For many years, we didn’t go on very many vacations outside small day trips in our state, or an overnight in Boston or New York. We went to Florida a few times (where my husbands brother and one of his sisters lives), and Washington DC (land of the free activities!), but mostly we stayed around the state and went tent camping in the summer. Last year we decided to try something new – a road trip during spring vacation. And my older boys absolutely loved it. All they can talk about for the past year is where are we going on our next road trip.
Now, planning on going on a road trip is nothing unusual here in the personal finance community, but it seems pretty out of the ordinary where I work. My coworkers are constantly traveling across the US by plane multiple times per year, traveling internationally, going on a cruise, or looking forward to annual trips to Disney World -complete with dining plan. I’m sure these are all lots of fun, but then I also get to hear all about how they can’t possibly save the six percent required to get the 401k match (really? you make six figures!), or are looking for a way to hide their income from the government so they don’t have to pay for their kids college. I’ve learned to smile, nod, and then plan trips that work for my single-income (mine) family of five.
So now begins the planning for the next road trip. We’ve decided to head north this spring vacation, but when you live in Connecticut, I’m finding this might not be the wisest choice. Lots of fun things to see and to do are closed in the spring, because the weather is still very unpredictable. In fact, on our last road-trip it started snowing while we were driving through Pennsylvania! Next year, we should head south or west-or maybe wait for summer.
Getting The Kids Involved
Last year, when we decided to go on our first big road trip together, I wanted to find a way to get the kids involved. And not just in a “talking about the trip” kind of way, but in a way that would let them get really excited about going, and hopefully learn something in the process. Of course, my little guy was under one year old and couldn’t get in on the fun, but my older boys were 12 and 8 at the time. So I thought about what we could do, and suddenly it hit me – my good friend the library!
A quick trip down to the library confirmed my suspicion – they had kids books on every state in the USA. For most states, there were two or three different books. So we took out all the books they had on the states we were going to visit-Pennsylvania, Washington DC (OK not technically a state, but there were plenty of books), and Virginia. Luckily they had books geared both to the grade 3-5 age range and the grade 6-8, so each boy was able to have their own set of books at their grade level. Over the next few weeks, I had the older boys read the books and write down the things they wanted to see and do.Then my husband and I made our own lists, and we planned out the trip so we would drive in a loop.
Why did I do this, instead of just planning the whole thing with my husband? Having the kids do the research helped teach them about planning a trip, which they’ll need to do themselves one day when they’re older. They also learned about each state-the books didn’t just cover tourist sites, but also information about the states geography, history, and major cities. Sure, some of this was information they might learn at school, but much of it was new. In their classes they don’t dive deep into each state, and usually just cover capitol cities and major historical events. And I thought it would help build excitement around the trip, since they had helped pick where we would go.
Although the one year old didn’t help with the planning, you can see he “helped” with the packing!
Sure enough, it worked. The kids each found fun things they wanted to do in the states. I also used Groupon in the states to find some deals on things to do and places to see. So last spring we headed out, trying to keep the driving to only a few hours a day and the rest of the time spent having fun. We stayed in Hershey PA, which was a lot more fun than we thought it would be, spent a few days in Washington DC (free, free, and free museums!), went to Williamsburg VA, Luray Caverns, and finished up the trip in Philadelphia before heading back home. Our few hours driving rule was only broken once, when we ran into horrendous traffic and had to spend an eight hour stretch in the car (ugh). The boys favorite part? The hotel in Washington DC. Gotta love when the hotel is the highlight of the trip!
We also made sure to budget plenty of money for food on this trip. All the hotels had a free breakfast offering, and we brought snacks and water/juice to drink during the day. One of the hotels had a kitchen, and we were able to use that to make dinner a few nights. But we wanted part of the trip experience to include exploring local places to each in each location, which my 12 year old loved. He made a rule for the family that we can’t eat at any chain restaurants on a road trip, and had a great time trying out new places to eat. Usually he’s not the most adventurous eater, so this was a welcome change. We had soup dumplings, discovered Millers Twist in Philadelphia, and ate a local shop called Hot Bagels. Side note – my husband made an exception to the rule for chains that aren’t available in our state, so he could have a “Waffle House Loophole”.
While on the trip, I let my middle son be the one to snap pictures. He quickly discovered that he loved photography-and to my surprise, he was really good at it. Many of the best pictures from the trip came from him, and we were able to get shots of everyone together in a way we usually can’t. He’s now become the official family photographer, taking pictures at all family events and day trips. You can bet that during our next road trip he’ll be at it again, snapping pictures of everything.
Overall they had a great time, and they’ve been talking about planning our next road trip for the past year. So this January we went to the library and got some more books about the states we’re going to hit this year – Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York (not NYC-been there done that). They both made lists again, and we made ours.
Now I have all our lists by state in a spreadsheet, we’re going to head out and get a map of the Northeast. Why an actual physical map in these days of Mapquest, Waze, and Google Maps? I figured that having an actual map would be better to show the kids just what the routes look like, and how we can figure out the amount of time to go from one destination to the other. Plus I don’t want to spend all my time plugging destinations into the computer when I can see it on a map more easily. My now nine-year hold has selected about 50 different things he wants to see (of course), so we need to see which ones will be practical. Once we have the route and major sites planned out, I’ll look for other things to do near the areas we’ll be, and reasonably priced hotels with a free breakfast.
Having Fun Doesn’t Need To Cost A Lot
Heading off to somewhere expensive can be fun. I’ve loved my trips to China, Japan, England and France and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But taking a trip in your home country can be just as much fun, especially if you approach it with the same sense of adventure and exploration as an international trip. So don’t think that a trip with kids needs to be to Disney or Universal to have a lot of fun. Or that you need to do all the planning yourself. Cultivate a sense of adventure in your kids by getting them involved in planning the trip. Talk excitedly about seeking out new things to do. Make a family pact that you won’t eat at chain restaurants while on the trip, so you can remind them when they beg for that McDonalds at the rest stop.
Teach your kids to seek out adventure in less expensive ways, and I bet you’ll all have a great time at a fraction of the cost of a more “traditional” vacation. Lets say you save a few thousand dollars each year using this strategy. If you put that away, then before your kids finish high school you’ll have more than enough to take them on an amazing, adventurous international trip. Or if that’s not one of your goals, you can use it toward paying off the house, saving for college, or starting a business. No need to give Walt Disney your hard-earned money when you can have just as much fun – and learn more – by planning out a road trip together.
What do you like to do on family vacations? Do you get your kids involved in the process, or do you plan to when they’re older? Let me know in the comments.
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