Driving Cross Country With the Family

Though I’ve written about travel before, I’d never made a cross country drive with my family until recently. I thought such a long journey deserved its own post, especially now that I know what I’d do differently next time.

We spent many hours planning for this trip from Utah to North Carolina. Spanning 17 days, 15 states, and 5,000.7 miles both ways, it’s by far the most ambitious trip we’ve ever taken.

The Dates

I don’t usually like to leave on Mondays or get back on Saturdays. It makes keeping the Sabbath a lot more difficult. For this trip, we decided to leave on a Tuesday and come back starting on a Monday with 8 days on the road (4 each way) and 9 at my parents’ house.

We left 1 1/2 weeks after our previous trip but also included 1 1/2 weeks of rest after the trip to fully recover before starting school. Summer is the most convenient time to drive that far since there isn’t any snow (hopefully). These dates worked out really well. We’ve really needed that period of rest before getting back to school!

Things to Do Before Leaving

Since we have an old car, we took it in to make sure it’d be ready for the long journey. Among other things, we got a tuneup and new back brakes. We also made sure to have extra oil on hand since it needs some every 1,000 miles or so. We only ended up having to add oil once, but it was nice to have it right there.

I put in a request to hold our mail (online). 2 1/2 weeks’ worth were not going to fit in our tiny mailbox! I had quite a pile to sort through the day after we got back.

I made sure to refill all our prescriptions so we’d have a few weeks’ supply. This was especially important for our child who gets really carsick. His anti-nausea medication really works! He only threw up one time in the car, and we were prepared with a bucket with a lid.

Main Stops and Activities

I wanted to take two completely different routes so we could see different cities on the way. After choosing our stops, I used Tripadvisor to find the most family-friendly activites based on my kids’ ages and the amount of time we’d spend in each city. Our days of driving were purposely not split equally to allow more time for activities and hopefully avoid burnout on the drive. This strategy worked out well. In the future, we’d plan more activities after the driving so kids could nap in the car first. (No one really got enough sleep during the nights, so they were cranky in the mornings.)

After reaching NC, we didn’t plan any activities on the first 2 days there so we could rest and recover from travel. We planned our NC activities in the mornings so our littlest could still nap in the afternoons. Those few hours of rest turned out to be crucial for everyone’s well-being.

For activities, we filled a backpack with several bottles of water, snacks, diapers, masks, and tickets. Most places currently require tickets and timed entry. We made sure to have paper copies since it’s faster than pulling things up on my phone.

cross country trip
One of my favorite activities was visiting the Parthenon in Nashville, TN. Since it was evening and we were outside, we didn’t need masks, and all the kids were happy.
cross country trip
Another popular activity was the NC Aquarium at Ft. Fisher. It was smaller than expected, but that was a good thing in this case. We left when everyone was still having fun.

Lodging

On our cross country trip, we used both Airbnbs and hotels. I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult to find lodging for a group of 7 people. Usually, hotels require us to get 2 rooms or a suite with a foldout couch.

Our first Airbnb was really comfortable and nice. We had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, so we got enough sleep because we didn’t have to be near the kids. It was especially nice after such a long day. The next 2 days, we weren’t impressed with our hotels. One smelled like weed and was kind of run down, but it had an okay continental breakfast. We unfortunately didn’t have adjoining rooms, so we had to separate boys/girls. The other was also run down, but we had a suite. It didn’t have breakfast as originally promised. On the way back, we spent our first and third nights in hotel suites. Both provided continental breakfast. Our second night, we stayed in a little villa that felt like an Airbnb but was set up like a hotel.

Of the places we stayed, we liked the Airbnb and villa the best. There was more space to spread out and it felt more like home. Though we had to provide our own breakfast, there wasn’t any hotel breakfast that got me excited about staying in a hotel again anytime soon. The hotel suites weren’t too bad either. The worst was having to separate into 2 rooms.

Despite being a bit run down, our Nashville suite had a cool mural.

Packing

We packed our clothes a little differently than we do for shorter trips. Instead of putting everything together in big suitcases, we set aside smaller bags for each day on the road and packed 1 change of clothes per person in each bag. This system worked out really well. We had very little to carry into the hotel each night (one bag of clothes, toiletries, electronics, food, blankies), and the smaller bags functioned as laundry bags once everyone had changed.

Entertainment in the Car

Rather than have a device for each child, we decided on one tablet per row. We put our oldest in charge of downloading movies and shows on each device. He also made sure the devices were charged each night. This strategy worked out well. During really interesting parts of the drive, we had the kids set the devices down so they could enjoy the view and let the devices cool down. Driving cross country really helped us appreciate how many interesting things there are in each state!

This was one of our random stops in Metropolis, IL. We wouldn’t have known about it if we hadn’t been paying attention to road signs!

Snacks and Meals

We relied on sandwiches for our lunches and ate dinners out. Since the point wasn’t to make the trip as cheap as possible, we chose restaurants we hadn’t eaten at before, some fast food, and some not. On the way back, we let the kids choose where to eat, one kid per day (minus the youngest). It was really fun to try some new places and almost made up for all the sandwiches. We found that stopping at parks to make and eat the sandwiches made life a lot more bearable for everyone. (I made sandwiches in the car only once and decided I’d never do it again. There isn’t space, and I got crumbs everywhere!)

We stopped at this random, old park in Lincoln, NE, for dinner one day. I see why merry-go-rounds are no longer included in most playgrounds.

As for snacks, I went through the snack section at Walmart and picked out everything I thought the kids would like, especially things in variety packs. I avoided candy, messy foods, and fried foods (like chips) and instead bought the following:

  • pretzels
  • Goldfish individual packs
  • Nabisco cookies variety pack
  • apples
  • baby carrots
  • Ritz cheese cracker sandwiches
  • fruit snacks
  • granola bars
  • cheese sticks

We had lots of snacks left when we got to North Carolina, so we used up the refrigerated stuff and set aside the dry snacks for the way home. The fruit snacks were the least popular, so we brought a few home but ate everything else on the way. It really helped to have 2 cooler bags, a large one for ingredients and a smaller one to carry the day’s lunch to eat during an activity.

Conclusion

Overall, our cross country trip was a great success. All the planning we did beforehand was completely worth it. There were a few things we’d do differently next time, so I’ll cover those in the next post.

Will we ever do a cross country trip again? I think yes, but it’s going to be a few years. Thankfully, we have a good idea of what to expect next time, and hopefully that won’t include a pandemic!

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