Switzerland Report, Plus 6 Last-Minute Roadtrip Tips

The whole family felt like our last minute trip to Switzerland was even better than expected. So we’ve been analyzing what made it so good, and wondering if we can replicate the experience in the future. Here are some of our tips for last-minute road trips (most are just reminders to me personally : ), plus a report on favorite activities in Switzerland.

1) Embrace the Spontaneity.
I arrived home from my trip to New York City on a Saturday afternoon. While I had just had an adventure, I could see the rest of the family was itching for one too. My first instinct was to take a long, long nap. Then evaluate where we were laundry wise. Then run an errand or two for road trip snacks. And turn the whole thing — if we did it at all — into a carefully orchestrated event.

But I could easily predict that if I even took step one (the nap), I’d wake up with the realization that I was behind on work, that the house could use a good cleaning, etc., and this trip wouldn’t be happening.

So we just went for it. I said this to myself: This is not a life or death situation. No one is going to starve. If we’re not having a good time, we’ll come home. Thirty minutes later, we were packed and on the road.

2) Don’t overpack.
Because I wasn’t working with a plan, it was tempting to overpack. Since I didn’t know our itinerary, I wanted to throw in extra clothes and items for every possibility. But again, if I had let myself get bogged down in the packing, I would have become discouraged and cancelled. Some of the kids had clean laundry, others not so much. We packed underwear, socks, and a couple of changes of clothes. Everyone had a couple of summery outfits plus one long-sleeve shirt, one pair of pants, a jacket, one set of pajamas, and a swimsuit.

We knew we’d do some laundry once we arrived. We also knew we’d probably forget a few things (we did). But it was worth it, in order to pack quickly, get out of the house and get going.

3) Use Your Time on the Road to Find a Place to Stay.
Finding a place to stay is always the biggest challenge for our big family. When planning a trip in advance, we can spend hours on this sort of thing. There are so many possibilities! Searching out the coolest apartment on Airbnb or VRBO. Finding a hotel with all the perfect amenities. Trying out a famous campground. And finding the best option in our budget. It’s so hard to make a decision!

But this time, we used the pressure of having-nowhere-to-sleep-that-night(!) to make decisions quickly. We discussed the housing priority for this trip. Was it budget? Access to a swimming pool for the kids? The coolest neighborhood? And decided the #1 priority was reliable internet — because we planned to work on this trip.

During the drive, we booked a hotel for Paris that night — nothing glamorous, and not a super hip location (it was across the street from Montparnasse station). But it was new and clean and not too expensive. We also booked 3 nights in Bern at the same hotel chain. Done and done.

4) Use Your Resources.
We also used our road trip time to access our resources. We read up on Switzerland in the Rick Steves’ books (he’s our favorite source). And we read excellent suggestions from readers (thank you!). Rick Steves recommended a visit to relatively unknown Gimmelwald, and it was a huge highlight. Readers recommended a swim in the Aare River and that was my favorite thing of all. We didn’t have time to do everything that was recommended, but hey, now we have a great excuse to go back. : )

Once we arrived at the hotel, we also asked a million questions of the hotel staff. Where should we eat? Where’s the road to Interlaken? When is the breakfast buffet the least busy?

If you’re headed to Switzerland, these are the don’t miss things we’d recommend from our visit, as pictured in our photos:

– Exploring Old Town in Bern.

– Swimming in the River Aare. It runs through the city of Bern and is clean and blue. Gorgeous!

– Hiking in Gimmelwald. With a stop to buy milk and cheese from a local resident.

– Swimming in Burgseeli Lake (right outside of Interlaken) with platforms to jump from!

5) Stay Flexible.
We’ve had hiccups on every one of our trips, and this one was no exception. When we arrived in Paris, to a bit of a chilly evening, we realized Oscar and Betty’s jackets hadn’t made it into the car. We borrowed sweaters and spare scarves from siblings and made do. When we got to Bern we did a little shopping and picked up hoodies for each of them.

6) Keep it short.
For us, part of leaving in a hurry meant leaving things undone. Food in the fridge that should have been cleaned out. Wastebaskets that should have been emptied before a trip. But knowing we would be home in a few days was calming. The mess would wait for us. The mail wouldn’t be stacked too high when we arrived home. The plants wouldn’t dry out during such a short trip.

Even short trips can be epic!

Overall, it was a fantastic experience, and definitely made me feel more open-minded about last-minute adventures. On the drive home, we couldn’t help but daydream about all the locations that are within a 9-10 hour drive from our house. Denmark, Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, England, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and other parts of France… makes me itch to see every inch of every where.

I’ll bet there are lots of adventures within 10 hours of your house too!

How about you? Have you ever taken a truly last-minute trip? Drove away not knowing where you’d stay that night? Was it scary or exhilarating or both?

P.S. — Want to see more pics? I uploaded a bunch to flickr (and added notes too!).

60 thoughts on “Switzerland Report, Plus 6 Last-Minute Roadtrip Tips”

  1. Yes! We love last minute road trips! They are so exciting and feel daring! I think the most important thing about them was one of your first tips- to remember that if it’s no fun, you can always turn around! But it rarely is never any fun. I mean really, just getting out and seeing somewhere new is always a treat. And Switzerland?!? Holy smokes- that is EPIC!

    1. It’s true, we are in an unusually epic location. Everything in Europe is so close! But I think about moving back to Colorado and I still have lots of adventures come to mind. National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Arches, Mount Rushmore (I’ve never seen it), Even Las Vegas! I hope we’ll feel as adventurous when we return to the states. We’ll see…

      1. We lived in Germany for nearly two years. We were supposed to be there four years, but ended up coming back early. Somedays I’m so sad because I know how much amazing stuff we left behind to move back to our small town, but then I remember how much amazing stuff is right in our backyard (we live in a suburb of Ottawa, ON.) We try to get out and explore at least once a month or so. Wish I’d known about this blog when I lived there…we could have met for a coffee in Paris!

  2. Yes! I thought with three children we would have to plan everything a lot better – turns out (as you have proved) spontaneity is always fun and we have always (touch wood) found somewhere to stay.

  3. I wish I would have known about the river swimming! We hiked in Gimmelwald pre-kids and had one of the loveliest days in our 10+ summers in Europe. We spent the evening in Interlaken watching the France-Switzerland soccer match. Good fun. We were a bit too spontaneous, counting on finding some place to stay that night as we drove back towards France…and we drove and drove and finally found something after 3 am when were were passing out from exhaustion. We considered just sleeping in the car at a rest stop, but I was pregnant and had to pee every hour or two, and the thought of having to get out of the car, go into the rest stop bathroom, ad infinitum, just didn’t appeal to me!

  4. Thank you so much for the tips. Keep them coming. I often wonder, how do other big families do it? I know how much work it is traveling with 6 kids, but you guys make it look fun, which is a great inspiration to me. Can’t wait for your next destination. If I may throw out some suggestions, try Ireland or Croatia next. You will not regret it.

  5. That sounds amazing. We have 3 younger children and have always over-thought vacations, thinking that they need to cost a ton of money and be a huge hassle so we stopped going. Then this summer we went with my sister-in-law last minute to a beautiful camp ground about 3-4 hours away with hot springs and hiking a fun places near by, and loved it. I’ve decided that I am in love with simple, sometimes last-minute vacations, and I can’t wait to explore everything that is a reasonable drive around us. Too bad Switzerland isn’t a quick drive away from the states. :)

  6. I love how you are living proof that children can add not take away from the fun and adventure in your life. Too many people use their children as excuses for not doing things.

    1. Agreed. I often packed my son and I up and went to various cities when he was little…we still laugh about and recall fondly these times:) An aside: Funny that we were so impressed with a room service cheese platter…I HAD to recreate that at home for weeks after:) I’m learning too now that unplanned getaways or small adventures are really best ♥

  7. First…this makes me want to go to Switzerland, and second, if you can do a last minute trip with your size of family…well then just about anyone can. I think being flexible is key. Some of our best adventures were the ones with the lowest expectations. My kids seem to think a vacation means luxury hotel and beach…I love an adventure. One of our best trips was the Grand Canyon…less than 8 hours from our house when we lied in Southern CA and yet so many people in CA have never been. We had the best time. And it snowed while we were at the canyon. We are back in the NY metro area and with a few long weekends coming up…this is getting me thinking….thanks!!

  8. Your photos remind me of our year living abroad in Zürich with our 3 kids. We hopped on the trains nearly every weekend to visit all the amazing places in Switzerland. There is nothing like running through the fountains in the old city of Bern when it’s a hot summer day. We had wonderful trips to Gimmelwald, Basel, Luzern, Gruyeres, and the Engadine region as well as other places throughout Europe.

  9. Oh Gabrielle, This might be my most favorite post of yours ever and I’ve pretty much read them all for years. What awesome spontaneity. I’m in awe that with your large family you are able to seize the moment and just “go”. Truly inspiring. Great suggestions for letting go of the details. I hope you manage to see each of those 10 hour from your home corners of the world!!

  10. I read this and was so happy for you but down on myself. We almost made a last minute trip to Charlotte, NC last weekend to see friends. About a 10 hour drive, but because of dirty laundry and such it never happened. And now what am I regretting–most of that dirty laundry is still dirty and we don’t have an adventure to show for it. Way to go for you!

  11. Unfortunately, the only “drop everything & go” trips I’ve ever taken were related to getting bad phone calls about my Dad’s cancer a few years ago. My worst mistake ever was leaving a ziplock of frozen tilapia in the kitchen sink (which was going to be dinner!). The aroma in my house when we got home more than a week later was just mindblowing. And my in-laws had supposedly checked on things…..hmmmm. I think I’ll always check the garbage & fridge (& sink!) if we get up and go ever again!

  12. Ha! I sent the link about your last minute trip last week to a girlfriend of mine w/ the subject line “She’s not human”. She wrote back that it was all a sham, you were really in your jammies, at home, surfing facebook while the children ran around unattended to. I just shook my head and responded, “No, you don’t know Design Mom, she did it”. : )

  13. When I was on an externship in Ft. Lauderdale, I had gone snorkeling with a friend in one of the keys closest to the mainland. After snorkeling, my friend asked if I wanted to keep going all the way to Key West about 3 hours away. We had no change of clothes or anything, but I was game. Since it was already getting dark and this was in the days before smartphones, we started to look for a place to stay by driving up and hopping out of the car. Unfortunately, all the ones we stopped at were full and soon we realized we were being tailed by another car also looking for a room. It became a race. We stayed ahead for a while, but when the car tailing us finally beat us to a hotel and snapped up the last room, we took it to be a sign and gave up and went back home. Never made it to Key West.

  14. When we lived in NYC quick road trips were so much fun. You could go tons of places in a few short hours. Do you know what is ten hours away in Texas? More of Texas. Seriously if you want to leave the state it’s at least a days drive from here. It can be hard for a traveler like me to take sometimes.
    On a side note I hope you go to Denmark! It’s one of the places I’ve always wanted to go. My family is from Denmark in fact my maiden name comes from the name of a city there were all our people come from so I’d love to see what it was like someday.

    1. Haha, Candice – I was thinking the same thing (I live in Dallas). I mean, I guess I could go to Nebraska? :P Nah, I’m sure there are some gems out there. And if nothing else, there are cheap flights and rental cars, amiright?

      Gabrielle – I loooove this post! I think I’ve mentioned this before, but your site is the only thing I’ve ever seen that makes having kids seem….possible. You really are an inspiration! Also, Rick Steves is my guilty pleasure. I heard him speak when he was touring with his last book. He really is an interesting guy (even if he is a taaaad dorky ;) )!

      For both of you, you must go to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. MUST! (And I’d say go in that order too.)

  15. I think last minute trips are the best! I agree with you that it’s worth getting out of the house & on your way, even if it means you may have left a few things undone at home or forgotten a sweater or two. A few hiccups & wrinkles make things a bit more interesting & in the end, the most important thing is getting out and experiencing it all.

    I took my 4 kids camping this weekend (by myself–my husband is in the military) & it was a bit spontaneous & not as well planned out as it could have been, but in the end it didn’t matter. We had lots of fun & enjoyed being up in the mountains.

    (such beautiful pics, btw.)

  16. I’m so happy you had a great time here in Switzerland. This makes me want to go to Gimmelwald – I’ve never even heard of it before you mentioned it – and it’s only a couple of hours from my house! If you ever fancy coming back to Bern make sure you come and visit us on our little farm just outside of Bern :-)

  17. That sounds great! Once, when I was a kid, my mom took me and my sister on a short-notice trip to Boston for the Fourth of July. It was great to see the place where she grew up, and I loved the city. I have to second the idea of going to Denmark (I have family from Odense), but would also totally recommend Vienna if you get the chance! There are so many great things to see.

  18. Love this post, but I always wonder when I read about your adventures: how do you make it through the long car trips? Any tips specifically related to the drive? Do you usually drive through the night, or are your kids just supernaturally well-behaved in the car?!?

    1. I should write a whole post on this, but the basic story is:

      1) We try not to drive more than 6 hours in a day. For two reasons: a) that’s about as long as my kids can manage, and b) we typically have to work, so we can’t be in the car all day. For this trip we broke up the nine-hour drive with a night in Paris.

      2) When we are in the car, we are very dependent on technology. iPad, Kindle, iPods, etc. We also bring pillows to help with napping. Plus a bag of snacks — something new gets passed around every hour or so, and water bottles.

  19. hi gabrielle, your stories remind me a little of my childhood. we were 6 kids and every 2nd year we made vacations in italy (living in Vienna). the first years we “only” went to the northern adriatic coast, but when we were older we went further to around San Benedetto. but since my aunt is living in Ischia (the beautiful island next to Capri in the golf of Naples), we even went there by car! these travels count to my most precious childhood memories (even if they were not last minute but eagerly awaited!) but i still can´t imagine how my parents did this. maybe they were much cooler and less complicated than us today… i have 3 little kids now and i don´t dare to go to a more than 2 hours road trip. and i at least need a day to pack things and end up with a pile of things i don´t really need.
    so i take your advice and try to be more spontaneous!
    one tip for you:
    you have to come to Vienna, it is not only great place for itself but also a good starting point for trips to Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, even Venice, Krakow etc…
    liebe grüße

    1. PS. We had lots of guide books with us to find where we were sleeping every night, but pretty much decided each day where we’d end up that night. It’s nice to be spontaneous but at times I thought it would have been easier to do all that boring bit in advance… but then we wouldn’t have been able to stay a few extra nights in our favourite place!

  20. Great post – I LOVE spontaneous adventure, but with 4 young kids it hasn’t happened so much lately. Having just moved back from Morocco (where daily living was an adventure) to a village about an hour from London, I have used frequent last minute trips to the city to fill my adventure needs. We jumped in the car at a moment’s notice (often despite the pouring rain) to see the Jubilee parade, jazz concerts on Sunday nights, and of course as much Olympic fever as we could get. We have not “travelled” at all this summer, which for our family is a new thing – but I can honestly say it was one of best summers yet. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes seizing the moment can be just as fun with smaller and closer adventures – but you have inspired me to go a bit further now too!

  21. We just did a last-minute week-long trip to Seattle (booked tickets the night before we flew out), and it ended up being wonderful. The Internet is so helpful because you can get on-the-go recommendations for places to eat and things to do. I loved it!

  22. sounds amazing! i would love to spend time in switzerland. it’s hard to go anywhere from the middle of texas, which is where i am, but we do manage fun little roadtrips now and then.

  23. wow, that is amazing. what a great experience for your kids. just wow.
    When my husband and I traveled in Australia several years ago (pre-kids), we traveled with a friend from there who’s very spontaneous. As a result, we only booked accommodations for the very beginning and very end of the trip. I was kind of freaked out, but it actually worked out fantastically because we weren’t tied to an agenda. A learning experience for me!

  24. 9-10 hour drive? All of those places…DO it. Do every single trip, rejoice in it, and know that a tiny part of me goes with you when I read your after-telling. You are so lucky and blessed!!!

    But deserving since your goodness seems to precede you and your lovely family. How long are you staying in France, btw? Makes me want to up and go somewhere while my kids are young and pliable.

  25. thanks, this is so inspiring!

    one of the things on my list (though not a road trip for us sadly!) is family biking trip in denmark!

  26. I am so impressed – packing for 8 people and in the car in 1/2 hour wow! I love the idea of a spontaneous trip. and now, when they are little, is definitely the time to do it. My 2 sons, 18 & 21, are beginning their lives and it’s so hard to coordinate our schedules. But when we do, we really have a good time.

  27. Gabrielle, I love this: “If we’re not having a good time, we’ll come home.” So simple, but it’s so true! And you’re right, there will always be messes to clean, but how often do you get to road trip to Switzerland? Awesome. :-)

  28. So fantastic!!! You are definitely inspiring me to be more spontaneous! I just love traveling, but also usually get bogged down in what we call “optimizing” at our house (researching every possible thing to try to make it *perfect*). You have surely proven that what happens spontaneously can be perfect, too :)!

  29. Only you can get 6 kids and 2 adults out of the house ready for a trip in half an hour. Seriously, how do you do it? I need more than half an hour planning what to pack for myself for a weekend trip, huh. I wish my parents had been more adventurous when we were young. Your kids will have so many memories and will probably do the same when they grow up.
    Happy fall and more adventures :)

  30. My husband and I (right now, it’s just the two of us) love to fly by the seat of our pants! Last December we flew to Paris, arrived in the morning and drove straight to the Normandy region. We spent the day exploring Rouen and booked a room at a Chateau in that region mere hours before checking in. We came to find out how close we were cutting it. Most accommodations in the area had closed for the season. Chateau d’Audrieu, where we stayed was shutting down the next day. Right after breakfast, the staff kindly came to our room to help us out! They were ready to start their holiday! it can be fun, but sometimes a plan is good too. Either way, a good attitude and flexibility makes for the best adventures!

  31. That first photo is so Sound of Music – I love it! For us (or maybe, for my husband), it’s the lodging piece that takes the most time. Your idea of finding a place on the way sounds exciting/scary to me, but I wonder if it would just sound scary to him. :)

  32. So pleased you enjoyed your spontaneous visit to Switzerland.
    I have lived here since I was 8, first in Geneva, then eastern Switzerland, and still haven’t seen a lot of places (or not often enough or not in enough detail) – and the whole country is only 3hrs drive in all dirctions from border to border… that’s in 39 years! (Though of course I’ve seen a lot of the rest of Europr, too, between my family in England and our house in Brittany!)

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