Have an idea of where you want to spend your money and then fill in the blanks. As I mentioned above, we skipped Disneyland. It wasn't worth the money when half of our kids were too young to appreciate it and I was pregnant enough at the time to make that much walking a chore. We used to live in Los Angeles, so we had people to visit while we were there, and we know we'll be back someday when all the kids are older.
We saved our bigger spending for Las Vegas (visiting my Grandparents), San Diego (visiting my mom), The Grand Canyon and Albuquerque (visiting my cousins).
So what to do in the spaces between?
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
As homeschoolers I have found museum memberships to be a great investment, but even more so this year than in the past. Many science and history museums have reciprocal benefits with other museums all over the country, giving you free access to some very interesting attractions. For the cost of our $90 Science Museum of Minnesota membership we were able to get free access to The Madison Children's Museum, The Indiana State Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the Omaha Children's Museum, and those were just the museums we had time for.
San Diego Zoo
Our trip took place over Christmas, so in lieu of physical gifts, each of my parents gave the kids an experience gift. Mom paid for Dad and all of their kids and grandkids to go to the San Diego Zoo. Dad paid for us to go to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Experience gifts have always been highly prized in my family and space was tight in the van, so the fact that we didn't have to cart home Christmas gifts was a bonus.
Letterboxing/Scavenger Hunts/ Adventure Races
I've said this before and I'll say it again, but the key to entertaining children (and easily distracted adults like myself) is novelty. Fortunately, it's a big and interesting world out there and novelty is not in short supply if you are willing to look for it. Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective.
Letterboxing is one of our favourite hobbies both at home and on the road. Similar to geocaching without the fancy equipment, letterboxing is a fantastic way to get off the beaten path and really explore. It adds a sense of mystery and purpose to an otherwise everyday walk in the park. There's something exciting about knowing that there is a "treasure" hidden in plain sight. It's like being part of a secret club. Everyday people walk past these spots, some of them on busy city streets, some down barely visible paths in the woods, and nobody knows what lays there if only they knew where to look.
Scavenger Hunts and Adventure Races (think Amazing Race) are another way of adding a sense of purpose, and even a bit of learning, to your adventures. I once had a friend who liked to travel alone on bicycle in Europe. To amuse himself, he liked to pretend he was a spy. He'd give himself little missions and then try to complete them without anyone seeing him. Yes, it's eccentric, but you have to admit it's kind of fun.
There are a few ways of doing this. If you have time, I think it's fun to head out and plant clues for the kids in various locations. Print up a letter and place it by their toothbrush in the bathroom. "Your mission, if you choose to accept it..." or something along those lines. Give them their first task, which will lead them to their first clue.
If possible, it's fun to involve other people. When you head out for your morning coffee, explain what you are doing to the barista. Tell her the kids will have a secret password for her. Something goofy. Then give her a letter with a clue to the next task. "At Main St and Grand there is a small coffee shop called Java Hut. There is an agent there named Rachel masquerading as a barista. Go to her and order a small hot chocolate with two pumps of vanilla and whipped cream. When she hands you your drink, whisper the password. Female Aardvark. She will give you your next set of instructions." In my experience, unless they are really busy, people enjoy being part of the mystery.
If it's not possible to plant clues ahead of time, you can do an information gathering scavenger hunt. "On the lawn of the capital building there is a statue of the first governor of the state. Find his name. This is the name of the street where you will find your next assignment. Show me the street on your map to recieve the next clue." These kinds of facts are easily attainable online, so you can plan these even from home.
This one doesn't need a whole lot of explanation. Kids are easy. A trip to the beach or a hike in the woods are the cheapest fun out there. The world is a beautiful place. Get out and enjoy it. Some of my longest lasting memories of travel aren't the days I spent at Sea World or Six Flags. They're the moment I rounded the bend on a windy mountain road in the Canadian Rockies and was suddenly sure I was in heaven, or the way the moss grew, sad and lonely on the weatherworn tombstones of goldminers on a remote road in Southern Alaska, or watching the sun set directly over an island, like a crown on a head submerged in the sea in Manzanillo. It's amazing how many memories are made in these simple moments.
Up Next: Roadtripping with Kids-Part 3: Good Cheap Fun Continued.