How to Plan a Family Road Trip for Beginners
By TAXA Habitat Specialists \
In the 1920s, Americans combined their passions for driving and camping – designating the road trip as a way to escape from everyday life. Because infrastructure, amenities, and roads were questionable outside of cities, the first road trip pioneers would pack camping gear and the tools needed to be self-sufficient in their travels. Over 100 years later, we still prepare and plan for road trips so we can fully enjoy the freedom they offer, but with all of our family members included. Although road conditions and roadside support have improved drastically since the first road trips, having a well-though-out-plan preserves the journey.
Finding a destination & estimating travel times
If you haven’t found your destination yet, it’s best to start by estimating the time available for travel – this creates a radius of spots you can choose. To get a rough idea of time and distance, add 15 minutes to your travel time for every two hours of driving needed to reach your destination.
For example, let’s say we are thinking about taking the family camping in San Francisco and have to drive from Bend, OR – obeying speed limits, that’s almost an eight-hour drive (or 500 miles). Following the rule of thumb from above, our travel time would be somewhere around nine hours. For safety and sanity, try to limit yourself to driving less than eight hours per day. With this in mind, we can safely say that every 500 miles of driving is at least one day of travel. Of course, this doesn’t factor in traffic, extra stops for tolls, changing drivers, or additional bathroom breaks.
In summary, if we have three days of vacation time, and we want to spend the entire day at our destination, then we should try to pick places within 500 miles of our home. With this knowledge, we can get everyone’s input on where to visit without accidentally choosing somewhere out of reach. After you’ve figured out where you want to go and estimated your travel time, start linking together a list of pit stops and activities along the way.
Planning the route
Once you’ve all decided on the final destination, consider asking everyone to pitch one to two ideas for things they’d like to do along the way. By gathering input from everyone, route planning can be an inclusive experience. As the defacto planner, it can be a lot of pressure to plan the “perfect” trip – involving the family helps to alleviate that.
Finding places to stop & rest
If you find more time available considering your destination, make some room for nature walks or leisure with the family. Planning a family road trip doesn’t have to be all about getting to the final stop and back on schedule – there are plenty of amazing roadside attractions and landmarks to visit along the way. Moreover, planning out the rest stops and bathroom breaks ahead of departure can be extremely helpful in reducing the stress of navigating mid-travel. Just remember to book and research places online for reservation times and discounts.
Speaking of reservation times, prearranging accommodations at stops along the way ensures you won’t be turned away due to things like seasonality or party size. Traveling can be just as much about the journey as the destination, but not reaching the final stop could damper everyone’s spirits – to avoid this, think ahead and book your reservations before the trip.
Using online planning tools
Utilize online planning tools like Google or Apple Maps, or a roadside trip planner to find recommendable places to rest along the way. As a failsafe, you can print out route directions with your list of stops ahead of time – this way, if your cell phone loses its data connection, you can reference your notes and continue the trip. Most online trip planning tools provide traffic and driving conditions, which are extremely useful for better-estimating departure and arrival times.
Consider making the route the destination
Sometimes a trip without a destination can be more enjoyable than trying to get somewhere. When you aren’t constrained by time or distance, focusing on the journey and taking in the scenery adds to the feeling of freedom on the open road. Here are some famous routes that can serve as destinations themselves:
- Route 66 - this route is known as the “Mother Road” of America and is featured in multiple films and songs. Some notable stops on this road include the Gateway Arch, the Blue Whale of Catoosa, the Petrified Forest National Park, and the Santa Monica Pier.
- Pacific Coast State Route 1 - spanning from Leggett and past Los Angeles, SR 1 has over 600 miles of sites along the California coastline. State Route 1 travels through the Big Sur region and has plenty of camping opportunities along the Pacific.
- Lake Michigan Circle Tour - if you find yourself in the Midwest, consider making a part of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour your destination or working it into your trip. The Mackinaw Bridge, Northern Chicago, and Door County are all great family destinations on this route.
- Route 12 - one of the longest highways in the U.S., Route 12 travels from Detroit to the Pacific Coast in Washington State. On Route 12, you can plan stops from the Wisconsin Dells to the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho.
- Blue Ridge Parkway - the shortest route on this list, but one of the most breathtaking, this National Parkway is one of the most visited roads in the U.S. This parkway runs from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive.
If your family has a smaller vehicle, playing Tetris to get everything into the trunk with multiple passengers can be challenging. To avoid this, consider a rooftop cargo or travel trailer option for more storage space. Some family road trip essentials to pack include:
- A first-aid kit
- Books and games
- Bathroom essentials
- Water bottles and snacks
- Neck pillows and blankets
- Napkins, tissues, or wet wipes
One of the biggest pitfalls of road trips is having to pull over if your vehicle breaks down. Besides ensuring the integrity of your car, camper, or RV, you’ll want to educate your family on vehicle and roadside safety. Take time to teach younger kids about safety on the road and pack some essential tools to keep the trip moving forward.
General roadside safety
Safety in and around cars is paramount during a family road trip. Knowing that your kids act responsibly around vehicles makes family road trips much less stressful. Moreover, for obvious reasons, refrain from leaving younger children unattended in the vehicle. Most state governments recommend teaching children road safety when they start grade school.
Roadside emergency kit
Besides taking care of your safety essentials like roadside assistance and a spare tire, pack an emergency tool kit. Most roadside kits have tools like tow cables, flashlights, jumper cables, and flares. It may seem like a lot to bring, but having these tools is better than getting caught off-guard without them.
Pulling a trailer safely
Using a trailer makes packing belongings easier, but using one comes with a few caveats. When towing a trailer or camper, be careful when backing up your vehicle to avoid jackknifing the trailer into your car. Another factor to consider is the towing capacity of your vehicle and if it can safely climb hills with the added weight.
Finally, you’ll want to check the trailer’s wiring, brake lights, brakes, and tires before you set out. Check to make sure the wiring is connected and all lights are operating properly. Also, verify the brakes are functioning correctly and the tires don’t have cracks in the sidewall or large debris in the treads.
Entertainment on the road
Another difficulty of family road trips is if the kids start to bicker. Sometimes they just want to feud for the sake of boredom. Keeping them engaged for most of the trip can curb arguments or fussiness. Handheld gaming devices are okay, but interactive pit stops can be an even better distraction and a much-needed break from driving. Additionally, stopping by events or landmarks on the way limits phone time and up quality family time.
Food & drinks
One of the best ways to calm restless kids on a family road trip is with plenty of snacks. Make sure to load up on food and drinks before you depart in anticipation of hangry kids or adults. You can make a shared note or list for your family to write down their favorite foods to make sure everyone can have snacks they enjoy. When stopping for gas, check your snack stockpile to ensure you have enough until the next stop.