Updated on 04.12.10

Planning for Summer Vacation

Trent Hamm

This summer, my wife and I and our three children – a four year old, a two year old, and a baby – are going on at least three different family trips. One will be to downstate Illinois, another will be to northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, and the third will be to northern Minnesota. That doesn’t include multiple graduations we’re going to attend in May, either.

How are we going to do this while simultaneously keeping our sanity (yes, you try traveling for several hours in a vehicle with a four year old, a two year old, and an infant) and keeping our wallets in good shape? Here are seven methods we’re using to provide great experiences for our family while also keeping our finances in mind.

Keep in mind why we’re doing this
Why would we want to travel with a car full of small children? For some people, there may be no rational answer to this question at all. For us, though, there are several reasons.

First and foremost, we want the children to see different places and people. The geography where we live is very flat; this summer, they’re going to visit some very hilly areas. There are no large lakes here, but this summer we’re going to visit Lake Superior. We’re also going to go to areas with at least some cultural differences from home. On top of that, we also want to spend a lot of time outside, as fresh air is one of the best things you can give a child or give yourself.

Those are the reasons we’re traveling. Those reasons have nothing to do with seeing some mind-blowing sites or going to spectacular events. We know why we’re doing this and we let those reasons lead the whole vacation. As long as we follow that lead, we don’t need to pour money on other activities or sojourns.

Stay with family and friends
On each of these trips, either in the middle of a travel leg or near our destination, we’ll be staying with family or with friends.

This provides both a social purpose (seeing people we care about) and a financial purpose (free lodging for a night or two). Usually, in exchange for this, we often will buy dinner when we’re there (or prepare it). We also allow any family and friends who are in our area to stay at our home for free.

This is an exchange that does nothing but build relationships and help out everyone involved.

Camp out
At least once this summer (perhaps twice), we will be camping out for multiple days. Yes, with a baby. We did it with just one baby and we did it with both a toddler and a baby, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem doing it again with two young children and a baby.

In fact, there’s one big advantage to camping: unless there’s a storm, when everyone falls asleep, everyone sleeps really deeply. I actually tend to sleep better when we’re camping because there are no night-time interruptions or other such things.

On top of that, camping can be incredibly inexpensive. We often request camping gear for gift-giving occasions, which makes camping nearly free. Usually, all we pay for is the spot to camp on – $10 to $20 a night unless we find a free option. Our supplies are usually inexpensive, too, especially if we collect or make our own while we’re there. It provides exercise, tons of fresh air, and some wonderful time in the great outdoors with the people I care about most.

Plan for the road trips
Road trips can be a very expensive part of traveling (as can flying, but I’m just simply not going to attempt that with three children under five). Between the gas, the maintenance costs, and the expensive food and beverages along the way, it can really add up.

That’s why I do some advance planning. The goal is to prevent stops, because stops are expensive.

First, I make sure there are plenty of beverages and snacks packed, probably more than we need. I usually pack sandwiches and vegetables and fruits so that we can have a full picnic meal on the road. I also prepare a big bag full of things to do for the children on the trip.

Second, we stop mostly at rest stops and everyone is required to go to the restroom when we stop. This reduces the temptation to spend money on overpriced stuff when we stop and it also reduces the overall number of stops. Another advantage is that many rest stops (particularly in Iowa) have areas for running around in the grass and picnicking, both of which happen on trips.

Use alternative housing
Hostels. College dorms. YMCA lodging. Housesitting. These are all great options for saving money on lodging when you arrive if you’d prefer not to camp. We are actually going to do some housesitting this summer for one of our trips.

Find out what types of alternative housing are available at your destination. This can be done with just a bit of effective internet searching. Reviews of the housing (available on many travel websites) can help you avoid unexpected problems.

Utilize free activities when we’re there
Vacation doesn’t have to be about jumping from high-priced activity to high-priced activity. Most of the best memories from the vacations I’ve taken in my life come from the free things we did: climbing a hillside in Edinburgh, putting my feet in the ocean northwest of Seattle, seeking out petroglyphs on foot in rural Arizona.

Yes, if there’s something your heart is set on that you really want to see that costs money, do it. However, use travel guides that help you identify the free things in the area and use those to fill up your activity schedule. Spend some time doing simple things, like walking in the woods or resting on the beach or building a great campfire.

Be resourceful
Before you go, tell your social network where you’re intending to go and ask if they have any tips or suggestions about traveling there. You might just be shocked at what your receive in return.

Be resourceful when you’re there as well. Don’t buy firewood if you can find it yourself. Don’t buy campfire roasting sticks – use a knife and make them from branches. Don’t buy beverages – carry an empty container and fill up at water fountains. Just by taking a few little steps to avoid buying things, you can save money left and right on your trip without reducing your enjoyment of it one iota.

Good luck!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. J says:

    I’ll add that you should understand the rules and regulations of where you are camping, especially in regards to campfires, dead/fallen wood collection and breaking/cutting branches off of trees. While it’s important to save money, it’s also important to preserve natural resources so that everyone can enjoy them.

  2. Kat says:

    For the foremost reason you are taking THREE trips with the kids, maybe it would be wise for some to wait a few years, save their money, and then take these trips when the children are of an age that they will actually remember these trips. There is a small chance your son will, though memories at age four tend to be random or very monumental (he may remember a tshirt he wears a lot now, and meeting his new sibling for the first time, and little else of age four), and your daughter and newborn will remember nothing. It’s nice to start the tradition and then they will expect it, but unless you had other reasons, three trips in one summer seems overkill. You only mention that showing the kids the new places as the only reason, though you call it the first. Maybe there are others, but if that is the only, then it seems like a waste of energy and, yes, money to do three.

  3. SEC Lawyer says:

    These are good suggestions for young families with children. As I grew older and richer I stopped using others’ residences during visits even though we still (sometimes) offer our own. My feeling about that decision is that familiarity breeds contempt. Also, this is what hotels are for, particularly in big cities. But, again, for a young family with children, it makes sense, especially if you’re going to a suburban or rural location where the friends or family you are visiting will likely have a lot of extra room anyway.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Oooh, I live on the north shore of Lake Superior! Beautiful area, all the way around. Good choice. :)

    All our family vacations when I was a child were camping road trips, some longer, some shorter. It was what my parents could afford, and we were the better for it, I think. 4 of us in a 2-door Honda hatchback for a month’s trek to the West Coast, and nobody died!

  5. Gretchen says:

    Where are you camping for free?

  6. Jackie says:

    I don’t understand you you say that camping makes everyone sleep better and not have nighttime interruptions. Unless you’re talking about doing a lot of outside activity you wouldn’t otherwise do to get extra tired, this makes no sense. And why would you assume you would do more activity camping than not.
    (Unless this is a camping trip, which comes with all kinds of activity. I read the post to mean just camping overnight on the way to a destination.)

  7. Katie says:


    Other family members would enjoy seeing the little ones, I am sure. And I don’t know about others, but I remember things that happened before my second birthday. I scared my mom talking about something I did – and still remember doing – when I was about 18 months old. The wee ones can still begin to bond with others and have a good time. Just a thought!

  8. Honey says:

    I would imagine that whether they remember it consciously or not, exposing them to lots of different situations when they’re that little can make them less resistent to change when they are older.

    My boyfriend and I do Vegas at least once a year, twice if we can afford it. I’ve never been camping in my life!

  9. Sam says:

    The Northshore of Minnesota is a beautiful vacation spot! My husband and I moved up to the Northshore from northwest Missouri a couple summers ago. We have yet to go camping, but we plan to take advantage of the many beautiful campgrounds this summer.

  10. Lisa says:

    I vividly remember camping with my family as a child, I even remember the one when I was four. My first bee sting, washing the dishes outdoors, my brothers’ puptent, the Easter bunny finding our campsite. :)
    I love the memories of all of us together, in the damp, cool air, eating food cooked over the fire or pulled from the cooler. I learned then to appreciate stars, trees, fire, and the smell of nature. When my parents got older, and we were busy with sports and activities, we didn’t camp anymore, so I’m glad we did it when we were young. The most they spent on eating “out” was at Stuckey’s for ice cream.

  11. Lisa says:

    I also learned to watch hawks, eagles, and other wildlife. How to avoid snakes and keep away bears. All starting at three/four years old. I still appreciate these things.

  12. DiscoApu says:

    So seriously, what is in your “big bag full of things to do” I am always looking for ideas.

  13. We primarily camp anymore and love it! As the days progress my typical girly girls get wilder and wilder. Their hair alone becomes this unusual ginormous sculpture of dirt, marshmallows and twigs.

  14. IASSOS says:

    #2 Kat makes a good point: My two daughters, now 14 and 16 are asking to repeat the trips we took earlier because they don’t remember anything!

  15. IASSOS says:

    #5 Gretchen asks about camping for free: I’ve done it more than once on the Lake Superior north shore. But I ain’t tellin’ where! To get facilities though, ya gotta pay. Many of the state parks have showers and flush toilets. I think you’d want those. Campsites are $16 to $20 a night. The national forest campgrounds are cheaper but have pit toilets and no showers. My secret free places are free!

    Trent mentions “cultural differences”. From Iowa to Illinois and Minnesota?

  16. Michele says:

    Trent- my favorite post so far because you brought back some great memories!
    we camped and mooched with family from the time our oldest was a 6 week old infant- and the boys talk about all the great camping experiences and visits with family from a VERY young age! I think our youngest was 2 when he remembers tent camping in Mammoth Lakes and having a bear attack the camp next door because they left a cooler outside!
    Have a blast and enjoy the trips!
    Kids DO remember stuff from a VERY young age!

  17. Claire says:


    I’m not sure of the distances involved in your trips, but yesterday I drove home from Belgium across Northern corner of France, over on the ferry and into the UK, then up to Scotland: Edinburgh – home. All with a teenager and a 20 month old in the car – journey time 12 hours. The trick I agree with is lots of stops at play areas to stretch the legs and plenty of in-car entertainment. I’m not a big gadget fan, but our in-car TVs were worth every penny.
    Have a great trip.

  18. Geoff Hart says:

    One of the best strategies I learned: split up the kids instead of “warehousing” them all together in the back seat. This is great if your kids tend to get into fights, because they can’t fight as easily if they’re not side by side, but there’s a better reason: it’s also better for your relationships. Each kid gets quality time from an adult, so they’re less likely to get bored and more likely to relate to you.

  19. Anna is now Raven says:

    From one area to the next, the water changes. The effect on children’s bowels can be quite dramatic. Stock up on anti-diarrheal remedies before you start out, so you don’t have to expend time searching for a drugstore. (Ask me how I know….)

  20. Maureen says:

    Put me in the camp that believes that children do not remember very much before the age of 4. If you take lots of photos they will probably enjoy looking at them when they are older, but they probably won’t remember the trip very well. If your main goal is building memories, I would suggest you to make this tour in 3 or 4 years.

    I would advise taking a shorter trip first. My children very very prone to motion sickness. We avoided long car trips like the plague. It’s probably better to find this out on a short trip rather than a long one.

  21. Elaine says:

    Great post Trent. I too am an avid road tripper. My husband and I take our 1967 VW camper bus everywhere in the summer–a great way to see the country on a budget.

    Something to add, tho, is there are lot of deals out there. Some states (and even the National Park Service) offer discounted passes for camping/park fees to folks like veterans, active military, foster parents, disabled people. Check your state’s dept of recreation page.

  22. Little House says:

    I admire you for being so brave and traveling with three small children! I can see where traveling by car is much easier, you can haul all their stuff (car seats, strollers, baby bags, etc.) without lugging it through an airport. I think it is also easier to drive to states that are within a few hundred miles of each other, you can cover more ground.

    Have a terrific time. And I agree with Maureen, take lots of photos! (the two year old and baby won’t remember much of the trip)

  23. Kathy says:

    @Katie #7- I have a few memories of things that happened before I was four years old, but they are vague and hazy at best. My memories don’t become clearer and more concrete until 4 years and older. I have a very vague recollection of going up to my grandparents cottage in northern Wisconsin at 18 months, but it’s hazy and vague and at times I wonder if maybe I hadn’t actually dreamed it. The pictures my mom has are the only proof that I have that I was actually there.

    If it were me doing this trip, I would not go tent camping with an infant, especially if the infant was not yet sleeping through the night. I would stay at a hotel. The extra gear alone that seems to go along with a baby would prompt the hotel stay.

    On Wisconsin state parks (since you mentioned going to Wisconsin), if you Google it, you can find the DNR/state parks web site. You will find information on camping, fees, and where to make reservations, which I strongly recommend that you do. You have to pay a fee to do it, but it’s better than showing up after a long drive and the campground is full. The popular state parks, such as Devil’s Lake and High Cliff are pretty much booked solid all the time. We are going camping at Devil’s Lake SP near Baraboo, WI in July. We made the reservations in January, and even then, July was pretty much booked up, except for the weekend after the 4th (which is usually when we go anyway).

  24. GayleRN says:

    The only reason you think this is going to be fun is because you think that three children is just one more than two. The addition of a third child is an exponential factor not arithmetic. And this is the voice of experience as I had my three boys just 18 and 22 months apart. In other words 3 kids 3 and under. Here is what WILL happen. The older two will run off in opposite directions. The baby will stay put but starts wailing. What do you do? What does your wife do?
    Now add in the factors of lots of hiding places, lots of trees, rocks, traffic, and bodies of water.
    WHAT IS YOUR SAFETY PLAN????? I am totally serious about this.

  25. Steffie says:

    It is possible that the ‘memories’ are reinforced by story telling later after the trip is done and looking at pictures. No way do I remember anything much before 4-5 yrs old but I know the stories my Mom told me so well I feel like I remember doing the things I did the same as the stuff I did when I was older. And it is harder with three children, the baby will need the most care, essentially using up all of one of the adults time. It is impossible to run in two directions at one time chasing the other two children, especially in the park etc. I know, I have 3 kids and I barely could make it at the grocery store with one in the cart, let alone big open public places. Sure the family wants to see the kids and new baby but it should not be at the expense of the adults not having a good time as well. Maybe one trip this summer just to see how it goes with 3 kids. From a health point of view it doesn’t sound like a good idea to schlep a newborn all over and expose him/her to all kinds of germs etc.

  26. GayleRN says:

    Oh yeah don’t forget about campfire safety. Not only your campfire but other people’s campfires. Any campfire ring is to be considered as having a live campfire in it at all times no matter what it looks like. All grills are also considered hot at all times also.

    Once again, WHAT IS YOUR SAFETY PLAN???

  27. Shevy says:

    If by “split up the kids” instead of having them all in the back seat you mean “have one child sit in the front”, you should know that’s illegal in many places and not recommended anywhere until at least age 8 and often until 12 (due to the danger of injury from an air bag deploying).

    Car seats and boosters do not belong in the front seat.

    I’ve driven with 3 many, many times over the years: between Calgary & Vancouver (13 hr straight through), to Seattle (3 hrs) and to our rural home from the city (4 hrs). It’s not that daunting, although having the baby barf on the I5 just outside of Bellingham wasn’t fun as I was the only adult in the car. Luckily, there was a pulloff within a minute or so.

  28. Michelle says:

    If being able to remember an experience was the only reason to do things with a child, there would be no reason to interact with them until they were 3 or 4. Experiences don’t have to result in clear memories in order to have value. For children or adults…

  29. Lindsay says:

    Michelle #28 – great comment!

    My family did frequent camping trips (Upstate NY) and frequent road trips (NY to FL) with 4 kids. We had a great time and wonderful memories. My parents would find parks or trails and stop along the way to get our energy out. As we got older we upgraded to an RV! As an adult my cousins(one has 6 kids under 7!) and their kids always are camping and doing road trips to friends/relatives with good results. If the parents are prepared and the kids are brought up with manners and respect for their parents it will go great…when it doesn’t like Trent says keep in mind why you do it.

    I think what type of person you are determines how your family will far traveling with kids. On a recent trip in Rome, Italy a family with 4 kids under 10 from NJ stayed in the apartment we had right before us…so they traveled with 4 kids from NJ to Italy with minimal issue and have been traveling overseas since once their children are over one!

  30. Evita says:

    Way to go, Trent! I admire adults who include their little ones in their fun projects. I am sure that you will make it work.
    But while camping, please make sure that you respect Mother Nature and teach the kiddies to do so!

  31. Julie says:

    Don’t know if you’ll stop in the Twin Cities, and the west side of Mpls might be out of your way to the North Shore, but if you’re staying with friends for a day, maybe these free activities will entice you:
    *charming city of Excelsior and its Commons (two swimming beaches, playground, lots of grass) right on Lake Minnetonka
    *Wayzata Trolley (free, donation of $1-$2 gratefully accepted) that makes a loop around that cute city, also on Lake Mtka
    *about 50 parks (and hundreds more all over the Twin Cities)
    *Splash pad in Oak Hill Park in city of St. Louis Park (also surrounded by a fence; great way for all 5 of you to cool off w/o worry of little ones in deep water)

    If you are in the Cities on a Thursday night, there a farmers’ markets and free outdoor concerts all over the Cities, plus the gorgeous U of MN Landscape Arboretum out here in Chaska is free after 4 or 4:30 pm (have a picnic!)

    You probably know about Como Zoo being free (donations accepted; Como Town & cafe food $$$-picnic necessary.)

    Have fun! By trip #3, you and your wife will be pros!

  32. SLCCOM says:

    Don’t ever post on a social networking site that you are going on vacation! People looking to rob you are also watching.

  33. Brittany says:

    Have fun! Don’t let the naysayers get you down. I grew up traveling with my (single) mom and three little siblings (all in a row… from the time they were 1,2,&3), and then later with her boyfriend and his two kids (same age as my siblings). Yeah, it can get crazy, but it’s also so much fun! They remember more than the grumpypusses think. Time for a European whorlwind tour? No. Save that for when they’re older.

    But camping and roadtripping to see family? Awesome.

    And if you can do it safely, kids love when you ride in the back with them! Lots of fun for both parties.

  34. Scott says:

    For some of us, staying with family or friends is far more stressful than not taking a vacation at all. For us, part of the joy of a vacation is being able to return to one’s own anonymous space in a hotel and enjoying the amenities and service.

  35. Thanks for finally writinng about > Planning for Summer
    Vacation – The Simple Dollasr < Liked it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *