When we first announced to friends that we were embarking on a month-long family road trip, most had the same reaction: “31 days in a car with two kids?!” Admittedly, we also questioned whether we could do it. But for my wife and me, sharing moments with our two children trumps other activities, so the opportunity to use our time off to help them build new memories was a no-brainer.
My wife has often referred to our 6,395-mile journey as our “technology road trip,” and I think that’s an accurate description given how we incorporated technology into every step of the process. From planning the trip and booking accommodations along the way, to keeping friends and family updated with a live blog, and, finally, creating a coffee-table photo book keepsake for our children, we relied on an abundance of free Web sites and tools – and some electronic gadgets we already use everyday – that helped to make our Great American Road Trip both memorable and enjoyable.
Here are some tips, tricks and tools from our 31-day road trip across the Western U.S. that can help you plan your next driving vacation with children, save you money, and make sharing your adventure with family and friends fun and easy.
1. Plot the trip. Using Google Maps, we were able to plan out distances and driving times to determine what drives were achievable, and where we needed to plan overnights and book rooms. We set an initial guideline of four driving hours and/or 250 miles daily, and then planned our trip around sites we wanted to see and cities we wanted to visit.
2. Book rooms. Start by reading the reviews and discussions at Yelp.com and TripAdvisor.com – consider the feedback of others in their communities before booking your trip, and remember to join and participate afterwards by authoring your own reviews.
We next began cashing in our available travel and hotel chain points – we earned the points, so we used them for four-star rooms in the biggest cities on our trip, cities where we wanted to stay downtown for proximity to sites.
For the rest of the trip, we used Hotwire as a tool to hone in on price ranges for various cities and neighborhoods – knowing the discounted rates helped us budget whether posted room rates were in line with what we should expect to pay. Where location was important or specific arrival dates certain, we booked rooms through hotel chain’s sites directly – cross-checking on Expedia to make certain the prices were consistent – and always checking for AAA discounts.
Otherwise, we used both Hotwire and Priceline to book next-day and sometimes same-day rooms in cities along our route. Although these sites don’t provide you with the hotel names until after purchase, forums like BetterBidding.com helped us identify the hotels, so we always knew what we were “buying.”
3. Make a technology checklist. You’ve spent hundreds of dollars on music players, video recorders and other portable devices – now’s the time to make use of them. We went through our drawers, cabinets and kids’ rooms and came up with the following items that we took on our road trip:
- Laptop computer.
- Digital camera.
- Video recorder.
- GPS unit. We have a Magellan Maestro 4350, with the AAA Tourbook information built into it.
- XM Skyfi radio. We long ago chose the portable unit over a permanent in-car subscription so we can move it between cars and use it in the home. We listened to a lot of talk, sports and entertainment radio all along the trip.
- Portable DVD player. Perhaps the best road trip invention EVER, the children passed some of the time watching movies and keeping themselves entertained. Part of our four-hour driving limit factored in time for one movie per leg, our children alternating choices throughout the trip.
- Small lantern. Useful for the kids during our night stretches.
- Our children do not have a portable gaming device; in our family, video gaming is a social activity. Our kids do have Leapsters, and our 4-year-old brought his on the trip for car “alone” time only.
4. Rent a van. We rented a Toyota Sienna minivan, and removed the middle row seats – the children sat comfortably in the third row. Not only did this give our children some room to stretch out on the floor (uh, when stopped, that is), but it put a few extra feet between the parents and offspring, something our sedan didn’t offer. I used my AAA membership and landed a great deal directly on Hertz’s Web site … however, I continued to check prices on Priceline, Hotwire and other sites, and phoned my “local,” off-airport rental car branches right up until the night of our trip, just to make sure we were getting the best deal.
Also, I’m going to suggest something I wouldn’t ordinarily suggest: Strongly consider paying for the rental company’s “walk away” insurance coverage. I know, I know … it’s a rip-off. And for business or short trips, I don’t even consider this option. But for your looong family road trip, consider this to be “peace of mind” coverage that can eradicate your worries about road damage, scratches, spilled coffee … those small things that can add up.
5. Set up a road trip blog. Here’s where you make use of that camera phone … Although I use WordPress here, I created a road trip blog on Blogger.com (using my Google account), because I found it easier to send and post quick pictures and short texts via e-mail using my Blackberry. (Google explains the process here.) For us, writing brief updates about our day and sharing quick snapshots was a fun way to help memorialize the trip for the future, and receiving comments back from our family and friends was a treat for the kids – they loved hearing from Grandma, their school friends and cousins all along the road.
Give your blog a fun, memorable URL and share the link with your friends in the 2-3 weeks before you leave. Cross-posting your blog on your Facebook page also can be a good idea, depending on your privacy settings and concerns.
6. Outfit the car. Invest in enough 12V adapters, splitters and extension cords for the car to power your DVD player, satellite radio, and other devices. We found a 20-foot extension cord on eBay that enabled us to run power to the DVD player to the rear outlet of the minivan, freeing up the front outlets for other items. My wife made special backpacks for each of the kids, filled with books, car activities, and other surprises. Each kid packed a second backpack with toys and other items from home, and they carried their pillows from car to hotel room every night.
We packed an array of snacks, stopping for grocery runs every few days to get a new variety. We used an ice chest keep items cold and a clear file box to store the snacks.
Another tip: Be prudent about driving at night. I prefer to drive at night, but for our children, we tried to keep them on a regular schedule as best we could – which meant being checked into hotel rooms by dinner time. In 24 days of driving, we night-drove only three times, using the cover of darkness to chew up time along stretches of highway with little scenery or few possible stops.
7. Self-publish a keepsake book. The digital camera never left our side on our road trip, as we snapped more than 1,200 pictures in 31 days. We will edit and print out a few family photos from the trip to adorn our home. But using BookSmart software from Blurb.com, I quickly and easily organized a photo book of 400+ snaps from the Antonette U.S. Tour 2009, dropping and dragging files into a variety of page layouts. Additionally, I used BookSmart to import our road trip blog, creating a second photo book of camera phone photos and diary logs. The whole project took me about 4 hours; the 120-page photo book cost less to produce than printing the same number of photos, and has been easy to share with friends and family.