Tips On A Family Road Trip In A Small Car


Nostalgia cluttered my thinking with memories of those car rides we reminisce about with friends. You know the ones I am talking about: the one where your brother rode in the back window and your sister slept on the hump on the floor……or the trip where your aunt threw up in your Barbie case. You know, the ones where you opened the window and arm wrestled with the wind as your dad chain-smoked all the way to California. The one where you just piled in the car and headed west…… the vacation where no motel reservations were made, and you had to sleep in the car…I call the back window!

For the past two out of three summers we have taken long car trips with our boys. For the summer of 2008 it was 2,700 miles in a Corolla with the 5 of us. The summer of 2009 it was 2,200 miles in an Explorer with 4 of us. For the summer of 2010 it was only 300 miles to Dickinson with the 5 of us and our dog in an Explorer.  In 2008 I think my family thought I was a little odd nuts certifiable insane when I approached the idea of taking the Corolla on a long road trip.  Just so you know, this was not a tricked out Corolla that looks and rides like a Honda Accord.  This was a Corolla with the windows that you had to hand crank.  This was a Corolla that we were packed in like sardines.  This was a Corolla that doesn’t even have a clock.  This was a Corolla that had a hard time climbing up mountains.  But this was a Corolla that got great gas mileage.  Remember the summer of 2008?  Gas prices soared, kind of like what they are threatening to do for the summer of 2011.  What is a family of 5 on a budget to do?  Why of course take the gas friendly car instead of the gas guzzling SUV.

When in 2008 we look the Corolla; I really had to have a method to my packing madness. I carefully thought about what to bring along, especially clothes as they take up so much room. This trip and what I learned changed how I now pack forever.  During both of these experiences I developed a method to my packing madness:

  • I packed by day and put everyone’s clothes for that particular day in one bag. When we made our stops, I didn’t have to bring in our entire luggage, just what we needed for that day’s stop. For example, if our first stay was at a hotel for just one day, I packed one bag with our clothes for the next day in it, and nothing extra. So when we checked into the hotel, we grabbed that day’s bag. If we checked into a hotel for 3 days, I had 3 days worth of clothes packed in one bag.  I knew where we were staying and for how long so I packed each bag accordingly.
  • I really packed only what we needed, nothing extra.  Really, nothing extra, that is the key.
  • We always do laundry half way through our stay. Most hotels have multiple washers and dryers available and for about $10 you can complete 3 loads of laundry in about 90 minutes. You may want to call ahead to your hotel and check if this is an amenity offered at your hotel. Often we will stay at family and friends and they don’t mind if we do a couple of loads of laundry. Just think of all of the time you will save when you come home and half of the clothes you unpack are already clean!
  •  A separate bag for pajamas. This works really well as it stops the searching through the entire luggage for those missing pajamas. I only pack one pair for each of us and the pajamas also get washed at some point during our trip.
  • A bag with coats and pants. This bag did not come out of the car at all because we enjoyed warm temperatures our whole trip. Coats and long pants are bulky and take up a lot of room in luggage.
  • A bag for swim gear. Not every stop required swim gear, so we left this bag in the car until we needed it. Sunscreen, goggles and empty plastic bags for wet swim suits should also be placed in this bag. Make sure that you pack at least one towel so if you go to a water park you can have at least one towel to share (remember it is hot out and you will dry off quickly and multiple towels won’t be necessary.
  • A sleeping bag and pillow in case someone needs to sleep on a hotel floor or wants to snuggle in the car to take a nap.
  • A collapsible cooler, to keep our day’s supply of water and snacks cold.
  • One bag with everyone’s toiletries (okay, so in traveling with four “men,” I was the only one with toiletries; they had toothbrushes). This bag came in with us at every stop for obvious reasons.
  • Snacks purchased at the grocery store before we left so that when we were gassing up the car, we didn’t add to the cost with high-priced junk food. Although a treat here and there was often in order.
  • A portable DVD player with an adapter enabling it to play throughout the car (especially nice so that we could all listen to the sound of light sabers slicing through the air as we drove through arid Wyoming).  Ask my kids three years later what movies we watched, and they will all be able to tell you.  There were 3 and we watched them over and over again.
  • Small games and books that travel well. We have a box packed with various games such as mad lib’s, card games, car bingo and of course for us the infamous Nintendo DS complete with car charger.  And as technology changes so do the needs of my boys, goodbye DS hello iPad.
  • Individual MP3 players, Zune or iPods are also a great thing to pack as it gives the kids a break from what mom and dad are listening to on the radio.
  • I had an easy access bag that I kept all of our electronics and chargers in. This bag often went into the hotels with us so that we could make sure that everything became properly charged before the next days adventures.
  • Hubby and I even packed our laptops; there are free wireless connections everywhere these days except for business hotels where they charge an arm and a leg for Internet usage.
  • If you are wanting a count we probably pack on average of 10 small back packs or duffel bags, not huge suitcases. Because of the size of the bags they are easy to wedge in small spaces in trunks and even under seats.

I want these vacations for one reason: my family. Be it good or bad, these are trips that we will always remember. The boys will be forever saying that the car was too small; really, it wasn’t…well, maybe the back seat was. But is there a back seat big enough when traveling with three kids?

I challenge you to instead of reminiscing about the memories we had as kids, make your own memories with your kids. Become a road warrior in your own way: from traveling to small destinations within 100 miles of your town to taking a trip across the country. What will your kids remember in 20 years? I know what we will still be talking about!

To Joyful, Simplified Living,

MS. Simplicity

MS. Simplicity, also known as Melissa Schmalenberger  operates her business as I Did it with MS. Simplicity.  She is a Professional Organizer based out of Fargo, ND and her website can be found at .  Need to contact MS. Simplicity privately, you can email her at For daily organizing tips find the MS. Simplicity fan page here.

If you try any of my suggestions, I would love to hear from you. It helps me to understand what my readers want me to write about and what they think is a waste of their time….thanks for taking the time to help me out.

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  3. Stephanie

    Thanks for the ideas! My husband and I are traveling from Tennessee to California in May along with my brother and sister-in-law in our car, and another couple in a second car. We had planned to take our Expedition, but with rising gas prices we are having second thoughts. Our second vehicle is a Corolla. We would save a ton of money taking it instead. Having made a long trip in a Corolla yourself, do you think it would be worth the extra spending money, or should we take the larger vehicle and have extra room?

    1. I would want to know how big the other people are. If they are small I would for sure take the smaller car. Take a short road trip together and see how the leg room is then use my packing tips so you don’t need that extra space as well. Let me know how it turns out and what you decide to do!

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