While the words 'family' and 'road trip' may not usually be ideally thought of together, let me tell you that the family road trip is probably the most enjoyable of all the budget vacation ideas our family has tried. The whole idea of the trip came about out of the need to go and pick up a trailer - 2000 miles away. It was all inconvenient and a little stressful figuring out which of us parents would do the trip and who would stay behind with the kids - so we both decided to go, and to take the kids with us.
Rather than focus on what was an annoying situation we changed the way we looked at it entirely - we did a 180 degree shift in our attitude and had a blast as a result. We found that by changing our attitude, we changed our whole life experience. That is typical of everything in our life too mind you, but it is sometimes hard to remember that when the chips are down.
What we absolutely had to take with us
Our plan was to drive the 2000 miles in a few days, not wasting much time before we picked up the trailer. This would allow us to leave a few weeks for the trip back - really enjoying the sights and each other's company. We hadn't done a road trip for ages, and the kids had never either - they are still young and their favorite past time seems to be asking 'are we almost there' after rounding the first corner from home. Our idea was to change that attitude and impatience to car travel.
We didn't have much money for our budget family holiday and road trip, so we planned on camping in a tent on the way there, and then making the most of the trailer on the leisurely drive back. No motels or hotels unless absolutely necessary - and that worked, apart from a night or two where we were caught in what looked like the perfect storm, and that was one of those 'absolutely necessary' occasions.
So we took with us a tent, a few plastic sheets, a basic tool kit, sleeping bags, basic mattresses, one small bag of clothes each, a few toys for the kids, basic food supplies and toiletries. We had to travel light, because we don't have a large car, and we want to keep the weight down as we were going to be towing the trailer on the way back.
Absolute must do list before leaving
Check and double check the car - make sure it is mechanically sound and your roadside service is up to date plus all relevant insurances. Make sure you take a basic tool kit - at least the right gear you will need to change a tyre. Oh - and check the spare tyre too. There is absolutely no joy at all in getting a flat tyre only to find that the spare is also flat. It feels bad, especially when you are punched in the arm by an inconvenienced family.
Check and double check the bags and equipment - remember to pack the tent, all poles, ropes and lines. Don't forget the make sure everyone has enough clothes - remember that washing machines will be few and far between, but space is at a premium - it's a tough balancing act. Be brutal when overseeing the choice of toys for the kids. Make sure the kids are in the car before you leave - it's tough explaining that one for the rest of your life.
Knowing how much money you have at your disposal is vital. Working out all likely expenses beforehand is a must, as you will be able to calculate an average cost of the trip on a per day basis and then compare that to your expected expenditure. A budget family holiday necessarily involves budgeting, so do not skip this step just because you may think it unpleasant. It is not fun, that's for sure, but then neither is being stuck 2000 miles from home and finding out you have run out of cash.
Budgeting and packing go hand in had too - as you will discover when you forget things and have to buy replacements (trust me, it will happen). So pack carefully to avoid messing up the budget. A road trip is made cheaper when you save money on things like food snacks and hotels. So pack a bunch of food to take with you to cut down on eating out and avoid gas station temptations. Having the tent will help cut costs considerably too - so don't avoid pitching the tent - think of the cash.
Must Do List
Most of these things will come under the sub heading of "have fun". The road trip is not a flat our race to get from point A to point B. The road trip is all about the trip, the journey - so make sure that you leave time to enjoy it. Relax a little, there's no really hurry. Even if you are on a time limit, there is no reason not to enjoy the simple pleasures of being on the road. Play games, laugh, take photos, tell stories.
Play games with the kids that involve them looking out the window at the world passing by - encourage questions and make observations yourself - lead by example. Encouraging positive interaction through games will always be more productive that the 'be quiet and look out the window' approach (it never worked on me when I was a kid anyway).
Before you leave, draw up a list of things you want to do - places to go and things to see. Keep the list handy somewhere and cross items off as you do them, make it a bit of a ritual. Again, it's not a race to get it done as quickly as possible, it is the journey that matters, the experience.
So look at the view, sniff the air, and feel the breeze - enjoy the world with your family (and stay on budget).