You can prepare for months like we did, plotting and planning and thinking of every possible situation, but until you get out there on the road with your kids, it’s all hypothetical.
Most everything we had intended to do on our road trip did actually happen, which is a feat onto itself, but not everything happened perfectly. Here are some of the lessons we learned during our epic cross-country family road trip. May these guide you and your family when you’re ready to go coast to coast with kids!
Use Up the Downtime You Planned
If you’ve built downtime into your schedule – a whole day or even just a few hours of relaxation — do that! Because afterward, when you’re back behind the wheel staring at a few hundred more miles of highway, you’ll regret not maximizing the opportunity you had to unwind.
Schedule Enough Time to See Friends and Family
If you have Facebook friends or other long lost acquaintances in the areas you’re planning to visit, be prepared to not see them for any significant period of time… or at all. I have so many dad blogger buddies who live in the greater L.A. area and I saw only two of them — the one who kindly let us crash at his Burbank home and another who so graciously stopped by with his family to say hello on his way to his Hollywood TV gig. Not reconnecting with the people I respect, admire and enjoy the company of is my biggest regret of the entire trip.
Get a National Parks Pass
Invest in the National Parks Pass. It set us back $80 before the trip started, but after visits to Yosemite, Bryce, Zion, Arches, Mono Lake, and Colorado National Monument, it ended up saving us over $40, and will ultimately save us even more as we use our pass for the next 11 months!
Download Music and Podcasts Before the Trip
If you use Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music or podcast streaming, be sure to download some listening material directly to your device before you hit one of the many dead cell patches that exist from coast to coast!
Pack Reusable Water Bottles
Bring your own reusable water bottles. All of the national parks and many urban spots have refill stations that’ll save you money and help a little bit to save the planet.
Invest in Memorable Souvenirs
Find something you love in every place you visit to enjoy while there, collect for later, or both. My wife and I love really good craft root beer so we sought out the local brews, sipped each (hers chilled or with ice cream, mine at room temperature so I could taste all those rich flavors) and collected them, too, to enjoy with our friends in California. By the time we reached the left coast, we’d amassed a full case to share!
Choose a Sturdy Vehicle
Pick the right vehicle! We went with a Toyota Sienna because of the reliability of the brand (important for drives over 12,000-foot mountains and through the 117 Fahrenheit temperatues of Death Valley!) and also because a minivan affords us tons of space inside while still being nimble enough to navigate national parks and big cities alike. That’s something an RV just cannot do.
Embrace the Unexpected
When the opportunity for an “off track” adventure presents itself, grab it with both hands! My youngest daughter’s second grade teacher had a habit of going off track, and the kids loved it. She’d lose the plot mid-lesson and wind up teaching the class far more than was ever intended, plus they would have so much fun! This is true of road trips as well. Take a local route, like 128 in Utah, and find an accessible point to get your feet wet in the Colorado River, or pull over for a strange desert sculpture park; in short, make time to do the unexpected. Your kids will remember those moments above all else you do on your road trip.
Consider a One-Way Trip
Finally, consider making your cross-country journey a one-way affair. Sure, the rental car companies hefty one-way drop off fee is a bitter pill to swallow, but driving only one coast to coast leg will afford you more time in each place and take away the dread of having to turn around and go back. Beware, though, of the stuff you put in the car and accumulate along the way, for all of that must then get into bags and onto an airplane! We ended up buying a seventh piece of luggage to bring back with us all the books, toys, souvenirs and our kids’ rocks-from-the-entire-country collections.
Follow the Bogle Family’s Road Trip:
Touring Indiana With Kids
A Weekend in Denver With Kids
48 Hours in St. Louis With Kids
Seeing Southern Utah for the First Time
Death Valley, Yosemite and a Hollywood Ending to a Cross-Country Road Trip
— Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an at-home dad of two pre-tween daughters. He writes about parenthood, family travel and all things childhood on his site OutWithTheKids.com. He considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world. Jeff also writes for PBS.