Travel Tips

Families Travel! A mom to 15 kids tells you how she travels

Sarah Reese is a 36-year-old Bellingham mom to 15 kids. And she loves family travel. Yes, you read those two sentences correctly.

Sarah was a single mom to just one child when she met her husband Robert, who was a single father to four children. Like a Super Brady Bunch, the duo combined their children, then adopted foster kids and Haitian orphans. Eleven children live at home; four are grown and have moved out.

She blogs (beautifully and with vulnerability) about her journey and parenting struggles at Mom to 15. Many of Reese’s children have special needs – physical, medical or psychological. Seriously, her blog sucks me in. I admire her ability to parent with such reflection and compassion. She also takes excellent photos (the photo below is in Pioneer Park, in Ferndale, Washington). It’s difficult to get that many kids arranged and smiling!

“We’ve found that travel and having adventures is what brings us all together,” Sarah says.

So as you can imagine, Sarah knows a lot about how to travel as a larger family, how to save money on trips and why travel is so important for families. Let’s discover how she does it:

1. Where have you gone recently?

The most recent trips have been overnights to Seattle. We often try to combine Children’s Hospital appointments with adventures in Seattle. Typically we have all the little children plus a few bigger ones with us too.

Last summer we did several local camping trips, including Olympic National Park, Vancouver Island (including Victoria) and the North Oregon Coast. On the Oregon Coast, we were with another family who had five children. It was a wild time!

2. What’s your family’s biggest challenge while traveling?

The amount of “stuff” that it takes for our family to travel, especially when we are camping. It’s difficult to not over pack and I am someone who always likes to be prepared. Now we have a good system down for camping and we typically make a list of each item and where it is; which bag, which container, and so on.

3. How do you save money when staying in hotels?

When we stay at hotels we typically stick to two brands: Marriott Residence Inn or Embassy Suites. The Marriott Residence Inn has a “penthouse” suite that we can get for less than two hotel rooms. It has two bedrooms and a fold out sofa. It has a full sized kitchen so we are able to stay on budget with food costs. Both hotels have free breakfast and swimming pools.

Embassy Suites we love because they have a room with a living room area that has a fridge and microwave. We do get two rooms but it’s almost like having four, because of the way that its set up.

If we have to stay outside of these two options we always call ahead to the hotels and let them know how many children we have and see if they have connecting rooms or can guarantee side by side rooms so there are no surprises.

We also always have extra sleeping bags and single air mattresses in the van in case we need to have an extra bed for someone on the floor.

We participate in reward programs, and use AAA or other discounts we can find online. We also always keep our options open to staying at a KOA or renting a cabin or home from

We’d love to house swap, and have offered several times. Yet no one is taking us up on our offer- might be the family size!

4. How do you save money on food expenses when traveling?

We have half a family of vegetarians and several picky little eaters. This is how we save the most money — by not eating out.

We do try on each trip to have one meal out where we go someplace local and have the experience and the great food! In Victoria, BC, we had fish and chips on the water at a popular place and it was a hefty price, but well worth the experience.

I know that this doesn’t sound luxurious, but spreading out paper towels on the dashboard and laying down PB & J’s works just fine with us. Saving our money for great locally made ice cream or other indulgences is much more rewarding then going through a drive through each time.

We also try to bake muffins and other things so that we have them in the car for snacks and meals on the go. We pack fresh fruit and cut up vegetables and take a huge cooler that we restock on the road.

We also sometimes order pizza and have that in our hotel room or even heat up something in the hotel microwave. Our children are just as happy eating some cheese and crackers with fruit salad for dinner as anything else.

5. How about on things to do; how do you save money on activities?

We did our research and bought family memberships at many big places like the Seattle Aquarium, Pacific Science Center, The Seattle Children’s Museum, and so on. We bought the memberships specifically because they have reciprocal programs in many other places. We try to utilize them as often as we can.(Read more about reciprocal memberships)

We also divide and conquer. We split up and go to the activities that are really important to us. We would rather split up and give everyone the chance to do the things that they really want to do instead of paying entrance fees for everyone even though certain children are indifferent about going.

We also do our research ahead of time on Tripadvisor and other websites so we can see what other people recommend for visiting. We try to go to as many “free” places as possible. We use local swimming pools and recreation facilities if they are unique. We attend free events and try to avoid big theme parks and other money sucking places.

Each of the children typically have their own money saved ahead of time to spend on something for themselves but we don’t go overboard with buying things or shopping on vacations.

6. So many people give up traveling after they have kids. What do you think?

Travel is what keeps life exciting! Living in such a wonderful area of the world (Pacific Northwest) is certainly a blessing that we should all be taking advantage of. There are so many options for travel of any size family on size of a budget.

The longest trip that we have taken as a family was two months long. My husband was working from home at the time and was able to work on the road.

The farthest trip was across the country – yes — with all of our children. Once your family gets into a good routine of traveling the whole concept becomes second nature to the kids.

I would suggest for families who are able to travel outside of the busiest travel times to do so. It’s been incredible being able to go places that are popular and save a ton of money and have free reign because the crowds are non-existent.

Next Monday, for part two of this interview, we’ll find out what Sarah thought of her trip to Harrison Hot Springs in British Columbia.

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.