How to Enjoy a Cross-Country Road Trip with Kids
By Kathy Chin Leong
Contributed by E.K.

(Editor's Note: Names of the family members depicted in this story have been changed to protect anonymity, but every word is absolutely true!)

In June of 2003, the Churchill family celebrated the father's work sabbatical with a six-week U.S. road trip logging 9,969 miles and 34 states. While not an easy task, the trip represented a dream for David, who recently became a United States citizen and wanted to see as much of his new homeland as possible.

The family circled the perimeter of the country, heading south, starting from Los Altos, California, ending in Las Vegas, Nev. Lodging in motels and hotels nightly, they spent between $18 to $20, 000 and toured major cities, cultural and historical attractions, particularly many of the east coast battlefields.

PREPARATIONS

For the Churchill’s, the extensive journey required one year of preparation. According to mom Elena, the family read some thirty books on the states, brought along stacks of tour books from AAA, mapped out their strategy, and watched historical and geographical documentaries borrowed from the library. They spoke with other families who made similar trips. She notes that she wanted to prepare her three girls well so that they would know something about each town ahead of time.

The three daughters, ages 9, 12, and 10, eagerly took on their roles during the trip switching between entertainment coordinator, accountant, and journalist. Mom found giving each girl a task in the car kept arguing to a minimum and gave them purpose.

And on this trip, she purposely did not allow them to bring videos to watch while riding. "This was the perfect opportunity for family time and discussions, so we played car games, talked, and sang."

They listened to a few books on tape such as Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, engrossed in what the era was like in that part of the country. "When we went to Boston, our girls remembered Little Women and so it was great for them to relate to it," says Elena.

ON THE ROAD

In every state, they absorbed the local culture and regional specialties. When they rolled into to a new town, they would ask townspeople where to eat.

"In Vicksburg we went to a county courthouse and asked the clerk, 'What's the specialty food here in town, and where can we go to get it?' " she recalls. "So we had fried dill pickles in Vicksburg, pickled watermelon rinds in Gettysburg, friend okra in the South. It was a culinary trip as well as an historical one."

During the journey, the family learned to be flexible. The GMC van broke down one night, and they had to find a dealership to help them. It was a good thing, notes Elena, that the car was still under warranty, and the dealer let them borrow a car for free to continue sightseeing until theirs was repaired.

How to handle discipline in the car was another issue. Before the family set on the road, each person in the car had her own bag of quarters, even the adults. When someone bickered or complained, she would put a quarter in the car "kitty." At the end of the week, the person who put in the least amount of money would win the kitty cash.

With long stretches of road, potty breaks were not always possible. There were times when it was difficult, the mother admits. When she knew there were long roads ahead, she reminded the girls not to over drink.

At the end, the family was tired of living out of a suitcase, but sad they had to return. "We had an adventure everyday, but we knew it was time to go back to reality."

When they came home on August 1, the Churchill’s compiled a list of dos and don'ts, tips and thoughts. Here's how you too can prepare for a cross-country road trip and live to tell the story: 

BEFORE YOU GO... 

  • Book hotels well in advance to save money, especially in Washington, D.C.
  • Find hotels which bundle breakfast.
  • Have each adult carry two different credit cards in case one person gets robbed or loses his/her wallet.
  • Hide extra cash in obscure place like glass case or medicine packaging.
  • Buy stamps for postcards ahead of time.
  • Pack LOTS of underwear in ziplock bags for easy packing, detergent and quarters for laundry.
  • Give itinerary and phone number to family/friends.
  • Set a budget; they spent $18-$20K since they stayed in $100-and up hotels
  • Plan your picture taking: they took photos of every state welcome sign.
  • Have kids help do research, save up for the trip and bring their own money.
  • Give the car a thorough checkup.

 CAR ESSENTIALS:

  • Folder with plastic sleeves to hold hotel info and brochures, state information, receipts.
  • State travel books and maps which can be tossed or donated after visiting that state to lighten load
  • Large tubs to hold souvenirs
  • Cooler large enough to keep drinks for 3 days
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Sewing kit and tape
  • Address book
  • Motion-sickness medicines, mosquito repellent, Q-tips, nail clippers, tweezers
  • Large blanket to cover up luggage in car
  • Anti-theft brake lock
  • Granola bars and beef jerky for quick food

WHAT TO AVOID:

  • Over packing. They over packed clothes, snacks, CDs, shoes, and a myriad of other items.
  • Booking cheap hotels
  • Packing hair dryer unnecessary when going to hotels.

KID ESSENTIALS

  • CD player for each child
  • electronic car games
  • personalized tote bag with their "stuff"
  • postcard scrapbook and journal
  • water bottles and daypacks
  • cameras

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