My husband and I made a decision. We are driving to our families for Christmas. Driving with our two toddlers, in the car, for 22 hours. Why, you ask? Well, because we are awesome and fun parents, or because we make poor decisions. I'll let you know after the trip.
Believe it or not, when I was seven months pregnant with my second child, we cancelled our plane tickets and drove from California to Texas with our then almost two year old and… we enjoyed it.
It was our own little familyc getaway wrapped around our bigger family get together. We stopped at silly roadside attractions and ate at every Dairy Queen we passed. Our daughter played in snow for the first time outside a hotel in New Mexico. We saw the most incredible moon over the mountains while "Watching the Wheels" played on the radio. Of course, I also almost peed myself multiple times in the long stretches of empty highway, and we ended up in a hotel with no heater in the bathroom and took the coldest showers of our lives. And that trip cost us as much as it would have cost us to fly.
So here are a few things I learned about family car trips that can save you and me some sanity and money. Hopefully.
In the car
Get AAA. For $73 a year my husband and I are covered in case we lock ourselves out of the car, get a flat tire, or have a break down (of the car variety not the mental variety – but wouldn't it be nice to have a business come rescue you from that too). It covers towing and it covers you not your car. So if you are with your friend on your travels and his car breaks down, your AAA membership will rescue you both.
Plus you get discounts on hotels, rental cars, restaurants, shopping, amusement parks and vacations. Make a habit of asking places if they have a AAA discount. I've found a lot of hotels do have a discount, even if they don't advertise it. And AAA has a cool map-making service called TripTik.
Figure out how to pay tolls. If you take a toll road and there's nowhere to pay, you need to pay online. I made this mistake in California recently. There was no place to put my money so I assumed the toll road gods would send me something in the mail – which they did. They sent me a ticket for not paying the toll on time.
Bring your snacks with you. Gas station drinks and snacks are twice as much as grocery store options.
Stop at rest stops for bathroom breaks. They tend to be cleaner and don't have tempting ways to spend money. Plus, they usually have a place for the kids to run around.
Fast food places with play areas make the best food breaks. The kids can run free (without as many dirty looks) after all those hours of being strapped to a car seat.
Buy an extra phone charger that you leave in the car at all times. You can get one for under ten dollars. Then you can pack your usual charger in your bag for use in hotels. It's just so very much easier than trying to keep up with one.
Invest in some trays that fit over car seats, some video tablet mounts that fit over head-rests, and some headphones that fit over kids' heads. Caution: make sure any covers or mounts you buy for the tablet allow access for ear phones to plug in and allow you to control the volume without removing the cover. I've made this mistake before.
Don't pay full price for satellite radio. Sirius XM is great if you don't feel like playing DJ for three days or flipping through FM stations in every new town you drive through. Call them and don't agree to subscribe until the price is right. They usually try to get me to subscribe for $200 plus a year and then quickly cut that in half when I make it clear that I will not be paying that much.
Download games and videos on your phone or tablet before you travel. Our last car trip, we tried to download videos in the hotels at night for viewing the next day and the Wifi was often too weak and cost extra.
Try out some travel apps. On our last trip we enjoyed using Road Trippers to find out about upcoming roadside attractions. This year we'll also be trying GasBuddy, Hotel Tonight and some kind of weather app (there are so many to choose from). There is a travel app for every aspect of your trip.
Car Safety Tips:
Get your spare tire checked before you go.
Make sure you have your current insurance card in the glove box.
Remember that any loose object in a car – including phones and tablets can be flying projectiles in the case of an accident. Try to keep most objects contained.
Don't forget to pack a flashlight (with batteries), a blanket, an ice scraper, jumper cables, and your car manual.
Car Seat Tips:
The best way to know if you have your kid's car seat installed correctly is to get it inspected. SaferCar.gov tells you where you can go locally.
Remember that the chest buckle should be at armpit level.
The shoulder straps should be slightly lower than shoulder height when the child is rear facing and at shoulder height when the child is front facing.
Rear facing is safest for children even beyond the one year or 20 pound law in most states.
You can negotiate the price. You can usually get good deals for a hotel in advance online. But, if you're road tripping and don't know where you'll want to stop for the night ahead of time, you can call and negotiate directly with a hotel front desk. If it's 7 o'clock at night and a hotel isn't full, they may be willing to bargain with you on the price because anything is better than nothing. Now, the pitfall of course, is that you can have a hard time finding a hotel that isn't full.
Stay at hotels with a free breakfast. I don't mean to judge but you clearly do not know what you are doing if you stay at a hotel that charges for breakfast. For our family of four that's at least a $20 savings a day.
Bring a thermos and make several cups of coffee in the hotel room before you leave for the day or fill up at the free breakfast buffet.
Make sure the hotel has bathtubs if you have a kid too young for a shower. I made this mistake (see freezing shower reference from the third paragraph).
Bring your lowest interest rate credit card. Hotels, rental car services and even some gas stations place holds on your card – which can get tricky if you are paying with debit. Just don't forget to factor your credit card payments into your holiday budget or ask to pay with your bank card on check out from a hotel.
One last tip, for your sanity, leave room in the back seat for yourself (assuming you aren't the one driving). Sometimes the kids just need you near.
Happy Road Trippin' and Happy Holidays!