Embarking on a road trip spanning over 5000 miles from St Louis to Northern Washington with kids aged 6 and 3-year-old twins might sound like a daunting task.
That is over 70 hours in a vehicle with three little kids!
But that is exactly what we did.
This journey taught me valuable lessons on saving money and keeping the kids entertained.
The key was to utilize the kids’ energy as our guide, letting their moods dictate when and where we would stop.
This article will walk you through tips to make your road trips easier, and more affordable.
Table of Contents
Going With the Flow
Instead of sticking to a rigid schedule, I kept the itinerary fluid. This is different than my usual planning. On trips I like to identify many things to do, and then hope to do a few.
This time around I let go of that. In fact, I didn’t plan anything. I did no research. I knew there was a lot to do in this country and I just winged it.
This allowed us to plan our stops around what there was to do in the next two hours.
By focusing on their moods rather than our schedule, we managed to keep the “are we there yet?” questions to a minimum.
Seriously, in over 70 hours of driving, the kids asked “are we there yet” less than 10 times.
They didn’t once ask to go home, or throw a fit to get out of their car seats.
How To Find Things To Do On A Family Road Trip
One of the best tips I can give any parent embarking on a long car journey with kids is to keep Google Maps open all the time.
It’s not just for directions but also a fantastic resource for seeking out fun, educational, and most importantly, energy-burning activities along your route.
Whenever the kids started to get a bit feisty, I would simply search for terms like “parks”, “things to do”, “playground”, “free things”, “rest stops”, “state park”, “free swimming”, and so on.
This way, I always knew what there was to do within the next hour or two.
You’d be surprised at the number of hidden gems you can uncover this way.
From sprawling state parks perfect for a picnic and a run-around to intriguing local museums that offer free entry, there’s a wealth of kid-friendly attractions right at your fingertips.
Another brilliant feature of Google Maps is its ability to help kids follow the journey in real-time.
It engages them in a fun and educational way, turning the dreaded “Are we there yet?” into excited observations about the changing landscapes, towns, and cities we were passing through.
This interactive element not only kept them entertained but also sparked their interest in geography.
The result? Instead of feeling like they were stuck in the backseat, my kids felt like they were active participants in our adventure.
We managed to stop frequently, well before the usual cries of “I need to get out!”
And these breaks at interesting locations turned the journey itself into a significant part of our vacation, rather than just a means to an end.
So, if you’re planning a long car ride with your kids, give this method a try. It turned our road trip into a fun-filled exploration and can do the same for you!
Wear The Kids Out So They Don’t Wear You Out
One thing I really wanted to do was keep the kids from getting bored. I made a point to get them out of the van once a day and go for a hike.
The hikes gave the kids a chance to see something different. The difference in hikes in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington are something they will never forget.
They can read about these states all day, or watch YouTube’s, but now they have a sense for them.
Plus, the hikes wore the kids out and let me stretch a bit. They were only two miles, but they were life changing.
Keeping Kids Engaged During Long Car Rides
Long car rides can be challenging, especially for young children. Here are some activities that worked wonders for us:
- I Spy and Guess in 10: These classic games kept the kids engaged and excited. They’re simple enough for even the youngest to participate and don’t require any extra materials.
- Etch A Sketch: This magic screen provided hours of creative fun without creating a mess.
- Pockets: We filled pockets behind the front seats with small toys, books, and coloring materials. These were easily accessible and kept the kids occupied.
- Hoopla and Library Books: We borrowed audiobooks and eBooks from the local library through Hoopla. It kept the kids entertained and was a great way to incorporate learning into our adventure.
- Coloring Books: Our kids are still young, so coloring books worked wonders. I knew that the kids would drop crayons, so I made a lot of baggies with crayons in them. It was easier to give them small bags of crayons than to deal with fighting with them while driving trying to help them pick up a color they dropped and can’t reach.
Road Trip Games For Kids
Here are some free and purchasable road trip games for kids:
Free Games For Road Trips:
- I Spy: A classic game where one player describes something they can see and others have to guess what it is.
- 20 Questions: One person thinks of something, and the rest have 20 questions to figure out what it is.
- License Plate Game: Try to find a license plate from each state.
- Alphabet Game: Find an object that starts with each letter of the alphabet, in order.
- Storytelling Game: One person starts a story with a sentence, and each person adds on.
- Car Bingo: Make a list of things you might see on a road trip (like a red barn, a horse, a semi-truck, etc.) and the first person to spot all the items wins.
- Would You Rather: Pose difficult choices and have fun discussing.
Games You Can Buy For Family Road Trips
- Travel Scavenger Hunt Card Game: This card game challenges you to find various road trip sights.
- Spot It! On The Road: A travel-themed version of the popular Spot It! game.
- Mad Libs on the Road: Fill in the blanks to create hilarious road trip stories.
- Rubberneckers: Everyone’s Favorite Travel Game: A game full of mini-challenges and tasks for car trips.
- Hangman – Take ‘n’ Play Anywhere Game: Magnetic pieces make this classic game perfect for the car.
- Road Trip Trivia: Test your knowledge with questions about geography, history, and culture.
- Melissa & Doug Flip to Win Travel Memory Game: This wooden board game is great for younger children.
- Regal Games Travel Bingo 4 Packs: A classic Bingo game with a travel twist.
Remember to consider the age and interests of the children when selecting games. Some games may be more appropriate for older children, while others are great for all ages.
Also bring games on the road trip that you can play with the kids, games that the kids can play each other, and games they can play by themselves.
Another tip is to be careful what games you bring on a road trip. Our kids are young. That meant constantly cleaning up piles of cards.
Be mindful of whether the games can be played if a piece is lost or dropped. Avoid that battle.
Get The Kids Out Of The Car
Kids are trapped. They get tired of being in the van. Parents are in control. In a way it isn’t fair to the kids.
Imagine someone else driving you somewhere and you have no feel for how much longer, and you have no say in when you can get out of your seat. It’s tough for the kids!
Asking “are we there yet” and “how much longer” is harder on them then it is on you. They want out. So get them out.
I already mentioned hikes. But take any excuse to get them out. See the country.
At one point they asked me to put “Mary Poppins in”. I looked over and saw a lake on the side of the highway surrounded by canyons.
So I pulled over and let them swim. We will never forget it. But when they are older they will forget they wanted to watch Mary Poppins.
I also pulled over to have picnics with them. It kept the van cleaner, but more importantly it gave them a break from being trapped in the van.
At one point the kids were getting feisty on the long road trip. So I pulled over at a rest stop for 15 minutes and threw a frisbee around.
It recharged them.
Instead of getting frustrated with them for hours, just pull over and reset the situation.
Road Trip Snacks and Meals On-the-go
Preparing road trip snack bags ahead of time proved to be both a money saver and a lifesaver.
Trail mix (with a few M&Ms thrown in for good measure), dried fruits, fig bars, and granola bars were some of our favorites.
Foods that don’t spill were key to keeping the car clean. We shopped at Costco for bulk items and kept a small soft cooler in the front with ice blocks that could be refrozen in hotels.
I packed a variety of snacks into sandwich bags. Then whenever the kids would get feisty or ask for food, I would let them know their options.
There are three kids, so I made sure I had three of everything, so they wouldn’t war over what a sibling had.
I also packed some road trip snacks within arm’s length of them. That way they could self-serve.
Road Trip Snack Ideas
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Rice cakes
- Dried fruit
- Almonds, cashews, peanuts
- Dark chocolate
- Beef or turkey jerky
- Veggie chips
- Baked sweet potato chips
- Mini sandwiches with peanut butter and jelly
- Cheese sticks
- Whole grain cereal
- Sunflower seeds
- Fruit leather
- Roasted chickpeas
- Seaweed snacks
- Protein bars
- Tuna or chicken salad packets
- Whole grain tortilla chips
- Peanut butter crackers
- Oatmeal packets
- Applesauce pouches
- Nut butter pouches
Tips To Help Kids Keep Their Areas Clean When Eating Snacks On a Road Trip
- Use a Snack Catcher: These cups have soft flaps that allow little hands to reach in for snacks without letting the snacks fall out.
- Portable Vacuum: Keep a portable vacuum in the car for quick cleanups.
- Car Seat Protector: Placing one under the car seat can catch crumbs and spills.
- Use Spill-Proof Cups: There are a variety of spill-proof sippy cups and water bottles available.
- Place-mats or Tray Tables: Use these under your child’s snacks to catch any spills and make cleaning easier.
- Wet Wipes: Always handy for quick cleanups and wiping sticky fingers.
- Snack Containers: Use containers with compartments for different snacks to prevent them from mixing and spilling.
- Backseat Organizer: These hang on the back of the front car seats and have several pockets for storing toys, snacks, and other items.
Remember to teach your children the importance of keeping their space clean. Encourage them to put trash in a designated bag and put away their toys and books when they’re done using them.
I Need To Go Pee!
Our kids are still young, so they constantly want milk. I tried to delay giving them milk until within an hour or so of knowing I had to stop.
That way they didn’t need a pee break.
I also pulled over every few hours, so that helped.
Saving Gas with Google Maps
Google Maps was not just useful for finding entertainment options but also for saving gas.
How to Use Google Maps to Monitor Gas Prices and Save Money on Long Trips
When embarking on a long road trip, one of the most significant expenses you’ll encounter is fuel. With gas prices fluctuating from state to state, keeping an eye on the cost per gallon can make a substantial difference in your travel budget.
For instance, if gas prices are $3.20 per gallon in Missouri but over $5.00 per gallon in Washington, planning your refueling stops carefully can save you considerable money.
Here is how to use Google Maps to monitor gas prices along your route.
Step by Step Guide To Use Google Maps To Save on Gas
- Open Google Maps: Start by launching the Google Maps app on your smartphone.
- Enter Your Destination: Type in your destination into the search bar at the top and hit ‘Directions’ to start mapping out your route.
- Look for Gas Stations: Tap on the search bar again and type ‘gas stations.’ This will show all the gas stations along your route.
- Check Prices: Tap on each gas station icon to see the current price per gallon. Google Maps updates these prices regularly, so they should be relatively accurate.
Remember that gas prices can vary significantly from one region to another. By monitoring these prices while on the go, you can plan your refueling stops strategically and potentially save a lot of money.
Potential Savings Using Google Maps
Let’s consider an example. You’re driving a minivan that runs 20 miles per gallon, and you’re traveling 5000 miles from Missouri to Washington.
If you simply refuel whenever you need to, without considering the cost per gallon, you might end up paying the highest price of $5.00 per gallon.
In this scenario, you would need 250 gallons of gas for the entire trip (5000 miles / 20 miles per gallon). If you paid $5.00 per gallon each time, your total gas cost would be $1250.
If you used Google Maps to find cheaper gas along your route, you might be able to pay an average of $4.00 per gallon instead. This would reduce your total gas cost to $1000, saving you $250 on your trip.
The savings could be even more significant if you’re driving a vehicle with lower fuel efficiency.
An RV that only gets 10 miles per gallon would require twice as much gas for the same trip, which means the potential savings from monitoring gas prices would also double.
Using Google Maps to keep track of gas prices along your route is an easy and effective way to reduce your travel costs.
It takes only a few seconds to check prices at each stop, and the potential savings are well worth the effort. Safe travels!
Flexible Accommodation Options
Flexibility was crucial when it came to finding places to stay. Apps like Hotels Tonight were invaluable, allowing us to find last-minute hotel deals based on our location and needs.
At every hotel we stayed at I asked the simple question “Is there any flexibility with that pricing”, and each time I received a large discount.
Do not be afraid to ask for a discount.
Related: How To Get A Cheaper Hotel Room
How To Pack Clothes For A Long Family Road Trip
Embarking on a 5000-mile road trip with kids is no small feat, and the success of such an adventure often hinges on one crucial factor: efficient packing.
Recently, I undertook this challenge and discovered a system that worked wonders for us. It allowed us to be ready for any situation, whether it was a quick dip in a hotel pool or an unexpected overnight stay.
The key to my system was organizing our clothes into several easily accessible bags. Instead of lumping all our clothes together, I divided them according to their purpose and who they belonged to.
This strategy did not only simplify locating items but also made moving in and out of hotels much smoother.
Here’s how I organized our bags:
- Dirty Clothes Bag: This bag was a lifesaver. Instead of mixing dirty clothes with clean ones, we had a dedicated bag where all used garments went. It kept everything else fresh and made laundry days much more manageable.
- Kids Clothes Bag: This held about 3-4 days’ worth of clothes for the little ones. Having this bag within easy reach meant we could quickly change outfits when necessary, without having to rummage through all our luggage.
- Nighttime Stuff Bag: This bag contained everything we needed for bedtime. It included items like diapers, a pee pad, pajamas, and other nighttime essentials. Having this bag readily accessible made our nightly routine far less hectic.
- My Clothes Bag: Similar to the kids’ clothes bag, this contained 3-4 days’ worth of my clothes. Having my items separate made it easier for me to quickly find what I needed.
- Swimming Bag: A dedicated bag for all our swimming gear. This allowed us to enjoy spontaneous swims without the hassle of searching for our swimwear.
However, these weren’t all of our clothes. I had stashed away two more bags of clothes much deeper in our van. One was a backup of my clothes, and the other was an additional set of kids’ clothes.
These were our reserve supplies in case we ran out of the clothes from our accessible bags before reaching a laundry facility.
This system might seem like a lot at first, but it made our long journey significantly more comfortable. It saved us time and stress, making the trip more enjoyable for everyone.
Why Do Laundry On a Road Trip
Doing laundry frequently during a road trip has several benefits that can significantly enhance your travel experience. Many travelers have found value in this practice, and after my recent 5000-mile road trip with kids, I couldn’t agree more.
One of the main advantages of doing laundry on the go is that it allows you to keep a smaller, lighter, and more nimble bag of clothes. By washing your clothes every five days or so, you only need to pack enough outfits for that period, plus a few extras for emergencies.
This reduces the amount of luggage you have to carry around, making your journey less cumbersome and more enjoyable.
Another benefit is that it saves you from the daunting task of tackling a mountain of dirty clothes when you return home.
After a long and tiring trip, the last thing you want to do is spend hours doing laundry. By washing your clothes regularly during the trip, you return home with a suitcase full of clean clothes instead of a heap of laundry.
Furthermore, doing laundry while on the road allows you to bring less stuff. The less you pack, the less cluttered your vehicle will be, giving you and your family more space to stretch out and relax. This also makes it easier to find and access the items you need.
The more space you can save, and the less stuff you have to lug around, the less stressful your trip will be.
It’s a simple change to your travel routine that can make a world of difference. So next time you’re planning a road trip, consider incorporating regular laundry days into your itinerary.
It might require a bit of extra planning and effort, but the benefits are well worth it!
My Secret Weapon To Make Laundry Easier On A Road Trip
Travel laundry can be a hassle, but Earth Breeze dehydrated laundry sheets simplify it. These compact, powerful sheets replace bulky detergent bottles. Just toss one in with your dirty clothes.
They’re lightweight, eco-friendly, and come in recyclable packaging. They made my road trip laundry easy and luggage lighter. Consider them for your next long journey to ease your laundry chore.
In conclusion, this epic road trip taught us that with a little flexibility, planning, and creativity, traveling with kids can be an enjoyable and affordable experience.
Our children were not just passengers on this journey but active participants who helped shape our adventure.
Next Up From ChaChingQueen
Greg is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) with 22+ years experience in Financial Services. He has held numerous FINRA Securities licenses (series 7, 63, 65, and 66), and is an expert on Investment Products and Financial Planning. Greg has 22+ years experience as a real estate investor and degrees in Psychology and Philosophy.
Greg has been quoted/interviewed in Yahoo Money, Yahoo Finance, USA Today, Authority Magazine, Realtor.com, Business Insider, and others.
Greg is an avid runner, and the father to identical twin girls and their awesome brother. His love of budgeting and his kids led him to join The Great Resignation in 2021.
Disclaimer: Any Financial Tips on ChaChingQueen are general and informational. Speak with a professional about your specific situation.