Planning a family road trip is a major undertaking, but it's one of the best value and most rewarding family vacations you can do. After all, you've got your own wheels (and a place to sleep if need be), the open road, time on your hands, serendipity, resources to keep you out of trouble, and limitless forms of entertainment to make the miles fly by.
We want to thank Terri H. for posting this comment on the FamilyTravelForum Facebook page because it made us examine our own trip planning process. She asked, "My husband and I are planning to take a road trip with our 7 year old son (he'll be 8 when we leave) from Maine to Florida and then over to Mississippi to see family (and go to some parks i.e. Disney, Universal, etc.) and then back to Maine. I'm wondering what kind of trip planner tools are out there that work well. I want something that will help decide what route to take and offer suggestions on places to stop on the way. What do you recommend?"
Terri, we hope our answer if of help to you and others planning a family road trip.
How to Schedule the Days on a Family Road Trip
A road trip from Maine to Florida sounds just great, and allowing time to stop at fun places along the way will make the drive down and back much easier for your 8-year-old. If he's the only child traveling in the car, you'll have to make sure that there's enough entertainment to keep him engaged in the trip. Ask him to pack a variety of things for the backseat such as books, a music source, some toys to play with and a pillow and blanket. You can surprise him with your knowledge of car games, a lap table or shelf to play on, crafts like an origami set that will keep him busy, and perhaps some books on CD to listen to together.
You don't say how much time you can spend on your trip, but we'd recommend limiting the driving to about 4 hours per day so you can fit in a half-day attraction. On a few days, you may want to start very early or drive into the night, so your son can sleep in the car part of the way.
From Family Travel Forum's online library, I recommend a tip-packed review of car trip survival strategies: 50 Tips for Car Trips because it has lots of good ideas and resources.
Where to Find Destination Inspiration for your Family Road Trip
To determine where to break up the road trip, you can pick up Family Travel Forum's new guidebook, "Complete Idiots Guide to the Best Family Destinations". It reviews more than 200 destinations with maps that show where each one is, so you can pick out several places to stop along the route that way. Your son will enjoy this process too, as each section has Fun Facts for kids.
If you're familiar with the east coast already, you can start with an atlas (in your case a map of the eastern seaboard would do), and get a rough idea of which regions you will pass through. (I think this is much easier to do at a library or at home if you have a hard copy atlas, than it is to review maps online where the scale is so tiny.)
Inevitably, in a road trip of this length, you're not going to stay on amajor highway like I-95 all the way south. In our trips, something usually comes up that we hadn't thought of, a place we'd always wanted to visit, so then we plan that detour. Be sure to involve your child in the trip planning so that he has stops to look forward to. You'll want to make him a laminated map for the journey, with these stops highlighted. En route, he can keep track of where you are and how much driving is left.
For example, here's a classic itinerary for an American history road trip, with visits to Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Your son has probably studied different aspects of America's history at school and might find any one or all of these stops interesting; he might also enjoy a few days in Washington DC or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia as well. Keep in mind that for every history stop, there's also kid-centric fun like Hershey Park or the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum or Busch Gardens Williamsburg so you can combine a variety of attractions. Our website has reviews of many of these classic family attractions, organized by state or activity.
Once you have the broad outline of how many days, what type of stops, must-do activities, we like the AAA site to design route plans. You can click on Travel and then look at the section called Travel Tools, then click on Online Trip-tik Travel Planner. This mapping tool allows you to look at various regions by map, zoom in and out to study roads, and use a checkbox to indicate what features you want to show up on the map (hotels, attractions, gas stations, events, and much more). Once you have noted the recommended attractions along the choice of routes, the site has links at points of interest to tell you more about them.
You can store your route information online and review alternatives, all the while calculating the mileage and time traveled. Again, once you have refined your intended stops, our site and others like the government's National Scenic Byways program (which highlights the nation's most significant roads in terms of beauty and history), can really add special elements to your trip.
Resources for Discovering the New & Different on your Family Road Trip
For driving directions and restaurants along the way, we like Google's Voice Navigation system for mobile phones. This simple application allows anyone in the car to speak into the handset and ask about a nearby restaurant by food type. You can ask about directions, hotels, even phrase your questions in different languages and learn new vocabulary that way.
At RoadFood.com, the team behind this classic guidebook keeps adding reviews of restaurants and truck stops and diners and memorable eateries along the major US highways. Yelp.com has a large variety of online reviews and can also provide ideas of where to stop as its mobile site will know where you are when you search.
Making your Road Trip Unforgettable
By the way, we make a binder of the maps, emails, tips and brochures we use in the trip planning and bring it with us. Then on the way, your son can color on it, add to it, paste in his own souvenirs (our son always loved truck stop placemats) so you have a great basis for a scrapbook when the trip is done. Your son might enjoy being the keeper for this trip by noting how far you travel each day, and adding his own journal to the binder.
Let us know how your travels go and what your favorite stops are!
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