Family Road Trip On The Cheap

By Geoff Kirbyson on April 25, 2007
One of the advantages of living in a country as culturally and ethnically diverse as Canada is that every visit to a new city or province can be an eye-opening experience. Some might even call it educational. Of course, parents would be advised to avoid that word, particularly after the final school bell has rung. But how else do you explain the benefits of white water rafting in British Columbia, embracing your inner hippie at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, testing your French in Quebec, trying to figure out which way Niagara Falls is flowing or attending the Calgary Stampede, a week-long event where you stand out if youre NOT wearing your own cowboy hat, boots and hubcap-sized belt buckle?

In order to attend this school without walls, youve got to be able to afford the tuition. It's easier than you might think. It just takes a little planning, some saving and the ability to stifle the words, If you kids dont cut that out well turn the car around RIGHTNOW! . You know you dont mean it.

    Jeanie Dalman, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA ), says the biggest costs youll likely encounter with a summer trip are food, transportation and accommodation. There are, however, ways of reducing all three. She recommends packing a cooler with meals, snacks and drinks so you dont have to stop as often and can avoid regular dining in restaurants. When the cooler runs dry, stock up again with a visit to the nearest grocery store. When combining kids, food, drinks and a cruising speed of 100 kilometers per hour, its only a matter of time until the first spill.

You dont want them eating ice cream cones. Bring dried fruit, crackers or Cheerios so if they do spill things on the floor, it doesnt mean you have to get off the highway quickly, Dalman says. Give kids water to drink during the ride because it doesnt stain seats as do juices and Kool-Aid, and pack food thats easy to vacuum up and doesnt distract the driver if its spilled.

If you want to keep costs to a minimum, drive a vehicle and camp. If making a fire before you eat every night would mean your family would go hungry, try kid-friendly hotels or motels that have pools, water slides and themed rooms. Check your local coupon book, newspapers and the Internet for discounts.

If youre planning on heading south of the border, take your passport. U.S. Customs officials are following new homeland security regulations and wont let you into the country without one, children included. Check out pptc.gc.ca and the U.S.Customs Website: cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg.

Once there, pay for items with cash because credit card companies charge a higher exchange rate than banks. You may be asked for credit card to cover your security deposit at a hotel, but use your debit card when youre checking out.

Janice Tober, manager of media relations and communications at Destination Winnipeg, says driving isnt the only economical travel option. So many families have at least one member who travels for business and collects air travel rewards, so put them towards a family vacation if your company allows you to use them for personal travel. The flights arent completely free because youll still pay taxes on the tickets and airport fees.

Trains are also an excellent way to see the country, especially the Rockies, but the cost can be similar to that of a flight. Thepros of rail travel include not having to drive, particularly at night, or making frequent stops. Everybody, the driver included, can take in the often breathtaking scenery. Some of the cons are that you have to adhere to somebody elses schedule, and if your kids arent great sleepers, the constant clickety-clack can make it difficult to catch some shuteye.

Once youve reached your destination, look for historical sites, where admission is often free or the charge is minimal. Tober says every major city has a central meeting place, such as the Harbourfront in Toronto, which is usually bustling with free activities including great people-watching and listening to live music.

Lori Miller and her family take a multi-week summer road trip every year. From their home in Winnipeg, they usually venture out anywhere from seven to 14 hours away by car to cities such as Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary and Minneapolis.

She and her husband, Ron Mark, are meticulous planners. In the weeks prior to hitting the highway, they collect crafts that can be done together in the car by Alenna, 10, and Grant, seven. They bring along a box of clothespins, too. We hang strings from one end of the car to the other and, as the kids finish their crafts, we hang them on the strings with the clothespins, Miller says. She also visits her local library for books on tape or CD. Theres no cost and the audio keeps the kids interested for 30 minutes or longer. She also packs plenty of sing along music.

Along with their luggage, Miller brings small plastic boxes with handles, one for each child. Inside she puts some of their favourite toys, books, crayons and music (each child has a MP3). Miller also schedules plenty of down time. We dont try to cram in everything or the kids get tired and cranky, she says.

Consider a home exchange. Janice Greenwood-Fraser, travel media specialist at Tourism British Columbia, says more people are realizing you dont have to cross international borders to simply switch house keys with another family. It limits your expenses because both accommodation and vehicles are often exchanged between the two families.

The process is simple. Just visit one or more home exchange Websites, such as homelink.ca or intervac.ca, pay the registration cost to get in their database its usually about $100 and then put the word out that youd like to visit a particular city or wait for somebody in another locale to call on you.

Greenwood-Fraser says home exchanges are on the rise partly because of last years Hollywood hit, The Holiday, starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, and the Internet which has simplified the entire process. If youre looking for a short trip, try travelling during the week because youre more likely to get an attractive package on hotels for a Tuesday through Thursday than on the August long weekend.

To avoid the concrete jungle, rent a cottage. Its pretty economical. The per-night rate is lower if you rent for a full week. Depending on your budget, it might be $100 or less per night, versus $200 and up for a city hotel. Another advantage of a cabin is being able to cook your own meals, although ask about any tricks in using the oven or starting the barbecue. (Cottages are notorious as the place where appliances that can no longer cut it in the city go to live out their final days.)

Whatever you decide to do, involve your children in the travel plans because it helps them to feel part of the process. And get advice from people who have previously done the same trip. Planning makes a family trip so much smoother. You cant just jump in a car with your family and drive as you did when you were 18 with your university buddies. PC


By Geoff Kirbyson| April 25, 2007

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