A Pragmatist’s Guide to Road-Tripping Across America

We did a crazy (for us) thing this summer. We road-tripped from Nashville to Seattle and back! That’s right, over 6,000 miles, 75 hours of drive time, 5 national parks, and 12 states visited in a little over 3 weeks. And, quite honestly, I’ve gotten so many questions about how it went because so many people have said they’ve wanted to do a trip like this but feel intimidated. So, I figured I should dust off the old blog to share a few things I learned from it, because you should totally do it!


Arches National Park, Utah


Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

My husband and I were nervous that it was going to be way too challenging to spend that much time on the road with three young children, but it was so, so worth it! They acclimated really well to road life, all things considered (read: some moments were indeed hard when we all felt done but there were fewer than I expected).  I think the biggest keys to our success were setting realistic expectations, planning like crazy beforehand, and the ages of our children (meaning no diapers, no napping required).

One thing you should know about me if you don’t already, is that I am a self-proclaimed Budget Queen. We have had very tight finances for most of our 12 years of marriage and have been able to cash flow grad-school, babies, and life (minus a mortgage on our house). So, even though this was an uncharted, gigantic project, I was excited at the prospect of breaking it down and making it affordable.


My shirt is doubly awesome because it was a cheap thrift store find

We broke the trip into categories like food out, groceries, explorations, lodging, fuel, souvenirs, and van rental. One note on the rental: our beloved minivan is a 2008, and we feared we may spend a lot more on getting a new car/repairing our car if we packed another 6,000 miles in a short time onto the 170,000 existing miles. So, we opted to allocate money for a van rental. We did consider renting an RV for a minute; however, not only would fuel cost more, we weren’t sure where to park it when we stayed in the downtown areas of bigger cities (which we totally wanted to do). We decided instead to rent Air BNB properties where there was usually a yard to play and space for us to hang out after the kids went to bed. We also stayed once at a hotel for the indoor pool benefit.


Playing corn hole outside of our Air BNB cottage in Salt Lake City

We had financial wiggle room on this trip, but I am pleased to say we were within $50 of budget in every category (except for that darn van rental)! One of the biggest ways we achieved this was to plan ahead! If something could be brought inexpensively instead of bought regularly (like coffee in the mornings) we packed it and saved. We saved our money for unique experiences and food we couldn’t get at home. This means we picnicked a lot. When we weren’t trying delicious pastries at adorable bakeries, we were eating granola bars and PB&J’s out of the back of our car. We often stopped at playgrounds to picnic, which was also great because it gave a place for our children (ages 8, 6, and 4) to burn off some energy before we got back on the road.


Lunch stop at a playground in Pendleton, Oregon on a travel day


Picnicking after hiking Hurricane Ridge at Olympics National Park, Washington

For curious minds, whose wiring is for details (like mine), I’m an open book. Our budget ended up like this:

Lodging: $1376 (budgeted for $1400, we were lucky enough to have gracious friends and family host us for free on 10 of the 23 nights, 8 of those being while we stayed in Washington)

Food Out: $1102 (budgeted for $1125)

Groceries: $299 (budgeted for $300, majority for the week we stayed at a friend’s home in Washington)

Explorations: $624 (budgeted for $600)

Souvenirs and gifts: $324 (budgeted for $400)

Fuel: $816 (budgeted for $775)

Rental car: $1625 (budgeted for $1200, long story here but the biggest reason we owed more was because we under estimated mileage and our “deal” was not unlimited miles)

That brings the trip to a grand total of $6,166 from beginning to end (and significantly less if we had decided to take our own vehicle). And because we reserved the rental car and virtually all of our lodging before we left, about half of our trip was paid before we started.

One of the secrets to our savings? We allowed travel to be part of the entertainment. Even though it was tough having so many hours in the car, we helped our kids to engage with what they were seeing outside the window. Scenery that was so different from home. And teaching our children about public transit through light rails and ferries was necessary for travel but also part of the fun. We also hit up five national parks on this trip (Arches, Olympic, Rainier, Yellowstone, and Grand Tetons, plus 2 state parks). We paid $80 for a parks pass and that got us into all of the parks (and will get us into the 300+ in the nation for the next 13 months) and then we had nearly all the breath-taking, zero-cost adventure to drive, hike, and explore that our hearts could take.


Our trusty National Parks Land Pass stayed with us for the entirety of the tr


We found license plates from 47 states! Huzzah!

Now for a few fun hacks that I learned in my research and along the way:

Leaving at O-Dark-Thirty: We tried this out lots of ways, and I understand it takes commitment from the parents in particular on vacation. But, when we left in the 5 o’clock hour, the day just went better. Our kids RARELY sleep in the car (the youngest will sometimes cat nap) but they were more subdued when we woke them early to get on the road. It was just also harder getting out the door when they were awake/working against us. Everything took a lot longer. What’s more, though, is that we realized by mid-afternoon we were ALL tired of the car. Whether we’d left at 9am or 5am. So time was on our side when we got out of there early, early. We got the daily travel out of the way and then enjoyed our destination for the second half of the day. For us, it was worth the alarm-setting on vacation.


Lunch boxes: My sister taught me this one a few years ago, and the kids LOVE it. When you go on a road trip, pack their lunch boxes with snacks (some filling, some healthier, and sprinkle in a few surprise treats) and that is what they get for the day. No constant begging and passing around the car. They can eat everything at once, in whatever order they choose, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. Because we usually left so early, I did not pass them out until after the first stop. Snacks occupy time and attention, but they love the surprise element of it. It definitely took some planning to have things on hand for a lunch box each day, but it was a highlight for them and so worth it. I planned out lunch boxes for half of the trip before we left each way. I then put 3 of each snack into a gallon-sized baggie and had them ready to dump in their lunch boxes every morning.


Ring Pops were one of the fave surprises on the trip

Rolls of Quarters: This genius tip came from one of my co-workers. She said that when her kids were young, each one would get a roll of quarters for a road trip as spending money. The catch was that each time a child asked “are we there yet?” they had to pay a quarter to their parents. Genius, right? We tweaked it a little for general behavior because our trip was quite lengthy and they really didn’t ask so much as they complained or did not listen. They also had the opportunity to earn them back because we wanted them to stay invested. In the end, they each got to buy a few things that were completely their decision. Erasers, face-painting, books, pressed penny collections, and tape measurers were among their choices. Plus, they learned great skills about decision-making, tax, etc.


Eraser pen from Pike Street Press


Face Painting from the Fathoms of Fun Festival

Ziploc bags: I had read about this one on Pinterest but had never tried it before this trip. When I packed the kids’ suitcases, each outfit went in a separate gallon-sized baggie. It eliminated a lot of confusion about what went with what and clean vs. dirty. But, I found as the trip went on, it was also effective for minimizing the unpacking of the van for one-nighters. If I planned ahead, I could take out one baggie with underwear, tooth brush, and jammies for each child, set them outside the suitcase and avoid taking the van apart when we arrived for a one-night stay. Our van was serious Tetris packing, so it was nice not to unpack the puzzle every day.


I had genuine concern about claustrophobia the night before we left

Organizing drawers in the trunk: This hack may have been my favorite. I packed food, utensils, wipes, etc. so that every time we stopped, I was at the ready to whip out a lunch or clean up a mess from the trunk. Highly recommend! (The only catch to this plan was the cooler we had packed behind it. Not super accessible and no real way to avoid our need for it.)

A wise friend encouraged me (knowing my personality) before we left to slow down when we could slow down. There is much that must be kept on a schedule when it comes to travel, but there are memories to be had if you take the minute to let them make. As much as you want to make good time, it’s important for the kids–and everyone–to move and stretch and enjoy the journey.


Trails in Port Orchard, Washington


Playground in Missoula, Montana


Filed under being a parent, money saving, travel

2 responses to “A Pragmatist’s Guide to Road-Tripping Across America

  1. Frank Meeuwis

    I love the planning and the tips & tricks you share Sami–I need to get Mary to read this!

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