With the new year upon us, I know many families will start thinking about their next summer vacation. I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage families to consider exploring America on an old-fashioned family road trip with a few modern twists!
Last summer we decide to drive across the country instead of taking our regular beach trip. It is one of the best, most memorable trips we ever made — or will make I am sure! At ages 9, 7, and 3 the kids were perfect ages to drive across the country. The 3-year-old was potty trained and fairly patient because we stopped a lot to see things. The older kids were very interested to see other states and other cities. They loved watching the landscape change from green lush forests to arid deserts. They saw in person steppes, mesas, and canyons they had only viewed in Road Runner and Coyote cartoons. They saw natural wonders like the Mississippi River and historically significant sites that changed our country’s future.
Our smartphones impacted greatly the way our family traveled cross country. We were nimble able to switch destinations on the fly. We didn’t have to wonder if there was a gas station coming up (out West they are really spread apart) or a bathroom for the 3-year-old. We found sightseeing info, researched places to visit and were able to take “phone tours” at several National Park sites.
Twice this year in school Rose has been able to share with the class photos and her experiences from our trip as her class studied places she visited in person. She was very proud to be the class “expert” on these sites.
Recently we printed out maps of the United States and the kids colored in every state they had been to and each state they had just been through. The older kids have visited (sight-saw, ate, spend the night or walked around in) 20 states!
I wanted to share some photos and tips from our techno family road trip to help you plan one of your own.
First some tips by category:
Smartphones and electronics
- We didn’t plan very much before our trip. We had a basic sense of the states we wanted to hit but other than that we were playing it fast and loose. Do be spontaneous and use your smartphones to look up info as you drive. You can look for restaurants, hotel reviews, gas station, rest stops as well as sightseeing info. It was amazing to be hurtling down the highway able to look up whatever info you needed right then. (Make sure you bring your car charger for your phone. It used up a lot of energy and I was having to charge mid-day.)
- Use your Smart phones to prep your kids for what they are about to see. I read them the history of Little Rock’s Central High School and details about the Little Rock Nine who first integrated the school. I read them the history to the Oklahoma City bombing and showed them photos of what the building looked like before the explosion. We discussed what petrified the logs in the Petrified Forest and why the Painted Desert was called just that.
- As you pass places you may want to visit another time, look them up and bookmark them in your phone that way you always have the list and basic info on the site.
- Walsh brought his Nintendo DSL on the trip. I thought he would while away the miles on it but instead he used the camera in it to document the trip across America from his viewpoint – the back of the minivan. He often got better shots of things than I did because he had a few seconds warning. He has created an amazing slide show of his trip across America.
- Bring an old-fashion map just in case. In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona we couldn’t get cell signals sometimes and were grateful to have the paper Rand McNally in the car.
Food and Hotels
- To cut down on food costs we brought a lot of fruit, nuts, chips and sweets with us. We also stopped along the way to pick up supplies.
- We found that Subway was great for an inexpensive and somewhat healthy meal that could be catered to the what each family member wanted. We would buy two giant sandwiches. Split one sandwich three ways for the kids and then the other was halved between us. You could get veggies put on it and change out the breads, meats, cheeses and sauces so you didn’t get bored. Plus you didn’t feel tired after eating it.
- Look for hotels that accept pets. You can save a lot of boarding. Most of the national parks let you bring your dog in. So it just depends on where you are visiting.
- Look for hotels that include a free breakfast. This saved us a lot of money and time. It’s expensive for a family of five to eat breakfast anywhere.
- Try to use hotels with which you have accrued business points. Michael always tries to book in the same hotel chain so we can take advantage of his points for free nights later.
- Stop frequently. The trip didn’t seem long because we stopped frequently for sight-seeing . Give yourself enough time in each town. I wish we had spent an extra day in Memphis and an extra day in Arkansas (can’t believe I am saying that, but it’s true!). There was more in each town I would have like to have seen.
- Don’t be afraid to share with the kids historically significant places. My cousin called it my “Addams Family” Tour because we were seeing so many places where people died or were threatened. But the kids handled really well seeing the Oklahoma City bombing site and were fascinated by the integration protests in Arkansas.
- Do make them see museums. We visited four different museums in Santa Fe, New Mexico and those kids are smarter for it! Although they protested a little bit at the time. Now they recall facts and artifacts they saw!
- Don’t do the Grand Canyon in the summer if at all possible. Aim for Fall and Spring breaks. Because of year-round school, July is particularly crowded according to one park ranger. (Many kids in year-round school have July off but not June or August.) The roads into the Grand Canyon are narrow and canyon rims are narrow. This is not a place you want to experience packed with tourists.
- Don’t do the Grand Canyon with little kids or if you have impulsive or adventurous kids. I was stressed out the entire time that one of them was going to head straight off the edge – the baby because she doesn’t know any better and the boy because he’s crazy. I called ahead and talked to a park ranger about where were the safest spots to take kids. She told me different areas that were fenced but in the end we just ended up traveling up and down the length of the rim and some had fences and some did not. I didn’t enjoy the view until mid-afternoon when the kids were tired and stopped getting out of the car. Then you could stand and really be awed without worry that someone was going over the cliff.
- Meteor Crater was also stressful with the kids. The Painted Desert didn’t feel so death-defying. We still saw canyons but I didn’t feel like they were going over the edge. Also it was much less crowded and actually had better examples of ancient pueblos than the Grand Canyon had. The Grand Canyon park ranger agreed the Painted Desert was a nice “starter” canyon for families.
- Book almost a year ahead if you want to stay in the Grand Canyon. They are not fooling around. You really can’t get a room even at off times. In a pinch, Flagstaff is less than two hours drive to the Canyon and you can usually find a room there. We stayed in Flagstaff.
Here are some of the places we stopped along the way:
Meteor Crater, Arizona — (This web site is really loud. Do not pull up if your boss is near by! Not a National Park so you can’t use your National Park pass here.)
Grand Canyon, Arizona – Download the park newspaper and trip planner on this homepage. I didn’t before our visit and wish I had. The park newspaper has tons of really useful info and maps.