Our life is fraught with road trips.
Roughly once a month, we make a four hour road trip (one way) to visit either my parents or my wife’s parents for the weekend. We usually make a several hour road trip (one way) or two each year to visit the Chicagoland area, where we have a lot of friends and family.
This experience has taught us two things: even simple road trips can be fraught with many unexpected little expenses that really add up, and children make the problem substantially worse as they often cause extra stops on their own.
Over the past few years, we’ve tried lots of different strategies for reducing the cost of such trips. In the end, though, a handful of techniques have served us better than everything else.
Your biggest challenge is avoiding stops. Every time you stop on a road trip, you’re opening the door to a lot of impulse buying opportunities. A thirsty or hungry traveler stopping at a gas station in the middle of a long leg is very likely to spend cash that they really don’t need to spend. So, what can we do so that the chances of such gas station stops are minimized?
Do some prep work before you go. Air up your tires to the maximum recommended pressure to maximize your gas mileage. Pull anything heavy and unnecessary out of your car. Make everyone go to the bathroom before you leave. Make sure you have a map of the route, even if you have a GPS device (the paper backup can save you if you run out of batteries or the GPS unit fails). And, perhaps most importantly…
Pack reasonable supplies in the car. Pack healthy snacks, plenty of drinking water, and supplies for cleaning up small messes. In the winter, make sure you have blankets as well. If riders aren’t hungry or thirsty when the car stops, they’re much less likely to spend money unnecessarily.
Our tactic is usually to fill four or so large refillable water bottles with a lot of ice and filtered water. As the trip goes on, the ice melts, but the water remains quite cool, giving us cool water to drink even in the later stages of the trip.
Healthy snacks vary based on what’s on hand. We usually stick to fruits and vegetables, as they’re inexpensive, quite healthy, can be eaten without a mess, and generate few leftovers (and what is generated can be disposed of easily, like a banana peel). A bunch of bananas, some carrot sticks, and a box of raisins make for some very healthy and inexpensive options in the car.
Keep plenty of distractions in the car – and a few aces up your sleeve. Another key to making long trips work is to make sure you have plenty of distractions for the kids – and for the adults, too. Our process usually involves allowing our son (who is three years old) to pack a small “car bag” for himself that includes some books and toys. We also pack several items for our one year old daughter in the diaper bag. For ourselves, we usually pack a few CDs or an audiobook for those times when we can’t find a public radio station.
I usually pack a surprise or two for the kids. I hold onto the item until the kids are getting very anxious to get out of the car, then I spring it on them. I often use the family portable DVD player for this purpose (it was given as a gift to the entire family this past Christmas), but I also bring along a few of their favorite books, which either myself or my wife will read aloud.
Make “long stops” rather than short ones. When we do stop, we make the stop into a “long stop.” Usually, this means that we stop at a gas station solely for refueling, then all of us go into a grocery store, where we pick out a few low-cost items for a picnic lunch while also ensuring everyone has time to go to the bathroom and get necessary diaper changes.
We usually then look for a park in whatever town we’re in, then assemble and eat our picnic dinner in the park. We then allow the kids to run around for a while to burn off some of their pent-up energy. Before we get back into the car, everyone uses the restroom again.
Doing this causes a significant drop in the number of stops made on the trip. Thus, even though this makes for a fairly long stop, it often means that there won’t be any other stops on the trip – and if this eliminates a couple additional stops along the way, then it not only saves money, it saves time, too. It allows everyone a chance to get out and stretch for a significant period of time, which helps quite a bit with the road weariness of a child.
In short, the “big stop” has become a consistent part of our road trips as of late – and it’s proven to be very successful for reducing our costs and our time (as compared to three or four “quick” stops).