Five Ways to Make Road Trips Better

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Earlier this week I wrote a post about road trips and ten reasons why my family generally does better in the air as opposed to on the road. Of all the reasons why we prefer to fly much of the time, the main reason is that we generally just don’t have the time for a road trip. My husband has two weeks of actual vacation days per year, and I have no desire to burn half of those driving to and from places that we could just fly to in a matter of hours.

So while road trips are not my preferred method of transportation at the moment, they are a reality for many families, and even for some of our own trips when the distance and/or price just don’t justify heading to the airport to fly.

Thanks to some of my own brainstorming, great suggestions in the comments of the above linked post, and some inspiration from fellow family travel blogger InACents, here are five ways to make road trips better.


Make the drive more fun with five tips

Pack Snacks and Sandwiches:

One of the problems on our road trips is frequently that we don’t eat as well as we do at home. We fall into the trap of roadside fast food restaurants that serve lots of food that isn’t good for you, and doesn’t make you feel too great either. Sure, you can order the grilled chicken salad with no dressing and remove the cheese, but are you really going to do that while behind the wheel?

Eliminate the temptation of a quick greasy burger and fries by eating some meals and snacks from your pre-packed cooler. Pack some homemade sandwiches, hummus, pita, carrot sticks, drinks, pretzels, apple slices, and yogurt pops from home, so your first move when someone gets hungry can be to the cooler instead of to the nearest drive thru.  Not only does this save you some heartburn, but it probably also saves you money.

I will add that even with pre-packed snacks, you should still stop to eat at meal times when possible to let everyone stretch their legs and take those all-important potty breaks.

Go in a comfortable vehicle:

Many families opt to drive primarily in order to save money on their vacation. There is no question then when your family gets over the size of about three or four that the scales can tip to driving over buying plane tickets even for some longer trips. If you already have a comfortable vehicle for road tripping then you are all set, but if you are like us and have vehicles that are practical for running errands, but not designed for long road trips, then consider renting a car for your journey that is better suited for hours on the open road.


Upgrade to something more comfortable for longer drives

While you will be increasing the out-of-pocket cost for the trip, you will avoid putting the wear and tear of the miles from the trip on your own vehicle, so that is something to factor in even if your own vehicle is pretty comfortable for long drives.

Get Everyone Their Own Entertainment System:

Between iPads, Kindles, books, Leap Pads, portable DVD players, etc. it shouldn’t be too hard to ensure everyone has their own entertainment set-up. A long car ride shouldn’t be treated any differently than a plane trip in terms of ensuring everyone has something to do. Of course you should still work in some time honored family road trip traditions like “I spy”, but that can only take you so far before everyone needs a break!

On our recent car trip we played 90 minutes of what are the best puppy dog names (including our last name) and by the time we got to Harry Hull, I knew we had exhausted all reasonable names and needed a new activity!

Don’t Be in a Hurry:

Okay here is where we are firmly in the do as I say, not as I do territory, however just stick with me for a minute. I know road trips are not the best for our family currently because my husband simply doesn’t have enough vacation days for us to waste them driving. We are fortunate to have enough points and miles for the three of us to fly much of the time, so that is a better use of resources. However, I think a key to a successful family road trip is to not be in a huge hurry. If you are in a huge hurry you are more likely to end up with cranky travelers who aren’t getting enough time to stretch their legs, enjoy (at least semi) healthy meals, and take advantage of the activities you may come upon along the way.

Be reasonable about how far you will travel in a given day or in any one given stretch. For us I think about 3 hours is the max between stops, unless it happens to be a very awesome napping session. We can certainly go longer between stops, but if you do that very often, I think you are asking for trouble. If you don’t have the time to not haul through the road trip truck-driver style, then I would encourage you to devote energy into earning enough miles to take to the skies instead of the road.

Not only is it unpleasant to haul through a long road trip, but it can actually be dangerous as well if the driver(s) aren’t getting enough rest. In my younger (and poorer and stupider) days, I participated in cross country road trips where we didn’t spend money on hotels and instead drove all night and would just pull off the road to sleep for a bit in the car at rest stops when we were on the verge of passing out. We may have (barely) pulled that off in our college days, but it is not at all how I suggest operating family road trips.

Use Points:

Road trips can be improved even on a tight budget by using points to stop along the way. For example, check out the IHG Rewards Point Breaks list to see if a hotel is available for just 5,000 points per night along your route. I have used this list myself more than once to help family members plan their stopping points on a road trip so they could stay at a hotel and not hurt their budget. The PointBreaks list changes every few months, and while many of the hotels on the list may be Holiday Inn Express hotels in Nowheresville, USA that you would normally not seek out, that may work to your advantage when you are driving through across the country just looking for a spot to lay your head and a pool for your kids to burn off energy.

Many of the lowest tier hotels in other chains are also the types of spots you may run across away from the big cities, so getting a hotel for just a few thousand points per night can be a perfect way to break up a day of driving and increase the pleasantness of the journey.

Unless award availability improves, we are looking at another (longer) road trip in a few weeks, so hopefully we can put a few of these tips to use to make the trip as pleasant as possible.  Did I leave out any of your top road trip tips?  If so, please share!




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  1. Good tip on using points. What I like to do is stay at an SPG property that is only 3,000 points and get two rooms since the point value is so low. The kids (14 and 6) love the novelty of having their own room and my wife and I like the extra space. So instead of spending 7,000 to 10,000 points on a Sheraton or Westin we opt for the Four Points.

  2. Great advice about renting a car. We just went on a weekend trip with my wife and a 6 yr old and a 15 month old. with another family with their 6 yr old son.

    We did not take our Honda CR-V but rented a Minivan (using Chase points) for free and it made a HUGE difference. Roomy enough to pack all of our stuff, pack n play, stroller..etc. and DVD entertainment system. In a pinch, my wife could walk back to where the kids were to feed, entertain, keep em from crying while I am still driving.

    After driving to the hotel, going elsewhere, all 7 of us could fit in one car so we didn’t have to caravan.. which was great also.

  3. Don’t be in a hurry? I guess it depends on the point of the vacation. If the destination is the vacation then to me this saying holds true… “We ain’t getting there by stopping here”

    Gas, bathroom breaks and food stops all at once. I guess I was lucky with our 3 kids. They traveled great and didn’t need to go to the bathroom every couple of hours. We only stopped when the car needed gas!

  4. Patrick, you can certainly be in a hurry (we almost always are on car trips), but it seems to be more pleasant when you aren’t in a huge rush. I think when the destination is the vacation and you have to haul through the road trip as fast as possible, it can be more enjoyable to use miles to take the skies. I’ve done the haul through it road trips, but they are not my favorite way to travel!

  5. We had an unexpected road trip from Austin to central Illinois last spring when my husband’s father passed away unexpectedly. His death occurred at the end of SXSW. The few flights that were available were beyond expensive, and we still would have a 2-4 hour drive after flying into either St. Louis or Chicago, so we made the decision to make the 15 hour drive.

    One thing that we ended up doing that worked out great for our kids (8 and 5 at the time) was to hook up our Wii in the back of the car. We had an old flat screen monitor that we set up on top of a cooler in the backseat and bought an adapter so could plug everything in. We made a couple of Redbox stops and let them go wild with picking out games to play.

    I also couldn’t agree more with packing food. My kids and I are vegetarians and my daughter also has severe food allergies, so finding food on the road is a major challenge. I’ve started doing this more for flights too. I prefer the way that my stomach feels when I eat something relatively healthy rather than how a feel if I eat a bag of chips or a candy bar.

    • AMJ, absolutely – especially when you have folks with specific food sensitivities or preferences. Smart thinking with the Wii!

  6. My family of 4 did a road trip in an RV every summer. This made me remember one of the games we would play – try to find a license plate from each of the 50 states (totally unlikely, but time-consuming). Bonus for older kids – name the capital of that state.

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