Family Road Trip With A Twist

Do you remember the mid-90’s MTV reality show “Road Rules”? 8-10 college-age strangers were plopped into a RV and given random challenges to compete for money. The challenges were cool but the drama, name-calling & cattiness were less than desirable.

We understand that makes for “good” reality TV but we weren’t interested in that. We were interested in how the challenges changed you.

My husband took the idea of traveling in close quarters with 10 other strangers, competing in various challenges, and redeemed it to make it family-friendly.

Family road trip

For the past 20 years, he has traveled thousands of miles across the United States with hundreds of students making lifelong memories with the purpose of building lasting relationships, learning more about yourself, our country, and God.

We believe in the philosophy that we learn the most in places or conditions that are unfamiliar to our natural environments. 

The amount of life change that occurs all depends on you.

Now that our four kids are older – they range in age from 10 to 17 – we have started taking these trips as a family.

The great thing about these trips is that you can customize each trip according to the age of your kids, your budget, and the length of your trip.

Family road trip

A few basics:

1. Come up with the itinerary ahead of time but keep it a secret.

After we decided the length of our trip and our budget, we figured out a route, and then found activities along that route.

Our trip this year was 9 days. We knew that we wanted to travel east to spend some time with my husband’s family for a few of those days so we spent some time researching online activities between Illinois and Maryland. Here’s our itinerary for an example:

Doing a trip like this eliminates the endless “Are we there yet?” questions because the itinerary is kept a secret!

Family road trip with a twist

2. Have a detailed packing list.

To keep it simple, we all packed in an Ikea shopping bag and it was fabulous! We just labeled each bag with our initial in order to tell them apart.

The day before we left, we told the kids what to pack. The packing list is based on the itinerary with specific instructions to not pack more or less than what was on the list.

Here’s an example of our packing list this year:

  • tennis shoes, flip flops
  • bathing suit, pool towel
  • 5 shirts, 5 shorts, 5 underwear, 5 pairs of socks
  • Hat, hoodie, sunglasses
  • Notebook & pen/pencil
  • Bathroom stuff
  • 2 grocery bags

Family road trip

3. Set the rules.

The rules are an important part of the trip. The rules, as well as some of the activities & challenges, provide the unfamiliar opportunities necessary for potential self-discovery and life change.

Our rules this year:

  • 30 minutes of cell phone use a day.
  • No sleeping in the car.
  • Only water to drink {yes, I survived 9 days without coffee!}.
  • Food will be provided as needed.
  • Black sharpie color on our fingernails.
  • Someone has to wear the Cornhusker hat when we’re in the car.

4. Communicate the reason for the rules.

Much like the activities we selected, sometimes self-imposed rules will stretch us outside our comfort zone. The decision for making a rule differs based on participants, length of trip, lodging and activities.

One of the rules on almost all of the trips we’ve taken is no one is allowed to sleep in the car. Why? It forces us to communicate with each other to help each other stay awake.

Family road trip

Why did we paint our fingernails with a black sharpie? Everywhere we stopped someone would ask us, “Why are all of your fingernails painted black?”. It opened a door of communication with them to share about our trip that wouldn’t have necessarily happened without that unique element.

It doesn’t have to be black fingernails. It could be anything you decide. Wear swim goggles around your neck. Wear a bandana around your leg. Carry chopsticks with you and eat every meal with them. Try eating a hamburger with chopsticks! It’s not easy and it’s a hilarious conversation starter!

What if a rule is broken? There are consequences.

For example, if someone falls asleep in the car, no one gets their luggage that night. That may sound harsh, but the lesson learned is lifelong—your decision to _______ (fill in the blank with any broken rule) doesn’t just affect you, it affects the entire group.

Family road trip

5. Reserve your lodging.

The first choice of deciding where to stay depended on if there’s family or friends along the route. This year, we knew that we would be visiting my husband’s family, so two night’s lodging would be free.

Our second choice for lodging is typically a KOA Cabin. All that’s needed is a sleeping bag and a pillow.

Our third choice for lodging is to search Airbnb or HomeAway. Sometimes it’s cheaper than a hotel for our family of 6 and it’s nice to have the option to cook a meal rather than eat out.

Family road trip

6. Set specific challenges for each kid.

With age comes greater responsibility. Our 17 year old was in charge of the money. Our 15 year old kept track of the rules and lessons. Our 12 year old kept a journal of everything that happened. Our 10 year old had to make sure when we were in the car, someone was always wearing the Cornhusker hat.

7. Have a celebratory dinner at the end of the trip.

After enduring all the rules and challenges for 8 straight days, we rewarded the kids with an amazing dinner on the final night of the trip. We took turns going around the table sharing what we’ve learned about ourselves, each other, the places we traveled, and about God.

It’s one of my favorite parts the trip.

Family road trip

A few lessons we learned:

  • Who we put our trust in matters. On this trip, we trusted the 17 year old guide to lead us across the catwalk 830 feet above a river as cars and trucks were passing over our head and shaking the bridge. The theme of trust came up several times during our trip.
  • Sometimes owning an Airbnb is a way to make money and sometimes it’s a way to meet people. Vicki, the Airbnb owner of the guesthouse in Montepelier, Virginia was so kind. She told us that she enjoys meeting the people and hearing their story. If we ever own a guesthouse, we want to be like Vicki. (It reminded me somewhat of the “Westbrook Effect” story in Tsh’s book, At Home in the World!)
  • When you face your fears the reward is usually greater than you anticipated.

If you decide to organize one of these trips, that’s awesome! Please let me know, I’d love to hear about it.

To see more pictures of our trip, you can find them here.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Amy

    I love this! Always looking for future ideas. Our kids are still little, but we’re big roadtrippers and I can’t wait to implement some of these when they get a bit bigger!

  2. Addie

    I love this… our family of 6 loves to travel and Im always looking for new ways to make memories and travel easier. We are taking a 3 day trip for fall break and everyone gets only one backpack and since we are flying, we will have to walk everywhere. I like the black sharpie idea – although its usually introverted me who has a hard time talking to people. I really wish I could find some kind of scavenger hunt for things to do on a trip (get 5 autographs from random people, say “dude” at the end of every sentence for an hour, etc) – so I love the chopsticks idea and might have to incorporate that one

    this is so great, Id love to see more travel posts… 🙂

  3. Rita

    How terrific! Some great ideas for me to ‘borrow’ from you – thank you! I just have to say, I clicked on the link for that bridge you all went on and my stomach hurt – you are a brave bunch!! :o)

    • Caroline TeSelle

      Oh, my legs we’re shaking the first few hundred steps! 🙂

  4. Bev

    Well, maybe they are all used to mom’s rules. I, personally, love relaxing and having a dream or two along the way as well as special snacks only brought out on road trips.

  5. Elizabeth

    Wow, this is inspiring. It’s a real nice way of building bonds with family. Something I’m going to try next year.

  6. Anna

    I love this idea! We do more cross country & international trips than I really want, but maybe we could make some of the necessary trips more fun.

  7. Ekaterina

    bookmarked this article, have to re-read it later again. thank you, many funny points there!

  8. Cheryl Osterhouse

    I love so many things about this! Bless you and your gang!

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