Road Trips with Kids: Save Money. See the World!

Skip the stress of the strict timelines that come with air travel. Our tips will help you make it happen.

Amanda Bindel, Toca Magazine Writer

My kids are 10 and 6 and have never been on a plane! We live in Texas and have traveled to Chicago, Disneyland, Florida beaches and to visit out-of-state family across the United States — all by car.

Road-tripping for a family is less expensive than flying certainly, but it also gives us the chance to see the world — or at least the parts we can drive to. We don’t have the stress of being on a strict timeline to catch flights and connections, and we’re not subject — quite as much at least — to delays caused by weather or mechanical issues. (We were delayed due to wintry weather on one road trip, but rather than being stuck in an airport, our tiny Texans enjoyed playing in more snow than they’d seen in their lives.)

Making the most of family road trips does require some thought.

  • 1. Get more bang for your buck. Consider joining a museum near you that participates in a reciprocal membership program and plan some stops along the way or near your destination. Our annual museum membership is $150 and we visit often. It also gets us into other science museums for free and into children’s museums for half-price. On a trip to visit family in Alabama, we went to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The docent who checked us in, in the much shorter membership line no less, announced to everyone around, “This family just saved $100 because they joined an ASTC museum in their hometown.”
  • 2. Refuel wisely. You’ll need to stop for gas and food, so try to space out stops for gas and times to eat so that you’re getting out of the car at least every two or three hours to give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and make a pit stop. Don’t rely just on convenience store snacks and fast food, though. Large grocery stores usually have nice, clean bathrooms and fresh, ready-made foods that you can eat on the road. It also gives the kids a chance to observe similarities and differences in local cultures and makes for fun people-watching for the adults.
  • 3. Be prepared. I recently took a 17-hour road trip with my husband and kids, and along with the basics like snacks, water bottles and several fully charged electronic devices (loaded different movies and apps), we took a few extras I’ve found to be handy:
    • Portable potty seat. I bought one of these when my younger daughter was potty training, but I held on to it and it now lives in the back of the SUV. We’ve needed it on many road trips when nature’s call couldn’t wait for the next rest area or gas station.
    • Empty plastic grocery bags. Though these bags are banned where we live, I still manage to get one every now and then and make sure I tuck it away in the glove compartment. They’re handy for gathering the trash that accumulates between stops as well as if a kid gets sick in the car. They can also be used along with the potty seat mentioned above.
    • Wet wipes. We strive not to use many disposables at home, but on the road, I stock up on wipes. They come in handy to quickly wash hands before or after a snack, to clean up after one of those unplanned bathroom stops, or to clean up any other road trip messes.
  • 4. Be spontaneous. Planning is great, but leave a little wiggle room for spur-of-the-moment stops. You don’t have to stop at every tourist trap advertised on billboards, but go for it if you see one that appeals to your family. On a trip through Kansas, we saw “Abraham Lincoln Museum: 75 miles,” so we went a bit out of our way and had a fabulous time. Our kids now talk about President Lincoln as if they know him personally.
  • 5. Be tourists. Most states have a welcome center within a few miles of the state line with a sign for that state, just for tourist pictures.

Above all, have fun together! What are your must-haves or must-dos for family road trips?

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