RoadTrip America

Routes, Planning, & Inspiration for Your North American Road Trip

Taking the Grandkids on the Road by Anne Sponholtz

Some road trips are memorable for the trip itself -- the winding roads, the adventure of discovering what is around the next bend, or the scenery along the way. Others are carved in our memories because of the destination at the end of the road. And then there are those road trips that are memorable for the people who travel with us. Veteran road tripper Anne Sponholtz shares some of her experiences and advice for trips whose special guests are grandchildren.

Travel surveys are reporting that a new trend is sweeping the nation. The reports indicate that more and more grandparents are picking up their grandchildren when they set out to travel - and sometimes Mom and Dad, too. My husband and I hit the road often throughout the year, and if we can find an excuse to bring along the grandkids, that is exactly what we do. Our daughter and son-in-law often join us, but sometimes it's just the grandkids. Either way, the younger generation brings another dimension of enjoyment, along with a few challenges.

When to go on the road trip
Summertime is a great time to travel with grandkids, of course, but don't forget most children attend school only 180 days a year. That leaves a whole lot of days on the calendar for road trips if your grandkids are school age. Weekends are great for day trips and overnighters, and you can stretch the trip to three days if the school's teacher planning days fall on Friday or Monday, as they often do. Or book a holiday trip. We have a relative whose special memories with her grandparents are Thanksgivings at campgrounds across America. For longer trips, spring break is ideal; the weather is usually good and the kids are ready for a break.

[Continued below photo gallery]

Oak Lake

Road trips to air shows can be both fun and educational. Taxing down the runway, this B-17 from World War II is part of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour, which annually tours across America.

1 of 8

Photo by Anne Sponholtz

How many grandkids and how long?
Of course our grandchildren are perfect, not to mention smart, beautiful and charming. But over the years I've learned that those perfect grandchildren sometimes need a little help to make the trip as enjoyable as possible. If the parents are staying home, I like the ratio of one grandchild for every grandparent. I do know grandmothers who are more courageous than I am, and pile nearly half a dozen grandkids into their vans and take off on road trips, so that call is going to be what works best for you. We also limit trips with our grandkids to two nights as a rule, but our grandchildren are still young - 8 and under. As they get older, the trips will likely get longer.

Mode of transportation
The mode of transportation is not as important as the itinerary, but as an avid RVer/camper, I strongly urge you look into traveling in an RV, especially if you're planning a longer trip or if Mom and Dad are coming along, too. Being in the great outdoors is an adventure for youngsters (oldsters, too!). There is something special about looking out your bedroom window at night and seeing a fox walk by, or in the morning watching a sandhill crane search for breakfast right outside your RV. And, if the kids are older, they might enjoy pitching a tent next to the RV. Honestly, would you rather be in a hotel room with your grandkids watching Sponge Bob on the tube, or sitting around a campfire making s'mores? The RV lifestyle seems to win out every time in my book. If you don't own an RV, you can easily rent one; see the list of resources at the end of this article.

Campgrounds are hot vacation spots
Many campgrounds are chockfull of entertainment. They often offer candy bar bingo, water slides, fishing, swimming pools, crafts, putt-putt golf, pingpong, beach volleyball, paddle boats, beachfront camping, even museums and other planned activities. Some campgrounds are gated communities and provide security, so kids can ride their bicycles or scooters or go for a walk. (Be sure to check out the campground and rules before letting grandkids take off on their own, and always remind kids of any rules set by the parents.) We have walkie-talkies, and whenever anyone leaves the campsite they take one along.

A road trip that lands you in more remote campgrounds can be fun, too. We frequent one campground that posts warnings about bears. The grandkids like to help take the garbage to the dumpster in hopes we might spot a bear, as one camper did. We've never come across the bear, and it's pretty likely we never will, but taking the garbage to the dumpster at that campground has become an exciting adventure.

Popular theme parks - or maybe not
Road trips to big, popular theme parks are not on my list of things to do with my grandchildren. I leave those adventures up to the parents. We tried a trip to SeaWorld in the middle of summer once, and quickly decided there are a whole lot braver grandparents around than we are. The grandkids were preschoolers at the time, and I think we won't recover from that adventure until they reach college age. But for some grandparents theme parks are just the place to go with grandkids. Several organizations will book tours for you and your grandchildren to locations across America and around the world. That might be right up your alley.

Get grandkids involved
Be sure to let the grandchildren help out with the travel plans and other aspects of the trip; the more they can do, the more they will feel part of the adventure. Give them a couple of choices of destination and let them help plan the route. Older children can help with shopping and packing. When our grandchildren spent the night with us before a recent trip, I discovered that they are great at lugging suitcases and all the other stuff that gets packed for a road trip. Who knows, maybe they'll grow up to help with the driving!


Mark your calendar. Holidays are great times to travel.

Geared to grandparents. RoadScholar (formerly Elderhostel) offers tours.

RV rental. You might want to rent an RV before making a purchase.

Ambitious grandparents. These grandparents turned to the RoadTrip America forum for some advice on a road trip with 15 grandchildren.


Are you a cool grandparent?
It's a good idea to test your grandparent IQ before taking off with the grandkids. Television is a perfect source for becoming a "cool" grandparent. Tune into Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel or MTV, depending on the age of your grandchildren, and learn a little about their world. Advertisements are a great way of discovering what is going on at various ages. That way when the grandchildren talk about the Penguin Club, for example, you will understand they are not talking about joining a club in Antarctica. After a couple of days of immersion, you can go online and take a quiz to discover how "cool" a grandparent you are. All this time I thought I was a pretty cool grandma, only to discover I fell in the 70th percentile. What a bummer.

Take along lots of entertainment. Board games and a pack of cards always make it on our trips, though there have been times I've been sorry I brought along Sorry, as the grandkids wanted to play it so much. Crayons and coloring books are must-haves for young children; older children may want an MP3 player or handheld electronic games. Many vehicles and RVs have DVD players so young travelers can enjoy a movie to help pass the time on a long trip, and many parents say they have saved the vacation. But road games like collecting license plates or spotting cars of a certain color are also fun for everyone. Of course, with young grandchildren there are often unexpected moments of entertainment, like when my 5-year-old grandson locked the bathroom door of the RV and couldn't figure out how to unlock it. We did manage eventually to get him out.

Take along the essentials
Experts advise taking along a notarized letter from the parents that outlines permission to travel and arrangements for medical care. Tuck away in your wallet the insurance cards and prescription cards; the names and numbers for the children's pediatrician, dentist and orthodontist; information about drug allergies; and any other important medical information for each child. If the children are on medication, be sure you thoroughly understand how and when to administer the medication; get those instructions in writing. Don't forget the first-aid kit (a key to the RV bathroom might be a good idea, too).

The rewards
We have taken road trips with the grandkids whose destinations have included visits to art galleries, museums, forts and water parks. We have been fishing, taken boat rides down rivers, enjoyed baseball games (one of our personal favorites), historic districts, great restaurants and not-so-great restaurants. We have gone to beaches, campgrounds, islands and zoos. We have played in playgrounds, climbed trees, hiked in the woods, sat under giant oaks and around campfires. Road trips with grandchildren are extraordinary adventures, not for the places visited or the roads traveled, but for the journeys with the kids. Give it a try. I promise you will not regret it.

Anne Sponholtz
(Links updated 11/28/22, RTA)