Are we there yet?

Tips for taking the kids on a great American road trip

Reno Moms Blog contributor Anna Thornley got creative while entertaining her four children during a family road trip to her family’s Illinois farm last summer. Courtesy/Anna Thornley.

Reno Moms Blog contributor Anna Thornley got creative while entertaining her four children during a family road trip to her family’s Illinois farm last summer. Courtesy/Anna Thornley.

When my brother and I were kids, we were always taking road trips. Some of my fondest memories involve listening to my parents’ ’70s music from the backseat of their car, rolling down the windows, watching strange new towns and roadside stops fly past and finding obscure cities with funny names on the road atlas. We ate sandwiches from the cooler at rest stop picnic areas and, though we wouldn’t be caught dead doing it at home, we napped in the backseat, loving that feeling of waking up in a brand-new place.

Now as I welcome summer and the approaching two months of my daughter’s summer break, I find myself longing to crank Doobie Brothers’ tunes (because, you know, nostalgia), roll the windows down, pack a cooler, and hit the open road.

Unlike hopping in the car with your partner and playing it fast and loose with the schedule, the iconic family road trip is a carefully orchestrated dance of cooler-and-snack-bag packing, game-and-activity bringing, playtime arranging and budget calculating, and it is not for the loosey-goosey or faint of heart.

Merging my own tried-and-true tips with those from the moms I know who are experts at this stuff, I now offer the following advice for having an epic family road trip.

Stick to the plan

When Reno Moms Blog contributor Danielle Sanford was growing up, she was one of five kids. “We had a lot of family in Minnesota, so we would road trip from Reno to Minnesota every summer, stay about two months and then drive back,” she recalled.

Her mom meant business when it came to packing for six people to spend two months away from home.

“Since she wanted to do it in two days, we were only allowed two drinks for the whole trip because it would minimize bathroom stops,” Sanford said.

Now that she is a mother of a 4- and 5-year-old, she’s developed less-stringent trip-planning schemes. Today she uses this one, inspired by her sister: She breaks trips into four-hour chunks, with a strategically planned stop at a park (identified well before leaving home) in between, allowing the kids to get their wiggles out and the whole family to stretch their legs. And she’ll find hotels with pools, if possible, to end the day with some swimming.

Anna Thornley—a Reno mom of four kids, ages 3, 5, 7 and 9—stuck to similar planning when she and her husband took the family on a five-week road trip last summer to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Mount Rushmore and, finally, her family’s farm in Illinois.

“Every day was about eight hours in the car,” Thornley said. “We had a cooler in the back and snacks I could reach without getting out. I had looked at the maps and found where we’d be halfway and would find a park or something where the kids could run and we could eat the sandwiches we’d packed.”

She picked up free paper maps from AAA, which made it easier to see the full scope of the trip and plan accordingly.

To save money, the Thornleys packed their own breakfasts and lunches to eat on the road, saving their dining dollars for dinners only. To save on lodging, they rented the affordable, clean cabins at KOA Campgrounds, which provided pools, free-to-use bikes, mini-golf courses and more.

Lynnette Bellin is a Reno mom of two kids, ages 9 and 13. Over the recent two-week Washoe County school spring break, she bravely embarked on a road trip as the only adult with her two kids and her two nieces, ages 12 and 14. She chose hotels that offered free breakfasts and which were near their chosen attractions, to save on parking fees. They aimed to eat out only once a day. But the journey was entirely of the kids’ making.

“If they wanted to take a break, we took a break. They weighed in on what we would do and where we would stop every day,” Bellin said. “I found that trip was more enjoyable. We’d see a fruit stand and randomly pull over, and it made them super happy.”

In fact, while her original impression had been that a crew of older kids would mean nothing but staring at phones, she was impressed to discover that everyone pitched in—the 14-year-old navigated, and everyone carried their own things and packed their own sandwiches.

Roadside Treasures

Megan Fikes, a Reno mom of two boys ages 5 and 8, says her husband is a whiz at finding eclectic roadside stops to break up their frequent trips to visit family in Las Vegas.

“In Goldfield, he found this car cemetery where people have painted this beautiful graffiti art on the cars,” she said. “It takes about 15 minutes to see the whole thing, but it’s a fun little stop that gets us out of the car.”

And here’s a tip from me, based on my own experiences with family: If treasure hunting is your thing, try geocaching. There are multiple apps that offers maps and hints for where to find caches. It’s a little treasure-hunting opportunity that gets your family out of the car for a bit and safely exploring new places together.

Fun and Games

Smartphones and tablets may be game changers for today’s road trippers, but there’s something to be said for, you know, seeing the country and talking to each other. That’s what the Great American Road Trip is all about. •

Try these great ideas for passing the time with your loved ones:

B-I-N-G-O! Do a quick online search for printable car Bingo cards ( offers a nice set) and start looking for slippery-road signs, deer and dozens of other sights.

The alphabet game. Find the letters of the alphabet, in order, on signs you pass.

The license plate game: Find the letters in your name or find the most states.

Whiteboard games: Bellin says that a simple whiteboard and dry erase marker led to hours of fun playing Hangman and Dots and Boxes.

Fikes suggests a deck of cards like TABLETOPICS to get interesting conversations started. “They have random questions like, ‘You’re stranded on a desert island. What three things would you want with you?’” she says. “It’s fun to hear what the kids come up with.”

Radio and podcasts. Thornley was impressed that her kids never reached for screens; instead, the family listened to the radio throughout their trip, taking note of the unique advertisers, events, or songs that were popular in each place. And Bellin had fun finding podcasts that appealed to her car mates.

Get crafty with Legos. Sanford discovered a YouTube video that inspired her to turn a metal lunchbox into a Lego kit; stick a Lego board to the inside wall and pack the pieces in the lunchbox.

Alphabet stories. Someone starts a story with a sentence beginning with A. The next person’s sentence has to start with B, and so on.

Engage with your fellow road trippers. Sanford had fun sharing with her kids the challenge of motioning at truck drivers to honk their horns, or waving at other cars to see who would wave back.

And, of course, what family road trip would be complete without a game of I Spy?