Preparing for the Road Trip of Our Dreams

2 adults, 3 children, 13 states, 15 days, over 5000 miles, and about a million wonderful memories.

It was the road trip of a lifetime!  My husband and I had been dreaming about this trip for years, and it was every bit as wonderful as we had hoped it would be (except for the Grand Canyon… but that is something for another post on another day).

Our big road trip all started with a mutual desire to see the great sequoia trees in California.
Our big road trip all started with a mutual desire to see the great sequoia trees in California.

It all started with a mutual desire to see the great sequoia trees in California.  As we talked together over the years, we added more details and destinations for the trip from that starting point. Geoff (my husband) wanted the kids to experience some of the stops that he enjoyed from the family vacations of his childhood – things like the Grand Canyon, meteor crater, and Hoover Dam. I wanted to experience the mother road (historic route 66). As our list grew, a route was determined. From there, we decided to maximize our travel stop possibilities by returning home via a different route.

Our final itinerary included route 66 iconic stops, the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, the ghost town of Oatman, Las Vegas, the giant sequoia trees, Denver, Kansas City, and more. Click here to see a copy of the itinerary that we had created before we left.

It was the road trip of a lifetime! If we could do it all over again, I would only change three things on our itinerary.

This itinerary was nearly perfect. These are the only three things I would have changed:

  • I would add an additional day for the Flagstaff area. There was more to do in Flagstaff than I had realized. I wish we had more time to visit some of the national monuments in the area and a few other sights.
  • We would include a visit to the coast.  We drove so far west but we never actually made it to the coastline.  We never saw the Pacific Ocean, and this makes me a little sad.
  • We would have specifically planned a meal at In-N-Out Burger. Everyone (EVERYONE!) raves about this restaurant chain that is only located on the western side of the country, and somehow, we never found one nearby when we were ready to eat a meal.  My husband was especially disappointed that we missed out on this experience.

While planning for this trip, we had three main objectives that we kept in mind:

  • Make it meaningful and memorable. We wanted the kids to remember this trip and appreciate the sights.
  • Pack as little as possible. We did not want to have to load/unload too much stuff on a daily basis. Thus, we wanted to be efficient and bring minimal stuff.
  • Avoid “are we there yet” whining. Nothing spoils a good road trip like a small child whining constantly, and we wanted to have a plan in place for when the kids started to get restless on the long car rides.

As I planned more and more for this trip, I thought of more and more potential issues to overcome. Thus, I went over every last detail with a fine tooth comb until I felt comfortable that this trip was going to be just perfect.  And it was just about perfect, too (except for the Grand Canyon… but again, that is something for a future blog post).

2 adults, 3 children, 13 states, 15 days, over 5,000 miles, and about a million wonderful memories… Our road trip was every bit as wonderful as we had hoped it would be!

Here are some of the things we did that helped us meet those objectives and made this trip go so smoothly for us:

We planned big and little stops that would interest everyone in the family. Our first major planned stop was the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest in Arizona.
We planned lots of big and little stops that would interest everyone in our family. Our first major planned stop was the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest in Arizona.

Researched and prepared the itinerary ahead of time

I did a lot of reading and online research ahead of time. Some of the resources that I found most helpful were the following:

                    

Route 66 Adventure Handbook: Turbocharged Fourth Edition by Drew Knowles (Affiliate Link)  – This book was super helpful.  It included pictures and maps, and it listed sites according to city location.  As an added bonus, the sights in the book were listed from East to West which was the same direction we were travelling. It looks like a new edition of this book (Affiliate Link) came out in May 2017.

Route 66 for Kids by Emily Priddy  – What a helpful guide for a family road trip!  It lists (again from east to west) sites on (and around and related to) historic route 66 that children would find interesting.  Additionally, it shares some information on admission prices and hours of operation. I printed a free PDF version from here. The author has recently released updated versions in printed and ebook versions. You can find those on her website here.

National Park Websites – Many of the National Parks and National Monuments that we visited offer sample itineraries. This was super helpful while planning what to see in each park and determining how much time to allot for visiting these places.

Google – And of course, good old Google will help you find a ton of information for most any place you want to go.  I typically google “things to do in [name of town] with children” and find all sorts of great information.  Here are just a few of the helpful websites that my google searches came up with:

We scheduled our longest drives at the beginning of the trip so that we had time for extra side trips later in the vacation. This particular side trip was along a curvy stretch of Route 66 taking us to Oatman, Arizona.
We scheduled our longest drives at the beginning of the trip so that we had time for extra side trips later in the vacation. This particular side trip was along a curvy stretch of Route 66 taking us to Oatman, Arizona.

Scheduled our longest driving days first

One common complaint that we heard from others who completed similar road trips was that the drive home was long and boring. It appears that most people jam lots of fun into their drive to their end destination, and by the end of the vacation, there is no time left for fun stops; thus, they just drive (and drive and drive) non-stop back home.  When returning home from the west coast, the drive takes at least 3 days (probably more). Thus, it can be long and boring. Especially if all you have to look forward to is getting home to unpack, wash laundry, buy groceries and return to your everyday jobs. Where is the fun in that? It’s no wonder people complain about that loooooong drive home!

We purposely scheduled our longest drives for the first three days of our trip, and we made sure to plan lots of interesting stops for the return trip.

To avoid this, we purposely scheduled our longest drives for the first three days of our trip, and we made sure to plan lots of interesting stops along the return trip home. Long days of driving are much more bearable upfront because you have a fun destination you are looking forward to.  And, the drive back home is much more enjoyable when it is broken up into small chunks with fun stops along the way.

We packed as light as possible in order to spend more time enjoying the sights and less time loading/unloading the minivan.
We packed as light as possible in order to spend more time enjoying the sights and less time loading/unloading the minivan.

Packed light and streamlined our load/unload processes

We stayed in a different hotel nearly every single night.  That meant that we had to unload suitcases, coolers and more from our minivan every single night.  To speed up this process and make it less tedious, we developed a few strategies to make the unload/reload process as easy as possible.

Minimize Suitcases

Instead of packing enough clothing to last for the entire trip, we opted to use the guest laundry areas in the hotels to wash a load of laundry every 4-5 days.  We were able to carry only two suitcases this way.  For each person, we packed 5 sets of undergarments and socks, 5 tops, 3 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of jeans, 1 long-sleeve shirt, and a couple pairs of pajamas.

Storage Tote Container

I had packed one airtight storage tote container to use as a hamper/laundry basket. This tote remained in the van all the time except on laundry nights. Thus, we only had to unload/reload this from the vehicle once every five days.  Inside this container, we kept laundry detergent, a small container filled with quarters, and several empty trash bags.  All dirty clothing was placed into a trash bag at the end of the day, these trash bags were carried out to the minivan and added to the hamper tote each morning. I felt it was important for the tote container to be airtight so that our vehicle did not start to smell like dirty laundry.  Overall, this process worked great!

Electronics Bag

We kept all of the children’s electronics (along with the appropriate chargers) in one bag that we appropriately referred to as the “electronics bag.” This bag was carried into the hotel room on a nightly basis so that we could recharge any devices overnight that needed it.

Large Cooler with Wheels

We bought a large cooler before the trip.  We opted to purchase one with wheels and a telescoping pullout handle. This way, one of the kids could manage pulling it for us. It also allowed us to stack another bag or box on it when bringing stuff in to the hotel in the evenings.

Nesting Food Storage Containers

Any plastic food storage containers brought along were stackable. Once the containers were empty, we were able to nest them one inside another until they were needed again. This way they easily stacked on top of one another when they contained food, and they took up very little space once they were empty.

Food Bags

We brought along lunch supplies and lots of snacks. For the food items that did not need to be stored in the cooler, we kept them in reuseable grocery bags.  As the bags became empty, we simply folded them down and tucked them into one of the other bags.  Food bags were stored on the floor in front of our toddler’s seat.  Her legs were short enough that the bags were not in her way.

Furthermore, we organized the food so that we would only have to carry in one or two food bags to the hotel rooms each night.  Some of the bags of food could be left carefully hidden in the vehicle overnight. This sped up the unload/reload process for each day.

We made sure to keep a small bottle of dish soap and a couple of dishcloths in one of the food bags that would be carried in on a nightly basis.  This allowed us to wash food storage containers and utensils if needed.

Picnic Box

We brought along lunch supplies and lots of snacks. Every day, we ate one meal as a picnic.  This saved us time because we could stop at any old park or rest area for a quick meal.  It also saved us a lot of money because eating out at restaurants for every meal gets pricey really quick.

The picnic box was a sturdy cardboard box with handles. In this box, we kept paper plates, paper napkins, an old tablecloth, some plastic silverware, hand sanitizer, and non-perishable picnic foods (like potato chips and cookies).

This picnic box remained inside the vehicle all of the time except when we stopped to eat a picnic meal. When we stopped to eat, we would grab our picnic foods from the other bags/cooler and toss them into this box.  Then, we would carry the box over to a picnic table. We did not bring the picnic box into the hotel room at night.

Reuseable Water Bottles

Instead of wasting space with packs of soda cans or disposable bottles of water, we simply brought along a reuseable water bottle for each family member.  We refilled the water bottles every night and set them to chill in the refrigerator.

Front Seat Essentials

We also had a few essentials that we always kept up front with us in the van. We kept a container filled with quarters in the glove compartment; this was super handy whenever we came up to a toll road or had to park at a meter. Also, I keep sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer and some wet wipes in the passenger side door compartment. When we stopped at a sight, we would quick lotion and/or spray family members as needed, and you wouldn’t believe how many times the sanitizer and wipes were used throughout the trip. All of these items remained in the van for the entire trip – no need to pack/unpack them each night.

Our children enjoyed watching "Cars the Movie" before we stopped for a visit to Cars on the Route in Kansas.
Our children enjoyed watching “Cars the Movie” before we stopped to see Tow Tater at Cars on the Route in Kansas.

Planned Entertainment for the Car Rides

With all that driving, we knew that we would need to be prepared to keep the children entertained if we didn’t want to hear the dreaded “are we there yet?” over and over again. We planned ahead with movies, books, audio books, worksheets, games, surprise treats, and of course, video games. (To read more about my general strategies for entertaining children on road trips, check out this previous post.) Here are some of the specific tools that we found helpful for this particular trip:

          

Cars the Movie  (Affiliate Link) – We watched the animated movie, Cars, on the portable DVD players.  Most of the Cars movie is set in a fictional town along historic route 66.  We had several stops planned along old route 66, and this was a fun way to introduce our children to the famed “Mother Road”. (Learn more about the correlation between Cars the Movie and historic Route 66 at these two websites: here  and here.)

Land Before Time movie  (Affiliate Link) – The Land Before Time movie was an appropriate pick for us because dinosaurs were a recurring attraction throughout our trip – we saw a lot of dinosaur art in the little town of Holbrook in Arizona, we saw fossilized dinosaur footprints near Denver, and we ate at the T-Rex Café in Kansas City.  Additionally, our youngest child loves (LOVES!) dinosaurs and baby animals so she was especially thrilled to watch a movie about baby dinosaurs.

           

Annie Mouse’s Route 66 Adventure  (Affiliate Link) – I bought this book about a family of mice who travel along Route 66 on a family vacation across country.  The kids weren’t too interested in the story at first but they enjoyed the pictures.  So we looked at all of the pictures together, and I pointed out things that we planned to see during our trip.  We quickly started a new morning routine where I would read aloud the specific pages about places that we would see that same day, and the kids really enjoyed that.

Little Miss History Travels to Sequoia National Park (Affiliate Link) – The children and I didn’t read this book together until halfway through the trip. By that time, they were already quite excited for our upcoming visit to see the “giant trees” so they loved the sneak peek that this book gave them.  It’s a great book with lots of interesting facts.

Worksheets – I always make my kids earn their screentime.  So before I allowed them to turn on their handheld video game devices, they were required to complete some worksheets. I had prepared several worksheets ahead of time and coordinated each day’s worksheets to the stops we had planned for that particular day.  I found most of the materials online.  Although, I had also pulled some pages from a children’s atlas workbook that I already had at home.  Many times, the worksheets were simply coloring pages.  You can find some great route 66 coloring pages here or purchase this route 66 coloring book.

Binoculars and Cameras – We brought each child a pair of age-appropriate binoculars and a cheap old digital camera.  These tools helped to keep the children entertained during the drive, and it helped them to better appreciate their surroundings at each stop.

We track our family vacations with a map that hangs on our living room wall. Our children love adding pins to mark where we have been after each vacation.
We track our family vacations with a map that hangs on our living room wall. Our children love adding pins to mark where we have been after each vacation.

Keeping our vacation memories alive

Each morning, I asked the children what they liked best about the previous day’s stops.  I kept a small notebook where I recorded their answers. This notebook was fun to look at throughout the trip. It was also helpful to refer back to when I was creating photo books and social media photo albums after the trip.

Upon our return home, I created a Shutterfly photo book from all of our compiled pictures. The kids enjoy looking through the book and showing it to friends and family who visit our home.  As I run across coupons for free photo books, I have purchased additional copies so that the kids each have one of their own.

Another thing that we have done to help the kids remember all of our special vacations (including this road trip) is putting pins into a map that we keep displayed in our home. After every family vacation, we spend an evening discussing our most recent vacation and putting new pins in the map.  This inevitably leads to reminiscing about previous trips.  The children love this, and I am always pleasantly surprised to hear just how much they remember.

We had a whale of a good time on our family road trip! This whale structure is one of many iconic route 66 stops we visited on our vacation.
We had a whale of a good time on our family road trip! This whale structure is one of many iconic route 66 stops we visited during our vacation.

In conclusion…

All of our preparation really paid off. Our road trip went wonderfully, and we have very few regrets.

See how we prepared for a 15-day road trip WITH KIDS! Our trip went wonderfully. Yours can, too!

Want to hear more about our amazing road trip? This post is part of our Westward Wanderings series – a multi-part series featuring details and pictures from each stop along our 15-day journey. Here are links to our other posts:

  • Preparing for the Road Trips of Our Dreams – Learn about how we prepared for our 15-day road trip with kids.
  • Cars the Movie and Route 66 – See how Cars the movie enhanced our family’s travel experiences.
  • Road Trip Rainbows – Rainbows became an unexpected recurring theme throughout our 15-day road trip.
  • Road Trip: Passing Through the OK – We were pleasantly surprised at how much fun we had passing through Oklahoma. COMING SOON!
  • And several more posts on the way!
Watch for other posts from our Westward Wanderings series. This multi-part series will feature details and pictures from each stop along our 15-day journey.
Watch for other posts from our Westward Wanderings series. This multi-part series will feature details and pictures from each stop along our 15-day journey.

As always, any opinions stated in this post are completely my own. Additionally, this post contains a few Amazon affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the provided Amazon links, I receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you). So thanks for supporting my blogging habit!

19 comments

  1. This article is so informative! We are a roadtrippin’ family, and these tips are great. I hope to go to the west coast someday. We are heading east this year.

    1. Have fun on your trip East this summer! I will look forward to reading about it on your blog. We are sticking around the Midwest region for our travels this summer.

  2. Great planning! I’m glad it turned out mostly a huge success. I’m curious to hear what happened at the Grand Canyon (a place I love!). All your planning certainly paid off in wonderful memories for your family!

    1. We ran into bad weather at the Grand Canyon. The views were all hidden by cloud cover. We were soaked from the rain. And despite the bad weather, it was still terribly crowded. We were really looking forward to the Grand Canyon so everyone was very VERY disappointed.

  3. The map with the pins is a great idea!! I think we’ll do too with our kids

    We have now a map in a blanket but I never find the time to embroider the routes

    1. A map in a blanket? What a neat idea! Although, I would also struggle to find the time to embroider the routes. Our family loves our map on the wall. As soon as we start heading home from a trip, our children start talking about which pins they each want to put in.

    1. It was definitely an adventure! We were so pleased (and thankful) that the trip went so smoothly. With three kids in tow, you can’t know with any certainty how well they will travel… no matter how well you plan ahead. 🙂

    1. I bet your family will have a GREAT time on your road trip. Route 66 is so fun and interestingly quirky! We plan to see a few more route 66 sights later this summer, and I can’t wait!

  4. Sounds like you had an amazing trip, I’m going on a big trip across America for two months although I won’t be on the road unfortunately. A road trip along Route 66 would be the dream! xo

  5. I would love to do this with our kids. We road trip all over Oregon, but I’ve actually never considered going somewhere further. My husband, as a kid with his family, drove to Grand Canyon and it was horrible, but if we follow some of your tips, and plan a different type of trip, then maybe I can get him on board with trying it again with our kids.

    1. It was so fun! I think the key is to plan well and keep the children entertained. Just promise me that you will blog about it if you make it out on that road trip. 🙂

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