Every summer I look forward to seeing photos of friends traveling far and wide. One family in particular is a personal favorite to read. My friend Grace and her husband have gone on road trips with their kids for decades. It started when their eldest was young, but the tradition kept going when they became a family of four to now a total whopping family of seven!
They make annual road trips a surprise with their kids, keeping the locations and destinations a secret until the rubber meets the road. Even friends don’t get to know until photos pop up on Facebook.
Last summer, I asked Grace if she would be willing to share her experiences about how to travel on the road with a family of seven. Read about her travel tips and experiences to go on the road!
Q: What made you decide to take road trips as part of your family vacation?
Actually it stems from my travel-loving dad. He loved food and vacations, and I grew up traveling with him and our family since way young. Those memories and pictures of us travelling were so impactful and memorable that I really wanted to be able to carry on that love of exploration. So naturally when I started having my own little family, my husband and I really wanted to start a tradition to be able to go on a trip at least once a year as a family. When our 1st was born, he decided to surprise me with a post-baby vacation, and we flew to Las Vegas/Los Angeles. Even with our tiny little colicky baby of five months we had a lot of hectic fun.
But this was to be our only time we flew together as a family. After that, every year we decided to take road trips. One because it was more economical (especially now that we have 5 kids), another because we had another little boy 1 1/2yrs later and thought it would be more feasible to drive since they were so young. Things like diapers, baby food, portable potties, snacks, and toys are more accessible in the car. And they did wonderfully on drives without technology but only with books and toys way back when anyways. Plus after our 1st road trip, we realize, wow, we see things we would have never seen if we have flown and would have skipped over in this little town! So ever since then 16 years ago, we decided to make it a fun tradition and drive somewhere every summer for 11 days (that’s how much time exactly my husband is able to get off from work every year.
Q: Where did you go on your first road trip? How many kids did you have with you on the trip?
Our very first road trip was only a short one from Austin to San Antonio and places in between, because we only had a toddler plus we recently just bought a new house so money was tight. It was still fun despite it being so near and short.
Q: How did you pack for that first trip? What were some critical items you needed on the road trip?
We didn’t pack as much as we do now for sure, but we packed the needed 3 bags, spare clothes for a toddler, diapers, her baby food and baby necessities, tons of snacks/drinks and some books. Notice that we weren’t as smart back then and just randomly threw things in the car so to speak. We had tons of room with only one too now that we thought of it.
Q: Where were some of your favorite vacation spots when you were a family of four?
Definitely the one that stands out for me and, I believe us, is Disney World. I am a big fan of Disney and 15 years ago, Disney prices were very reasonable, even very affordable. So we drove to Florida every couple of years or so. It seemed especially memorable and fun with just a family of four and especially when our 1st two were pretty little. And of course because its a road trip, we would hit spots along the way like Florida beaches so there’s a usual beach spot we always stop at too.
Another favorite spot of ours is definitely the St. Louis/Chicago route because not only is it one of the shortest and easiest drives from our city, but also St. Louis has so many free kid-friendly places to visit like the zoos/museums/gardens and Grant’s Farm-all free for all. And there are some yummy places to hit too!
Lastly and definitely one of our favorite to go places is White Sands National Monument. Its just so beautiful there, tranquil and fun for kids, so we always hit there if we go westward.
Q: As your family grew, did you have to make any changes in the way you planned for your road trips?
Yes of course. We had to buy a minivan and that was a lot of fun because it really felt like road trip then! We loaded that van, crammed it w/more food/drinks and snacks and toys and while every year we try to pack less, its always busting out at the seams. And we get better every year packing-wise too I believe as the family grew. Instead of everyone having their own bags we let the teens pack theirs but the little ones are in one bag and extra clothes/shoes/swim gear in another so poor daddy won’t have to lug every single bag up the changing hotels. We used to do that and he had to carry/cart every single bag into a hotel even if it’s only for one night. Now we organize it in a way that when we change hotels, its only those bags that go up while the other used bags held our laundry which stayed in the car. We pack 11 days worth of clothes too so we don’t need to do laundry and because of that, we have to pack efficiently.
As each year we grew as a family we also got smarter not only in the way we packed but also in what to bring and when to stop. For example after having many accidents with little ones in the past, we now made it mandatory and plan for a 4 hour or less potty/gas stop-pit stop so to speak. We also got smart and had many recyclable bottles in the car (for boys that can’t wait) or diapers/change of clothes for any or all accidents. But by making the pit stops shorter and mapping out safe places to stop or have fun at or even stay over at, we’ve eliminated many surprises. Plus after many too dangerous night time driving, we have planned a better way of taking it slower now and stopping every day somewhere so there will be no more late night driving. This way we have to map out safe cities that require less than 7-8 hrs of driving per day, if possible. That makes for happier peeps in the car too.
Also as our family grew we had to budget better. We can’t do one-room double bed hotels anymore. We always and still try to find 4-5 star hotel stays that are around $100/night and when we were a family of 4 we were able to do Priceline and get $50/night hotel stays at resorts or 4-5 star hotels. But now that we are a family of 7 it gets super tricky so we start searching in the beginning of the year until a month before for those deals. We utilize hotel credit card programs/Priceline/and employer discounts to still try to find hotel stays that fit our budget. Sometimes its like an adventure to get those deals but when we are nearing the time we have to leave, we get pretty anxious. Hotel stays, food places and recreation are the top things we prioritize our trips by. We like good food and really nice hotels because we believe it makes better memories and fun so that’s why we try so hard to find really good places to stay at. So when our family is so big now, we try to find either hotels that have suites (which we still can fit, but not sure how much longer or ones that we can book 2 rooms, side by side perferably and still around $100/night. And this past trip was one of the best because we were able to find some really nice stays, better than we imagined, mostly from employer discounts.
Q: What were some of your favorite vacation spots when you traveled as a family of seven?
For a family of seven it gets tricky because we want to make it special for every single person. We have two teens and three little ones so for example this year we tried to plan something somewhere that each would like. I think we did that this year and thus this was one of our favorite trips ever. Two years ago we hit Disney World and yes, we were super excited bc it was the 1st time for our littlest at 3 years old, but it felt extra hectic that year. It still was fun, but less fun for the teens in someway and a little bit chaotic and very expensive. There aren’t any regrets in going at all but compared to last year and this year’s trip, the 11 days felt enough. In 2014, we took our time to drive to California. Because we did the Disney thing, we opted to try Knott’s Berry Farm knowing that it had big rides and smaller rides perfect for each of our children. And so glad that assessment was right because it was so much fun for each. We hit children’s museums along the way in Arizona for the littler ones and food factories/farmer’s market for the my food-loving teen daughter and I, and beaches for the rest. And of course White Sands is the place to go for all ages. It was just about a perfect trip. Even last year driving up to St. Louis and Chicago again and hitting all the Six Flags along the way was pretty fun, but very hot and slightly more crowded. Yet those places will still be our top picks for our family of seven.
Q: What are some travel planning tips you recommend when traveling on the road?
Our trick for our family is planning in the beginning of the year, knowing where we’d like to go almost a year before. Then around early to mid-spring we start scouting for those hotel deals. We are almost always locked into the same time frame in July bc of our older children’s sports beginning so early way before school, so we almost always go weeks before that time for 11 days. We always try to go after July 4th since rates are hiked up, so we kinda know every year when to begin. Hotel bookings come first and we try to never use Priceline or non-refundable bookings until the month before, if need be. So we still search around until the month before if there’s a better deal out there for a nicer hotel or a better price for the one we reserved.
Once we get the hotels set, I go on Tripadvisor and Yelp to find food places around the area or near the excursion so we have every meal planned. Yes, this takes a lot of time but from experience its so worth it because we are able to hit some very good places to eat and its less of a surprise. We usually know ahead of time what to order, if its to-go and how much to expect to pay there as well. It really helps in road-tripping because we already have it all googled and mapped out. Because of our big family with some picky eaters, this is the best way to appease most of us. I do plan for alternates in case the place is closed or too packed too. Yes, it takes more work again but my husband likes to pack it in when we are on vacation so there’s not much room for surprises or detours so if we have an idea where the eatery is, all mapped out, then its so much easier instead of years ago we drove around trying to find our first experience of Five Guys in Florida and it took us an hour to get there and of course, it wasn’t even good.
My husband also plans for the excursions, at least something to do each of the 11 days while we are out. So he plans the recreation and as mentioned we try to plan something that would benefit each kid-like beach for one, theme park for another, shopping another day, food tasting another, museum for one etc. After all that, we print out maps, Google everything, have phone numbers for every place just in case because can never be too sure about our navigation system. We have been led astray too many times in the past and ended up at some scarey places so we don’t take those chances anymore.
Q: Are there any other comments or thoughts you would like to share with us?
It has been so much fun noting all this down because it brought back so many fun memories and longing to go again this coming summer. Every year of the 16 years we have been road-tripping, we have always looked forward to these 11 days we get to spend away from home, eating out three meals a day, staying at some pretty nice places, not having to do laundry, and exploring our great country. We highly recommend ALL families big and small to road trip at least once together as a family. Yes, there will be times of chaos or fights over someone’s foot kicking their chair or somebody smelled or someone threw something at them, or baby crying but hey, those are memories we look back at and can laugh about. Road trips really bonded us as a family, really taught the kids to care for one another, older ones to look out for the younger ones and knitted them together as siblings too. It has taught us what patience is, how to love more, be better parents, and see the world with bigger eyes.
Financially, too, it has taught us how to budget better, for the kids to know things/trips cost a lot, to be wiser on how to spend money throughout the year so we can go on these excursions, and have something to look forward to throughout the year. But mostly by road tripping, you get to explore places you otherwise won’t see if you flew to one destination. So many beautiful scenic routes we have hit while driving albeit some dangerous routes, beaches and parks we got to play at because we have a car en route, and shops/stores along the road. Especially, think of all the food places and little mom and pop diners we would have missed if we flew too! One of these days we may fly but every year we calculate the costs and hecticness in maybe flying and all the bags involved and then we decide again that we’d rather drive, be stuck together and see places we haven’t been before.
Thanks, Grace, for sharing your tips, advice, and personal stories about your travel experiences around the U.S.!
As my family and I prep for our summer road trip, you can stay up-tp-date y following Hometown Betty’s Instagram feed for all the latest and greatest fun!
Here are some of our past family road trips: