Tips for Spontaneous Family Travel

Hitting the road without a set agenda? Here are some tips for making your unstructured travels fun and adventurous for the whole family.

I was 15 when I cracked the spine on a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

I wanted to love it. That legendary story of Route 66 and Beat Generation wanderlust appealed to my romantic side. Sadly, my pragmatic side won out, and I was left shaking my head at the nonsense prose most people call “poetry.”

It’s no surprise then, that traveling without a plan doesn’t appeal to me. Don’t get me wrong—if you present me with an agenda for sightseeing, I’ll balk. I don’t like to be controlled, but I also don’t want to leave home without knowing where I’ll sleep that night.

Exploring Without a Map

Karrie Anderson Welborn of Somerville, Mass., drove more than 10,000 miles with her son, Max—without a map.

Welborn, her 60-year-old mother and then 3-year-old Max drove across the country together in the summer of 2007. The three hit the road because the Welborn’s home was under construction, and Welborn figured that traveling would be easier than trying to live in a house filled with contractors.

While they had a destination in mind—Nevada, to visit relatives—they wandered through the country at a leisurely pace, visiting 25 states and clocking more than 12,000 miles.

Yes, I questioned her sanity. But Welborn loves to travel, and parenthood has never dampened her desire to “explore her own country,” she says. “I was eager to reclaim something for myself and was ripe for an adventure.”

I get that. Motherhood can take a lot out of you, and staying in touch with your pre-partum personhood makes it easier to be a good parent. But she took her mom, too?


“Initially, I had planned on traveling alone with my son, but I admittedly was relieved when my mom decided to join us,” says Welborn. “Even though I still was the sole driver, it helped a lot to have another responsible adult along when I wanted to shower at the end of a long day of driving, or just needed a quick break from being ‘on.’”

She adds that the trip was a great bonding experience for the three of them, and they hope to do it again soon. Once they decided who would travel and where they’d go, the Welborn clan left their Boston-area suburb without an itinerary or single hotel reservation confirmed.

Lodging: To Book or Not to Book in Advance

Going on a truly unplanned vacation means you leave the itinerary completely open to opportunity, of-the-moment interest and chance—for your hotels, dining, attractions and activities. Leaving your lodging to fate is the biggest risk factor for spontaneous travel.

You likely prefer the local charms of independent, family-run hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts, but the best places often have a limited number of rooms and sell out in advance. While many chains offer decent, if basic, accommodations, these too can be booked if you’re passing through town on a weekend, during peak tourism season or when there’s a convention or conference in town.

“Winging it” quickly lost its appeal for Welborn, especially after one night in a motel filled with noisy truck drivers and their, um, “evening companions.” The experience prompted her to start booking chain hotels with swimming pools and predictably clean, quiet rooms, “like the Hampton Inn or Best Western,” she says. “Occasionally, though, we still risked it, and everything worked out.”

Booking in advance though doesn’t mean you have to have all your locations and lodging finalized before you depart from home. Book the first one or two nights, then see where the road takes you, and call a day or two ahead to book the next couple nights. That way you’re balancing adventure with safety and peace of mind.

Having a GPS Device Handy

Kurt and Sandy Schroeder of Rochester, Minn., only made one advance hotel reservation when they took a five-state, 950-mile road trip with their 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin sons.

Before leaving the Midwest for their destination to Black Forest, Colo., the couple invested in a GPS system, which Sandy Schroeder says made the trip a breeze. Not only did it help plot their course and eliminate the old “asking for directions” argument, it helped them find a place to stay every night.

“When the kids were tired, we looked up hotels in our GPS unit and made calls from our cell phone inquiring whether or not rooms were available,” she says. “This worked very well for us and we had no problems making reservations for the same night.”

The Schroeders took the trip to visit Sandy’s sister, and while the family could have flown, they wanted their kids to experience the allure of a road trip.

“We really hadn’t traveled with the kids on a road trip like this, and we thought it would be fun to take a good old-fashioned family road trip where we could see lots of different places,” Sandy says. “We also liked the idea of taking our time. This was definitely a trip where the journey was just as important as the destination.”

How did they manage with all those kids? Didn’t they get cranky being stuck in the car all day? My kid asks “are we there yet” when we go to Target.

Fun for the Kids

Both Welborn and Schroeder say their children enjoyed the journeys.

“Surprisingly, the kids loved going with the flow each day we traveled,” Schroeder recalls. “They enjoyed seeing lots of different places each day, but they still knew that eventually we would reach our final destination.”

Welborn agrees, but said that some advance planning does help make this kind of trip more palatable for the preschool set. She used KaBOOM to locate good play spaces, and set her GPS device accordingly if there was a good playground near their next destination.

Overall, Welborn says, Max loved the trip, and has lifelong memories. Oh, and now he has a touch of the wanderlust himself.

“Almost a year later, he’s still asking when we will go on another trip,” she says.

People, my family can barely deal with the 12-hour drive that gets us from the Midwest to the East Coast, from whence we hail. I’m not sure a cross-country expedition is in the cards for our band of four.

But the open road does have its siren song, doesn’t it? Just ask Jack Kerouac.

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

Car travel We've taken numerous road trips. The first day or two are always the hardest on the kids but once you get in a groove they adapt quickly - at least mine did.