The Anatomy of a Family Road Trip

When planning a Family Road trip there are a few things to keep in mind. I have broken it down to five key things. Follow these easy steps and you’ll be ready to get on the road!

What’s the Length of your Family Road Trip?

One of the biggest things when planning a family road trip is to decide the length of your trip. Are you packing your bags with no plan of coming back, are the kids out of school for the summer, visiting family for the long weekend or just needing to get out of the house? Here are some ideas.

The Long and Winding Road

Is your family is ready for a long adventure on the road? I categorize this as being more that two weeks on the road. It’s you and the open road, are you staying on a certain path or hopscotching around…we’ll talk about traveling style in a later section.

The Weekend Warrior

This is categorized as a long weekend of 2-3 days and upwards of a week. Is it a holiday weekend and you want to take advantage of the kids being our of school or do you feel like a week is just about as long as you can handle in a car with your family? You are a weekend warrior!

This Back Yard Road Trip

This is one of my favorite types of road trips because sometimes the best things are right in your back yard. This road trip is just for the day, no hotel stay, less than a tank of gas, and within one or two hours from home. Wake up at home and go to sleep at night in your own bed. Check out my recent post about Wakulla Springs or Panacea, Florida.

What’s your Road Trip Style?

Different types of road trips call for different types of driving styles. When traveling to a destination for only one purpose you may have a different road tripping style then if you were wanting to visit may destinations long the way.

The Loop

You would choose The Loop if you have quite a bit of time on your hands and maybe in step one you chose the long and winding road. On The Loop you want to stay on a certain path, always knowing whats a head, and knowing that you are eventually working your way back to where you came from. I think of this style as going “up interstate A and come back down interstate B” and returning you back where you started.

The Zipper

This trip has one directive, to get you and your family to a destination, turn you around, and head right back the same way you came. This may be suitable for the weekend warrior type traveler.

The Node

You an your family have a base camp for all of your travels, maybe a hotel or in the case of a back yard road tripper, your base camp is your home. You use that central node as a jumping off point. Your point of interests are typically close to your base camp and you always return back to that central node.

If you like this idea, check out our recent trip to Denver. We flew into Denver, used our AirBNB as our base camp, and successfully planned five different day trips around Colorado.

The Puddle Jumper

You enjoy letting the road be your guide, there is no turn you will not take, and no stop you will not make. These impromptu trips can be fun, there is not a lot of planning evolved, and the length can be however long or short you want.

How long do you plan on staying?

Now that you have chosen the length of your road trip and you generally know what type of route you are going to take it’s time to zoom in a bit to a day within your travels. A day of travel can be long, anywhere from 8-12 hours of driving, and can be brutal for you and your family. How do you break up this time? I suggest picking a few of these types, break up your day, and avoid the kids singing “are we there yet?” Better yet, pre-plan some activities and keep them a secret from the kids so that it’s even more of a surprise.

We typically make stops about 1.5-2 hours apart or every hundred or so miles. This is just enough time in between your toddler wanting a snack, mom needing to use the restroom…again, and the baby having another blow out.

The Pit Stop

The quintessential stop for gas, or for a pee break. You are in and out in 10-15 minutes flat. I like to make these stops at a visitor center. A lot of modern visitor centers are equipped with spacious family restrooms, dog walks for your furry travel companions, restaurants, gas, and are designed to be mini-museums of state-wide artifacts.

The Stop & Play

This is going to set you back about an hour or so. This type of stop allows you to get out, stretch your legs, and enjoy a car free few hours. I like to think of this stop as a sit down restaurant, a museum, a play ground, a scenic hike, or a small attraction. This is your chance to see the worlds largest ball of string.

The Stop & Stay

This is usually at the end of the day, this is your break for the night or for the next few days. This may be a larger and more important stop. Maybe you are wanting to visit a big attraction the next day and want to wake up refreshed before seeing it. Your stop and stay can be an attraction all in itself…skip down to the last section to know what I’m talking about.

What’s that gonna cost?

Cost is a big driver for family vacations. The amount that something costs and multiplied by the number of family members can often time be astronomical. Then add in gas, food, accommodations, and your quick road trip is now costing you a ton.

I like to spread the love when it comes to the cost of things. I try to pick one or two “big ticket items” as our main event type stops, and I balance that with a lot of little free or small fee things.

Free or Almost Free

Free…hahaha, who are you kidding, nothing is free these days…well some things are! We love finding playgrounds or public parks to stop at, it lets the kids run off all of that pent up energy, and they are typically free. Do a little research of upcoming cities and see where public parks are located (for example the Twin Silos Park in Fort Collins, CO). Also look for hiking trails or historic markers.

Architecture is also typically free, looking at the exterior of a building can be just as interesting as what’s on the inside (or at least it is to me).One of our favorite architectural typologies are State Capitol Buildings and many offer free self-guided tours. You can also look up a towns historic district, park your car, walk around, and splurge a few dollars on an ice cream cone at the local ice cream parlor.


The next price tier is that of a small to medium fee ($10-$50 each). This may include entrance into a museum, a sporting event, or an entrance into a National Park. Most sit down restaurants are going to fall into the category as well. Try to choose a local spot to get the most immersion into the local culture as possible.

Get the most bang for your buck by choosing an event that has multiple layers of entertainment. For example, a baseball game has the main event, it has great ball park food, craft beer (drink responsibly if driving or not at all), most have kids areas, and they are usually over in a few hours long. I keep to only one or two of these events per couple of days.

$$$$- The Splurge

This is the mack daddy of all stops or events ($100 + range). This is a big ticket item that you revolve a few days around…this is the main event. I am thinking a huge amusement park, an adventure excursion (skiing, surfing, hot air balloon ride etc) or spending more than one day in a place such as a National Park. You get one or maybe two of these for the entire trip.

Where are you gonna staying?

Now that we have discussed the who, what, and the when we need to discuss where are you and your family going to stay? There are so many choices available and if you are going to be living out of a suitcase for weeks on end, then your accommodation should be…well, accommodating to your family.

In the past, road trips have been synonymous with a roadside motels but they don’t have to be. Switch up the type of accommodations every now and then to keep your trip more interesting and you may be surprised that alternative sleeping arrangements may be more budget friendly.

Motel / Hotel

For us, staying at hotel or motel is our standard form of accommodations on road trips. A hotel can serve the purpose of simply being a place to rest your head, no bells, or whistles, in at night, and back on the road in the morning.

But, a hotel can also serve a dual purpose and offer some entertainment. Research the area beforehand and look for hotels with some form of built-in entertainment, maybe a good hotel restaurant or bar (mommy and daddy may need a night cap), a great pool area, or better yet a kiddie pool and water slide.


Campgrounds are great places to stop for the night! Many campgrounds offer primitive tent camping, RV spots, cabins and some even offer “unique” camping experiences. Have you ever heard of Glamping? Check out our recent Family Friendly Glamping adventure.

A Rental House

This may take a bit more planning, but with sites like Airbnb and VBRO, renting a fully equip house is almost as easy as staying at a hotel, and with the amenities of home. We rented a two bedroom house in Denver and used it as our base camp for our week long family vacation. We all had our own rooms, beds, a full living and dining space, a massive kitchen and laundry. Imagine stopping mid-road trip and being able to cook a home cooked meal and to do some laundry…game changer!

Stay with Family or Friends

This seems almost like a no-brainier. We often time plan trips according to the family and friends that we can visit along the way. Not only are you catching up and visiting, the stay is more than likely free, and well love free!

In the end…

In summary, road trips are anything that you make of them. Having a bit of a frame work to help you plan is always a great start. I hope you enjoyed this breakdown and this it helps you plan your next trip. Now that you are road trip ready, what is your style? Don’t forget to pin the Anatomy of a Family Road Trip infographic.

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