A Trip of a Lifetime: How to Take a Great American Family Road Trip on a Budget
Ever since my oldest was a baby, I dreamed of taking her across the country on the All-American Road Trip. For years, we did short trips around the Midwest from our home in Cincinnati (St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, Louisville, and Traverse City) and spent every Christmas and summer on the East Coast visiting my family in Virginia, D.C., New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Times being what they were, I was always a little short on cash and time. So I could never afford to take more than a week off of work, let alone figure out how to swing a cross-country road trip. So I started saving a little bit over the years and taking “vacay-gigs”—freelance jobs that would add up to the ultimate vacation.
When it hit me that she was going to be leaving for college this year and the likelihood of her having 2 weeks to spare in the busy summers ahead of her college years, I knew it was now or never. This was it. We had to do it.
My constraints were like those of most families. I had to fit a cross-country road trip for a family of four in 2 weeks (to accommodate my husband’s work schedule) and on a budget—the money I saved for 18 years of planning for this trip (about $5,000). We also had an additional constraint: We had to make to my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary all the way back in Connecticut.
With thousands of potential sites to see and routes to take, I also had to narrow it down to the trip to our family’s “must-see” places.
Many people who followed along on the journey on my Instagram and Facebook or wanted to know 1) How I did it/planned it 2) The Itinerary 3) The realities and cost of the trip, so I am going to share all of that now:
I started planning a year in advance. I made a list of about 20-25 places the family and I wanted to see. Then as a family, we narrowed it down based on the route. We all agreed Mt. Rushmore, the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Memphis were a must. While we also wanted to see Yosemite and the Sequoias we knew we couldn’t go that far West and make it to my parents’ party.
With the main attractions set out, I started doing the “map math.” I typed in my first destination (Rushmore) and saw that it would take about 20 hours. I picked a location right in the middle: Albert Lea, Minnesota. Then I typed in Yellowstone and saw that I could get from Rushmore to Yellowstone in a day. I repeated the process over and over again, from Yellowstone to Grand Canyon (the halfway point was Kanab, Utah), and then from the Grand Canyon to Albuquerque, etc.
I then used www.booking.com (an App) to compare prices and accommodations of motels, lodges, and hotels. I loved using the app because I could compare prices, see photos (taken by guests), read reviews, and then make all of the reservations in the app itself. All the information was right at my fingertips. I picked the accommodations specifically for my family’s needs and desires. Your family may be different and your comfort levels may vary. Many people love to rent RVs or camp. Awesome! However, I have no illusions about our sturdiness as a family. We all love daily hot showers, access to Wi-Fi, nice sheets, and firm mattresses to sleep on. I wouldn’t say we’re high maintenance (okay, we’re high maintenance), all I know is we would have been miserable if we couldn’t end each day in a clean and quiet spot to rest our heads. I was able to get most of our motels/hotels for under $150.00 a night. The only exception was in the National Parks, which cost $260 a night. The demand is super high in July. (Note: Plan an entire year ahead! If you wait longer than that you will not find a place to stay. Also, you have to book through the National Park Service. I recommend staying in West Yellowstone, Montana. We just loved it there. While we were in the park, we checked out all the lodges (like Old Faithful Inn, etc.) and they are PACKED with people. It was so overcrowded, as were all the RV parks. However, we stayed in the adorable, quiet Three Bear Lodge with great amenities, a minute from outside the park, and close to all the main Western Park attractions: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Lake, Geysers, Mammoth Springs, and Yellowstone River.
Physical and Mental Preparation
I did a ton of reading (shocker). Frommer’s Easy Guide to National Parks of the American West has a wealth of information, maps, sites, and insider tips. Lonely Planet’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has the best description of trails and background information. Thanks to their descriptive trail maps, we were able to plan (and train) for an epic 8-mile hike that led us to one of the most spectacular views in the park (Fairy Falls). We would have missed it had I not read about it. I also bought the Yellowstone Magazine, which gave us the “tip of the trip”—an advertisement for the Gypsy App. It was a guided tour app that gave us the history and insider information on every spot we drove by. It also alerted us to “Must See” lookout points. We didn’t miss a site in Yellowstone and we all felt like we made a friend with our “Gypsy Tour Guide.” He was wonderful—even if only an electronic voice app. It only cost $10 and it was so worth it. You can pay up to $1000 to have a private tour guide of the parks. So it was money well spent. I also read a few very helpful blogs about what NOT to do in the National Parks. You’d be AMAZED at how foolish people are. We witnessed people turning their backs to take selfies with wild animals (STUPID), leaning over edges of cliffs to take yet another selfie (REALLY STUPID), and watched as little, unsupervised children wandered behind their parents on trails (food for bears!). Anyway, pack your common sense.
We didn’t want to put 6,500 miles on the one family car we own, so opted to rent a car. We rented a wonderful, compact fuel efficient SUV (a Nissan Rogue) from Enterprise where they offer FREE UNLIMITED MILES. We were able to rent a car for 16 days for just under $500 ($470 to be exact)! Plan on spending $1000 for gas as well. Make sure you call the rental car agency in advance and let them know your plans so they give you a car with a fresh oil change. Also, use your own insurance (it will save you A LOT of money). The great thing about Enterprise is wherever you are if your car breaks down or there is an issue they provide 24-hour roadside assistance. We also have AAA, which we upgraded, for the free towing up to 100 miles. Seems unnecessary until you’re in the middle of Arizona and hundreds of miles from anything. We, fortunately, didn’t have to use either service, but it was great to know it was there.
We also packed the car with 5-7 gallons of water (at all times—we kept refilling at every stop), enough granola and nutrition bars for 2 weeks, apples, bread, and peanut butter. We also had a first aid kit, ponchos, flares, tire repair kit, and matches. Seems crazy until you’re actually driving through the desert and haven’t seen anyone for hours, and you think: Man, we’d be S.O.L. if we ever broke down.
What to Pack
Don’t overdo it. Running shoes, a good pair of hiking boots, a swimsuit, pair of jeans, a couple pair of shorts, hiking pants, several t-shirts, a sweatshirt or a jacket, and plenty of underwear are all you’ll really need. You’re not going to be winning any beauty contests on the trails or in the car, I assure you. We had 3 suitcases for the four of us. I left all the hiking boots as well as the sweatshirts out of the suitcases, so we could grab and go when needed. We also had a bag with all the toiletries—shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and loads of sunscreen. When you’re checking in and out of hotels, you want to be carrying as little as possible. We each had small suitcases with wheels to make the transition from the car to the motel rooms go that much smoother. It’s also a great idea to pack bug spray and yes, bear spray. To rent or buy bear spray in the parks is very expensive. But, you can buy it at REI in advance. I also recommend reading this National Parks page on how to use it properly.
National Park Annual Pass
My recommendation is to go to www.nationapark.comand purchase an annual pass for $85. It will get you into EVERY park for the entire year. You can pay up to $35 a day in certain parks for entering. This saves a ton of money and pays for itself in 3 days in the parks.
Create Your Own Itinerary Booklet
I went on Google Maps, and entered every trip and then printed every set of directions. I also printed out every single hotel confirmation page and scheduled event (like White Water Rafting) and put them in order in a 3-hole punch folder. Why? Well, when you drive across country and through National Parks there is NO SERVICE. None. Zip. Zero. You can’t make a call and you can’t access your apps (the Gypsy app is the exception). If something comes up, your battery dies, you lose your phone, or you’re in a National Forest, you won’t be able to access your directions. Not cool. I was also able to take notes on the pages. Print everything! This booklet saved us several times.
The Itinerary (From Cincinnati)
Day 1—Drive Day
Hotel: Comfort Inn
Destination: Albert Lea, Minnesota
(Just a stopover. Wouldn’t recommend this particular motel/hotel. It wasn’t exceptional, but it was a place for us to rest.)
Hotel: The Lodge at Palmer Gulch, Rapid City, South Dakota
Destinations: Badlands, Black Hills, Wall Drug, Mt. Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Monument
(We loved this spot and wished we had more days here. They had horse riding, shuttle buses to Mt. Rushmore at night, panning for “gold” for the kids, s’mores at night, and an amazing playground.)
Hotel: Three Bear Lodge, West Yellowstone, Montana
Destinations: Cody, Wyoming, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake
Hotel: Three Bear Lodge
Destinations: Southwestern part of the Park, Old Faithful, Old Faithful Inn, Grand Prismatic Lake, Geysers, Fairy Falls Hike
Hotel: Three Bear Lodge
Destination: Northwest Corner, Mammoth Springs, Roosevelt’s Arch, Gardiner, Montana for White Water Rafting at
(Yellowstone was by far our favorite spot. We'd go back in a heartbeat)
Drive day through the Southern part of Yellowstone and the magnificent Grand Tetons
Hotel: Quail Park Lodge
Destination: Kanab, Utah
(One of the longest drives of the trip. We didn’t have time to spare, but I would recommend braking this up in 2 days, and I would recommend going through Bryce Canyon)
Hotel: Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque
Destinations: Grand Canyon, North Rim in the morning.
(I recommend getting up super early, so you can be at the park before 8 a.m. You will get spectacular views—all to yourself and you’ll be able to enjoy Bright Angel Point trail all on your own. It is a narrow trail (I can’t imagine being out there with a ton of people.) If you’re afraid of heights (which I am) there are plenty of trees to hug along the trailhead. (Not kidding). Then drive out through Vermillion Cliffs—a spectacular drive that leads take you right into the heart of a reservation. You can be in Albuquerque for dinner. We are lucky enough to have dear friends who hosted us and showed us around and made us a wonderful dinner.)
Hotel: Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque
Destinations: Santa Fe, via the Double Decker train from Albuquerque, where we saw the Sanctuary of the Lady of Guadalupe, the Loretta Chapel with the miraculous staircase, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, had a delicious lunch and shopped in the plaza hacienda, and walked and explored this historic and beautiful city.
Day 9: Drive Day
Hotel: Holiday Inn Express, Oklahoma City
Destinations: Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial
Hotel: The Guest House at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
Destinations: Sun Studios, Beale Street (Home of the Blues), B.B. King’s BBQ and Bar, Graceland (our hotel was on the property)
Hotel: The Guest House at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
Destinations: Cooper-Young Art/Historic District for Vintage cloth and record shopping, Muddy’s Bakery, Lorraine Hotel/Civil Rights Museum— the location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Central BBQ (famous BBQ).
Day 12: Drive Day
Hotel: Hyatt Place, Roanoke, Virginia
Destinations: Smokey Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains
Day 13: Drive Day
Staying with my parents in Danbury, CT
Destination: Childhood home for time with family
Day 14: Danbury R & R
Day 15: Danbury R & R and 50th Wedding Celebration
Day 16: Homeward Bound Back to Cincinnati
The Cost of the Trip & Other Realities
All told we spent every bit of the $5,000, plus $225 on extra events (White Water Rafting and Sun Studios). I also gave each kid $50 so they could buy any souvenir they wanted. I knew my kids: They wouldn’t ask me for anything, because they would be worried about us spending any more money. I knew if I gave them their own cash before we left, they would enjoy spending it without guilt and would pick out something they would really enjoy. I usually purchase Christmas Ornaments of every place we visit when we travel, and so that’s what I did. I spent about $200 on souvenir ornaments and gifts for family and friends. As far as food goes, every motel/hotel we stayed at included breakfast (with the exception of the Graceland). We ate picnic lunches when we were on the road—granola, apples, and PB & J sandwiches. Our big splurges were dinners, which could range between $50-$100 a night for a family of four. We were fortunate because our friends in Albuquerque fed us at night and we stayed with my family in Connecticut later in the trip. If you’re going to travel for all 15 days without visits to friends, I would budget about $2,000 for food give or take.
Park Pass: $85
White Water Rafting: $175
Entrance into Sun Studios: $58
Did You Really Have Fun Being in the Car for 108 Hours?
Short answer: YES!
There is a big movement about being “real” on social media. So in response, people share a bunch of picks of family meltdowns, kid tantrums, and complaints about service, situations, or one’s general discomfort in life. I feel like that is less “real” and more just another reason to complain in our complaint-addicted world. So you won’t be seeing a lot of whining in this post. Yes, we had our moments. But, truthfully, there were very few of them. And the ones we did have were basically my fault. Kids and ADULTS get hungry and tired. If you push anyone too far without food, they’re going to snap. We’ll all do. The one day we waited to eat until 8:30 p.m. put us all over the edge, but by the time our grilled cheeses arrived, we were laughing again and happy. You need to be realistic and pack your patience. And that’s what we all did. We made sure everyone got enough rest and food. My motto in general is: Keep ‘em fed, keep ‘em happy. Never fails.
Every picture we took on our vacation of smiling, joyful kids, I assure was a 100 percent real. My kids thanked me no less than 1,000 times on this trip. We were all blown away constantly by the changing topography, landscape, and beauty of everything we saw. We were grateful for our time together, knowing that we had worked and waited for a long time to take this trip. Some of my favorite memories actually took place in the car—the anticipation of getting to the next destination was exhilarating. I loved the conversations we had. We listened to books from www.Audible.com and discussed them. We sang along to all of our favorite musicals. We sat quietly in awe of the beauty and majesty of our country. We looked out for each other. We soothed each other, joked with each other, and helped each other out. Greg and I took turns driving. So neither of us had to drive more than 6 hours each day. When I wasn’t driving, I was able to work on the manuscripts I am writing for clients. When I drove, Greg could sleep or entertain the kids. You have to know your own kids and their limits. We are super lucky. For years, we’ve made the 12-14-hour trip to Connecticut two times a year, so my kids are road warriors. They know how to entertain themselves. They’re respectful of each other. They’re kind. They’re artistic and creative. We genuinely enjoy spending time with each other. They are also 12 and 18 years old. I couldn’t imagine doing this trip with younger kids, and I am glad we waited until both were old enough to appreciate the journey. I am not saying younger kids can’t do it, but it would take an incredible amount of patience on their part—and the parents’.
This is all to say: It’s totally worth the trip. Plan ahead, save up for it, so you do it right and don’t feel stressed about money and can enjoy your time with the family. Then, sit back and enjoy the ride. I promise you it is so worth it!