Having NEVER in my life planned a trip as extensive as our cross country trip to the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Nashville and more, I wasn’t sure what to expect from our children – ranging from 5 to 14 years old – or us. Being away from our house for 2 1/2 weeks was a stretch – especially considering we work from home AND homeschool. But it was so amazing. Read the first post about our adventure here. We had a fantastic time and created memories that will last a lifetime. And we learned some things about each other on the trip – some good, some not. Here are my tips for surviving YOUR road trip.
Have a Plan
For months leading up to the trip, I used TripAdvisor, various books and other websites to find the “must sees” in each destination city. I searched free or cheap experiences because our time was so limited in each city. Taking in shows or going to theme parks would be major time and money suckers, so we chose parks, zoos, and quick-visit museums. I made a list of cheesy Route 66 stops along our Route 66 leg of the trip. The Blue Whale of Catoosa and the Blue Hole of Sata Rosa were short detours off the highway and worth the stop. We would have missed them withoug some research beforehand. Check out my tips for planning here.
Amend the Plan When Needed
Having a plan is necessary for a long trip with kids, but willingness to change a plan is equally necessary. I originally wanted to visit the Pioneer Woman’s General Store in Pawhuska. It was only an hour off of our route but would have meant an exhausting long day. And after a negative hotel experience, I really didn’t want to further taint that portion of the trip. So instead, we spent some time at the Gathering Place in Tulsa and it was amazing. It was on my “maybe” list and it was an excellent way to spend an hour (though we could have stayed much longer) instead of the 5+ hours the trip to Pawhuska would have taken.
Throw Out the Plan If Necessary
Some poor planning had us arrive in Keystone, SD much later than intended. Realizing we wouldn’t be able to fit Mt. Rushmore in and still arrive at our next destination before it was super late, we changed our plan. We siezed the moment, scooped up the exhausted kids, and headed to see the presidents’ mugs that night instead of cramming it into the next day. It was one of the best memories of the whole trip. Our youngest, who’d been a total grouch for a couple days, was so excited to see the monument. We read a Curious George book leading up to the trip and he was amazed to make the connection. Definitely a detour worth the time.
We scratched a visit to the Grand Ole Opry on the final stop of our trip and instead stayed and enjoyed the serenity of the state park where we rented a cabin. It was so peaceful and a great place to decompress before returning home and resuming life as usual. No regrets.
Set Realistic Expectations
Our cross country trip plan covered a lot of ground. A LOT. This meant long days of driving for us and riding for our kiddos. Our cooler filled with snacks and drinks allowed us to go farther without stopping, but with 6 separate bladders on board, they weren’t always synced up well. The itinerary had to be flexible. Also, when given 8 hours in an unfamiliar city, it was unreasonable to think we could do 12 different things. No matter how many “See the city in 2 hours” posts I read, imagining OUR family accomplishing that was unappealing. At each stop, we chose 1 or 2 “must do” activities and had a list of several restaurants to choose from – depending on where we were geographically when hunger hit. Some unrealistic expectations left us disappointed, but some resulted in happy surprises.
Embrace the Cheese
Since our trip covered a portion of the Historic Route 66, we expected a great deal of cheesy, tourist traps. We certainly weren’t disappointed. I found it a little disheartening reading scathing reviews of some of the attractions. Touristy places are SUPPOSED to be a little kitschy. We were looking for that! We expected to be a little underwhelmed by some of the quality of food and entertainment. We were pleasantly surprised in some places, though. The Big Texan in Amarillo was a super experience from start to finish. From the delicious steaks to the sweet, homeschooled waitress and the huge gift shop to the shooting gallery, we were pleased as punch. We stood on the corner in Winslow, Arizona and a rode a train held up at gunpoint to the Grand Canyon. It was part of the fun.
Beef Up Your Connection
We traveled with our road atlas. It came in handy so often. But, our cell phones and internet access saved the day a couple of times. Many occasions called for amended plans on the fly. My husband’s hot spot for work helped out many times as well. Parts of Utah and Wyoming, we had no coverage, but for most of our trip, we had the ability to search options. TripAdvisor and Yelp were among our top resources. At one point, we realized how close we were to a state border and added it to our list of states visited. A quick internet search found us a yummy dinner joint! It’s still one of our most talked about restaurants.
No one in our family had been to most of the planned destinations on this cross country trip, so we speculated about our experience. Around every corner, was surprise after surprise. I assumed our kids would fight in the car. Surprise – they didn’t. They entertained themselves beautifully – balancing self-play with interactive play. It was amazing.
Research told me the average temperatures for all the cities in our path. Surprise – we hit unexpected snow in Arizona that followed us to South Dakota. Thankfully, we found warmer clothes along the way. We knew the Grand Canyon would be stunning. Surprise – due to a snowy, foggy start to one day, we observed fog pour out of it like a cauldron and saw the most stunning views any of us ever imagined. We knew we’d have fun. Surprise – we had an experience we’ll all remember for a lifetime.
Mark the Journey
I’m not a tchotchke person. For souvenirs, I prefer family photos of the events/trips/experiences/etc. However, this trip was different. I wanted something to remember it by. Instead of picking up mementos in every state, I opted to mark the journey with matching t-shirts. I designed them and had them printed through Zazzle using some of our souvenir budget. Each family member proudly wore and colored the shirt along the 17 state journey. Money well spent.
The kids also all had cameras to capture moments along the way. It was fun to see the trip through their eyes. They had some hilarious videos from the van, too. They each had their own souvenir money from friends and grandparents and picked up stuffed animals, toys, shirts, and more from the journey.
Make it Work for You
This final section mostly applies to homeschooling families. One BEAUTIFUL thing about this trip is how it impacted our school year. We concluded our book work prior to heading out, but it was one magnificent field trip after another and we banked an additional 15 days while we were gone. What a spectacular finish to our school year! Around every corner was a sight to behold and a lesson to teach. The National Parks had Junior Ranger programs with workbooks related to the individual parks. It was a super learning experience.
Our family is already looking forward to the next road trip. It was a beautiful experience and it changed us all. I hope these tips help you and your family create the same kind of memories!
Do you have any tips for road trippers? If so, comment below!