My mother says geography never interested her as a child.
“I’ll never get out of Wayne County, Nebraska anyway,” she thought.
Surprise! Over her lifetime, this child of the Depression visited all fifty states and every continent but Antarctica. She rode a camel in Egypt, straddled an elephant in India, and floated in a balloon above the giraffes and zebras of Kenya.
Traveling need not be an impossible dream for SILKS (Single Income Lots of Kids) families. Family travel can be affordable and enjoyable with good planning.
Making Travel Affordable. My parents were not wealthy; they were goal setters who followed through with self-control. They understood that small daily indulgences could cost them a great deal over time. Therefore, we seldom ate out and didn’t engage in expensive hobbies. We paid cash for furniture, clothes, and cars. We chose to live frugally most of the year, so we could enjoy memory-making vacations. Think about it: wouldn’t you gladly trade a few entirely forgettable fast food meals for admission to Colonial Williamsburg or Rocky Mountain National Park?
When our family traveled, my sister and I were responsible for buying our own evening meals and any souvenirs or snacks we desired. This put an end to begging for treats and trinkets at every rest stop. Occasionally my dad would treat us if we stopped at a pricier place to sample lobster in New England or lunch at Seattle’s Space Needle. We each paid our own gate admissions for theme parks, national parks, and museums. We were taught to set aside money each week during the year for upcoming trips; Mother called it our Education Fund.
Purchasing food and snacks along the way can break the most carefully planned travel budget. If your lodging doesn’t include a free breakfast, fill a cooler with milk, juice, cereal, and fruit to eat in your room. Make sandwiches for lunch, either eating in the car or stopping for a picnic along the way. Shop for snacks before leaving, avoiding the exorbitant prices at convenience stores along the way.
If your vehicle isn’t reliable enough for a long trip, look into renting one. A week’s rental is often less than a single airline ticket. Consider camping, taking an RV, or staying with friends or family for a night or two to economize. Off-season travel can save money and yield a less crowded experience. Washington, D.C. is much more pleasant in September than in July anyway. Many destinations have discounted coupons online, saving you money and time standing in line on site.
Where to Go. If you haven’t traveled much with your children, choose a nearby site as practice for longer trips. An overnight or weekend excursion lets everyone experience life on the road. Build excitement for the trip by letting the children help with planning—request brochures or view pictures in library books or online. Growing up, we alternated trips, in-state one year and out-of-state the next. Mother also planned a different route each time we visited grandparents so we could see new sights along the way.
Sometimes circumstances will determine your destination—perhaps a wedding or graduation you want to attend. One spring when our five sons were ages 4-13, my sister called to invite us to visit San Diego before her husband was transferred—in just six weeks. My parents offered airline tickets for the boys’ first-ever flights. The children thought they were going on a vacation but Mom treated it as a field trip. We put our regular schoolwork on hold and began studying aircraft design, marine biology and Southwest history. We lived at my sister’s for the week, taking day trips with her two girls. To this day, the seven cousins talk about the lettuce and turkey rolls we ate at Wild Animal Park when Mom/Aunt Marcia forgot to pack the bread. As adults, they now are planning annual get-togethers with each other. That trip and other times spent together have forged lifelong friendships based on their shared experiences.
Preparation. Assemble maps, guidebooks, passports (if needed), and contact information into a master notebook or briefcase. Make arrangements for mail delivery, lawn care, and pet care well in advance. Build in a day of recovery when you return home, especially following a longer trip; you’ll need time to settle in before getting back to the daily routine.
Decide the purpose of your trip. Will it be an intense investigation of a place or topic you’ve been studying? A survey trip, catching just the highlights of the area? Visiting relatives? Sheer relaxation at the beach or in a cabin? Then plan accordingly.
It is convenient to go on a tour—the planning, lodging, and transportation are all pre-arranged for you. But if you’re willing to devote some time, you can design your own trip more economically. Look through brochures from travel companies to get ideas for routes that allow you to use your time efficiently.i They typically schedule the most interesting sights for their tours; this gives you an idea of what things are really worth seeing. The AAA Tourbooksii are also extremely helpful in planning trips, listing prices, approximate drive times, and estimating how long most people spend at an attraction.
Remind yourself as you plan that your children just want to have fun with you, not see every touristy spot along the way. Don’t over-schedule, but try to plan something for everyone when you travel. Vary your trip with time for scenery (lakes, mountains, oceans, rock formations); culture (museums, art galleries, musical performances); and science & history (Civil War re-enactments; historical sites like Old Ironsides or Mount Rushmore; Cape Canaveral or wildlife viewing). Be sure to include some unstructured time.
Help your children develop a personal packing list. Older children should learn about general packing—things they will need for every trip. Someday they will be the parents, packing for their own family trips. Some trips will be repeaters: Easter at Grandma’s, fishing at the lake, or taking livestock to the State Fair (not exactly a vacation, but a trip, nevertheless!). Keep packing lists for these trips on file so you don’t have to re-think them every year. Consider having the whole family wear matching shirts, especially in large crowds; it will be easier to spot each other.
Don’t leave God behind when you travel—you need Him more than ever! Select and copy Bible passages and hymns to memorize together as you travel. For the Beauty of the Earth takes on a new meaning when viewing the Grand Canyon.
Enjoying the Journey. The story of Noah illustrates how merciful God really is. None of his grandchildren were born until after the Flood. Can you imagine living on a boat for over a year with little kids asking, “Are we there yet, Grandpa?”
As much as possible, keep some structure in your days, especially while on the road. The familiar rhythms of daily life are important to everyone, but especially to little ones. Begin each day with prayer and Bible study, just like at home. A favorite blanket or teddy bear is comforting. And always do a headcount (including pets, alive and stuffed) after every stop. No need to explain here.
Limit time spent on video games, DVDs, and iPods. This is a family vacation—the idea is to build relationships and memories, not to isolate members from each other in separate electronic worlds.
Keep changing activities. Don’t wait until everyone is cranky—stay ahead of trouble.
Consider rotating seats at each rest stop (not those in car seats, of course). Let older kids circle towns on their personal maps as you pass through. Sing rounds like Are You Sleeping? Read books related to the area you’re seeing. A fun read-aloud book is Ten P’s in a Pod.iii
Allow lots of time for action when traveling with little ones, from horseback riding to hiking, snorkeling to city parks. Impromptu foot races and stretching help get the kinks out when you must put on a lot of miles. It was evident what my sister considered important as a young traveler after a long day riding in the car. She gleefully observed, “Look, Daddy, all the swimming pools have motels!”
My friend Michelle tells about driving fifteen hours straight through from northeastern Colorado to Dallas, Texas for a graduation ceremony with her three younger children in a pickup truck. She split the long trip into shorter segments by packing a stash of items from a local discount store. The wrapped gifts were opened at two hour intervals and included puzzle books, small notebooks, colored pencils (crayons melt), lap looms, Matchbox cars, car games like Trouble & Tic-Tac-Toe, and one electronic game (with mute). Since their schedule wouldn’t allow for any stops except for gas, they borrowed a DVD player and enjoyed “It’s a Mad, Mad, World” when it was too dark to read or do games. Listening to audio books worked well, too. She limited sugary snacks, taking instead juice boxes, granola bars, nuts, carrots, and pumpkin seeds.
A few hints for air travel: nurse or bottle feed your baby during take-off and landing to help his ears adjust to air pressure changes; older children and adults can chew gum. Take anti-bacterial wipes for airline trays and hands. Offer ear plugs to fellow passengers if your little one is unhappy. Pack extra clothes for yourself, too. Travel during naptime, if possible.
Hints for queasy travelers: keeping a little something in the stomach, especially soda crackers or pretzels, can help calm troubled tummies, whether high in the sky or rolling down the Interstate. Keep a coffee can with a lid handy if anyone in your family fights motion sickness. Line it with a zipper-style plastic bag for hygienic disposal.
Start off rested—this means you, too, Mom! Realize that when traveling with children, you will be doing the same things you do at home—feeding, clothing, comforting, teaching, and training your children. You’ll just be doing them the hard way, away from your at-home conveniences. Be prayed up so that you can focus on the needs of your spouse and children. God will give you times of refreshment, too, but they may not necessarily come during your family’s vacation. Release your expectations and allow Him to bring serendipities into your life in His own timing. Prepare your heart and give your expectations to the Lord.
Remember that you are in the memory-making business. Be alert for surprises of all sizes along the way. You will find that as you focus on helping your family have a great time, you will, too.
©2008, 2018 by Marcia K. Washburn who writes from her nineteen years of experience homeschooling five sons. Excerpted from Managing Your Children from the Management for Moms series. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org for a free copy of Encouragement for Homeschool Mothers. Visit her website for more articles and resources: MarciaWashburn.com.
i World Wide Country Tours offers some fascinating itineraries that focus on connecting with local people.
iii Ten P’s in a Pod by Arnold Pent III (The Vision Forum, Inc.: 2004) The true story of a traveling evangelist and his eight children and their adventures as they traveled by car all over the country.