29 days, 6,662 miles, and 18 states later, Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home. In summer of 2013, my (Megan’s) family took a crazy, long, awesome, ridiculous, fabulous road trip, taking us all across this great nation of ours.
We packed up our four kids (then 2 ½, 4 ½, 6 ½, and 8), hitched the camper to the back of our big white van, and made a giant loop around the country. We paralleled old Route 66 from St. Louis to Flagstaff, then took a detour to Phoenix to meet our church youth group for our church’s national convention. From there, we worked our way north, visiting the Grand Canyon, Four Corners, Durango, the Rocky Mountains, and ending up at Yellowstone. On the way back east, we stopped at Mount Rushmore and several sites from the “Little House” books.
What an adventure! So many amazing natural sights to see. SO much family togetherness (mostly a good thing, but we did have our moments! 😉 ) I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything we saw and experienced. It’ll be great fun to work through all the pictures and remember things certain moments throughout the next week or two.
I could write volumes about the trip, but for today, here are a few of the Things I Learned on my Summer Vacation:
- My family is awesome! Sure, I’m biased, but my kids were total troupers on this trip, and were game for pretty much anything we tried. They shared, hiked, made us laugh, bonded with each other, and learned a ton. I wasn’t sure what to expect doing all that traveling with four small kids (including a newly-potty-trained toddler), but they exceeded all expectations and really rose to the occasion. The hubs was pretty incredible too, driving a ton and just generally being a fantastic partner-in-crime while wrangling our crew on this adventure. I loved having so much uninterrupted family time, and we’ll definitely take more trips like this in the future.
- Our National Parks are a treasure. That sounds so cliché, but seeing some of America’s natural wonders really made me appreciate those who had the vision to preserve them as National Parks, and those who worked to develop them just enough so that the natural wonders were accessible, but not so much that they were ruined. A delicate balance, for sure, and we discovered that in most places they’re doing a fantastic job of it.
- Portable DVD players are the best invention ever. This vacation was brought to you by Jake and the Neverland Pirates, the fine folks at Pixar, the classics that I got for cheap on Amazon, and the letters D-V-D.
- My kids really don’t need most of the toys they have. I didn’t want to fill the camper with toys, so they were allowed to bring a small bin of toys, plus their Lego Duplos. Half the toys in the bin never got touched, and the kids invented their own game with the Duplos that went on for weeks. Not to mention the corn cob from the Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota that the two-year-old played with all the way to Wisconsin. Seriously.
- Sometimes we all just need a handful of M&Ms. If we drove more than 350 miles in a day, things started to get a little grumbly around 2:30 (both kids and parents if I’m being honest). A round of M&Ms throughout the car, and we were all ready to finish the day in a better mood. $10 worth of M&Ms = priceless. 🙂
And because this is a frugal living web site, here’s How we Took a Month-long Vacation on a Shoestring:
- Lodging: By camping in our travel trailer, our lodging averaged right around $40 per night. Even better, we never had to pack or unpack our stuff, and we always had a refrigerator, full kitchen, and (very importantly for traveling with four kids) our own bathroom. Camping helped both with cost and with simplicity of living for this long on the road.
- Food: With the exception of the week we were at the church convention, we did very little eating out—a few fast food meals on long driving days, and two pizza nights. Otherwise, I prepared most meals similarly to how I would at home, which meant that our food budget was pretty close to normal. I had packed a bunch of stockpile food, snacks, and pre-prepped dinners, and we did a lot of quick-and-easy dinners, but overall I was pleased that we were able to stick to a food budget and eat reasonably healthily on our month-long adventure.
- Gas: There wasn’t much we could do about this part of it, considering we needed a 6+ passenger gas-guzzling vehicle to tow the camper across the many miles, but we saved some by combining our vacation with chaperoning our youth group to Convention in Phoenix. Because we had worked throughout the past two years fundraising for the youth group trip, and because we drove out rather than flying like the rest of the group, we were able to apply our part of the fundraising money toward our gas costs for that portion of the trip. We were also careful about where to fill up, trying to top off before hitting big cities or major tourist destinations. Every little bit helps!
- Souvenirs: We’d have gone broke If we’d bought souvenirs for six at every destination. The kids knew from the get-go not to even ask. They each got a National Parks Junior Ranger hat to pin their badges on when they earned them, and they each chose a special stuffed animal from Yellowstone (the practical side of me wanted them to get something useful, like a t-shirt, but they all really love to play with stuffed animals and actually use them, and won’t grow out of them like a shirt…so…I had to admit that the husband and kids were right. And the stuffed bison is ridiculously cute!) Other than those little treasures, I took tons of pictures, and I made two photo books with all the pictures (I used Groupon deals for Picaboo!). The books have already been read tons of times, and they really help preserve all the memories from our trip.
- Destinations: Because we were hitting a ton of national parks on the trip, we bought an annual National Parks Pass at the first one, and that covered entrance fees for any of the other parks that charged (and it’s good through the following June in case an earlier vacation the summer could work out!) The most expensive part of our trip was the Narrow Gauge Railroad ride in Durango, CO, but the grandparents decided to go together to get tickets for the kids for Christmas, so their portion of that was covered. We encountered a few other fee-based attractions throughout the trip, but not many, so we were able to see a lot of cool stuff throughout the country for a relatively low cost.
I’ll be sharing more about some of our favorite destinations throughout the country especially the stops that fit into the “Travel on a Shoestring” concept. I hope you enjoy hearing about them, and that they inspire you to do a little road tripping of your own! It’s a great way to experience the country, and we’re already looking forward to the next time we can hit the road!
Is there any part of the trip you’d like to hear more about? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to share in future posts!
Have you checked out our other Travel on a Shoestring posts?
- Road Tripping with Kids series: General Tips, Behavior Tips, Road Trip Fun for Kids, Avoid Emergencies
- Northeast Ohio Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas
- Nationwide Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas (check the list to find free & frugal fun near your vacation destination!)
- Vacation Planning on a Shoestring
- Travel on a Shoestring: Feeding your family away from home
- Travel on a Shoestring: Fun for the family without busting the budget
- Travel on a Shoestring: Staycations (general staycation ideas)
- Travel on a Shoestring: Disney World
- Travel on a Shoestring: Lodging and Transportation
- Travel on a Shoestring: Road Trip Shopping List
- Travel on a Shoestring: Mount Rushmore and Jewel Cave
- Travel on a Shoestring: Yellowstone National Park with Kids
- Travel on a Shoestring: National Parks with Kids
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 1: Intro and Little House on the Prairie
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 2: Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 3: Laura’s Little Town–De Smet, South Dakota