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Family Travel: Plan that trip without exhausting yourself!

Guest post by Kay at

When you decided to take to the road with your family, you imagined smiling faces and photo ops at roadside nature parks. Only after making reservations did you become overwhelmed with preparing your family for even a short trip!

When I worked outside of my home full-time and commuted three hours each day, every minute was precious! I had to develop a system for careful time management before a trip. By planning your time, you can:

  • Get more than two hours of sleep the night before you leave.
  • Avoid the cost and time spent on last-minute trips to the store.
  • Save money on your travels by foreseeing and bringing everything you’ll need instead of buying it on the road.
  • Be relaxed and rested instead of rushed and exhausted!

A week or two before your trip, set aside an hour when the kids are asleep and your husband is occupied but available for consultation. Make four lists:

1.What to Bring

Get detailed. Think of everything you will need, down to socks and baby’s bottle. Don’t leave an item off because you think it is obvious. I have been known to forget my shoes or forget to pack diapers in the diaper bag.

2. What to Borrow or Buy

List items you’ll need to purchase for your trip and where you’ll need to get them. Also, brainstorm whether you know someone you can borrow it from instead or purchasing it.

3. Grocery List/Menu Plan

This list is mainly for campers, but making your own breakfasts in a hotel room or lunches at rest stops will save you money. If you’re camping, a thorough list will save you time at the grocery store and help avoid a trip to the nearest town for peanut butter. Don’t forget snacks!

4. Most importantly, list out each day preceding your trip and assign one or two tasks for each.

Map out which day you will do the laundry, for example, which lunch hour you’ll do the grocery shopping, which evening you’ll take the dog to the boarder, run to a friend’s to borrow a cooler and when you’ll pack the clothes.

Include time the night before you leave to pack the car. Preparations will be less intimidating if you only have one or two things to do each evening, and you’ll avoid the last-minute rush and frustration of beginning your trip stressed. Since I have only one free hour a night, this list is crucial.

Save those lists!

When you return, revise the lists from your experience, note the occasion and duration (“Christmas at Granny’s, three days two nights”) and file them away. Next time you want to get out of town, you’ll be way ahead of the game!

Kay travels Texas and beyond with her husband and toddling son, whose first road trip included camping in the wilderness of the Big Bend area when he was just seven months old. Visit Kay at

photo by chris runoff

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  • I can’t get to Kay’s site, I think the link is broken? I bet we live close-ish to each other though! Texas is a bit state to travel through!
    We don’t travel much because it is quite intimidating to me. It was intimidating to me before kids and now with two kids… it’s terrifying! We are going to bite the bullet and attempt a spring vacation this year, so I’ll be sure to bookmark your tips!


  • Marie Hill says:

    I live by lists!! We have twins and a third on the way. Since they were babies we have traveled ALOT. Last year we traveled to Europe for 5 weeks. While traveling can be daunting and stressful it doesn’t have to be. Planning really is the key. Just this weekend we went to WI. Dells to a indoor waterpark hotel/resort. I tried to think of everything we would need. Our room had a kitchenette. I know that some water parks require swim diapers for children under a certain age so I called to check. Even though my kids are potty trained I didn’t want any surprises and I didn’t want to pay for something we could bring with us. When we went to Europe the cost of things are extremely high so we had friends check the price of pull-ups for us. We found that it was cheaper, but ALOT to bring them with us then pay there. I also took coupons with us this weekend so if we ate out it would minimize the out of pocket expense. I even packed toys for the kids to play with. And at the time my husband didn’t understand why but I knew we would have down time outside of swimming and it would keep them content in the room. Boy was he glad I did as we ended up gettting a blizzard!!
    I encourage everyone with kids to travel. It’s a great learning experience for the kids and with planning can be very easy. My kids are 3 1/2 and have seen the Statue of Liberty in NY, Cape Cod, MI., Oh., Chicago, PA., MN., Belgium, Germany, Paris, CO., S.D., Disney World, and many other places. I think for many the thought of how hard it might be actually paralizes them.
    If traveling by plane I would suggest packing a change of clothes not only for the child but for you. Also, little snacks and small toys to keep them entertained.
    By car we always pack things for them to do in the car, snacks and lots of drinks, change of clothes, a potty.
    Just know that with kids trips might take longer due to stops but it is so worth it.

  • Teresa says:

    Jus started to plan our big trip this Spring. It is a lot to accomplish in a short time with booking the train, hotels, car, and airline for 7 people. I make a outline for each day so we know what we defiantly want to see that day and then activities that might be of interest if we have extra time as well. I go as far as to find local restaurants and find deals for those few meals we will eat out. So far I figure 7 people, 7 days, 2000 miles and it will cost about $1500.00. Which is more than we have, so I will really be hunting for those deals to bring it closer to $1000.00. That is with all the hotels paid for with our points card mand a few gift cards I have gotten these last few months to places like Starbuck.

    • Nichole says:

      I’m taking 6 people to Chicago for three days and I’m looking at $2500 minimum. Would love to know how you are keeping yours so cheap.

  • I like the idea of saving my lists for future trips – I’m pretty good about making lists and doing stuff ahead of time, but re-do the entire process each time. Thanks for the tip!

  • Crystal says:

    I’m hoping the 2 hours of sleep was a typo…I need more than 2 hours of sleep the night before! LOL

  • Emily says:

    I have a master list on my computer for trips, including a separate camping list… and some things I would like to add are- write down things that need to be done right before leaving (clean out fridge, lock windows/extra vehicles, unplug TV/computer, etc), and also- plan a meal for when you get back! You will probably be exhausted and its nice to have a meal in the freezer instead of having to go for takeout! 🙂

    • Emma K says:

      I love that idea of having a meal in the freezer for when you get home. That is something I haven’t planned in with all of our traveling we’ve done.

    • Rebecca says:

      @Emily, Our return meal is usually little caesars hot and ready pizza. They are $5 a piece…you can’t even make homemade pizza for that and they are delicious!

  • Anitra says:

    I usually do OK with the planning (so far… our next trip will be with 2 kids instead of 1, so we’ll see how that works out…), but I can NOT figure out how to allow enough driving time so that we don’t get stressed. I know that with diaper changes, nursing, and/or a pregnant bladder, we really need to stop at least every 2 hours, probably every 1.5 hours. My husband would rather go 3-4 hours between stops, and this has caused a lot of tension on trips that are more than 2 hours of driving. (Especially since our toddler generally starts screaming after about 2 hours, once she has grown bored with every book and toy available to her.)

    I think it’s because he spends so much time in the car commuting that he hates being in the car when we’re supposed to be on vacation. Any ideas?

    • @Anitra, The best thing we’ve found is to add in interesting stops mid-trip to breakup the drive. Yes, the total drive gets longer, but it keeps our stress level down while we’re in the car. If anyone has ideas on how to fend off the two-hour screaming mark, though, I would love to hear the tips!!

      • Emma K says:

        @Maggie @ Free Market Mommy,

        I’ve done 10 hour trips with my 3 year old and 1 year old. They both have become pretty good with traveling. Sometime’s I’ll do a stop at a Chick-fil-a or another place with a play area if they really need to get some energy out and get moving around. Sometimes just walking around in the gas station helps them. My last resort is the dvd player in the car.

    • Kimberly says:

      @Anitra, I have a two-year-old, and we travel quite a bit. This will be our first Christmas traveling with 2 kids as well, so I’m preparing in advance for my 2-year-old! I like to have different baggies full of activities ready in my bag so that when my daughter gets bored, I can pull out a bag and hand it to her. It’s earier than digging through a diaper bag, trying to find something interesting. :o) Some ideas are a bag of small books, crayons and stickers and paper (I use little journals from the dollar store), treats (Dum Dums are a hit if you don’t mind a little sugar), toy cars to “drive” along the arms of the car seat, finger puppets (you can print some online), and pictures of loved ones you’ll be visiting (you can get a cheap album so they won’t get ripped). I also love to sing, so when she starts getting wiggly, but before meltdown phase (which is usually the point of no return), I start singing with her. The best songs are ones with hand motions, like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Five Little Monkeys (we make up our own motions), and If You’re Happy And You Know It (touch your nose, pull your ear, pat your head, and so on). I also found some cute new songs on – she has a “songs” link on the side. She gets to wiggle around a little bit, and she forgets she’s stuck in a car seat. :o) Hope that’s a little bit helpful!

  • Rachael says:

    We try to stay somewhere with breakfast included. These hotels are generally not too expensive and kid-friendly, too. Then we do sandwiches for lunch and go out to dinner, using a coupon if we can.

  • Mona says:

    I use lists all the time when we travel! Makes things so much easier! As a side note – I can’t see anything on Kay’s website. It shows the sidebars, but no posts or anything?

  • Kelly says:

    I travel once every month or two so certain things packed in my suitcase all the time – shampoo, lotions, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodarant, some makeup, hairbrush, sewing kit… That way when it is time to go I know I have it ready to go. It is a big time saver and I am never without the things I need on every trip.

  • Ashlee says:

    We are getting ready to take my son for his first out of state trip. I am soooo anxious about it. We have never traveled for more than 2 hours at a time with him. He is 16 months. I’m sure he will be fine, and this article will help with the preparation part! Luckily we are just going to my in-laws (who have a 5 year old) so a lot of stuff we can borrow if we do forget something. I’m a big list person too, but I never seem to remember everything.

  • Ellen says:

    Keeping a saved list is such a great tip! I’ve been doing that for awhile— it’s nice to go and print out a fresh list already tailored to the kind of trip we’re taking. We’ve got 3 kiddos and travel when we can. My daughter also has severe food allergies so we pack food on nearly every trip as well. Lists are life savers!

  • Emma K says:

    Great ideas!
    I have a 3 1/2 yr old and 18 month old. We did a lot of traveling over the summer by car and plane.
    When we flew I knew that I wouldn’t want to pay full price for diapers, so I packed as much as I had room for and then took my coupons with me. I also had been saving my Rite Aid free diaper voucher, and diaper voucher from my Enjoytheriderewards points that I was able to use. That helped a lot because I didn’t have to worry about if the diapers were on sale or not.

  • Julie M says:

    If we are going on a domestic trip I pack my coupons! I don’t take the entire box but just pull out coupons for snacks, diapers, etc. that we might need to buy when we get there. I also do some checking online beforehand as to which grocery stores are in the city we will visit. None of my local grocery stores do double coupons but I have found some stores when travelling that do and by knowing in advance we can try and hit those stores.

    • Rebecca says:

      @Julie M, I do the same thing only I take my whole binder 🙂 It really hurt my first trip to buy diapers and wipes and snacks when I thought I had packed enough and then realized I was about 2 days short!

  • Rebecca says:

    I actually just typed up a packing list on my computer a couple weeks ago. I too always forget something that is usually substantial. Most recently I went on a hunting trip and FORGOT my breast shields that attach to my breast pump…wow! That was an interesting trip but we got it figured out!

    Our next big trip is heading down to Texas to go hunting on a ranch! I’m so nervous about this one because from Missouri, it is a 14 hour drive to where we are going and my sons will be 3 1/2 and 1 1/2! YIKES! I will be checking back for tips!

  • Dawn says:

    I love the idea of planning a menu ahead of time. Staying at hotels that offer a complimentary cooked breakfast and offer in-room refrigerators and microwaves has saved us a ton of money while traveling with our kids. Our family includes two teenage boys, a six year old food-sensitive girl, an almost-vegan vegetarian mom, and a dairy-intolerant husband. Checking out the restaurant and grocery options online well ahead of time was a huge time and money saver. We ended up packing our shelf-stable soy milk and almond milk to take to breakfast at the hotel because we knew they didn’t offer it. A few staff members there asked us about where we bought them because they were either vegans or lactose intolerant themselves, and I was able to tell them a couple of places nearby where they could buy some!
    DH was a little skeptical at first about packing “all that food” for a trip where we’d be staying at a hotel, but was pleasantly surprised to find that we didn’t need to spend over $100 per day to eat out.
    One of my most-used online resources before we travel is this:
    Also checking manufacturers’ websites for product availability near where you’re traveling is a good idea if you need a particular product.

  • chris says:

    We have traveled plenty with kids. Including a 18 day long journey where we visited 5 national parks and camped 14 of the days. I think that trip will provide all of us with great memories and was suprisingly cheap (we spent about $125 per day, but a lot of that we would have spent had we stayed at home, kwim).

    Both my parents and in-laws live about 500 miles away so we have made lots of those journeys too. I swear the photo at the top of the blog is interstate 90 in Western Minnesota 🙂

  • sherri says:

    As our splurge, we take a summer vacation to the beach and normally stay in a condo. This past time, I packed an extra suitcase with toilet paper, garbage bags, paper towels, ziplocs, spices, my favorite big skillet, and of course all of our toiletries. By taking just those few items, I bet I saved a ton on shopping once we were there. I also enjoyed not having to spend all my precious beach time at the store. I also took basic pantry items like cereal, crackers, and such. I hope this year to be organized enough to take ALL that we need food-wise and not have to step foot into an over-priced, crowded store on my vacation.

  • Lori says:

    I use large ziplock bags for socks and undies. Everyone gets their own bag of their own socks and undies. For short trips this is a good way to pack everyone using only a couple of suit cases, it also makes them easier to keep up with once you are at your destination. When we come home I keep the empty ziplock bags in our luggage so they can be re used.

    In most cases upgrading your hotel room to one with a kitchenette is worth the money. You will save that money by not eating out as often, it also allows you to eat healthier and have more food choices.

  • erika says:

    We became full time parents of my 6 yrs old stepdaughter a year ago. Boy it changed our drive routine. What I found is, that I always need -even if the drive is only 30-60 min- a pencil with an activity book (one of those ‘every first grader should know’ type) and a couple of stuffed animals.
    On long trips to Gma’s (3-12 hrs depending on grandparent ;O)) we have the dvd player, but only one movie at a time-then a play break (books, Leapster, animals galore)-, lots of snacks (veggies), sandwiches for lunches or dinners in a cooler, drinks and a map marked with all the cheap gas stations and rest areas (AAA- Trip map and online you can see most major highways with rest stops to mark). McDonald’s play area is always a great stop especially as she does not get fast food all the time.
    Also, I start to pull out stuff we need a a week to a couple of days ahead based on my list and go through it again before I put them in bags. I rather over-pack then under. Even to a quick day trip to the beach I have my cooler full of food, chairs, towels, toys enough for probably two days.

    Our next trip is next week driving to UT from So. CA. It will be a 12 hrs drive, with an overnight stop in St. George. Have the car rental, hotel reserved. Have the snow chain, winter clothes and blow up beds ready, Xmas gifts bought. (they will need to be wrapped when my daughter is with gma over the weekend, as she is still into Santa) Unfortunately, our days can not be specifically planned due to the extended family’s undecided-ness but we will take it as it comes and make sure we have fun.
    I have made 3 round-trips, each 10-12 hr with her this last year and it all went smooth, except the occasional “I don’t need to go to the bathroom” but 10 minutes later it is an emergency. LOL

  • Corinne says:

    We’ve done a fair bit of traveling with up to 7 kids, most recently several cross-country drives. Since we’re not real fast food folks and do try to be frugal, we’ve found some great options for dinner in the hotel for much less than fast food or restaurant: rotisserie chicken and bagged salad from grocery store, frozen dinners heated in room (this takes a LONG time, so plan to do it in shifts), pick up pizza from a local place, or just plain cold cereal and/or yogurt for supper. Chains like Sweet Tomatoes often take coupons we’ve brought with us–one even told us about a better deal than the coupon I brought. We’ve feed 6, including big teenage boys, at Sweet Tomatoes (all they can eat) for under $30. Even in Rome or Germany, DH and I will pick something up at the local grocery store for meals–bread and cheese, etc. A bonus is that it’s fun to have a peek at “every day life” in another country (or even another part of the US).

  • Carrie says:

    I have the lists too! I have saved them on my computer and use them for trips that are an annual event.
    We take a summer trip with extended family and I have a list that details which family brought what (paper towels, dishes, pans, which food, etc.) That way when we plan our trip the following year, everyone knows what they brought and can trade items around if they want. Plus, we know if we needed multiple items (3 waffle makers? YES! Otherwise we are waiting forever for enough waffles. 2 coffee makers? No, turns out we only needed one, so we back off for the next year)

  • Caroline says:

    I love the make detailed “what to bring” items. The last two trips we’ve made in the summer I forgot my bathing suits. Who forgets their bathing suit when they’re going on a trip where there will definitely be swimming?? Oh yeah, the mom who has to pack her suitcase, the 2 kids suitcases, supervise the husband’s packing b/c he can’t seem to do it himself, plus everything else we bring! I love the idea of saving the lists because the stuff is so often the same and you’re not wasting a new piece of paper each time.

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