This past Thanksgiving my friend and photographer Benedicte went on a road trip around Arizona with her family and another family. They managed the entire trip without screens! I asked her to share her 10 tips with us if you’re interested in planning a screen-free multi-family trip yourself…
Writing and Photography by Benedicte Lassalle
Last year for Thanksgiving my family went on a road trip around Arizona with another family. We have been doing a road trip around the Southwest for 4 years in a row at Thanksgiving. Why Thanksgiving? First because our kids have the whole week off (we live in Oakland, CA), the Southwest has among the most mind-blowing landscapes in the world, and also it’s the best time of year to travel in this part of the world: the weather is usually great, it’s not too hot and not too crowded. Ok, the days are shorter but you can’t have it all, right?
Here are my 10 tips for a week-long-screen-free-multi-family road trip (not squabbling-free sorry I’m not a magician)
1. Planning is key
As my mom still says, part of the joy of traveling is that you make the same trip 3 times: planning it, actually doing it, and remembering it…
A good planning is very important when you travel with young kids. Especially road trips!
I use Instagram a lot for my research. I usually follow the hashtags of the places I want to visit a long time in advance (I have a large bucket list). It helps me figure out what I want to see in that area or even hidden spots or accommodations. Sometimes I contact a local photographer and ask for their favorite hike. But I also read blogs, ask friends, and consult alternative travel guides like Pathport or My Tiny Atlas Quarterly.
Booking in advance all accommodations and sometimes restaurants is important for a stress free trip – especially on Thanksgiving day! Our friends were very specific about having the traditional Thanksgiving meal that day.
When booking a place to stay for the night we always try to make it fun for the whole family: one year we stayed in vintage trailers in Taos, another year we stayed in an iconic Route 66 motel and last year we stayed in cabins facing Monument Valley. That sunrise is still in everybody’s mind.
We try to stick to no more than 3 hours of driving every day. If more than that we’ll try to squeeze in a small hike or cool playground for a picnic.
We’ll drive during nap time. Most days would look the same: We would wake up to a nice breakfast, go on a hike (more on that later), have a picnic and then the adults would enjoy a beautiful scenic drive while the kids are asleep…bliss…
2. Which itinerary?
Why the Southwest you will ask? Simply because as French people the Southwest represent the true deep America like we’ve seen in movies when we were kids. The breathtaking landscapes, the endless straight roads, the good looking old motels, all those things that only exist here in the American Southwest.
To help me build the itinerary I use Roadtrippers (not sponsored): that app helps me plan the trip, the timing and the distances between the different places, point of interests, etc. It gives you the distances and the time it takes you to drive from one point to the next as well as attractions along the way.
I always try to fit a fun day for everyone: one year we visited the fabulous Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, another year Arcosanti, AZ, an experimental architecture and ecology laboratory, and we also went to the relaxing hot springs of Ojo Caliente during our New Mexico trip.
As both our families live in the Bay Area, we decided to fly to Las Vegas to make the most of our trip and not lose any time. Las Vegas was not our favorite, but we have learned to use it as a pit stop for these trips and have enjoyed the pools and the restaurants with the kids.
Being flexible and able to change the itinerary is also important depending on the weather or the group’s mood. Last year we did not plan to go back to the Grand Canyon but we did! It just snowed and we wanted to see the Grand Canyon with a little sprinkle of snow. Everybody enjoyed hiking down for a bit and watching the sunset there.
3. A Thorough Organization
Renting 2 cars is vital so we can split up the kids (and the adults) into 2 groups: take breaks from each other or put the bigger kids together and the smaller kids separately as they have different activities and pace.
As we are a big group (5 kids + 4 adults) restaurant meals are usually either a struggle to find a seat for everyone, or a total chaos (no need to paint a picture here, right?). So we usually have picnics for lunch, cook a simple dinner in our airbnb or do take-out if we’ve had a long day! It is possible to find big enough kids friendly restaurant that will accommodate us.
I always stick in my suitcase a foldable cooler. The first stop of the trip is the grocery store: we load on snacks, cheese, crackers, fruits, veggies, nuts, etc and reload on ice everyday to keep things nice and fresh. Of course now we also travel with our water bottles and a few picnic supplies.
4. Setting up the rules ahead of time
I remember when planning our first road trip together with our friends we decided to make it on the shorter side (5 nights) to test how our families would function together. Now that we know we all travel well as a group our trips last longer (7 to 8 nights).
When traveling with a group you need a few rules. And one of them for our group has been no screens for the kids. No phones, no video games, no tablets. It might sound daunting for some, it’s actually is easier than you think – especially if the rule is the same for everybody.
It does require more energy from the adults to make sure they have activities, toys and space. But after a few years of doing that trip now the kids are not even asking!
Another important rule when traveling with a big group is to discuss every night what the next day’s schedule is so that we are not constantly waiting for the others: wake up time, breakfast plan, activities program, etc.
As a kid my mom always encouraged us to keep a journal during our trips. Journaling has been a big thing for my daughter and her friend as well. They have been keeping journals since our first road trip 4 years ago. Imagine reading those in a few years!
For every new trip I buy a notebook for all the kids – even for the little ones. They feel included that way and are actually inspired by the older ones! It used to be a regular notebook but last year I discovered these Adventure Journals (Merci Audrey) and they are the best! These have a page where you can to ask for the Chef’s autograph of your favorite restaurant. They have little pockets to store little treasures, special pages to press flowers or stick the map of your favorite national park.
With the journals the kids also all have a pouch full of their favorite pencils, markers, watercolor paint, brushes, crayons, glue, tape, etc.
Everywhere we go the kids would pick up national park maps, flyers, leaflets, store cards, free magazine, etc to cut and glue any interesting pictures, facts, maps, etc.
As a photographer I always bring my regular camera but I also bring some kind of Polaroid camera to point, shoot and print a quick souvenir right away to stick in the journals. That was last year’s best upgrade the girls said!
6. Entertaining the kids
If the kids don’t have access to any screen on the road then you need to be able to distract them:
We load up the kids backpack with small card games like: Uno, Bandido, Dobble, Misticat, Sardines, for the little ones and Timeline, Mille bornes, … for the older kids. They play in the car and waiting for their food at the restaurant.
Our phones are loaded with a few audio books. The Little House on the Prairie series has been a big hit! We also bring a few books per kids, but mostly we bring a field guide of the Southwest. The kids are always interested in knowing which birds, plants they are seeing. But also paw prints and poops!
Because music always soothes everybody’s mind we load our phones with several playlists: we have one for naps, one for singing along and one for the rest of the time. And don’t forget to download them onto your phones as in the remote places of the Southwest you don’t always have signal when you most need it.
You will need a few car games up your sleeves like 20 questions, I spy with my little eyes… these can last for a while…
Last year I taught the kids a few photography skills. I brought an old film camera and the kids where practicing framing, lighting, etc. It was a great opportunity to teach them and probably next year we will have them continue with their own cameras.
When you have used all the audio books, games, music available and the kids are still getting on each other nerves (as well as your own), I have found that bringing in water, in all its varieties always works. Always. It can be a pool, a river, the ocean, a sprinkler, or even a glass of ice water. The kids will immediately forget their differences and play together.
7. Hiking with the kids
One of our big pleasures during these trips is going hiking. I always research the best hikes for our group beforehand and use an app called AllTrails (still not sponsored). They rank it by the level of difficulty, length and elevation.
When hiking with kids it helps a lot to have a goal: a lake, a picnic, a viewpoint, a loop, etc… it will help them stay focus on what the accomplishment is.
We have been using a trick that has proven to be successful: The Candy Fairy. A group of adults or older kids walk in front and lay on the trail small candies (the smallest possible like tictac). The steepest the trail the closer they are being laid down. You will see the kids will spend their time looking for the candies and won’t think about the fact they are climbing a big mountain. It works every time!
We always allow time for painting and writing in the journals. The kids pick up plants and flowers to press in their journals, and sometimes take a small dirt sample.
Kids and adults all appreciate a good picnic. We bring food, find a nice shady spot and always enjoy a quick nap.
An important rule for us is that all kids need to carry their own backpack even if they just carry their water bottle and their journal.
8. Avoiding the crowds
One of our goal during these trips is to unplug, unwind and avoid the crowds. Traveling on Thanksgiving week is definitely quieter than during the summer. But on Thanksgiving weekend, depending on where you are, the crowds are usually back.
Hiking early in the morning (or late in the day) usually helps avoiding most of the crowds.
Waking up early enough to enjoy the sunrise is always worth it – especially as a photographer and at that time of year the sunrise is not as early as it is in the summer!
Talking to the locals to ask them their favorite spots or hikes is a great idea as well. And don’t hesitate to get out when the weather is bad. All you need is the right equipment!
9. What to pack
Layers!! Leaving in the Bay Area we are used to that. But during these trips more than ever: Warm sweater, raincoat, swimsuit, hiking boots, sun hat, beanie, flip-flops, pack all of it!
When traveling with kids you will also need a good first aid kit for little bumps & scratches, splinters, headaches, fever, ticks, and now I pack a lice comb! One year we found lice on one of the kids head!!! Be prepared!
I always pack a small blanket (could also be a Turkish towel) for cosy naps in the car
A cooler for our picnics with a few picnic essentials
A backpack for each person.
Our guides: field guide and also travel guide.
A national park pass (if necessary).
Useful apps: Roadtrippers, AllTrails, Gaia GPS (to download maps for offline use), Spotify or any Music App, Audible or any Audio book App, TripIt to coordinate accommodations and flights.
10. After the trip
As a photographer I take a point at taking a lot of pictures during these trips. For us as a souvenirs, but also for my stock agency. After the trip I build a photo slideshow with music, and every year we make a point at getting together for a meal and looking at the past years slideshows as well as this year’s. When asking the kids what their favorite part of the trip is, that slideshow is always in the top 3!