The United States has such a diverse and glorious landscape, family road trips are a tradition. It’s a big country, particularly compared to Europe where distances between countries are shorter – Paris to Istanbul is a similar driving distance as San Diego to Seattle.
Drive trips have lots of advantages. You bring more stuff with you, no limits about liquids in carry-on luggage, and you can go at your own pace. But family road trips also conjure up cranky kids and searching for gas stations in the middle of the night.
Here’s our tips for drive trips around the United States, for a relaxing vacation and fun for everyone in the family.
- Don’t drive day after day –
It’s okay to do one, two days of uninterrupted driving to get to a destination, but that’s the limit. It’s much better to take more days, spend half the day driving, then in the afternoon relax at a swimming pool in the community park in a small town, or take the morning to play at the beach, before getting in the car.
- Renting a car –
Sometimes we’ve rented a car for our drive trip, rather than spend days getting to the area we wanted to explore. For example, we flew to Las Vegas, picked up the car, then drove around Zion, Bryce, Arches & Canyonlands National Parks. It’s worth the extra cost to rent a larger car or SUV. One summer, driving from Boston through New England, we arranged for a mid-size car, but the rental company gave us a Volvo four wheel drive, which came in handy when we were driving on some rustic roads in Maine.
- Bring a cooler –
The most important item to bring along is a cooler. We have a smaller cooler for drinks, a larger cooler for food. Bags of ice are available at supermarkets or mini-marts in gas stations. Ice will last several days – don’t try to fill up a large cooler with ice machines from your hotel or motel.
Also at the supermarket, buy bottled water and drinks at the supermarket, pop them in the cooler to stay cold, and keep the cooler handy (not buried in the back with all the luggage).
Stock a large cooler with healthy snacks and kids’ favorite picnic food, instead of stopping at fast food joints along the freeway.
Visit farmer’s markets and roadside fruit stands, munching your way through your trip. Go to u-pick farms to get blueberries, have them for breakfast. Cherries and peaches make great snacks.
Tip: If you’re driving a rental car, pick up an inexpensive, disposable styrofoam cooler at the supermarket.
- Luggage –
Resist the temptation to stack the car to the roof. When you reach your hotel or motel, think about bringing in your luggage, sometimes up stairs. Packing the car, try to organize things so something vital isn’t inaccessible.
Travel size pillows are perfect to bring along, not so bulky as regular size pillows and are washable. Also, small fleece blankets are great – when they are covered with crumbs, fleece blankets rinse out easily and dry quickly.
- On the road –
Avoid sitting in traffic – plan accordingly. It’s worth dragging kids out of bed to get an early start, before rush hour. And it’s a bad idea to return from a trip on Sunday evening, when the everyone else is coming back from mountain or beach destinations. Tip: Returning to San Francisco after visiting relatives in San Diego, we try to depart Sunday morning, an optimal time to get through Los Angeles with a minimum of traffic congestion.
Before you get in the car, make sure everyone goes to the bathroom. Otherwise, ten minutes down the road, you’ll have to stop. Take advantage of restrooms whenever you stop for gas, or at a rest stop.
One of our kids is prone to car sickness, especially on winding roads. If kids are big enough, put them in the front seat, that helps. Also, keep the window cracked a bit for fresh air. And keep a beach towel in the car, just in case.
When kids get antsy, it’s time to take a break, get out, run around, have a snack. Rest stops are convenient – there’s not just grass, but picnic tables and restrooms. If it’s lunch time, also look for a community park with playground, or state parks with picnic tables by the beach, in shady forests, or next to deep blue mountain lakes.
- Favorite road trips –
We’re fortunate it’s only four hours drive to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Sequoia, a one day drive to Death Valley, Redwood National Park on the coast, or Crater Lake in Oregon, perfect for longer holiday weekends.
Here’s a sample drive itinerary to Yellowstone & Grant Teton. From San Francisco to Yellowstone, drive through northern Nevada, spending the night in Elko. The next day, continue on to West Yellowstone. Spend at least a week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, it’s a large area to explore. On the return trip, drive through Utah, stop a day to visit Golden Spike National Historic Site, and float in the Great Salt Lake. Drive across the Salt Lake Desert to eastern Nevada and Great Basin National Park to see the ancient Bristlecone pines. Stop into the railroad museum in Carson City, before heading back to San Francisco.
Whether it’s a holiday weekend, or longer trip in summer, allow time to see this fabulous country – a moose munching willows by a river, giant sand dunes, dinosaur tracks, a ghost town in the sagebrush, ruins of ancient peoples, or the world’s tallest trees, and so much more, your family will discover.