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Saving Money on the Road with Kids

by Laurel Smith


Laurel Smith

Laurel Smith writes about traveling with kids on her website, MomsMinivan.com Read more »

Sorry, Laurel Smith is no longer taking questions.

Got a long stretch of road to travel with your family?  Then, you'll want to stretch your dollar too!

One of the main reasons many families choose to drive instead of flying to their destination is to save money.  Here are some tips to make your show on the road even more affordable:

Plan ahead for meals and snacks for the drive.
Instead of buying fast food on the road, take a few extra minutes to grocery shop beforehand, then bring food with you. Pack lunch ahead or make it on the go.  For example, bring a loaf of bread, peanut butter (or another spread), a squeezable container of jelly, and some utensils. Get out and stretch your legs at a rest stop and enjoy a picnic.

Make sure that you pack snacks, too.  Buying them at a roadside stop can be very expensive. Consider these kid-friendly snack ideas:  homemade trail mix, cereal mix, string cheese, and fruit that travels well such as apples or grapes. Pack the snacks in individual plastic baggies for each passenger — less mess and less arguing!

Drink water instead of soda or juice in the car. It's much healthier, much cheaper and doesn't make a sticky mess when it gets spilled.  Put the water bottles in the freezer a couple of days before your trip. Then pack the frozen water bottles in your cooler instead of using ice to keep your other items cold and drink them as they melt.

Entertain kids for free while you're traveling.
Start with free Printable Car Travel Games (like Road Trip Bingo, and Lines and Dots), coloring pages and lyrics to songs the family can sing to pass the time.

Then play some traditional car games that don't require any materials such as Counting Cows, The License Plate Game, I Spy and Twenty Questions. Other activities requiring minimal materials: Aluminum Foil Art (you just need a roll of aluminum foil), card games (just one deck of cards to play Crazy 8's or Old Maid) and String Figures. There are instructions on how to play these and other activities in this list of car games for kids or for toddlers.

Here's another idea, borrow CDs and DVDs from the library instead of buying them.  Have your children select some new titles that they might not have otherwise considered.

Try to limit eating out at your destination.
When on your vacation, look for "Early Bird" dinner specials, and try eating out for just one meal per day and eat-in for the others. One travel-savvy friend of mine who does this says, "We usually eat a late lunch out after a breakfast of fruit and bagels, and then dinner is fruit, cheeses and crackers. One big meal for us and small snacks are easier."

Decide on souvenir purchases before you leave.
Agree with your family ahead of time that you will only be purchasing one souvenir per person (or whatever your limit) and take photos to use as your main keepsake instead.

Make these photo souvenirs extra personal for everyone by letting the kids take some of them - perhaps with their own disposable camera, or by borrowing your digital camera for a few shots. When you get home, consider framing one (or more) of the photos as a special memento.

Adopt good driving habits that save gas.
Slow down!  Drive at a constant speed (use your cruise control) and observe posted limits.  Excessive speed wastes gas and speeding tickets waste money.  Avoid unnecessary idling, too.  Turn off the engine if you're going to stop somewhere for longer than a few minutes.

Save money at home while you're away.
Trade pet-sitting with neighbors or friends instead of paying for a kennel while you're away.  Remember to set your air conditioner or heater when you leave, so that you're not wasting money cooling/heating the house excessively when no one is home.  Be sure to call your newspaper delivery and have them temporarily stop your paper; they'll usually credit those days to your account.

Above all, try to plan ahead to avoid last minute or impulse purchases. In other words, don't be a penny wise and a dollar foolish!  A little bit of planning along with other small changes that you make, can really add up to big savings during a long road trip. And, you'll feel even better about spending this time with your family.

What wallet-friendly tips do you have for traveling with children?

Sorry, Laurel Smith is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Comments

Debra writes...

All good tips. One thing I'd add is that you must have a cooler for road trip snacks and meals. Even for stuff that doesn't need refrigeration at home. The car or minivan gets a lot hotter than your kitchen cabinet. I once took pains to make everyone sandwiches, but no one wants a boiling hot, drippy, melted PB&J!

Laurel? writes...

I agree Debra - A cooler for the road is a must! And I recommend stocking it with some frozen water bottles to keep it cool and save space at the same time. As they thaw you can drink the water. We toss a few unfrozen ones in as well so there is always some ready when the kids are thirsty.

In my experience (and yours) PB&J sandwiches are not as tastey when made ahead of time for the very reasons you stated. They are much better made on the spot, which is why we travel with a loaf of bread and the PB & J still in it's jars. And those squeezable jelly bottles are a lifesaver!

B writes...

Give each child a ziplock bag of change or roll of quarters for the trip and they can spend it as they want.

Devra Renner writes...

I still remember the hot tuna sandwiches from our family roadtrips. And they were not grilled! I second the cooler recommendation.

Laurel introduced our family to Car-i-oke ( http://www.amazon.com/All-American-Car-i-oke-David-Schiller/dp/0761130683)which is a lot of fun. Particularly the part where you can make up your own "Blues" song.

I also Googled, "caraoke" and saw there are places you can download free caraoke music, but I haven't tried that yet.

The other thing we do is make up playlists for the car and alternate the musical selection, so it's parent/kid/parent/kid. This way we don't have to listen to hours upon hours of Barney (sorry PBS, but hours of it will test even the most committed Barney supporter!) and it will also introduce your kids to some of what you enjoy listening to as well. Which for me actually means some Old School Sesame Street.
I will dance to the Tadpole Song with my sons at their weddings!

Devra Renner writes...

Now that I hang my head in shame for slamming Barney, can I be forgiven by giving props to PBS Videos available on Netflix? This way for long rides, you can also get some very cool movies which were originally aired on PBS Stations.

Nova for older kids, Word World for younger, etc.

Laurel? writes...

And don't forget the public library! If you plan ahead, you can reserve your choices. This is a great time to catch up on some old classics. Can you believe my kids have endured some old musicals like "Camelot" and lived to enjoy it?!

Stephanie writes...

I'll definitely be trying out some of those games. And car-i-oke? Brilliant! The kids will love it!

Of course, after our last roadtrip 3 weeks ago, I swore we wouldn't go on vacation again until the kids were grown. LOL!

Laurel? writes...

There is so much you can do without spending extra money to entertain the kids on the road. I have found used copies of the Carioke available for only a penny if you pay the shipping. We have definitely gotten our money's worth out of this one.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0761130683/bestfreestuffonl

Melissa writes...

Great post and great ideas from the commenters too. Thanks for the tips :D

Another idea for little ones is to bring a rimmed metal cookie sheet and some magnetic toys. It can also be used for drawing and the crayons won't roll off.

Laurel? writes...

Great idea Melissa. I have also found some other inexpensive items that make for some great road trip entertainment that might already be around the house. A great example I can think of is pipe cleaners! These have kept my children busy and happy in the car for a long time, and they are great for a wide age range of children.

You can cut the pipe cleaners into different lengths using an old pair of nail clippers or scissors. Wind them around a pencil to make them into coils. Create a whole zoo of fuzzy creatures to use for some imaginative play, and even make jewelry out of them. Here are some example photos of pipe cleaner crafts to get you started.

nicole writes...

Melissa, I love the cookie sheet idea. Can I tell you how many times my kids start shrieking b/c crayons fell off of their laps?!

Jeannie Thomas writes...

I agree with all the things everyone said and in fact learned some new things I had not thought of before (i.e., the frozen water bottles). We keep a bag in-between the seats filled with different books for the kids to pick out and read along the way. It is a former thermal lunch bag that the zipper broke on and it is perfect for having the books sit upright for easy reach. Also, our son has a children's Atlas and a small US Atlas that he follows along as we travel.

Sophia writes...

Laurel, do you have any good word games to suggest for playing in the car? One we like to play on roadtrips is taking turns coming up with words that begin with the last letter of the previous word. For example, if I say "giraffe" the next person has to think of an animal that begins with the letter "e" such as elephant, then the next person has to think of an animal that begins with "t" and so on. Wor games are fun, educational and don't cost anything!

Laurel? writes...

Hi Sophia. Yes! I have lots of word games. The game you describe sounds just like one that we play using geography terms - cities, countries and states. Here are some of our favorite word games that don't involve any materials at all:

Mystery Writing
One child holds out his hand and closes his eyes while the other child "writes" on his hand with her finger and the first child has to guess what was written. Start with just letters, then go to shorter words, making sure that you pause between letters. There is no winner or loser for this kind of game and it can go on indefinitely.

Play Favorites
This one is a good conversation starter. Go around the car and ask each person their favorite color. Then have everyone think of different "favorite" questions for the group. What's your favorite... movie, flavor of ice cream, song, game, toy, place to visit, restaurant, book, animal, fish, etc. You will be amazed at what kinds of things you can learn about each other!

Fortunately-Unfortunately
This game was suggested to me by one of my readers. It helps kids to look at the bright side of things in a fun way. Basically you take turns alternating sentences with "Foruntately and Unfortunately" until it evolves into a story. For, example, you say something like, "Unfortunately, there's a tiger in the car." The next person says something like, "Fortunately, he doesn't eat boys." Your daughter says, "Unfortunately, he's looking at me and licking his lips." You say, "Fortunately, I brought along my tiger-jaw-clamper." Keep it silly.

Don't forget classics like "I Spy" and "Twenty Questions". Those never go out of style.

Micha writes...

I love all of these ideas! My family is taking a roadtrip coming up the end of this month. With only one child, we are trying to conjure up things to do on our 8 hour trip! I told her that I would sit in the back for a little bit so we can play games, instead of me sitting up front with Dad. She loved this idea! And that way, I'm not turning around constantly to talk to her. I can sit right beside her and we can look at stuff together.

Laurel? writes...

Micha! Sit in the back - I love it!

This is something I have often recommended to families. And in your case with only one child, your company next to her will really help your daughter feel content.

For larger families I also recommend rotating seats occasionally. Mix it up! When you stop for a break, have everyone sit in a new seat for the next leg of the trip. Sometimes just the change in perspective helps break up the long drive, and it gives you someone new to sit near for activities.

Alicia Weatherbee writes...

Here's a word game like the one Sophia mentioned using letters but can be adapted for the teenagers/young adults on your road trip by thinking of band names. We played it last summer while traveling on a road trip in Germany with my 15 y.o. son and two 20 something relatives. One person thinks of a band name (i.e. "Heart") the next person has to say a band name whose name begins with the last letter of the previously named band (i.e. "Train"). So in this case, the next person needs to think of a band name than begins with "N".

Laurel? writes...

Thanks Alicia! Yes, it's definitely a good idea to have some fun activities for big people. Another great activity for almost any age that we enjoy, and that doesn't involve any materials is telling jokes!

Take turns having each person tell a joke. Make them up on the fly, or check out some books from the library if you need some help. Even a two-year-old can tell a joke -- although the funniest part isn't always the punch line the way they may tell it!

Sophia writes...

Laurel,

Thanks for your word-game sugggestions. I love the concept behind "Unfortunately -Fortunately." It teaches kids to think of the positive sides of things. Thanks, too, to Alicia for the aged-up variation of my word game. There are times when I have older nieces and nephews in the car so I'll definitely try that one out!

Laurel? writes...

Almost any age can play the "Fortunately-Unfortunately" game and there are no winners or losers. Another bonus to playing this game is that you get to hear your two-year-old use a big word like "unfortunately"! Too cute for words!

Keeslermom writes...

I have a car game that my kids love to play, and it's not listed on your site. How do I send it to you?

Laurel? writes...

Hi Keeslermom, You can certainly post your game here. And if you'd like me to add it to my website too, you can contact me through my website email that can be found on my About Me page.

Andrea writes...

With a preschooler and infant, my best advice is take your time and plan on the trip taking longer than you thought.

We did a 6 hour trip when the baby was 2 months old. We mapped parks along the way. Every couple of hours or so, we stopped, got out, stretched and played for a little while. That's when we'd eat too. It did make our old 6 hour trip into closer to 8 hours, but none of us were worn out when we got there.Plus it gave the preschooler something to look forward to, a new playground to explore just up the road a bit.

Brad writes...

Great tips! Makes me want to kidnap some kids and hit the high road!

Sashalyn writes...

We've got a wedding to travel to this summer with a two-year-old. I'm pretty sure I'll be trying all of these tricks & tips to get through it- but I know that the snacks are essential. There's nothing more unpleasant than a hungry toddler!

Laurel? writes...

Hi Sashalyn, Yes, snacks are ever-so-important! Your food budget is one of the easiest areas to save money. It's easy to overspend on food when you're on the road if you're not careful, so anything you can do to plan ahead and create homemade is ideal.

Homemade trail mix is a favorite with my children. I make it with some inexpensive items that I mix together into individually sized baggies that are perfect to hand out at hungry moments. (This is generally a snack that is best for children over 3 years old unless you only include items safe for younger children). Things we like to use for our homemade trail mix include: generic oat cereal, small pretzels, goldfish crackers, raisins, sunflower seeds (without shells), and then I toss in a very small handful of M&Ms to give just enough sweetness and makes it fun. The variety is endless, so you can customize it to your child's taste!

franticmommy writes...

I started making my own Travel Activity Bags for the car. I found some super cool re-usable zippered mesh bags and started loading them myself with 'car friendly" activities like books, coloring projects, and simple toys. Not everything works as a "in the car" activity so it's been learning via trial and error. These "bags" can be reloaded and reused every time we take a trip and the kids now look forward to their "Activity Bags"! AND as a result, a business was born! :)

Laurel? writes...

Great idea! I highly recommend a special "trip activity bag" if you travel often. The items in the activity bag are only used when were are on a trip, so they stay special that way. The kids also keep a travel journal in their bag to write about their trip, or just to draw pictures if they are not old enough to write yet.

I also recommend to parents with toddlers to prepare "surprise packages" which is similar to a the trip bag idea. Prepare ahead with small bags of items to be given out every 25, 50 or 75 miles -- marked on a map with the location. This REALLY helps young children get a sense for "how much further?". In each bag put a wrapped item -- usually a small toy or activity. Then in some of the surprise packages you can add juice or a snack, stickers and a piece of paper, or something pertaining to the trip that you can talk about.

Robin writes...

I love take road trips with my children since I discovered the wonderful suggestions I get from Mom's Minivan. Thank you for helping to make our travel time more enjoyable.

Glen writes...

Great tips! The only one I disagree with is using the cruise control to save gas- if you're driving on flat roads, that's great, but in the hilly areas, cruise control will kill your gas mileage. On a recent trip through hilly areas, I made an effort to get up to 5 mph over the speed limit at the very bottom of hills, and 5 under at the very top- my mileage went from 16 mpg to 18 mpg (I drive a full size pickup because I have to haul a lot of equipment). 2 mpg may not sound like much, but that's 12.5% improvement... that's $25 on a relatively short trip that uses $200 in gas.

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