If you can at least entertain the thought of spending hours in a car with your spouse and children, you can plan a road trip. A road trip can maximize family harmony and keep costs down. And done well, you won't feel the urge to escape by stowing away in the Winnebago parked beside you at a rest stop.
Starting from just outside Toronto and towing our trusty tent trailer, our family of four has successfully road-tripped over much of North America, including circuits of Lake Ontario, the Carolinas and Virginia, and longer drives to Florida, Prince Edward Island and Vancouver. Here are some of our secrets:
Where to go
- Research interesting places on or near your route that you can stop at briefly to break up the drive.
- Return by a different route for a change of scenery.
- Mix it up: Try to include something for everyone — historic sites, natural wonders, theme parks and outlet malls . . . er, cultural centres.
- Drive at least part-way on scenic routes, such as the Trans-Canada Highway between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, the Sea-to-Sky Highway in B.C. or the Blue Ridge Parkway in the southeastern U.S.
Where to stay
- Look for motel rooms that have fridges and microwaves, or that include a light breakfast buffet.
- Consider city camping — staying in a non-wilderness campground with full hook-ups, a swimming pool, playground and games room near your destination. There are comfortable private campgrounds near almost every major attraction in North America. Some are glorified parking lots, functioning mainly as cheap places to sleep en route, but others are fancy enough to be destinations themselves. You can even camp outside large cities and take a campground shuttle or drive into town.
Camping takes some time and effort, but you can’t beat the price: as little as $50 a night for a family of four at a standard-issue KOA campground, for example. (Plus the cost of your tent or camper, which, with good care, will last many years and can be sold when the kids leave home.) You’ll also save on food costs by cooking on-site – even basic tent trailers come with a mini-fridge and portable stove, and we bring along a small microwave and BBQ as well.
- Spontaneity is nice, but when you’re travelling with kids, book your accommodation ahead so you know you have a place for them to sleep.
What to eat
- Pack your lunch the night before you leave home, so you can be in and out of a rest area in half an hour. Keep food and drinks fresh in a cooler (ice or plug-in). Pack enough for dinner, too, and save even more money and time.
- Instead of eating familiar fast food, soak up a little local flavour — before you go, check sites such as Chowhound (North, South and Central America) and Roadfood (U.S. plus a few places in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec) for cheap-and-cheerful places to enjoy regional specialties on or near your route.
- Restaurant portions in the U.S. can be huge. Share meals when you can and don’t be shy about asking for a doggy bag – put it in your cooler, and it may be enough for your next meal.
Keeping the troops happy on the road
- Swap places at rest breaks to give everyone a chance to ride shotgun.
- Take turns driving, switching every two or three hours.
- Leave some room in the car to bring home souvenirs and other extras (from those cultural centres).
- Stop for a bathroom break and to stretch your legs whenever you come to a rest area — whether the kids say they need to go or not. Don’t count on another rest area coming up shortly -- on some highways they’re hours apart.
- Bring road food, and spring clips, elastic bands and snack containers to keep it fresh and off the car floor. Divide large packages into individual portions ahead of time.
- Aim to leave home before breakfast and stop driving by dinner, while everyone’s still reasonably fresh. Don’t overestimate the distance you’ll cover in a day — allow for road construction, traffic snarls, border delays and missed turnoffs. We blew a trailer tire three years in a row and needed an extra hour each time to change it.
- Watch for sudden speed limit decreases coming into towns and junctions. It’s rumored that some towns use traffic tickets for out-of-town drivers as a revenue source.
- Be prepared for unexpected medical costs by buying travel insurance for your family. It's an absolute must if you're visiting the U.S., but it's also useful if you're just visiting another province, since all provincial health insurance is not equal, and what you have at home may not cover you completely elsewhere in the country.
No family vacation is ever 100% hitch-free, but with some careful planning, a family road trip will save you money and create some of the best memories you’ll ever have.