Thursday, October 9, 2014

Road Trip on a Budget...with Kids

Hey everyone!  So sorry I've been quiet lately--my life is seriously jam packed right now with every spare minute "to myself" going towards work or other commitments.  I'm dying to find my pockets of time to write again but this season is just not the one for that.  In the meantime, I wanted to share this post I wrote for my friend's website Karyn Burns ABC's Posters.   When our family was on our big summer road trip (which feels like forever ago now) Karyn wrote to ask if I could collaborate on a post about traveling with kiddos on a budget.  I promptly forgot I committed to her and then randomly got it all down on paper a couple weeks ago.  Karyn is just as, if not more, busy than I am right now though so we had to put the collaboration on hold.  We will work something out soon but for now here is the post I'm finally getting out to those of you who asked for specific tips on this topic.  Check out Karyn's website (and purchase a poster or 2 while there!) and stay tuned for our earth shattering collaboration sometime soon.

Have you ever considered packing a month’s worth of necessities into your car and driving across the United States?  Sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it?  I think we’ve all had that daydream at some point.  Now, have you entertained the dream knowing you have extremely limited funds and 2 small children?  No?  Neither had I before my family took to the road this summer.

A few months before the trip, my husband and I were in our living room after putting the kids to bed, reviewing the day’s events.  Out of the blue, he said “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but what if we drove to the East Coast this summer?”  Depending upon where you live this may or may not sound like an insane idea but since we live in Colorado and have 2 young children (ages 6 and 3), I was befuddled by his ludicrous suggestion.  I listened anyway because he’d told me not to interrupt him until he managed to get his line of reasoning out. 

Truth be told, a part of me was thrilled from the first with the absurdity of it all.  My side of the family was going to be convening on Cape Cod for an annual vacation we’d had to miss out on 2 years running.  Our current financial reality does not include 4 plane tickets to the East Coast so missing it again was a given.  After my “Say WHAT?!” moment, I promptly embraced the role of co-conspirator.

We talked out a pros and cons list and found there were countless pros vs. 2 cons.  The pros were too many to fit in one blog post so I’ll reveal the cons alone:  1) We are totally and completely broke and 2) there are 2 small children living in our house who might make 5 days in a car the most hellish 5 days we’d ever lived through.   As you must do when a pros and cons list paints an indisputable picture, we took a deep breath and committed.

We were able to figure out the saving money piece pretty easily that very night.  Venturing the kids would be blinded by excitement at the thought of seeing their cousins and therefore ignorant of the reality of being in the car for days in a row, we left that piece in the “to-do” pile...and broke the news the next morning.

My breathless reveal of the surprise we had in store for them was met by an incredulous 6 year old and her tearful objections.  She could not believe we were going to make them sit in the car for just shy of a whole week.   I knew I had to spring into action so started hatching a plan for fun and games in the car.  I promised her a good time and believe me we had to deliver.

Long story short, here is a list of tricks we discovered to make our “Road Trip on a Budget…with Kids” a success with a few examples of how to incorporate the ideas.  I’m not going to lie, it takes some prep but the amount of time spent getting ready was more than worth the hours it paid off.  I am proud to say we came home with more money in our bank account than we would have if we’d stayed home.  Granted, we had some help with gas (thanks Mom!), temporary use of a hybrid car instead of our beater (thanks Mom-in Law!) and relatives who wouldn’t let us pay for anything once we got to The Cape (thanks family!) but still I think that’s notable, to say the least.

1)      No Eating Out

-Pack light clothing-wise so as to leave more space in the car for food.

-Bring healthy salty, sweet and protein rich snacks as well as a few tried and true creature comforts for each traveler.  This will help to avoid impulse buys when you are all tired/wired.

-Stock a small bag for the car full of enough snacks for the travel day.  Keep extra snacks in a suitcase in the trunk.  Replenish the bag from the suitcase stash when at your rest stop for the night.

-Before the trip, buy fixings and pack lunch each day before heading off again (or before you go to sleep).

-Stock a cooler in the trunk with dinner possibilities: frozen burritos, single serve mac and cheese…anything you can pop in a microwave or add hot water to.  If you think of it, bring along some utensils but most truck stops on major interstates have everything you need to prepare an on-the-go dinner.  Hey, they even have showers if you’re up for that!

2)      Couch Surf

-Pre-plan your stops and stay with people you know whenever possible.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Most people will be happy to contribute to the success of such a grand adventure! 

-If you can’t stay with someone you know, search online for hotels beforehand or on your phone when approaching the destination.  Prices are often higher if you walk up and reserve the room in person.

3)      Scavenger Hunt

I was inspired by the all the amazing downloadable scavenger hunt choices out there but decided to create ours myself.  If you would like help creating one, let me know--I'd love to give you a hand!
-Create, or snag online (there are TONS of free ones available for download), a car trip scavenger hunt for the kids.  Have a sheet for every state you pass through so they have something new every once in a while.  I kept ours in envelopes saying “Do not open until…” and presented the sheets at every state line.   Every point earned was worth a minute they could stay up past their bedtime while on vacation.
-Include a “Mystery Item” for each state by mapping your route and spending some time (pre-trip) on Roadside  There you can find kooky, oddball destinations pretty much anywhere in this country.  For instance, we stopped at the World's Largest Ball of Paint in Alexandria, IN and painted layer number 24,085!

4)      License Plate Game

-Don’t forget this classic.  It’s an easy way to get everyone involved and can pop up just when you need it in the form of a distraction (“How many license plates have we found so far?...Which ones to we have left?”).  Not to mention spotting a hard to find plate is exciting even for the adults.  Download a free printable like this one so the kids can keep track of what’s been found.

5)      Map It

-Print out road maps for each state you will go through and give the kids highlighters.  Encourage them to find and map your route.  This helps quell the “Are we there yet?”s because they can see for themselves.  At the start of the trip I presented each of them with a brand new clipboard and fancy pen attached so they had a convenient way to write on their maps, license plate game and scavenger hunt sheets.

6)      Geocache

-If you’ve never heard of geocaching, read about it here.  It is our all-time favorite family activity.  We use this $10 app but if you don’t have a smartphone you can buy a GPS unit such as this.  After that purchase, geocaching is FREE any and every time you feel inspired to go on an adventure.  We challenged ourselves to find a cache in every state we went through.   Finding one was also an item for the scavenger hunt.

Geocaching at sunset on Lake Erie
7)      Technology

-When all else fails, take advantage of any technology you have.  To be honest, our 3 year old was more apt to want to watch a movie than play the games we had prepared.  We accepted this and moved on with our lives.  Don’t beat yourself up if the kids just want to zone out to a dvd, a game on your tablet/iPad/phone or music for hours on end (although whatever you do, don’t forget their headphones!).   It’s okay, their fried brains will return to normal before you know it and you’ll get some amazing quiet time for a bit.

8)      Keep It Simple

-If you are worried you will all get stir crazy despite your preparation, don’t worry—you’re right!  Try not to anticipate every snag by overloading the car with more possible distractions.  Talk to the kids beforehand about the trip being a mix of fun and boredom and that you will all get through it together.  It’s better to have a fairly easy to keep in order car and a few hours of complaining than it is to have a jumbled mess of a car with the same (if not more) amount of complaining.  If you can’t resist getting more stuff, keep it to things they can stash in the pockets on the back of your front seats:  workbooks, books, stickers etc.

There you go—hope you have as much fun and argue maybe a little less than we did.   Have a great trip!