TravelFilter: cross country trip in early summer on the cheap, with kids
March 21, 2016 10:15 AM   Subscribe

We're looking to travel from New Mexico to the Baltimore area in early summer, with 4 adults and 2 kids under 5 years old. Airfare looks to be steep enough (and our schedules flexible enough) that we're thinking of road-tripping, so I'm looking for suggestions for vehicle rentals, routes, activity places and distractions along the way. Thanks!

We're going to the Baltimore for a weekend event in early summer, and while flying would be faster, but I've priced flights at around $400 per seat. That's for mid-week flights with reasonable hours, as our boys don't do well when they stay up late, so for everyone's sanity, no red eyes or late arrivals. Add in renting a large vehicle from the airport, and we're looking at a serious chunk of change. Additionally, two of the adults are not too keen on air travel in general, so we're looking to hit the road. came up with around $700 to rent a minivan for two weeks, which would give us a few days to travel out there and a few more on the return. Now I'm looking for good places to get out and run around for a bit, because we know from prior road trips, our boys are not keen on being in seats for extended periods of time.

  • Is there some airfare magic I'm missing on getting cheaper rates?
  • Assuming not, what's the best way to get a good rate on an extended, long-distance large vehicle rental? I've heard you can sometimes get extended rentals from car dealerships, but I don't have personal experience, and this old (2009) blog entry says dealerships "are at least $30 a day", if there are even dealerships that do this in my area
  • What are some good, short distractions between New Mexico and Baltimore area? If nothing else, I'll make a map of parks with play structures and shade, in case we suddenly need to get out and run around for a half hour.
  • What are good things for little guys who are handsy? Our youngest is under two, but is really physical and I fear he'll get bored with toys like his brother did at this age, making him unhappy until we can stop and play some more.
    posted by filthy light thief to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total)
    $700 for a minivan for 2 weeks is actually a really good rate if that price includes taxes (if not, it's probably closer to $1000) -- I rent cars all the time and always rent the smallest thing they have, and the cheapest I can ever get is about $200 for a week in an economy or subcompact, but that's with all taxes included. Hertz Gold Club is free to join and their local "neighborhood locations" (non-airport) charge much less in tax than an airport pickup, and spouses can drive for free.
    posted by jabes at 10:49 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

    Is there any particular route you'd like to take? Or any degree of flexibility for days traveled? Google offers 3 different route options some of which seem to currently have construction. There's lot of great kid stuff in St Louis and/or Memphis, some neat caves in Ohio/Kentucky/Tennessee and very pretty scenery in the Blue Mountain area and lots to do in the Virginia/Maryland area. One route there and another back might be worthwhile. Along the routes suggested by Google, there's very little in Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois and Indiana in my opinion.

    With 2 under 5 yrs and one of those under 2 yrs, you might aim more for road side stops with playsets/evenings at hotels with pools for the kids. At that age, mine just wanted to stretch their legs regularly more than "see new things". Maybe one big stop each way for the 5 yrs old? The dinosaur parks/caves? The kids museum in St Louis is great if you've time. I think Lincoln's childhood log cabin may not be too far off the Kentucky route.

    Distractions for kids who get bored best include a very patient adult with careful balance of new/favorite toys/videos.

    And I agree to make sure you run your numbers completely. While the car is likely less expensive, hotels/gas/food/new toys plus the pricelessness of 27+ hours each way of travel boredom may make it a closer call than you think. Is there anyone at the other end with a car you can borrow?
    posted by beaning at 11:02 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

    Check out Southwest for flights. They seem to be about $400 RT.

    However, I'm a road trip person and if you have time and inclination, they can be an absolute blast!

    I have found Dollar to be a good place to rent a minivan. They're in your neighborhood (no schlepping out to the airport to rent and return it.) If you have AAA, they'll offer deals on rentals. Also check Enterprise, they may cut you a deal for two weeks. (the smaller neighborhood centers have more latitude to cut deals. Although the prices you're being quoted are pretty good. Do confirm that you can take the van X number of states away. Some places limit it to 3 states. (weird, I know.)

    You will want to get a CD player in the van, either one you can put in the back, or one that's integrated into the van. When we rented a van, they didn't have the headphones for it. (essential for the fifty-eleventh go round of Frozen.) Or download content on a tablet. You know what your kids like. This will save their lives. BTW. A lot less whinging and whining.

    What I recommend is an activity late-ish in the morning, either swimming, or sight-seeing, or something like that. Then hitting the road and driving from around 1:00 PM until 10:00 ish. You and your spouse can change up driving and once it gets dark the kids will snooze. Dump everyone into the hotel. Sleep, wake up around 9:00 AM, and run the energy out of the kids. Swimming twice a day is HIGHLY recommended, if you can pull it off.

    A great resource for finding odd things to look at on the way is: Roadside America There's an app for that now.

    Looks like most of this is via I-40. Are you planning on going on 40? Frankly, I'd take the long way round, if only to spend a day to explore Carlsbad Caverns (it is THAT awesome.) This is actually about the same time and you get to see bats! It's a pretty enough drive with a bazillion places to pull off until you hit Texas. Even then, there's a Dairy Queen about every 20 miles.

    Do you think you can get the kids to tour Graceland in Memphis?

    Pitstops for Kids is a site that might give you some ideas.

    Most of the 'wide spots in the road' have a McDonalds with a Playspace, so you can stop, let the kids go nuts, and you can sip a cool beverage for a minute before hitting the road again.

    I will also recommend Motel 6, again, be selective. You don't want the Motel 6 in downtown St. Louis, you want the one in Bucksnort, TN. Check review on Trip Advisor.

    We used to stay in Motel 6 when they were $6 a night. They have pools and while the rooms are Spartan, they're plenty comfy and perfectly cromulent.

    Try to keep everyone hydrated. Stop every 90 minutes or so to get the wiggles out. Hell, teach them the Electric Slide and blast that at a Rest Stop so you can all have a fun ritual to do.

    If something looks weird, and off the beaten path, why not stop?

    The National Parks Service has a Passport that you can gift the kids. They have passport stamps so as you visit the parks, they can collect the stamps. Keep them as they're growing up and then remind them of the time they got the stamp Yellowstone. You can also steal this idea and order some stickers. As you go through each state, they earn a sticker. You can have special stickers for seeing a cool car, or for being super-helpful, or whatever else you can think of. I'd get some with dogs on them, since people travel with their dogs and you see them at Rest Stops. "Hey, I get a schnauzer stamp!"

    Have fun! As a kid I adored car trips!
    posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:19 AM on March 21, 2016

    If you do this, absolutely plan a stop in St Louis, if you can. The City Museum is worth a car trip all by itself.
    posted by Mchelly at 11:34 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

    This is worth joining AAA for, if you haven't already. Not only can they probably get you the best rental deal, but they can help plan your trip with stops (including hotels with AAA discounts) and activities. They're really great, and I think probably a little under-used for these services these days, as they were very excited to help the last time I actually went into one of their offices for maps and stuff.
    posted by Lyn Never at 11:40 AM on March 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

    Moon Marbles well reviewed toy and game selection
    posted by hortense at 2:07 PM on March 23, 2016

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