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Family road trip highlights: natural wonders (Yellowstone geysers) and time spent together. (Photos by Julie Hanson)

How to plan (and survive!) a summer family road trip

Hitting the road will go more smoothly with preparation, but it doesn't have to be difficult.

My family is just home from an 18-day, 4,000-mile family road trip through seven states. And we’re still speaking to one another!

When I announced our intention to do this, a friend responded, “That’s amazing! I wouldn’t even know how to begin to plan such an adventure.”

This made me realize that not everyone is married to a geography lover/wannabe travel agent who loves nothing more than a good AAA map and guidebook.

But I am here to tell you that this does not have to stop you from hitting the road to see the sights and spend quality time with your family.

Here’s how I would do it:

Family road trip: the plan

First, set your timeframe and a rough idea of where you’d like to go. For instance: You have 10 days and want to see some national parks. Or you want to take two weeks to see some of the major cities of the Rocky Mountain states. Or you could set a single goal — say, Disneyland — and design a road trip around it.

At this point, I would sit down with a paper map or atlas (in my family, we’re retro that way). Think about what ideally constitutes a “day’s driving” for your family. If you’re new to this, you might want to call it good after a few hours. Departing the Seattle area, perhaps Day 1 will take you as far as Spokane, or the Portland area. Sketch out an itinerary based on how far you want to go and what you want to see along the way. Hint: Underplan, don’t overplan. It’s no fun to say, “We don’t have time to see this; maybe next time,” when you’re 500 miles from home and know that you might not come this way again.

You can always find a roadside attraction to break up the monotony of a long drive.

Break up the driving: There’s always something to see along the way: Parks, waterfalls, dams, sculptures to name just a few. You could leave this to chance, or you could research it. Larger points of interest will be evident from your map. Smaller points of interest will be evident as you gaze out the window. (See “underplan,” above.)

What’s your family travel personality? It is important that you rack up many states and/or landmarks? Or would you rather see fewer things but have more time at the end of the day to read a book or play a board game? Knowing this will inform your planning. If different family members have different preferences, you’ll need to figure out how to compromise.

How much car time can your family tolerate? Figure it out, and plan accordingly.

Family road trip: the details

Reserve places to sleep: Summer is always busy, and summer 2021 seems to be even more so. While I love the idea of driving until you’re ready to stop, I strongly recommend against it right now, and particularly with kids. You’ve got to know where you’re sleeping. Hint: Hotel/motel pools are usually a hit with kids, and a nice reward/relaxation after a day in the car. Second hint: Join a loyalty program. You’ll always know what to expect from your lodging, and you’ll earn benefits along the way.

Speaking of hotels and sleeping: When planning a trip, consider how busy you want to be, how much ground you’ll cover and how often you want to pack and unpack. I have found, on long car trips, that it can become exhausting to drag everything out of the car and then back in. Don’t underestimate the luxurious feeling of staying in the same place for consecutive nights, at least once or twice on a long vacation. If you plan this in a good location, you won’t have to cut out sightseeing.

Reserve other things: If your research has led you to a cool cave tour or other attraction, go ahead and book it. Things are filling up fast! Even some national parks (Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, etc.) are requiring timed-entry reservations. If you have a special restaurant in mind, reserve that, too; you’ll be glad you did.

This spaceship sits near a retro-looking motel in Wallace, Idaho, about a six-hour drive from Seattle.

Family road trip: what to take

Pack drinks and snacks. To save money and landfill space, give each family member a reusable water bottle and have them fill it each morning.

Bring first-aid basics and any medications that family members will need. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray.

Packing: This is a great thing for kids to learn. You’ll have to figure out how much autonomy to give them. One year I gave my daughter too much autonomy and she neglected to pack any underwear or socks for our weeklong vacation.) Consider the weather forecast and what you plan to do, also how many personal or “comfort” items you have room for. (Blankets and stuffed animals for the ride?)

More on packing: Consider whether to pack enough clothes for the entire trip or whether you’ll want to do laundry at some point along the way.

Family road trip: don’t forget

Make sure your vehicle is in good working order. I’m no mechanic, but things like adequate oil and tires inflated and in decent shape come to mind.

Is it still “screen time” if they’re (theoretically) taking vacation photos?

Screen/device time. Figure this out in advance or you might hear yourself (or your companion) bellowing, “Why are you on your phone when there’s beautiful scenery all around us?!?” more often than you would like. (And if you’re bringing devices, don’t forget chargers!)

Have a food plan. This could be an area to try to save money. One idea would be bring your own (simple) breakfast, picnic lunch along the way, then have dinner at a restaurant. Traveling with a cooler will give you more food options, but then you’ll have the constant, “We need more ice!” situation.

Speaking of money … Set a budget. Or at least think about it. Food, gas and lodging are obvious expenses, along with fees for attractions. Will you buy souvenirs and gifts? My family collects Christmas ornaments from places we visit. (Also: Consider whether you’ll want to treat your kids to souvenirs, have them buy their own or some combination thereof.)

The homefront: Stop your mail and anything else that needs stopping (or arrange for someone to keep an eye on your house and do things like this). If you have pets, arrange for their care.

Have fun! Enjoy your family and the change of pace. Try something new. Don’t expect things to go perfectly, because they won’t. Take lots of photos and savor the special moments.

More travel in Seattle’s Child:

Explore Washington’s 3 national parks

Tips for a fun, safe COVID-era family road trip

A few highlights from the recent Hanson road trip

About the Author

Julie Hanson

Julie Hanson is the website editor for Seattle's Child. She is a longtime journalist, South King County resident and mom to a 13-year-old girl.