This post is the third of a 9 part series on Roadtrips with kids. Head to part two to find links for the full series.
What kind of experience do you want to create? Are you looking for something super chill, or more adventurous? Do you want to spend time in nature, or are you looking for architecture and culture? What kinds of experiences does your family tend to thrive in? Once you’ve identified what you want you can take these steps:
Decide specifically where you want to go, and what is important to see or do while you’re there.
This will not only determine your route, but it will impact your lodging decisions, and also your transportation. For example, I really wanted to go to Grand Teton National Park, so I entered that into my RoadTrippers App (more on that, below) and it showed me a route. I realized that was awfully close to Yellowstone, so I added that. I then saw that Glacier National Park was just another 7 hours north of Yellowstone and 7 hours is a lot less than the 19 hours it would take me to drive there from Sacramento, California so I added it to our itinerary. When I looked at the return route I knew I didn’t want to just reverse course since I didn’t want to go back through the parks, and I also realized that the west side of Glacier is only about eight hours from Seattle, and Seattle is where my family lives and I hadn’t seen my family in 2 years so . . . see how that goes? Making one destination choice impacts all of the others, so each decision you make for a stop opens up new options for the next stop. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but like, literally, you know?
Book either really early, or really late
Research heavily in advance, but know that the best deals are typically either way out in advance or last minute. I personally prefer the former, but have absolutely benefitted from the latter mid-travel or just before leaving. For this most recent adventure I started researching about three months in advance and booked about six weeks prior to departure and that worked out great. Availability will vary widely by season, location, weather, and current events so again I default to far in advance but keep an eye out for last minute deals for shorter getaways.
Apps are your friend. Use them.
The $29.99 I spent on my RoadTrippers App purchase was easily the best purchase I made for this entire trip. It’s literally the catalyst for me making that first reservation. It is how we determined our route, what helped us choose where to stop on the way, what to see, where to eat, where to get gas, where to stop to stretch, and how many hours we’d be in the car from point to point. There is a free version but it has a limited number of stops and trips, while the plus version includes unlimited stops and trips. I planned no less than three different road trips before I picked the one we would do for this most recent adventure.
For this trip I also downloaded the National Parks and Yellowstone apps and made sure to save the apps for offline use since I knew we’d have spotty, if any, service in the parks. For other trips I’ve downloaded local apps or theme park apps as relevant, and generally find them very useful with features that are worth the few minutes of download time. You may also want to grab a gas finder app like GasBuddy as well.
Revise your original plan a few days later.
Just like it’s generally easier to edit your work a few days after you do it, it’s also easier to edit your trips after the initial excitement of planning wears off. For this trip I originally added in Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, and Crater Lake to our route home. When I realized that would mean we either only spent a day with our family in Seattle or extended our travel another couple of days I reconsidered. I knew that after 9 days of constant moving, hiking, seeing, and doing, my kids (and me!) would be ready to stay in one place for a few days and have slower experiences. I was absolutely right. While we could have done more stops and parks, I think things might have slipped from vacation to trip mode and we would have been arguing about way bigger things than a four year old rolling down a car window on the freeway at night. Which we did, by the way.
You will likely also find lots of fun stops on the way if you’re using an app like RoadTrippers. For example, I learned that Craters of the Moon National Monument could be on our way to Grand Teton and I cannot recommend adding that stop enough. Our family was over the, errrr, moon there. In just two hours we hiked up a cinder cone, explored caves, and got a view of the entire volcanic valley. Taking time to research things to see along the way makes the actual trip itself enjoyable, instead of just the means to an end. This will also impact your decision on drive days (more and shorter or fewer and longer) as well as how long you stay at each location.
Research things to do in each location you plan to stop, and revise your trip again.
I read blogs on each park, read every detail on the National Parks pages, got the National Parks app and read every section, bookmarking favorites and adding must-sees and dos to our RoadTrippers app trip. This significantly changed our route, and in turn our lodging. For example, I really dislike backtracking. Like a lot of bit. I also am not a fan of repetition. If I’ve seen something, unless there’s something I really want to see again, I don’t want or need to go back. This meant that I tried to be as strategic as possible with my in-park planning. This was quite difficult in Yellowstone because a key section of road was closed for the whole summer and that impacted where we stayed and what we did. You can read more about that here, but what’s important to consider for your own planning is- do you like to have a home base and drive every day to an attraction or activity, or do you like to move your bed along with you while you adventure?
Here’s another example- a person could stay in a place like Driggs, ID, and take day trips into either the Tetons or Yellowstone. It would be several hours of driving each day, but it would be at least some driving each day no matter what so it’s up to you what kind of adventure you want. There’s not a perfect answer, but I would say that if you have really young kids and not teens who can help you, I would recommend the home base method versus the daily camp set up.
You’ll want to be realistic about your budget, and not just your financial one but your energy as well. If you or your family members don’t want or enjoy packed days, don’t plan them. If you or your family hate hikes, book a boat or bus tour of the park instead of planning hikes everyone will complain through. When planning your destinations with the location, consider the time of year, the crowds, the weather, and try to anticipate real travel time. In Yellowstone, for example, it is only about 15 miles from Grant Campground to Old Faithful, but it will take a minimum of 30 minutes to get there because the roads are windy, the speed limit is 25-45mph, and there is very likely going to be wildlife in the road at some point. As a general rule of thumb I pad our time from one activity to the next by doubling the estimated time from point to point. If we arrive early, no worries, but if we are running late I’m not having to change our whole day as a result. I do not do this for long drive days, just for activities within an area. For long drive days I usually estimate an extra hour for stops, traffic, and unknowns.
Really, really do your homework on your locations. If it’s urban- where can you park centrally and walk to destinations? What about mass transit options? Is there a city go pass available? What’s included? When traveling with kids I highly recommend reading Mommy Poppins on things to do in urban settings, you might get more information than you need but you won’t be disappointed you read up on your location.
If it’s remote- what do you need in order to access the area? What are the fees? What kind of vehicles can pass through or drive on its roads? Research prerequisites, deals, and passes. For example, Glacier now has a ticketed entry to the park, so you’ll need your park pass (weekly or annual [advised as it will get you into all national parks for the entire year]) as well as a pass to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but- if you have a reservation for in park lodging or an activity like a boat tour– you are guaranteed admission to the road.
Once you have your activities and your route dialed in you can figure out the next most important part- where to sleep.