Help me plan a road trip with kids.
May 14, 2012 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Road trip! My wife and I are taking our two kids on our first real road trip, from the mid-Atlantic to the Midwest. I’d like advice on routes, activities, and must-see stops along the way. Lots of details and specific questions after the jump.

Next month, our family of four (mom, dad, and two kids, ages 9 and 8) will be taking our first major road trip. Here are the rough parameters of the trip:

• We’re driving from Baltimore to Chicago, then from Chicago to Iowa City, then from Iowa City back to Baltimore.
• We'll leave on a Monday morning (as early as we need to) and are due in Iowa City that Thursday afternoon/evening. We’re due back in Baltimore the following Monday morning, but we’d like to return sometime Sunday afternoon/evening to decompress and start doing laundry. I expect to leave Iowa City late Saturday and drive well into the night, then drive most of Sunday to get back home. So, there won't be much time for sight-seeing on the return route.
• We’re good for activities and lodging while in Iowa, and have some ideas for Chicago, but suggestions for additional Chicago activities and things we should see while on the road would be welcomed.
• We’d like to spend our first evening on the road at a campsite, doing some tent camping. We’d like to stay in hotels the rest of the time we are on the road.

Here are the questions I have:

1. Which route(s) should we take?

• If we’re going to Chicago on the way west, it seems to make sense to take 70 to the PA Turnpike to 80. Would doing so allow us to find a campsite in, say, Ohio the first night?
• Speed is a priority on the return trip, but some variety would be nice, too; my thought was to take 80 to 74 to 70.
• Other relevant criteria for the return route would be access to a hotel (with late check-in) on Saturday night, presumably in Indiana or Ohio somewhere, if we take the more southerly return route, and any must-see locations on the way.

I’m amenable to taking 70 through Columbus and Indianapolis on the way west if we can still get to Chicago reasonably quickly by doing so, we can still camp Monday night, and there are more interesting things to see on that route than on the more northerly route.

2. Where should we camp Monday night? We’d like a place where we can spend a few restful hours Monday afternoon and evening, camp overnight in a tent, and hit the road early Tuesday morning. Bonus points for being cheap or free and for having fun things to do for kids (lake swimming, short hikes, etc.) and decent amenities (we’d STRONGLY prefer a place with a good shower and bathroom facilities).

3. Is it realistic to expect to make it to Chicago by late afternoon/early evening Tuesday, having camped Monday night en route? The kids are good in the car and, while this will be their first time driving quite this much, I’m hopeful that a reasonably full day in the car Monday and a full day Tuesday, punctuated by our camping break and maybe some sightseeing along the way, will work well.

4. I’ve seen other threads about Chicago and I do have a few ideas for what we might do while there (maybe a Cubs game, perhaps the Field Museum, possible visits with some friends), but I would welcome both inexpensive hotel suggestions and ideas for things to do. Other than an obligatory trip to the American Girl store, we’re fairly flexible, but I think we’ll probably want to focus on Chicago proper, less so the suburbs. We should have Tuesday evening through mid-day Thursday in Chicago.

5. Is there anything I’m missing? We’re pulling together some fun music and car games for the road. (I've seen this helpful question.) We’ll have the car serviced and ready to go. We’ll try to mix in some simple meals from home and/or grocery stores so that we’re not eating out in restaurants all the time. Are there known speed traps or other traps for the unwary traveler? Particularly bad hotels or tourist traps we should avoid?

(Please note: I am a slow typist and I seldom have the chance to quickly follow up on my questions due to a busy schedule, so I’ve tried to be as thorough as I can in writing the question. If you have questions, please post in the thread or MeMail me, and I’ll try to answer them as quickly as I can.)

We’re excited about our trip! Thanks in advance for your suggestions.
posted by cheapskatebay to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a lot of familiarity with the area, but definitely take a soccer ball or a frisbee along. It's very refreshing to get a little activity in as a break. You can play a bit at a rest stop, random ball field/park, school lawn or whatever.
posted by mikepop at 11:53 AM on May 14, 2012

I was born and raised in Eastern Iowa, and lived for 8 years in Connecticut. For holidays, we'd cut down to 80 in New Jersey, and just ride that sucker west.

It's a hell of a drive for young ones. 80 is a huge artery through the eastern part of the United States, so you get a lot of benefits in the way of rest stops and overpass-based food courts. So, you can make a lot of stops that aren't off the beaten path.

To ameliorate the boredom that comes with the long drive, we'd pack along a laptop with a car-charger and either load it up with kids movies, or load up a soft pack of DVDs to run on it. The drawback of this is that if you've got little ones that get easily car sick from watching a screen in the back seat of a car, this is going to backfire. Nowadays, we've got a minivan with drop down screens, so packing extra gear isn't necessary.

Most of the time, you're driving on flat terrain, but in Pennsylvania, you'll need to be a little more wary of the ups and downs. If you hit some bad weather, on some stretches of that road, it's almost preferable to take a break at a fast food joint and wait it out, as the semi trucks on that road will not slow down. Do not pull over on the shoulder in Pennsylvania. You will be hit by passing trucks, and at least in the time that it happened to us, the guy didn't slow down or stop. Just side-swiped us and kept on trucking.

For making time, you can ride 70-74mph the whole way without incident, just take care around state borders, as the patrol likes those areas. You'll be slowing down for tolls anyway in some of the states, so you won't even notice it.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:10 PM on May 14, 2012

Is the Shedd Aquarium of interest to your kids, or are they quite satisfied with the one back home? I haven't done an animal-by-animal comparison between them, but Shedd offers some up-close encounters with belugas and penguins. (OMG!)
posted by knile at 12:15 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd counsel against the Shedd, as it's really really pricey unless you intend to spend the whole day there. If you're willing to see a museum in Chicago with the kids, check out the Museum of Science and Industry, which is just a little further south on Lake Shore Drive. It's got a metric butt-load of kid friendly exhibits.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:25 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I throw the end points into MapQuest, I'm getting 70 to 80 for the most part.

As you pass through Pittsburgh, get off at The Strip and have a big ol' Sloppy Sandwich at Primanti Brothers. It's a fun place to walk around, with lots of markets, etc. If you bring a cooler, you can get some fresh meat or fish for your camp later. Or, if you have lots of time, the Smithsonian Museum has a neat Pittsburgh Museum right in The Strip. You learn to pack Pickles!

In Canton, OH, there's a KOA Campground, Bear Creek Resort Ranch. they have cabins to rent (if the weather is inclement) and tent sites if it's nice. A pool, showers, hey, I HATE camping and I might consider sleeping here.

If y'all are into football, you could visit the hall of fame. Or not.

What's nice is that this breaks your trip up into two days of 6 hours and about 4 hours on your drive into IA. You can skip Chicago on the way back and just stop when you get sleepy.

I recommend checking out Roadside America, for some weird stuff you might want to do for kicks.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:29 PM on May 14, 2012

You should be able to make the drive from Baltimore to Chicago, in one really long day, if you absolutely had to. But if you want somewhere to stop on the way, suggestions:

Stop for a day in Pittsburgh! There's tons of stuff to do -- museums, baseball, restaurants, etc. -- and lots of accommodation choices in the area.

Or, if you're driving through Pennsylvania, you might look into camping in or around the Allegheny National Forest, which is beautiful. It's a bit off your route, but I always really liked the Buckaloons Recreation Area.

I would also consider driving up 79 all the way to I - 90 and driving along the little towns on the lake, or maybe visiting Erie, PA and Presque Isle State Park.

Ohio as seen from I-70 is pretty boring, in my opinion. Huber Heights is a good place to pull off of I-70 for gas and food.

I have not been to Ohiopyle State Park or the Laurel Highlands in southwest PA, but I have heard that they are very nice for camping.
posted by daisystomper at 12:39 PM on May 14, 2012

When my family came to visit about two years back, we stayed at the Best Western River North. Nothing fancy, but the location is great (LaSalle/Ohio) and walkable, albeit probably slowly with kids!, to most downtown destinations.

And there is free parking, which is an extreme rarity in that part of downtown! It's also a quarter-mile to the Red Line if you want to take public transportation.
posted by andrewesque at 12:58 PM on May 14, 2012

Growing up, my family had a rule of never spending more than 6 hours a day in the car - you can definitely do more than that, but don't expect to have loads of energy to be sightseeing and hiking, unless you intersperse those throughout the trip.
posted by fermezporte at 1:42 PM on May 14, 2012

As you drive through the Appalachians there are some great road cuts; see if your route passes through one that allows you to pull off into a parking lot to check it out. (Famous one is Sideling Hill, where I'm dismayed to read they have closed the visitor's center for budget reasons)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:18 PM on May 14, 2012

Better photo showing the rock cut at Sideling Hill.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:20 PM on May 14, 2012

Camping: if you can make it to the Cleveland area on your first day, you might check out camping opportunities in or around the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (which Rout 80 runs right through). There is a historical bike/hike trail in the park which was originally the old towpath for the Ohio-Erie canal in the mid-1800's. Lots of rolling hills, historical farms,'s very picturesque.

My unsolicited opinion: packing for even the shortest tent-camping trip involves a lot of gear to obtain, food in coolers, fire & cooking supplies, multiple changes of clothes as it gets cold overnight, and the camping stuff will take up a lot of room in your car. I only ever do it if the trip is all about camping. To me it's not worth all the effort for just one night.

Good luck and hope you have a great trip1
posted by see_change at 2:32 PM on May 14, 2012

It's been some years, but I've driven from Columbus to DC multiple times using both the "northern" PA Turnpike route and the "southern" route through Morgantown and Cumberland on I-68, which includes the above-mentioned Sideling Hill road cut. Hands down the more interesting route is I-68. And Columbus to Ft. Wayne to South Bend to Chicago is flat and boring.
posted by Runes at 3:53 PM on May 14, 2012

A couple things come to mind:

- In Chicago, consider the beach. It's free, and if the weather is nice, the kids could have an beautiful time.

- Dyersville, Iowa is roughly on the way to Iowa City. Granted, kids don't watch the Field of Dreams anymore, but could you help them watch it? If so, you could visit the field there. I mention this, only because one of my fondest childhood memories is running around the bases with my father.

- Also, there's Legoland in Chicago.

- And here are some (one, two) sites on Chicago for kids.

Have fun! It's all about the little moments of love, so milk those, and give yourself proper time.
posted by vecchio at 12:59 AM on May 15, 2012

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