My sons and I (plus my husband, for part of the time) recently took a month-long road trip through the southeast United States with six extended stops. We left as soon as school let out for the summer and were away from home until the end of June.
This trip took shape when we started planning a trip to New River Gorge National Park & Preserve in West Virginia. We looked at airfare and decided it was too expensive for four people. Since my schedule is flexible and my kids, who are 11 and 12, were on summer break, I thought, “Why not drive and see some of the country?” We decided my husband (who had fewer vacation days) would fly and my kids and I would make the 3,000 mile trip at a slower pace. I don’t enjoy marathon driving, so I began looking at points of interest along the route to West Virginia, focusing on parks and outdoor adventures.
Every Kid Outdoors grants fourth graders free access to National Parks Service activities, and when my kids were younger, we wanted to take advantage. But, as it turned out, my kids’ fourth grade year was 2020, and our plans for their national park year crashed and burned. I saw this trip as a way to recreate a missed opportunity — and I went big.
Our trip lasted a month, with extended stops in seven states. My husband joined us for five days, so most of my hot takes are from the solo parent perspective.
Here’s what I wish I’d known before we hit the road.
While they were excited to go ziplining and whitewater rafting and ride roller coasters, my kids missed the familiarity of home, friends, and pets. They also missed their dad quite a bit at first. I wasn’t prepared for the chorus of “I miss daddy” on a loop the first few days of our trip.
Unfortunately, I took everything personally. I interpreted their homesickness as slights or lack of enthusiasm for the trip I’d planned. But gradually, I learned that being excited about the present and missing home aren’t mutually exclusive.
I didn’t get pit stops quite right
My desire to “just power through and get there” didn’t gel with everyone’s needs. I skipped roadside attractions or detours we might have enjoyed in favor of just getting to the next pit stop. If I had a do over, I’d have taken more time to be in the moment.
One of my kids is a serious car napper and also my most vocal complainer. Car rides are easier when he’s asleep. I’d plan stops but didn’t always communicate that, which meant waking him when we stopped. I also wish I’d planned more comfort stops. Most highway rest areas have green spaces or playgrounds. I wish we’d have taken more time to stretch (me) and play (them) before getting back on the road.
I didn’t budget for splurges
Staying within our budget was important on this trip, especially with the bottomless pit appetites my tweens are rocking. But I wish I’d have planned wiggle room for splurges that can make traveling so much easier.
Suites and connecting rooms are pricier than one hotel room but sometimes, one room is a little too much togetherness for three people used to more space and privacy.
Groceries and snacks accounted for a large chunk of our expenses. We brought food from home and hit local supermarkets. Overall, we did okay at keeping food costs down, but I learned a quick grab from the hotel convenience mart is sometimes easier than a trip to the grocery store after a long day.
But I got some things right, too.
I created an itinerary in Google Docs and texted it to my kids. I included departure times, links to hotels and activity choices. I also included images for a visual preview of things to come.
The itinerary was a hit. “I liked being able to see what we’d be doing the next day so I could know when to set my alarm and what clothes to lay out,” explained my 12-year-old son, Kyle. As kids gain more autonomy, they may appreciate being able to process information at their own pace versus being fed details as adults deem appropriate.
I found the itinerary useful because it was a central place to keep addresses and reservation information. I had everything I needed in one document, no digging through texts or emails required.
Kid of the Day
My kids took turns being “kid of the day.” The kid of the day got to push elevator buttons, unlock doors, and in general have first dibs on things. I thought this was a really small thing and didn’t expect tweens to think calling the elevator was a big deal, but this helped keep the peace and focused them on helping me. Win-win.
Relaxing my rules
I usually nix messy car snacks, but I allowed my kids to eat as many fruit snacks as they wanted during longer driving days. I also played the “pool counts for a bath” and “ice cream counts as dinner” cards more than usual. I know there’s chlorine and other things in pool water that make swimming the opposite of a bath, but I ignored this. My kids hit the hay after a swim followed by ice cream more than once on this trip.
Zero regrets. No harm came from more snacks and fewer baths. They’ll (hopefully) remember when mom said yes to things she usually said no to.
What’s the takeaway?
I’d like to report that our trip was the solution for all our family’s problems and that we no longer retreat to our corners and devices when we walk in the door. While that’s not true, I’ve noticed we seek out each other’s company more than we did before. I’ve seen my kids choose to play together versus alone or with friends. We do more things as a family, such as board games and family movie nights. I hope that lasts.
Our trip wasn’t perfect, and neither is our family, but I think we all have a better understanding of how to work together and a deeper appreciation for each other as individuals as well as a broader view of the world.
Jill Robbins has a 30-year-old daughter and two 12-year-old sons. Despite being a parent for over three decades, she's come to terms with the fact that she's never going to be that mom who has it all together. Jill's writing has appeared in SheKnows, HuffPost, Tripsaavy, Insider, The Girlfriend, and other publications. She encourages parents to find adventure with their kids, whether that's across the ocean or across the street. Jill lives in San Antonio with her husband and two youngest kids, although she's usually somewhere else.