We talked about how to pick a location to travel, research airlines and prices and how to pack, but exactly how do you determine which sites and activities will be right for your family?  How do you set up a time frame to see the sites and to move locations?

This July me, my Mom and my two beautiful children are taking a massive road trip across the mid-west.  My kids and I read all the Little House on the Prairie books last year and now we are taking a pilgrimage to see all the sites in the US!!  We are adding in some National Parks/Monuments/Sites and visiting some relatives and calling it a month!  I am very excited because I’ve never traveled to many of the states we have planned.  I feel as an American, I have the duty to learn as much about my country as possible and to see the beauty of God’s paintbrush.

1.  My first step is to look at Pinterest.  I searched Little House Road trip and I actually had a wonderful map pop up that showed all the states and sites with the route that Laura Ingalls’ family took to travel.

So now I have something to work off of!  With this information, I try to imagine what my route will be.  What order do I want my travel to go?  I take a piece of paper and hand write my order list.  For this trip, I decided the following:

Pepin, WI

Walnut Grove, MN

De Smet, SD

Independance, KS

Mansfield, MO

2.  Google maps is my best friend!  For a road trip like this, I then plot directions from my starting point (A), to Pepin (B), to Walnut Grove (C), etc. to get the distance between each point and how long it will take to drive there.  The driving time is so important!!!  So many vacationers forget travel time and book themselves too short.  We vacation for the three E’s, excitement, experiences and enjoyment.  How can you enjoy a vacation when no one is well rested?  This is especially important when traveling with children.  If you are traveling in Europe, go to the European rail sites and plot your timing and costs, then compare to the cheap regional airlines for the same routes to determine which makes best sense for cost and time frames.  So now my list looks like this:

Greensboro, NC (starting point)

16 hours

Pepin, WI

3.75 hours

Walnut Grove, MN

2.25 hours

DeSmet, SD

8.75 hours

Independence, KS

3.25 hours

Mansfield, MO

12.75 hours

Greensboro, NC (ending point)

3.  I start a spreadsheet at this point.  My hand written list is starting to need editing and it’s easier to adjust an electronic document.

4.  The next thing I do is take the long distances and break them into several days.  There is no way I’m driving directly from Greensboro to Pepin.  16 hours is too long for me to sit in a car and I know my kids will be miserable.  So when I look at Google maps, I figure out what interesting stops we can make along the way at either cities or…

5.  Go to the National Park Service page and check each state to see what sites are in the states I will be visiting.  The map here is a little tricky.  Some of the sites do not show up on the individual state maps until you zoom in.  I am a huge fan of the National Park Service.  They do an excellent job with their Junior Ranger Program and I thoroughly enjoy nature and seeing the natural beauty of our Earth.  My children each have a National Parks Passport that we stamp at each site we visit.  It’s a thrill for them!

Another site I found that is very helpful is The Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Each State.

For our July road trip, I found that our route could pass through Chicago before we went to Pepin, WI.  How fun!  Madison, WI is not too far from Pepin either, score!  Madison is a wonderful little town that my children have never been to.  Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota and although quite a drive from De Smet, I felt like it was worth it to see a national monument that I’ve never had the chance to see, so I added that in.  We were so far out West, why not travel a bit South to Colorado and visit my cousin?

Don’t forget to update all this information on your spreadsheet.

6.  Now I go back to step two and plot my route and time in between each location.

7.  Now research each location to figure out how long you will need in each place.  How many days for the sites?  I love to use the Trip Advisor forums for this step.  This is the most important step.  This is, after all, the reason you travel.  This step may take several weeks or months.  I started the planning process for my road trip six months before I booked my hotels.  You shouldn’t rush this because there is no reason to spend money or time on something that you aren’t interested in.  Fill in your spreadsheet with site information and costs.

During this process I will also check the reciprocal lists that come with my NC Zoo membership and our NC Museum of Life & Science membership.  For our trip this Summer, we found several activities that are free for us with our local memberships.

Make sure to break up long drives with interesting things to do.  We like to limit car time to 4 hours at a stretch.  We will often stop for an activity and to work off some kiddo energy.

Leave yourself time to enjoy relaxing.  You know your kids are going to see the hotel pool and be dying to take a swim.  Make sure you build that into your schedule.  Vacation isn’t about rushing from site to site, but enjoying your children, and the place you are visiting.  You don’t need to see every site, but you should enjoy what you see.

8.  Add days of activities/sites to your travel times in each place.  Figure out how many nights you will need to have a hotel for.

9.  This road trip has morphed into let’s see every site in 11 states!  Woah!  As much as I love being on the road, I know 2 months is not going to happen, so I start editing.  For July, I cut Chicago, Madison, WI and several other locations that will have to wait until a different trip.  Things to think about while doing the editing process: Are your children ready to see the interesting things here?  Can you afford the expense of each attraction?  Will it be better suited to visit on it’s own rather than a big road trip like this?

10.  Now I have my road trip!  I’ve edited, researched and decided where I’m going, what I’m going to see, how much time I need to see things and how long it will take me to drive between each site.

Phewww…. are you done?  Nope!!  I love how Rick Steves says in his guide books, “In order to have an A vacation, you need to be an A student.”

11.  Book your hotels, apartments or camp sites.  Try to do this as far in advance as possible.  We are staying at a mix of hotels, State/National Park cabins and VRBO apartments.

12.  Create a Google Map that plots your route with pin drops for each interesting attraction.

Little House screen shot

12.  Now it’s time to tally your costs.  I use my spreadsheet to insert admission costs as I go.  I have a separate column for each person because sometimes children are different costs than adults and often my Mom will get a senior discount.

You may have to edit again here.  If your costs are over your budget, you may have to cut some items from the itinerary.

Congratulations!  You are prepared for a wonderful vacation!