Mapping out your family road trip

Where are you heading?

We typically like to road trip to a family friendly destination where we can spend at least 4 nights before heading back home to break up the long days in the car. Beach communities and mountain retreats are our favorites but trips to Grandma’s house or a buzzy city like Los Angeles work well, too. No matter where you’re heading, road tripping your way there allows you the flexibility to explore the country, making getting there a major part of your family fun. 

To start, map out your destination and plan for no more than 7 hour stretches in the car on each segment of the trip. We’ve definitely pushed the limits of how many hours we can pack into a leg of the trip and have gone as high as 10-11… but it steals the fun out of the stopover destination. That allows you a few hours to explore each destination upon arrival, time for a nice dinner and an early bedtime so you’re fresh for the next day of travel. Depending on how old your kids are, factor in plenty of restroom stops, and an hour break for lunch. Aim to stay each night in a destination town–If you haven’t heard of the town, you may want to keep on driving–where you can get out and really experience the flavor of whatever part of the country you find yourself in. With cross-country trips, the scenery and community culture changes drastically from day to day, so it’s a treat for your entire family to take advantage of this and indulge in local cuisine and sightseeing. 

Plan your budget

Even while driving, the expenses can add up. It may be cheaper than buying airfare for the entire family, but you have to plan for hotel stays, gas, food and activities along the way. Trust me, hotel gift shops can be a pricey place with kids in tow! Research hotels in your destination towns and find something close to the highway, if possible. Renovated retro motels are a great new experience we are really into these days. They feature fantastic designs, plenty of cool amenities, are typically right off the highway (that’s what motor lodges were built for, after all) and often feature family friendly rooms with bunk beds. SCORE! Factor in the total cost of your hotel, including taxes and onsite parking fees, if any, while creating your budget, as those extra costs are easy to overlook. 

Hotel restaurants and room service tend to be overpriced, so venture off-site whenever possible to save on your budget and get a better taste of the local community. One of the great perks of a road trip is you have total flexibility and your car to get out and explore. 

When you plan for your final destination stay, we love booking family suites in retro motels. So many motels are being renovated today into mini apartment style set-ups featuring kitchens, multiple bedrooms and on-site laundry. The cost per night is comparable to a standard hotel, but the benefit of having more space to spread out is really worth it. We used to book AirBnB’s almost exclusively, but found the quality of rentals was hit or miss, and the fees really upped our out of pocket costs. We also love having the added amenities of a cool motor lodge to explore. 

Keep the drive interesting

For your return trip, consider a different route to keep the scenery fresh. On our recent trip from Dallas to Los Angeles, our route was: 

  • Dallas, TX to Albuquerque, NM
  • Albuquerque, NM to Flagstaff, AZ
  • Flagstaff, AZ to Las Vegas, NV (a slight detour)
  • Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, CA

For our return trip to Dallas, we made a last minute call to switch it up so our youngest daughter could see the types of cactus she was dreaming of. Our return route was:

  • Los Angeles, CA to Tuscon, AZ (with a breakfast stop in Palm Springs, CA)
  • Tuscon, AZ to Marfa, TX (another slight detour)
  • Marfa, TX to Dallas, TX

Google Maps is a great tool for planning your route and allows you to add stops easily so you can calculate the distance and time on each leg of your trip. 

Stick to major highways whenever possible, especially if driving in winter weather conditions. On the topic of weather, remember even if your ultimate destination is a sunny 65 degrees, you may have to cross mountains to get there and the temperatures can fluctuate greatly. Check the local weather forecast for each day of the trip where you will be and pack clothes and outerwear appropriate for each destination. When we hit Flagstaff, AZ, it was snowing and -1 degrees the morning we left.  Not exactly the California weather we were ultimately heading for, but we had so much fun on arrival building a snowman and playing in the winter wonderland. 

Call your hotel ahead of time and ask about road conditions if you suspect they may be compromised by weather events. You may need to plan to have chains available for your car if crossing a snowy pass. 

Family friendly places to stay

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