ice cream instead???

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      There you go! Ice cream totally works for me.

  10. Yvonne

    My husband has been trying to talk me into camping while we travel for a night or two along the way but it seems so complicated to me. We camp multiple times each summer but I can’t figure out how to keep it simple – it seems we have a lot of stuff just to spend a night! Any tips you have on keeping camping simple would be greatly appreciated, because I know if we could embrace the slow meander to our destination and camp along the way, it would allow us to do so many awesome things.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Hmm… Well, we have a simple tent that doesn’t take us long to set up, then we lay out sleeping pads and sleeping bags (+ an air mattress for me because well, that’s how I roll). It really doesn’t take too long—I whip up dinner (something super easy on our portable camping stove—quesadillas, beans & rice, etc.) while Kyle sets up the tent with the kids. Honestly, I’d prefer that to hauling our stuff in to a hotel each night. 😉

    • Megan

      My family of six also spent a tremendous amount of time camping during road trips. Like you Tsh, We had a large tent that was easy to set up (working together, we could pitch it and take it down in 2 minutes, flat!). My dad strung some lines around the interior where tiny flashlights were semi-permanently attached for reading, and a couple more lines from the interior roof to hang socks and the like to dry. We simply tossed in sleeping mattresses and Therm-A-Rests inside to self-inflate.

      Dinner was typically simple canned stew, rice, or pasta that could be boiled in one small pot over a back packing stove. We traveled with six plastic bowls, six sporks, six plastic cups. One insulated tote contained supplemental spices, cheese/fruit/deli meat/bread. We had a collapsible container(s) for water. There was a small bottle of biodegradable soap, a plastic pot scraper, and paper towels for clean-up. Some trash bags, and a battery powered lantern…That was pretty much it!

      My parents were scout leaders who studied some lightweight backpacking blogs and refined their road trip strategy from there. No frills, LOTS of memories. We made it to 50 states and 27 countries that way! 🙂

  11. Linda Sand

    When I was a child road trips were the only time/place we sang as a family. None of us were good singers but we enjoyed it anyway.

  12. Bethann

    Great travel tips! We love restaurant.com for discounts in restaurants to cities where we’re traveling. Bigger cities use the website for discounts. We love picking out and then printing (most restaurants require a printed coupon). It’s like geocaching except you get a great meal at the end of the search! We loved finding delicious Indian, Hispanic, Asian restaurants. Sometimes we even got to eat at “fancy” restaurants with amazing chefs!! Definitely discover the local good eats of a city instead of the chain restaurants!!

  13. Amy Rowland

    Great article! We love to travel the same way with our kids. You mentioned stopping at playgrounds and I created a website that makes the search for a playground near you easy. I started the website because it was so hard to (1) find a playground near us online quickly and (2) when we did find a park/playground, sometimes they were total dumps and in disrepair. So, I started Play Across America to help make the search for a great playground a lot easier. I just thought I would share that with you and maybe it can come in handy when you and your readers are out traveling. 🙂

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Okay, that website is super cool! Way to go.

      • Amy Rowland

        Thank you so much! It’s definitely a fun excuse to go find new playgrounds. 🙂 Hopefully it can help some other families out, too. 🙂

  14. Guest

    Our family loves road trips. I don’t have a lot of tips for doing them cheaply but I did want to comment on the hours per day that you drive. If you have time and flexibility, it certainly makes sense to take your time. But I’d hate for that to be a deterrent to people who don’t have the flexibility that Tsh and family do. Road trips are still GREAT adventures with your family even if you do long driving days. Our goal is to keep driving time to 10 hours or less per day but we’ve found that 10 hours is very doable even with small kids (ours are under 7) if you stop every 2.5 hours. We typically leave early (but not super early) in the AM, stop for a mid-morning gas break and stretches/exercises (yes, we’re the bizarre family doing calisthenics on the grass at the gas station :-P), drive for awhile longer, stop for lunch and stretches/exercises, drive again, stopping for an afternoon break and end with dinner. We have a family goal of visiting all 50 states and have made excellent progress so far! Would highly encourage people to consider taking road trips even though it seems very daunting and overwhelming with little kids. Oh, and if it’s in the budget and you’re driving for more than one day, finding a hotel with an indoor pool is a fantastic way of letting the kiddos burn energy before heading out the following morning!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Totally true! Even with our shorter-distance modus operandi, we always have one or two looooong days of 10-12 hours. And the kids are fine.

  15. kimberly

    I’m trying to subscribe, but cannot seem to make the link work. Does it appear to be working on your end?

  16. Kate

    Such great tips! We too cannot pass up on opportunity to visit In-N-Out when road tripping. Though my kids are younger, I’d love to give some longer audio books a try–my oldest is almost 4 & while I’ve tried some short picture books with audio, I think he’d love to get into something a bit longer to follow along with.

    I find it helpful to do a little “rest stop” research ahead of time to avoid the scrambling that can happen when its time to eat or stretch our legs–we’ve discovered some charming little towns (and food trucks) thanks to some pre-planning.

  17. Alison

    I like to make up scavenger hunts and then we play kids vs. parents. It will have things like: orange cones, Jeep, a cow, orange car, etc. That can usually keep us occupied for an hour or two before we put in audiobooks.

  18. Monica

    When my boys were smaller, we would purchase/download the soundtrack to their current favorite movie. They lived singing the songs and piecing the movie together thru the instrumentals.

  19. Michaela Harris

    Just posted this in the wrong place.. Somewhere.. Feel free to delete it there! Sry.

    ahh, thanks for this! It makes me hopeful that we can continue our road tripping adventures after kids come along:) we too pack food. I usually grocery shop the day before for lunch meat, nuts, snacks, etc. and we stock up as needed.

  20. Maggie

    Thanks for this post. I was wondering how this all worked. I’m not much of a camper, but I think I could be now that I know there are cabins, etc. Big nice tents always seem like a huge expense if you’re not sure you’re going to be a regular camper, ya know?

  21. Trivial Pursuits

    I had to laugh a bit– we’re currently halfway through 3 months in Europe– which has been filled with car trips. (Currently, outside Venice, Italy.) When we get home, we have to turn around and get from AZ to OK (to pick up our pooch from grandma and grandpa’s house). At least at home, I can’t say enough good things about Audio Books. Seriously– we went the entire way through Harry Potter. I think a lot of people do not give their kids credit– they can listen and finding a book everyone (adults included) helps. We did that from Tucson to San Francisco (and back) last year…and it was so helpful.

    And since somehow my life is mirroring yours these days– could you please win the lotto now? I could use the extra cash.

  22. Vanessa

    I love a good sunset or sunrise. They are the best memories!

  23. Kelly Connolly

    Great timing! We are heading out at the end of June for 5 weeks. We start in Kenosha, WI, head to AZ, CO & MT. SO excited and SO terrified! It’s our first big trip- wish us luck!

  24. Crystal

    I wish I had read this before I went on a very long road trip with my girls (colorado to Indiana and then back again). My girls are only 2.5 and 7 months so it’s usually more difficult to “entertain” them. I find that if I can provide them with snacks or switch up their toy/ media choices without stopping we do better. Driving by myself with them (their Papa had to work) meant that I could fill up my passenger seat with goodies and pass things back in my compact car. It might sound crazy, but I pumped while I drove and held a bottle for thre 7 month old. Thank the heavens for my Swing Medelaa pump!!! We packed as light as possible and really he trip wasn’t too bad. We made it in two long 10 hour days with minimal tears. On he way back we got to pick up my husband in Kansas which actually meant more and longer stops because I could no longer keep all of our snacks and treats in the passenger seat to hand back. I definitely think the time flows more quickly with music or an audiobook, but I felt rude listen to music on my phone while my husband sat in silence— really wish I’d known about and had a headphone splitter!! I’m buying one today!

  25. Nicole Bennett

    I can’t believe I didn’t know you could look up playgrounds on yelp! Brilliant! We’ve had a headphones splitter for years but it just has 2 jacks. That one is awesome! We usually plug our laptop into the car sound system so we can all listen to the movie, but letting the kids have all the sound is a great idea, too.

  26. Rita

    We did a lot of road trips when I was a kid in Australia. It was before CD players, iPads or laptops, so no movies! We used to take books, and we did the picnic thing. My parents always had a thermos of boiling water for tea or coffee. We stayed at caravan parks – there are usually barbecues for cooking, and playgrounds for the kids. My parents made the trip part of the holiday. We would leave early each morning, often before breakfast, and drive for 5 or 6 hours with a couple of breaks, but they usually aimed to stop for a late lunch, and we would have the afternoon to run around and play. It worked well – I have happy memories of those road trips.

  27. SandyW

    Just found your blog and I’m always looking for new travel ideas. We are empty nesters so we don’t have any rugrats at home anymore. A couple of things we have found in our travels- hospitals are a good stop. The restrooms are clean and they usually have food choices that a little healthier. We got a chicken salad sandwich and a delicious cookie for $1.50 at one hospital. You could add soup,salad or fruit for just a little more. We ate at a picnic table in Yellowstone that day. We like to stop at the tourist information rest stops (usually at the first stop) after entering a state. There are usually people there with lots of information to share. We also like parks to stop for lunch. It’s good to get out and breathe some fresh air. We try and avoid chain restaurants. It’s more fun to try the local places.

  28. Liz Rohlich

    Hi Tsh! I love your blog! We are moving from Austin to Bellingham, WA in May. We have a 3 and 5 yr old and I think we will just do a long road trip and make it about the journey and not the destination! Thanks for your wise advice and great voice!

  29. Amber Backes

    Thanks for the tips Tsh. We are planning the opposite trip TX to OR soon. I was going back and forth between state parks and KOA’s. You sold me on it. We had already planned to meet my husband at the Santa Fe KOA for a short vacation (he is away for 3 months – boo) but I think we will do it all the way to OR. Question is the Value Kard Rewards membership worth it?

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