It’s the middle of the summer for the families where I live, and I have heard a few comments from friends about how it’s probably too late to go on a family road trip. That’s the kind of thing you want to plan months in advance, right?
Yes and no.
I say if you really, truly want a road trip, don’t settle for a staycation (even though a staycation can be amazing). Here are 10 steps to making road trip plans in a jiffy.
1. Start with how much time you have. This step is in two parts. First is, how many days can you be away from home? The second part is to ask yourself how many hours you can drive each day, taking your family’s needs into account. You know your family best — you know if you have a kid who absolutely hates the car seat or is the kind who is happy just looking out the window, or is somewhere between these extremes. Maybe someone in the family is a frequent restroom break taker or one who needs to stretch. Our family tries not to drive more than 8 hours per day, and preferably less — and that’s on days when we aren’t expecting to do much sightseeing.
2/3. Think where you want to go. Once you know how long you will be gone and how many hours per day you can drive, think about where you can go. Be realistic within your time frame. Are there trails, cities, museums, beaches, or other attractions you want to visit? How about along the way to where you’re going? Use maps and websites to find stops along the way. Roadtrippers.com is excellent for finding cool spots to check out and help plan your route. While you’re thinking about where you’re going, also check the weather. You don’t want to be surprised by a tropical storm or a sudden cold snap. Mobile weather apps like NOAA Weather Radar will give you alerts for severe weather and let you track weather in specific cities. This proved helpful to us when we were in Arizona in monsoon season and California in wildfire season.
2/3. Plan on where you will sleep. I wrote steps 2 and 3 like this because sometimes you want to or have to stay somewhere very specific — for example, Grandma’s house or a hotel where you can cash in points to get a free stay. So instead of thinking about where you want to go before where you will sleep, you might have to flip-flop these steps. In any case, you will want to make reservations for every night that you’ll be gone. This can take some time to make calls or visit websites, but it’s better to have peace of mind knowing where you will be staying rather than wandering into a city and taking your chances with whether there will be room for you. Take it from our family, who once had to drive two hours out of our way in west Texas because we didn’t think we needed to make reservations in a small town — where every last hotel room was taken up by construction crews working in the area. Even if (or in some locations, especially if) you are camping, make a campsite reservation. Check sites like Recreation.gov, ReserveAmerica, KOA, Thousand Trails, and Tentrr to find campsites where you are going. Some campgrounds have cabins, so you don’t necessarily need a tent.
4. Think about what you will do. Will you make stops along the way to your destination and visit an area every day? Twice a day? Will you pack your own meals, go to drive-thru fast-food restaurants, sit down at table-service restaurants, or a combination? Will you be doing any sports or activities that require gear? Will you mostly drive, or will you also walk, bike, or take public transportation?
5. Make lists. Use what you know about your trip to make lists. You need a list for each person in the family, and then sub-lists: clothing, toiletries, toys, things to do in the car, medications, and special must-have items. List food and drinks you will take. List things that would be nice to have in the vehicle with you while you’re on the road, like games, movies, and mobile device charging cables. List any responsibilities you have that you need to take care of before you go, whether at work or at home (like paying bills). Make a list of where you will be each day and give this itinerary to someone you trust who will want to know where you are.
6. Get your vehicle checked. If you keep your car in good working order and are planning a weekend trip, you are probably good to go. But for longer trips, my family always has our mechanic check out our vehicle for a safety inspection.
7. Take care of pets and your home. If you’re not taking your pet with you on the road trip, make sure someone is looking after him or her. Board your pet with your vet or find a pet sitter. Also figure out what you will do about your mail, plants, and other things that need to be taken care of around the house.
8. Pack. Use your lists! The less you bring, the better — although I have never regretted bringing an extra outfit (underwear and all) for each person. Think through your activities and the weather, and pack with this in mind. Making sure you have some cash also never hurts. I always have my kids pack their own lightweight backpack full of whatever toys, games, or personal items they want so they have a job to do and feel they are part of the planning.
9. Get your family excited about the road trip. Show them a map, read a book about a place you’re visiting, have a dance party, whatever it takes. Kids usually catch on to your enthusiasm.
10. Go! Have a great time. Make memories. Take pictures and video. Make up your mind that no restlessness, arguments, or problems are going to ruin your trip.
I estimate these steps could take about 12 hours, except for taking your vehicle to get inspected. It may take up to two days, though, depending on how much research you like to do of the places you might go — or how much negotiating you might have to do with other members of your family to agree on locations and schedules. With these tips, you could be on the road in a few days. So, yes, you can plan a family road trip at the last minute.