It’s always a lot of work preparing for a trip isn’t it? Some of it can be exciting while other parts just feel like, well, work. When it comes to planning a road trip I prefer to break it down into manageable steps so it’s less intimidating and doesn’t leave me feeling emotionally as if I completed a marathon. In this installment of my 2018 road trip series, “Road Tripping Solo With My Kids” I will be going over the steps I take to prepare for this type of travel. I will detail how I choose a location, figure out a route and lodging, and what I do in the days leading up to departure. Get those maps and travel guides ready because here we go!
Before you can even prepare for a road trip you will need to determine a location. To assist you with this I have created a series of questions t0ask yourself and your kids. I like to involve the kids in the planning process to some extent. This lets them know that they have some involvement and ownership in our road trip, which can be exciting for them. Questions to ask:
- What is your travel style? Do you prefer to relax a little or do you prefer to squeeze in as much as possible? Do you prefer big cities or would you rather get lost in nature? For me, I like to pack the days full of fun activities with a little rest at the around dinner time. And like the name of this blog implies, we far prefer getting lost in nature than being surrounded by buildings and people.
- What is important to you? Is it family time? Exploring and adventure? Food and culture? The list of things you value can be long, but it will affect where you choose to go. For our family we value time together while enjoying authentic experiences where we cultivate a relationship with a destination rather than the touristy highlights. Ultimately we want to get to know the place we are visiting. We do this by exploring the area, chatting with locals, and eating at local restaurants rather than big chains. Being outdoors is also very important. Whether it is hiking, walking neighborhoods, swimming, etc.
- What is your goal with the trip you are planning? Is it seeing national parks? Relaxing? Finding the quirky elements? Traveling with less of an agenda or having a structured agenda? These will determine your route, the pace of your trip, and the stops you make along the way. For this summer’s road trip the goal was to see a several national park properties that we have never been to and checking them off of our national park list, finding some unique stops along the way like hot springs and Wall Drug, and seeing as much as possible in the time we have. There will not be as much relaxing because we have a packed agenda.
Answering these questions will help you determine where you want to go or at least give you some ideas that you can share with your kids. Although these questions are geared for a road trip, you don’t necessarily have to drive to get to your destination. If you prefer big cities with fine dining and culture, you may choose to fly rather than drive, but answering these questions and following the tips in this series may still be of benefit to you.
Once I have an idea of what we want to do I pull out the map and start to flesh out the trip. This summer’s road trip destination is Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota. It would allow us to see new places, introduce the kids and myself to some new states, check off those national parks I had mentioned before, and give us a good dose of nature in a variety of landscapes. A friend of mine had raved about Custer State Park in South Dakota so I knew that would be our home base while visiting Mount Rushmore and where we would spend a chunk of time.
Now that you have a home base it is time to decide on a route. I will use our South Dakota trip as an example of how to create your road trip. We knew we would be driving from California to South Dakota and then back again. Because I will be the only driver on this road trip I also knew I did want to drive the same route there and back. For me a little variety is good. I pulled out our map, atlas (I like this one here), and these books: 1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die, National Geographic Guide to National Parks, and National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways. I start by looking for points of interest that lie along a potential route to our destination and back. I also had a few in mind that have been on my travel bucket list: Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming and a soak in a hot spring. Utah is full of hot springs, so it got added to our travel route. I searched the internet and Instagram for a couple good hot springs that were in the vicinity of our travel route. The getting there at this point had (mostly) been mapped out: California to Nevada to Utah to Wyoming to South Dakota. While researching with my national park book I found some additional national parks and a national monument near Mount Rushmore. Therefore Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument were added to our Mount Rushmore itinerary and we would be able to cross those off our national park list. I also picked up a couple South Dakota travel guides (this one and this one) to help us learn more about what this state has to offer (I was surprised at how much there is to do in the Mount Rushmore state!) Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic park would be there own destination on this trip with a couple days dedicated to that part of South Dakota. This final location would end our time in South Dakota and I would now have to map out our route home.
As I mentioned earlier, I need a little variety. Honestly, I just needed to see some other part of Nevada. We have done that monotonous Highway 80 trip far too many times and I was determined to not see it twice this summer. Therefore we would be coming home via Highway 50, aka “the loneliest highway”, which was also on my travel bucket list. Now it was back to my map to plan how we would get from South Dakota to Highway 50 in Nevada. Using my maps and travel guides I decided a stopover in Rocky Mountain National Park would be a good bet. It got added to the list. Originally we were going to head to Dinosaur National Monument, but then I decided we could see a lot more national parks and monuments (which are part of our answers to questions two and three) if we moved our route south to Moab. Now we would be stopping at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado National Monument, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Great Basin National Park. I used all of these points of interest to map out a route home.
While mapping out a road trip I use Google Maps to find out estimated travel time from destination to destination as well as mileage. This way I am able to determine where we should stop for the night. I know how many hours/miles I am comfortable driving and it is different for every person, but please be realistic about what you can do. My first road trip I far overestimated how much of a road warrior I was and it was a brutal lesson. That trip I drove from the San Francisco bay are to McMinnville, Oregon. 621 miles, which ended up being close to 12 hours with bathroom breaks and food stops. I vowed never to do that again when I am the only driver.
Now that we have created a route it’s good to start deciding on lodging and scenic attractions along the way. When deciding on lodging there are some questions you need to ask yourself:
- What type of accommodations are you looking for? Do you want a five star hotel? A roadside motel? Camping? Glamping? Something unique? I typically do a combination of motels, glamping, and unique lodging. This will be the first road trip where we also throw a tent into the mix.
- If you opt for camping, glamping, or that unique location some considerations to think about… Do you have to shower every day? Are you OK with the labor involved with camping like pitching a tent, cooking, doing dishes, etc.? Will doing those extra tasks interfere with your travel agenda? Do you have the needed supplies or are you willing to purchase them if you don’t?
- Are you willing to sacrifice some modern day comfort for that unique lodging? For example, when we overnighted in a tipi outside of Glacier National Park we knew we would be sacrificing a comfortable bed for a once in a lifetime experience. We also knew the bathroom was a bit of a trek so late night potty runs would be inconvenient. Set realistic expectations of what you are willing to deal with and what you don’t want to live without.
- What are the ages of your kids? Are some of these options not yet feasible due to their ages? I can’t imagine throwing a tent into the mix when my son was younger. I would have had to watch him while pitching a tent and filling an air mattress. He has always been my
crazybusy child and it would have been far too stressful when he was younger. As a result we opted for the rustic cabins or yurts because that was what was needed at the time. Now I feel he is old enough to help, although at times it feels more like hindering.
For this trip we are opting for the tent, a couple hotels, glamping in rustic cabins (no bathrooms in our cabins but we have electricity and beds), a tipi, and a yurt in a state park. With the camping, the yurt, and the tipi we won’t always have access to showers or toilets with running water (that means a vault toilet which is a fancy way of saying outhouse.) I was willing to sacrifice some amenities for a night or two in favor of experiences and scenery. For example the campground in Utah may not have showers, but we can hike to their breathtaking hot springs and I felt it was an equitable trade off. Same for our tipi and yurt experiences. In the Badlands there temperatures can get hot and there can be random heavy hitting storms I knew I wanted access to air conditioning and to be off the ground in case of rain. Moab in July demands air conditioning so there was no way I was going to go without electricity. I also wanted a pool in case it was too hot to hike mid day.
Now you have your major destinations, your route, an idea of what types of lodging you want. How do you find lodging? I use a combination of resources: TripAdvisor, Road Trippers, and some of our favorite travel guides that can found here. TripAdvisor gives you the option to filter by hotel, B&Bs/Inns, and specialty lodging which I like because that allows me to find something different than a hotel or motel. Road Trippers has a similar option but breaks them down into additional categories. I also use these two websites for their user’s reviews. While not every guest will be happy, I believe that if a hotel has consistent complaints about the same issue it’s a reasonable assumption that this is a problem. I also look at how many reviews they have. If their reviews number in the several hundreds to over a thousand, chances are there are going to be some negative reviews because some people can never be pleased. The reviews that bring me hesitation are when there are only a few because I am not sure that a handful of reviews paint an accurate picture of what the accommodations are like. I will touch more on lodging in a future post dedicated to traveling safely while solo with the kids.
In addition to finding lodging both TripAdvisor and RoadTrippers offer advice and reviews on attractions along the way. I use both sites for this in addition to Instagram and Pinterest. With Instagram I would just look for hashtags of places we wanted to visit. If quirky is what you are looking for my cousin raves about Road Side America. Plus there is a good old fashioned Google search or asking friends on Facebook. A Google and Instagram search was how I found this summer’s hot springs and asking on Facebook was a valuable resource when we traveled to Washington DC. I also refer to my travel guides for things to do. I use both the guides I mentioned earlier and destination specific.
Your trip and route have been planned, your reservations made, attractions are lined up, and it is a month before you leave how do you prepare? I start my lists and keep them with me in my bullet journal so I can jot down items as they pop into my mind. The initial list is separated into two columns: Things to Bring and Things to Buy. On my Things to Bring list I include clothes, toiletries, supplies needed if we are camping or glamping, items to keep us busy like iPads or games, travel guides/maps/atlas, and anything else that comes to mind. For my Things to Buy list it is all about groceries, any supplies we don’t have on hand, books for the kids, clothes, etc. As we get closer to our departure I will share more about our lists and break them down into further categories.
One other essential item I have for road trips is the travel binder. In it I have hard copies of all of our reservations, our route, and a daily break down with suggested activities and restaurants. I like to be organized that way. Paperless is great until you lose wifi or cell service, drop your phone in water (done that!), etc. The binder is also great for the kids. Mine are always asking questions about how far away our next stop is, what are we going to do, what hikes are we going to go on, etc. With the travel binder they have a physical reference to look at to answer most of their questions.
I hope this installment of the 2018 road trip series has answered some of your questions. If not please reach out to us here. We love answering your questions and assisting others with their travels! In the meantime follow us along on this summer’s travels on our Instagram page @thatnaturefamily! Happy and safe travels everyone!