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How to Plan Hassle-Free Family Road Trips

family road trip
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What happens in the minivan stays in the minivan.

That’s long been my credo for family road trips. Once the door slides closed, no one needs to know what terrible sugary snacks we’re bribing our kids with as we slowly meander down the highway. And for that matter, they don’t need to know how long it takes us to get to our destination, either. (Virginia to North Carolina sounds like a 15-hour trip, right?)

But over the years, we’ve streamlined our approach to family road trips, making improvements and evolving our game. And now, my well-traveled, oft-exploring family of five (or 5-pack, as I lovingly refer to them) is ready to reveal our insider tips and advice for getting from Point A to Point B with more laughter than crying, more healthy snacks than saccharine treats, and more fun-loving memories than wishes that we had never left the driveway.

That’s not to say we don’t experience our fair share of speed bumps along the way. But with the right approach to budgeting, packing, mobile dining, and more, you too can roll with the detours and occasional meltdowns. So, fasten your seatbelts — no, not that one, my youngest stuck gum stuck in it — and ride shotgun as we barrel through ways to ensure that the first or next of your family road trips isn’t your last.

Budgeting 101: Pre-Pay for Trip Costs

There’s a scene in the classic family road trip flick, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” in which the Griswold family matriarch states to the dad, “Everything on this safari has cost twice as much as you figured out.”

And it’s true. Everything will cost twice as much — and that’s not including the stuff you weren’t counting on buying (including the new suitcase to replace the one that now has a broken zipper thanks to one of the kids trying to pack themselves in it).

With that in mind, pay for as much as you can upfront to control costs and avoid “budget creep.” This includes hotels, RV camping sites, tickets for museums, and sporting events. If you’re worried at all about paying for something you won’t get to use, then don’t. That’s where travel insurance comes in — and more specifically — a Trip Cancellation benefit.

With a travel insurance plan from Allianz Global Assistance, you can find a plan that fits your budget and protects it. Then, if you experience a covered event that forces you to cancel your ambitious trek — for example, a member of your fam falls ill or gets injured and gets a doctor’s note advising not to travel — you can recoup nonrefundable prepaid expenses.1

Unpacking Common Sense

You’re going to make mistakes on your first couple of family road trips. You may place the car snacks and road diapers in the bottom of the trunk. Or buy the kids some new toy that makes a lot of noise and let them bring it along.

Here are a few tips for packing smarter, not harder:

  • Make a list. We know, it’s the most obvious tip we could share. But creating a packing list a week-ish before your departure date and revisiting it a few times can do wonders for not forgetting essential supplies. We even have some packing lists to help inspire you.
  • Give yourself more time to pack than the 2 hours before you depart. The final hours before departing for family road trips are among the most stressful your brood will ever experience. You’ll scream, you’ll cry, and you’ll contemplate canceling everything. But you won’t — especially if you give yourself a head start and start packing piecemeal a few days before your trip takes off.
  • Preserve your optimal setup. Every once in a while we do it — get every bag, suitcase, and odd baby sleeping aid in the exact right spot of our vehicle. Now take a picture! Heck, take a few. Capture your template for future trips. And if you managed to pack a family of five for a 12-day road trip — without having to wash any clothes — be sure to show it off to family and friends for bragging rights.
  • Bring it there, buy it there. Do you need to buy a few things for your trip before hitting the road? Do you usually take a good chunk of your first day at the beach condo or lake house grocery shopping? Try this: shop at home before you leave and pack it in the van. Then when you arrive, buy those buckets and shovels, beach umbrellas, and towels. Stow them in the empty coolers and grocery bags on the way home. Not only do you save the time of shopping on vacation, but you also save by avoiding the marked-up prices of stores located in vacation hot spots.

Mobile Meal Planning on Family Road Trips

On my first trips, I would look scan interstate stops for whatever fast food oasis would be acceptable to everyone in the minivan.

The truth, however, is that fast food (also known as “quick-service” and “fast-casual”) is often as fast as the fast lane during summer gridlock. Crowded restaurants coupled with employee shortages can make pitstops drag out over an hour. And if you’re planning on freshening up in the restroom or changing a diaper at a drive-thru burger joint, well, good luck. And one more thing: the average fast-food combo meal packs more than 1,193 calories.2 That can lead to poor digestion, increased blood pressure, as well as a tired and cranky demeanor — less-than-ideal conditions whether you’re behind the wheel or napping in the third row.3

After a while, we wised up and tried some other meal-time options, with much better results. These include:

  • Rest area picnics: Have you been to the South Carolina Welcome Center off I-95? It’s clean and pristine enough to host your next birthday party! Sure, public rest areas can get a bad reputation. Sometimes it’s for good reason: empty vending machines, sketchy characters, and out-of-commission bathrooms. But many offer all the basics for a good picnic lunch: green spaces, shelters, and even the occasional trail to walk off that bologna and cheese sandwich before sitting in the car for another 8-hour shift. Just pack a healthy lunch or even stop at a nearby store to pick out your spread.
  • Counter-intuitive casual dining: Who would wait for an hour or more at a sit-down restaurant when you have places to go and people to see? But chains, diners, and other restaurants often take the same amount of time as their fast-food counterparts. Trust me. Plus, it’s a more relaxing experience. And while it will likely cost a few bucks more per meal, the menu is more expansive. Try finding a cobb salad or tuna wrap at a drive-thru. Need WiFi? You’re likely to find free ‘net access, too. Sometimes, it’s nice to be where everyone isn’t rushing around. The sit-down dining experience is as close as it comes to self-care on family road trips.
  • The grocery store grab & go: You know what grocery stores have? Big, clean bathrooms. If it’s raining, there are wide-open aisles to walk around and limber up. Today many stores are also paired with gas pumps, too. And, of course, they have food. Many even have sandwiches and ready-made meals. And the produce selection is going to be much superior to that lone bruised apple in the basket at the gas station checkout. Get creative and make your own portable charcuterie tray: cheese, pepperoni, crackers, and veggies. It’s easy to pass around and clean-up is easy. One bonus of hitting up the local grocery store: you often forget to pack key items on family road trips, whether it’s batteries for the baby monitor or a toothbrush for dad. Stores can come in clutch for all the packing list items you left behind.

It’s time to take the training wheels off your family road trips. With these tips and tricks, your next vacation won’t be perfect. They never will be. But they will be smarter, more fun, and even a bit more memorable — for all the right reasons. Happy trails!

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