Day Trips: The Perfect Summer Adventure on a Budget

by ParentCo. May 13, 2024

young girl smiling

Planning day trips is one of my specialties. I homeschool my kids, so we hit the road on a year-round basis to spend the day at new and favorite places within a reasonable driving distance.

With three boys ages six and under, venturing farther than the grocery store can be a challenge. Planning to be away from our house for the majority of the day means I have to think about how my kids are going to eat, sleep, and poop in public (okay, not necessarily in public, but you know what I mean).

Day trips are neither the time nor the place to be a minimalist, you have to be prepared for any number of complications. There’s nap schedules, diaper changes, and heat-induced meltdowns to anticipate. You have to pack for both the car trip and the actual activity itself. Finally, you’ve got to make sure that everyone has fun (with a capital “F”).

The stakes are high and that’s stressful. It can make venturing out to that stellar beach or highly-praised zoo two hours away seem totally not worth it.

If your family is like ours, then you just can’t afford to take a family vacation this year. We don’t have the budget for plane tickets or cross-country gas money, multiple nights bunked up in a hotel room, all-inclusive resort packages, or steep ticket prices to attractions.

If we want to have summer fun, we have to have it close to home. That’s okay, being geographically limited in our travels doesn't impact the amount of fun we can have, and neither should the stress that comes from planning and executing a summer day trip.

With these eight strategies, you can successfully hit the road with your kids in a way that doesn’t leave you swearing off one-day family fun forever.

1 | Make a plan but be flexible

Maybe your family is super skilled at rolling with the punches, but most kids and adults benefit from knowing where they’re going, how to get there, and what to expect when they arrive.

Once you decide on a location for your day trip, see if the site has a web page that lists attractions or offers a map to download. Check hours and admission prices. Form a basic idea in your head of how your family might best experience this particular place, then be willing to change your plans when you get there, because forcing your kids to stick to some arbitrary schedule or order of events is a surefire way to dampen everyone’s spirits.

2 | Get out the door early in the morning

Many activities are just more fun in warm weather, like swimming at the beach and getting soaked at the splash pad. But there’s a fine line between “fun in the sun” and “everyone is sunburned and dehydrated.” One way to avoid falling victim to the elements is to get an early start. You can enjoy a few high-energy hours in the morning, then slow things down once the day heats up.

Please, drink water and apply sunscreen, probably more than you think you need to.

3 | Pack up in advance

Here’s where you recall your Girl Scout Troop days. Pack up your car the night before the trip with whatever special items you'll need, plus travel activities, snacks and water bottles, diapers and wipes, changes of clothing, and sunscreen. If you’re planning several day trips this summer, you can designate a container (think Tupperware or large tote bag) for many of these items so you don’t have to pack and unpack them for each trip.

The morning of your trip, get dressed, grab a little breakfast, and go.

4 | Bring your own lunch

Call me my grandmother (go ahead, really, I’d be honored), but eating out with a family is expensive, particularly when the options are limited. If you’re stuck inside a ticketed venue with nothing but concession stands or specialty themed “cafes” to choose from, you’re going to spend a small fortune on hot dogs, microwaved pizza, bottled water, and individual snack bags of potato chips.

Instead, pack up a cooler and plan to eat a homemade lunch on the go. Most places allow outside food, though there may be some restrictions on how you bring it in (so call or check online first). If you don’t want to lug a cooler around, stash some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a few pieces of whole fruit, and a box of crackers in a backpack. Lunch is served, kids!

5 | Take advantage of your time in the car

Your kids are going to be stationary for a while. Take advantage. It’s much easier to put sunscreen on a child who can’t run away from you.

When you arrive at your destination, take a few minutes to regroup before you unbuckle everyone. Apply sunscreen and encourage your kids to drink some water if you’re going to be outdoors. Offer a snack so they start the fun with happy bellies. Talk through any rules or expectations for behavior (i.e. “This is a crowded place, so you need to hold Mommy's hand,” or “We’re riding the roller coasters first, then we're going to the water park.”).

6 | Get off the beaten path

If you’re anything like me, crowds equal stress – more noise, longer wait times for attractions or services, and extra vigilance. How well can you spot your kid in a sea of similarly-aged children all wearing Paw Patrol shirts?

You can avoid the crowds somewhat by getting an early start (see tip #2), but unless you’re braving the amusement park on a rainy day, these places are going to fill up with people eventually. If this isn’t your style, think outside the box when it comes to activities. Instead of a large state park beach, find a small lakeside retreat. Skip the boardwalk carnival and head to a miniature golf course with a soft serve stand. Consider spending a day hiking nature trails and fishing, rather than swimming in a sea of people at the zoo or aquarium.

7 | Bring backup.

Does Grandma like road trips? Do your kids have an aunt or uncle with the patience of a saint? Is your childfree friend looking for a little adventure? Invite them to tag along!

The more kids involved, the more adults you’ll need to keep track of everyone and assist with bathroom trips, clothing changes, and participation in activities. Even if you already have a one-to-one adult to child ratio, having an extra person around to pitch in with some of the logistics can make the outing more pleasant. (Just make sure when you invite another person along that you kindly convey the message that you’re looking for a helping hand, not a casual observer, so they know what they’re signing up for.)

8 | Plan a (small) bonus activity at the end

You’ve had a blast, but now the day is winding down. Your kids, however, are begging for one more ride or one more visit to the reptile house or giant sandcastle. By the time you finally drag them to the parking lot, the complaining has reached a fever pitch.

“We had a nice day,” you shout ironically. “Didn’t you guys have fun?”

Of course they did, but no matter how hard you’re trying to raise grateful, appreciative children, the cocktail of exhaustion and overstimulation is potent. There’s not much you can do to prevent it, but there is a way to curb the whining and finish the day on a happier note. Give your kids a little something to look forward to before the day officially ends.

Stop for ice cream on the way home, swing by a favorite playground, or take a twilight dip in your pool before getting everyone into their pajamas. Keep this extra outing short and simple to avoid imposing serious burnout. However, a small, sweet treat at the end the day can make parting with your destination just a little less painful.



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