Six Ways to Save Money (and Sanity) on a Family Road Trip

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Does a multiday, multistate drive with young kids sound like the furthest thing from a vacation? If so, you’re not alone. I asked seasoned family road-trippers for their hard-earned advice on how to make long days in the car with children less anxiety-inducing and more fun. Here are six of their top tips and tricks.

1. Drive late. Drive early. Drive while the children sleep.

Nearly every parent I asked volunteered some variation on the car-time-is-bedtime strategy. Some, especially families with more than one driver (who can take turns behind the wheel), swear by doing much of their boring, interstate driving at night. Others prefer waking before dawn — early enough that children are likely to go back to sleep and stay asleep until breakfast. Still others take advantage of daytime naps, including a quick rest for the driver. Jessica Mattingly, a lactation consultant and mother of six who home-schools her children in Kansas City, Mo., explained that she became a master of the car nap while taking frequent 10- to 12-hour drives with her children while pregnant. “I wasn’t at all shy about closing my eyes when the kids were happily engaged playing at our stops,” she said.

2. Build flexibility into the trip.

Being willing to change course, both figuratively and literally, was the first important lesson that Panama Bartholomy and his wife, Elizabeth Durney, learned when they set off on a five-month camper van road trip through Europe with their 13-month-old, Brooks. “After a couple weeks with a baby in a van we decided to focus,” Mr. Bartholomy said of throwing out their ambitious, 20-some country itinerary. Discarding months of planning, they narrowed their trip to 15 to 20 regions in six countries. “This was a big one for us,” Mr. Bartholomy said, adding that it taught them “to make the travel work for all three of us or it would be bad for all three of us.” Catherine Preston-Schreck, a mother of four in Maine, is even more philosophical. “A family is an unceasingly fluid and flexible organism,” she said. “Whatever magical combination of planning and circumstance that brings joy one trip, could fall flat the next. There is no foolproof equation or guarantees.”

3. Pack light; pack smart.

A cluttered car is uncomfortable for everyone. Err on the side of less is more. “Having too much stuff can make a trip feel chaotic,” Ms. Preston-Schreck said. “You spend precious time sorting, organizing and managing stuff.” Still, there are a few important items, like a compact feeding chair, which are worth the investment. On the Frugal Family’s recent Montana road trip, we used the collapsible Summer Infant Pop ‘n Sit Portable Booster seat. At 4.5 pounds and roughly the dimensions of a shoe box, it’s versatile enough to take on road trips in our Toyota hatchback and on international flights. Mr. Bartholomy relies on a $20 Ikea highchair, which allows Brooks to be fed anywhere — from a campsite to a restaurant to the side of the road — and “contain the madness” and “eat an almost civilized meal together,” he said.

4. B.Y.O. caffeine.

Those twice-daily pit stops at Starbucks, where two large lattes cost upward of $10, quickly add up. A well-insulated thermos, like the virtually indestructible $33 Stanley Classic Vacuum Bottle, can keep coffee or tea hot for hours. Make coffee in the morning at your motel or campsite or buy an instant that you can also doctor with spices like cardamom or cinnamon whenever you stop for gas.

5. Something new, something flashy.

High on the list of concerns for most parents (especially new parents) is keeping children entertained (and, therefore, not whining or crying) on the road. One frequently recommended tactic: Secret away a few new-to-them toys or games for special delivery during a rough moment on the trip. It may sound like bribery, but these can be small things, hand-me-downs or thrift store finds; the newness is the novelty, not the amount spent. Parents of somewhat older children recommend plotting a memorable stop that includes buying one particularly sought-after toy, giving children something to look forward to. While researchers have long discouraged “screen time,” some parents consider a special occasion iPad game or seat-back movie the most prized weapon in their anti-boredom arsenal. “We avoid screen time at home at all costs,” said Morgan Holden, a Coast Guard lieutenant commander and mother of two in Alameda, Calif., “so that it’s a huge attention grabber on trips.”

6. Explore Alternatives

Car or tent camping is the cheapest way to sleep. That’s especially true in places like the West, where an overnight on public land (the National Forests, for example) is either free or far more affordable than, say, the National Parks. For those not into roughing it, a growing number of campgrounds offer alternatives: tree houses, R.V.s, yurts, tepees and the like. A camping cabin at KOA New York City North in Plattekill, for example, accommodates four people and costs $112 during peak leaf-peeping season, while a 10-person tepee at a Delaware Water Gap KOA, in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania rents for $107. For families, Ms. Brown recommends affordable motels that provide a free breakfast and an indoor pool. “Double bonus,” Ms. Brown said, “if they have a fridge/freezer available in room for storing breast milk.” For private rentals, look for places with washers and dryers, which save time and money on laundry, and fully equipped kitchens. A mix of camping (rough or luxe), conventional motels and hotels and private vacation rentals (Airbnb, VRBO and the like) can balance the budget with comfort.