What comes to mind when you think family road trip? For me, it’s squabbling kids and things going wrong – the things that TV shows are made of.

What if I told you road trips could be awesome with a bit of prep work? With trepidation, we broke in our first minivan by taking our seven-, four-, and one-year-old on a road trip from Calgary to Vancouver Island. I was surprised at the amazing family memory it has become.

Unlike our pre-kid days, we couldn’t just jump in the car and see where the wind took us. Despite our mutual spontaneous personalities, we knew this trip would take some work before hand. If you’re considering hitting the open road for a family adventure here are the things that worked for us.

1 | Take your time getting there

We knew with three kids under eight things never go as planned. We decided to incorporate travel time as part of the adventure. We planned for one week at our destination and one week of travel time stopping for a three-day visit with the family on the way.

The hotel pool slides remain one of the trips biggest highlights for the kids. I’m not sure what it is with kids and hotel pools but it broke up a long drive and gave them something to look forward to after a long day in the car. We also had the time to stop for picnics, hikes, and even a wolf sanctuary.

2 | Optimize car time

I did so much prep work for this trip I actually bought a laminator. The older kids both had binders with games, coloring and activities. Pinterest supplied an unending stream of games and activities to do in the car. New markers and special snacks set this drive apart from just running errands at home.

3 | Create anticipation

Family discussions centered around our trip for weeks before we went. We watched videos of animals on Vancouver Island and perused the websites of places we wanted to go. We looked at maps, read books about whales and the ocean, and anything else I could relate to the trip. By the time we left, the trip was already special in their minds.

4 | Plan double the activities and places to eat so you can be spontaneous

Some people are planners and I greatly admire them, but my husband and I are more of a “what do you feel like doing today?” sort of couple.

We decided to cater to our personalities, but also the kid’s need to have some structure by loosely planning our days. We made a list of everything we were interested in doing. When we arrived, we checked out the weather, gauged how the kids were feeling and decided what to do each day. We limited ourselves to one big outing each day and planned for downtime to create balance.

5 | Prioritize finances

When we first thought about going to the Island I had in mind sitting on the lawn and relaxing while looking out over the ocean. We looked for places to stay that would feel like a home away from home. We quickly realized that with kids – and considering our budget – that probably wasn’t going to happen.  

We slashed our rental budget in half by staying in a small apartment and planning only to sleep and eat there. This gave us an extra few hundred dollars to pay for admission fees and eating out.

6 | Have a project or theme

Having something to collect tied the trip together for us. My girls knew they were going to do a school project on the trip so everywhere we went they took pamphlets. They also took videos and pictures to create a slideshow to send to their classmates.

My theme was coffee. I Instagrammed all the unique, independent coffee roasters we frequented each morning.

7 | Make it memorable with pictures, videos, souvenirs

We took lots of pictures at each stop along the way. A favorite family activity is still scrolling through the snapshots and remembering the good times we had. We also made room in the budget for meaningful mementos. The stuffed sea otter from the aquarium and tin of tea from our high tea experience still remind us of the trip.

8 | Plan for down time

I know myself and I know my kids. We all get easily overstimulated so I made sure that every day we had some down time, even if that meant coming back to the apartment and watching a movie.

We aimed for one restaurant meal a day, leaving the other to be something like sandwiches at the park. I had realistic expectations of how enjoyable eating at restaurants would be so we ordered in a couple times and just ate at the apartment. I didn’t have to cook, and they didn’t have to behave in a restaurant. Perfect.

9 | Know when to say no

There was so much to see and do and so little time. Although we budgeted a fair amount to activities, we also wanted to stretch that money. There were a few things we would have loved to do but weren’t necessarily something everything in the family would have enjoyed. By saying no we avoided some stressful parenting situations and have a list of things we can look forward to doing when we go back without kids.

10 | Make something to commemorate the trip 

My daughter made a big poster to show all the places we drove, visited, and stayed. It was fun to relive the trip, stopping to contemplate all the cool things we’d seen.

Photobooks are another great way to collect all the memories in one place. They tend to bring up the joy of the trip anytime you pull one off the shelf.

We don’t travel as a family very often, so when we do, I want it to be memorable and meaningful. I knew we succeed with this trip when my daughter asked if we could go again. When I told her we were thinking of Disney Land next time, she responded: “Oh ya, Disney Land would be fun, but I really want to go to Vancouver again!”