A few weeks ago we got back from our spring road trip. Three kids, ages 13, 9, and 1 at the time (now two!), many miles, and plenty of fun were all part of the week driving through New England. We started here in CT, and went to RI, MA, NH, VT, and NY (not New York City – the rest of New York). It was a great trip with lot of fun – I was able to teach my kids planning skills, financial lessons, nurture their passions, and I also get to share a free photo book offer with you (stay tuned to the end of the article for that!).
I talked a bit about planning back in my article about how kids can help you get ready for your family road trip. My older boys had read books about every state (from the library, of course), and wrote down their top “want to dos” in each state. My oldest son only listed about two or three options per state, while my middle son covered an entire page, front and back. They’re such different kids!
So once I had their lists, I sat down at the computer to plan our route and reserve hotels. My goal was to not spend more than a few hours in the car each day, and plan the longer driving around the little guys naptimes. One year old kids aren’t the best on long car rides, often requiring frequent stops to get out and wander around. Hence, I didn’t want to spend very long periods in the car. The longest drives we planned were around five hours long.
First, I researched all the places that the kids wanted to see to make sure they would actually be open in April. In New England, April is still pretty cold, and frequently we still have snow on the ground. In fact, I found out that pretty much all the things we wanted to see in New Hampshire would be closed (New Hampshire, come on! You’re used to snow. Open your cool places to tourists!). So some things were taken off the list because they were closed. Then I used Mapquest to time the drives to make sure that we weren’t going backwards, and that they weren’t too long. I also looked up the cost of all the things we wanted to do on the trip.
Like any good nerd, I actually made an Excel spreadsheet to capture all the pertinent information on our trip plan. Why? I love spreadsheets. Plus it let me move things around, add information, and delete things to do as needed. What information did I capture in said spreadsheet?
- Arrival/Departure Date – The date we would be leaving, arriving, or doing an activity
- Arrival/Departure Time – The time we should plan to leave, and the times we would arrive at our destinations
- Town – What town we would be in
- Place – either the hotel we would be staying at, or the thing we were planning to do
- Hours – The hours of operation for the places we were planning to visit
- Cost per person – A breakdown of the cost per person for activities
- Total cost – Cost of the hotel, or the total cost for the activity
- Driving Time – The amount of time we were going to spend driving to a new location on the trip
I used this spreadsheet to plan out every single day of the trip. It allowed me to see the total cost of the entire trip minus food, gas, and souvenirs. I was able to calculate the driving times between each destination, and alter the plan as needed based on driving time. After moving things around, researching which potential destinations were closed (either for the season or on the day we’d be in town), and calculating all the driving times, I was finally happy with the overall plan.
I then went to Expedia and reserved hotels for each stop along the trip. I know there’s cheaper ways to get hotels, but I’ve always had good experiences using Expedia in the past, so I stick with them. We were able to get good hotels at each stop, most with a free breakfast, although it’s tricky to find hotel rooms for five people. Frankly I don’t understand this – my little one is a toddler, and a room for four people plus a pack and play is plenty of room right now. But no, we counted as five people, so the number of rooms that were an option for us were limited.
As I reserved each hotel, I put it into the spreadsheet, so it would be included in the overall cost. So after a few hours of work I had the entire plan mapped out. Then it was time to identify places to eat.
You see, my oldest son likes to think of himself as something of a foodie. I think he was inspired from watching Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives on the Roku or something like that. He insists that we have a rule of “no chain restaurants” on our road trips. We have to find local places to eat every meal. Note – My husband and I insist that “places to get coffee” must be an exception to this rule, since not every place has good local coffee, and we’re not going with our caffeine when driving three kids around. Other than the coffee, I actually like this rule. It forces us to try new places to eat, and since we rarely eat out at home, it’s fun to try out new, local places. But I’ve found it does take a bit of research.
So the next tab on my spreadsheet was a list of candidate places to eat. I looked up each location where we would be stopping or driving through, and popped them all into the spreadsheet. That tab wasn’t nearly as complex as the plan for the trip – it just had the town, the name of the restaurant, hours, and notes about what looked good. I tried to pick several different options in each location so we could make a decision based on how everyone was feeling that day. After driving for five hours, sometimes you just don’t feel like getting back in the car again and going out to eat.
Of course, on a road trip, things don’t go to plan – and that’s OK. I like to have a plan in place so that I know we’re roughly on track, and have plenty of ideas of things we could be doing. But there were places we had on our list that we never made it to, places we ate at that weren’t on my list (but were delicious!), and sometimes we left the hotel or the prior destination later than I had planned. To me, that’s all part of the road trip fun. You want to build in plenty of buffer time in every day, be willing to adjust on the fly as needed, and make sure you’re clear on the things you “must do” versus “would like to do”.
Nurturing My Kids Passions
As I mentioned above, one of my oldest sons passions is eating at local restaurants and trying new food – so we use our meal plans to accommodate that. One of his other passions is pandas. So we made sure that one of our “must dos” was seeing red pandas at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence RI. On our last road trip, we had gone to the zoo in Washington DC to see the actual pandas, but their red panda exhibit had been closed. This time, we spent about half an hour just at the red panda exhibit in RI, so he could watch the panda walking around. For him, this was his favorite part of the trip.
My middle son has discovered that he’s an avid photographer. He learned this on our last road trip, when we gave him the camera halfway through and let him take all the pictures. This time we gave him the camera at the start of the trip, and he was in charge of taking all the photos. In fact, now he’s asked for his own camera for his upcoming tenth birthday. Some of the photos came out blurry, but he took quite a few amazing ones. Here’s a sampling of his work – and remember, he’s only nine!
He even learned how to use the timer function on the camera to get some pictures of all five of us together! He had a lot of fun being the official family trip photographer, and I told him that maybe this would be one of his hobbies when he grows up.
Family Financial Lessons
I involve my kids in the trip planning process for several reasons. First, since they’re part of picking the destinations, the trip is more likely to be fun for them. Second, they can see just how much these things cost. Third, I want them to learn that some things are worth paying for. Yes, we could stay at home and do free day trips instead – and in fact we had done that for many years when money was tight. But since travel is in the budget now, we can do a fun road trip for not a huge cost.
I shared my spreadsheet with them before the trip so they could see how much each stop was costing, and how I planned out the budget for each day. I also had them look at the printed version of the spreadsheet when the inevitable questions of “how long is this drive” and “where are we going next?” came up. I hope this will help them when they grow up and start to plan their own trips.
I also give them each a souvenir budget that they can use as they see fit. I did budget to buy them each a special gift at one of our destinations, but other than that, the older two kids each got $50 to last them the entire week. I’ve found that setting a budget and letting them make the choices helps not only cut down on the “I wants” everywhere, but also teaches them to think about the decisions they’re making. After all, they could spend it all on the first day at the first destination, but then they’ll have nothing left for the rest of the trip.
My middle son is the spendthrift in the family, and insisted on getting something at each place. But he specifically looked for inexpensive souvenirs, so he would have enough money to last him the entire trip. After all, $50 for seven days is only a little over $7 a day. My oldest, though, only spent $5 the entire trip. I told him he could have whatever was left over from his budget as spending money when he got home, and he chose to save the money and get a new video game instead. Smart teenager!
Note – I was checking online to see if there were some good articles I could share on kids and souvenir budgets, and I came across this piece from Forbes. Ironically, it has a lot of the same advice I’m talking about here – get your kids involved in planning and budgeting, have your kids take responsibility for parts of the trip, and so on. It’s interesting that there are “experts” out there touting the same recommendations as what I come up with on my own!
After The Trip – Preserving Memories For Little Cost
There are two key ways I preserve memories after a road trip – creating a “road trip memory box”, and creating a photo book. This is where you can score a free photo book!
Road Trip Memory Box
I don’t know about you, but after any vacation I often find that we have a bunch of miscellaneous “stuff” that I don’t want to toss, but didn’t know what to do with. After our road trip last year, I came up with this brilliant idea to find a small box (like a shoebox size), cover it with computer paper, and write all about our trip on the paper. Then we put all those miscellaneous things into the box, and can look back on it at any time.
Free Photo Book
I happen to love Shutterfly for creating photo books. After our road trip last year I created a book using the Walgreens photo service, but the quality was not very good. Why do I love Shutterfly? Because the books come out looking amazing, and you can always (and I mean ALWAYS) find coupons for free books or money off your order. Usually you just end up paying the shipping cost. This time, photo books were 50% off (as they almost always are), and I just happened to have $20 in credit from an email list I’m subscribed to. So the book itself was free, and I paid the shipping cost. Under $10 for a high quality, hardcover photo book? Yes please!
When I was checking out, they had a great offer for me to share with friends – so I’m sharing it today with you. If you want to get a FREE photo book, and give me a free one at the same time, just click here. You’ll get a free 8×8 photo book (just pay shipping, as always). It’s a great way to preserve memories in a fun and creative way!
Do you also do road trips with your family? Or do you use vacations to help teach financial lessons? Let me know in the comments!
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