Longstanding readers of Jetlag & Mayhem will know that every year we embark on a US Road Trip, choosing a state at random. Our aim is to eat our way across America. This year we are hitting up Wisconsin, the land of cheese and beer.
We have been doing road trips for years, even before Mesdames Jetlag & Mayhem showed up. Having kids hasn’t got in the way of our US travel habit (Canada also sneaks in there every now and again).
If you are contemplating a road trip, my advice is to go for it. It isn’t going to be as relaxing as two weeks by the beach but you can tailor it to your requirements. More importantly, your vacation will be jam-packed full of amazing memories and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.
How to pick a route
There are a few things that you need to be guided by here. What is the weather, how far do you want to drive, do you want to include flights, what is of interest to you. We live in Hong Kong, so even just getting to the US is a lengthy procedure. As we are closer to the West Coast, I have been sticking to the West/Middle states and will save the rest for when the kids are older. We usually travel during the school summer holidays which adds a further restriction as states like Arizona are simply too hot.
With young kids in tow (mine are 7 and 4), I’ve found that a mix of cities, towns and national parks are a good combination. They are too young to enjoy proper hiking and the great outdoors so we will save the bigger national parks for when they are older.
Once you’ve decided roughly where to go, get hold of some guidebooks – I like Lonely Planet, Insight & Frommers. Instead of rushing out to buy, you might want to check your local library or borrow from a friend. I also turn to the gurus on Tripadvisor to advise on a route. Every state/town in the US will have an official tourist website and usually contains suggested itineraries. There are also lots of free city apps which are useful to download, especially if they give you access to maps and walking tours.
Tailor your route to your family’s preference. We are used to being on the go, so we will move every 1 to 3 nights. I try to add in a ‘relaxing’ break at least once during our journey. I find big resort hotels like the Hyatt Regency are an excellent place to base ourselves for a break.
Where to stay
We have never done a roadtrip in a campervan although I admire those who do! I book a mix of hotel/motel/airbnb. I am a huge airbnb convert – it’s so nice to be able to relax in your own lounge, cook your own food in the kitchen and for the same price as one hotel room, you can often get an airbnb with two separate bedrooms. Where possible I try to book a cancellable room rate just to keep things flexible. I also book 99% of our accommodation in advance as I don’t find traveling with kids to be that spontaneous!
As always with booking accomodation, check the reviews thoroughly. Also check the locations on googlemap to actually calculate the driving distances from where you will be staying to downtown etc.
What to organise in advance
I keep all our details in an excel spreadsheet. This includes hotel addresses, flights, driving distances, suggested activities and restaurants. I did try using Tripit but I found that I reverted to my printed off spreadsheet rather than iPhone app. Print off several copies of your itinerary, hotel confirmations etc. If you are using airbnb, download the app to make it easy to communicate with your host.
If you are traveling to the US and not a US citizen, be sure to check whether you require an ESTA!
Join all the frequent flyer/hotel clubs and pick up as many air miles enroute as possible!
This year I used my iphone much more than usual with apps like airbnb and yelp. When I arrived at my accomodation, I would log onto the wifi and then double check the addresses, opening times etc, taking a screenshot of any vital information. This is especially important if you don’t have a US phone and want to avoid any roaming charges once you’re off wifi!
If you are covering large distances, it is important to get a decent sized car. Car hire is the one job that I always delegate to my husband. My only requirement is that it has to be small enough that we can park it easily. My husband’s top tip is to get a quote online then phone up directly and ask for further discount. We tend to always book with the big names e.g. Avis or Hertz as we can also collect air miles.
Car hire and city parking can be expensive. If you are spending the first few days in a city with great public transport, you might want to consider holding off on the car hire and picking one up in-town after the first few days. We recently did this in New Orleans and it worked really well and saved us a huge amount of money.
The one painful part of car rental has been child car seat hire. I would advise that you phone your car rental a few days in advance and reconfirm your car seats. On our New Mexico roadtrip, we had a frustrating few hours in Avis Albuquerque as they only had one car seat available. This year, the New Orleans downtown Avis also only had one car seat available so we and to drive out to New Orleans airport to pick up the other one! If you are particular about car seats you may wish to bring your own. There are also products like the Doona infant car seat and SitnStroll which double as car seats and strollers.
The sat nav system has been an absolute godsend for us, I’ve no idea how we used to get around before it! I would highly recommend you hiring one or bringing your own from home. I also use googlemaps to work out the driving distances between each of our destinations and also have in my mind roughly which direction we are headed.
To save even more money on your car hire, either bring your own kids car seats or purchase them at Walmart. The Trunki Boostapak is quite handy as it also doubles up as a children’s backpack. Even if you buy brand new kids car seats/booster seats, this will still work out cheaper than hiring them per day for a 2 week roadtrip. This year we have decided to forgo the $$ on the GPS and will use our iPhone with a US sim and Googlemaps.
I always try to pack fairly lightly for our family as lugging suitcases in and out of accommodation is hard work. Laundry facilities are nearly always available so I tried to wash clothes every few days. I use our Antler Cyberlite for the main case and a secondary lightweight wheeled duffle bag (I have just replaced our old knackered Antler with a snazzy one from Eastpak. I also pack a fold up holdall to house all my clothing purchases!
Planning your itinerary
I spend ages looking to see what’s on in each of our stops and also consulting local tourist boards. It’s always worth planning in advance due to varying opening times. You should also check special events in the area – these can be the highlights of our trip! We had an amazing time this year at the Louisiana Hot Sauce Expo that we chanced upon in Lafayette.
Once you get to your destination, pick up leaflets/flyers and check online for discount coupons. Check the reviews of the attractions on Tripadvisor.
I try not to overload our days. My kids always want to go swimming wherever possible so I use this is a bribery to get them to some museums! America is very family friendly and you can find children’s museums in nearly every city.
One of the biggest draws of our US roadtrip is the food. My husband is hellbent on seeking out the biggest, fattiest American food he can get his hands on. We spend time researching the best places to go using sites like Chowhound and Yelp. That said, there are only so many burgers and fries you can feed your family and so I appreciate self catering accommodation where we can cook something a bit healthier.
Stay tuned for more tips on how to stay sane on long journeys! If you are considering a roadtrip and not sure where to start, please feel free to contact me directly, I am always happy to help. In the meantime, you can check out some of previous road trips here: