Does Anyone Still Take Cross Country Roadtrips?

My family just got back from a month-long road trip in which we spent some quality time with both sets of grandparents, saw a lot of friends, and had the opportunity to appreciate the vastness of this great nation. We traveled exactly 4,500 miles across nine states. I’m hoping to share a few snippets of the adventure with you over the next few weeks, but first I’m curious if anyone still take long trips?

The reason I ask is that we saw surprisingly few out-of-state plates on our trip. I mean, here in my own family, we take multiple international trips each year, but this was the first time my kids had ever been on a long road trip in this country. (We had driven from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia a year ago which is sort of long-ish, but not really.)

And then I realized that aside from moving west prior to getting married, I hadn’t driven across the country — which I’ll define as going from somewhere east of the Mississippi River to somewhere west of the Great Plains — in almost two decades myself.

My childhood was all about road trips

My childhood was spent on the road, not in the air. That’s because my mom was a third grade schoolteacher who had the summers off. And my dad was a self-employed machinist who didn’t hesitate to flip the sign on the door of his shop to CLOSED for weeks at a time, his customers be damned.

Every year we would take off in late June for three or four weeks in my dad’s 1973 Dodge with a pickup camper that he had built himself, seeing America one mile at a time.


My dad’s truck was green and had a club cab, but this will give you an idea of our rig (from Wikimedia Commons)

Mom and dad would have a rough itinerary in mind, but that was about it. They’d get a TripTik from our local AAA office which had a suggested route highlighted in yellow and stamps indicating where road construction was likely taking place. We’d also have a stack of AAA Tourbooks and Campbooks, but otherwise, we’d mostly just see what there was to see.

We started out going east from Ohio when I was really young, but eventually headed west. My parents belonged to a national campground organization where you paid an upfront membership fee and then got unlimited camping for something like a buck a night. So the costs were sort of minimal. And some of the campgrounds were pretty.

Flying used to be rare for me

I didn’t take my first commercial flight until I was twelve. And that’s only because my mom won a McDonald’s “Burger Ballot ’88” promotion. It was designed to mimic the presidential election, except you voted for your favorite burger instead. I vaguely recall her and me stuffing the ballot box while we ate lunch a few times. I think that was my mom’s first commercial flight as well, but apparently they liked it, because we basically did the same trip again two years later on our own dime.

I wouldn’t fly again until I was in college.

I don’t recall my friends’ families flying much either back then. It seemed that everybody where I grew up did some sort of road trip for their vacations, often to the beaches of the Atlantic Coast or to Florida. At least in my middle class family, flying wasn’t even considered. I can hear my dad saying something like, “it’s just not what people like us did back then.”

But even setting cost aside, just booking a plane ticket in those days required a visit or a call to your travel agent. I remember my parents sitting across the desk from our local AAA agent as she typed furiously on her Sabre terminal. You gave her your dates, origin, and destination, and she told you the fare. You could ask him to play with the dates a bit or maybe look at an alternate airport or two, but for the most part you couldn’t sit there for hours searching for a bargain like I do with Google Flights these days. And for all I know, there were no bargains to be had anyway.

I expect that the cost and the hassle of booking airfare made it simply more cost-effective to drive so that’s what people did.

This could all just be my perception. I might be comparing what I observe today as an adult with what I think I remember when I was a kid 30 years. Heck, maybe it was just my family that took long road trips back then too, so nothing has really changed.

Anyway, what do you think? Are fewer people taking cross country road trips than they used to?

Comments

  1. I know plenty of people who prefer to drive over flying for multiple reasons. The economics factor comes in with families of 4 or more where it’s sometimes more cost effective for them to drive than to fly.
    Personally, we have always flown because we all enjoy the airport experience and we accustomed our children to fly from a very young age.

  2. It is not dead, but definitely dying I think. The advent of low cost carriers, primarily Southwest, was the main culprit. That was their business plan, to stimulate flight demand from people who otherwise would drive, rather than try to directly compete with the other airlines for people who were already flying. And the epic road trip was further helped to its deathbed by the continued decrease in leisure time available.
    We just did an epic road trip from Florida to Washington one way about the same distance as yours over 14 days. We were moving, so it was more about getting there with quite a bit of our stuff, rather than sightseeing, but we did manage to fit in some sightseeing too, primarily arches and Yellowstone national parks. All together, twelve states and two provinces. Used points or free night certs for all 6 of us for every night of our trip, including Hilton (quite a few), IHG, Hyatt, Marriott, Choice, and Wyndham. Never found a good spot for club Carlson or SPG points; Hilton was always the better (or only) option. Great opportunity to use all those restricted tier free night certs from Hyatt and Marriott!

  3. Honestly if you’re staying in hotels it costs more to drive basically everywhere and takes valuable time. Especially in Europe. Trains over flying when they have fast speeds available or if its close. Any card ride over a few hours is horrible to me and pointless.

  4. Gas was less than $1/gallon back when I was a kid. I remember we drove all the time too because it was more affordable than flying. The typical dream summer would be a roadtrip to Orlando (this is from NJ) to go to Disney world back in 90s.
    When gas prices rose so much a few years ago, I think that’s when road tripping started to decline. Now that gas prices are lower, I can see how doing roadtrips can work for some families.

  5. A similar question is “How far away does a destination need to be before you fly there?” Growing up outside of Philadelphia, there were places like Boston that we never visited because driving was impractical for a weekend-trip and flying seemed like overkill.

  6. I wonder if our instant gratification society has something to do with it too.

    We used to take the long drive from Pennsylvania to Illinois every summer or every other summer to visit family. I remember spending lots of time lounging in the way back of our station wagons. We’d probably all be in jail today for that.

  7. I would separate people who take road trips and people who drive out of convenience. The latter have definitely reduced because of LCCs and ULCCs. Comparing the convenience and price of flying these days to the lack of convenience and potentially variability of driving during colder months makes it a no-brainer. The road trip lifestyle is a little more complicated in my opinion. I think it’s generational and geographical. I feel like my generation, millennials, are adverse to road trips because we have a destination over journey bias. When I lived in PA I also think many people my age would drive to nearby beaches, but never take extended road trips. Living in CO road trips are much more prevalent with people I know around my age. I wouldn’t say road tripping is dead, but it is more novel than before and depends on where you live, age etc.

  8. Growing up we lived in PA but had grandparents in NY and WA just north of Seattle. My first trip west was 3 days on the train from Philly to Seattle. 5 years later we drove. Six kids plus mom and dad in our unairconditioned Plymouth station wagon. We did Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore. That sense of adventure and exploration is what keeps me traveling the world 55 years later.

  9. I totally agree. I live in Orlando (Florida) and I was looking at some flights when I found that A DIRECT flight from Orlando to Los Angeles cost $89 ($170 roundtrip)! And it wasn’t just on one but on many days on many airlines (such as Frontier, Delta, Jetblue, American, and Virgin America)

  10. My parents were both school teachers, our summers were spent driving to school conferences around the country..this was in the early 1980s. Based in Utah we had easy trips to Monterrey/Carmel, LA (lots of trips to Disney with my Disney-crazed, motorhome driving older Uncle (even getting stranded near Barstow)), San Diego. Later years and especially for longer trips, to Florida, Minnesota, and more NYC, were done flying, typically on Western Airlines. My Mom is from NYC so multiple trips back there for weddings and longer visits to DC, Gettysburg, etc. During college there were lots of driving trips to Vegas, only 5-6 hours away.

    After college I worked in Atlanta for Worldspan. I wasn’t yet accustomed to the flying world and, having grown up in the west, I wasn’t even thinking about flying places…too bad since we had very limited flying privilege on DL, TWA, NWA. There was a college football game in the fall of 2000, in Jacksonville…BYU (my school) vs Fla State. We planned a trip for our first anniversary to include the game and then a few days in St Augustine…driving there. My FSU fan coworkers couldn’t believe that we’d drive THAT far! But it was shorter than getting to Vegas had been in my past so it made sense. But then we never used those flying privs to go anywhere fun like the Caribbean, only to visit family. Oh well, live and learn 🙂

    I’ve had a great life in the car, unfortunately back problems prevent my wife from making similar trips. So now my kids are learning the flying way of travel…

  11. I should also have included the state of driving in my current family.

    We’ve made many SoCal trips driving, with a stop in Vegas (again, for my wife’s sake), but lately it’s just so cheap to fly SLC-LGB that it’s almost not worth driving. 6 of us makes it more costly but a year or two ago we grabbed B6 on that route for $97 RT, couldn’t pass that up. And DL had an award sale on the route, 11k miles RT. We’ve driven to Lincoln NE to help my brother move and multiple driving trips to visit him in Taos NM. And lots of shorter trips, ~4 hours each way, in Utah…lots of outdoors, boating, National Parks, etc.

  12. We definitely did it, every year for years, parents and four kids (I was one of those) and a dog in the 1970s station wagon with the wood sides. We went from coast to coast a few times.

  13. Of course families still drive. Our family of 5 drove to Colorado last Christmas with 3 kids stuffed in the back seat of the sedan. We just got back from a car trip to Florida where we saw many other state license plates. Forget about cheap fares during the holidays. Moreover, you often have to rent a car when you get there. I’d rather spend $450 on RT airfare to southeast Asia. Btw, we’re employing a modified version of your seating strategy on the trans-Pacific UA legs!

  14. I recently took a road trip with my family from Toronto to Chicago to Cleveland to Toronto and was actually quite surprised by the number of different state license plates. We saw cars from Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Virginia, Kansas, Texas and even from Washington state and at least two from California. I think it depends on the type of person. For some people the journey by car is their vacation, for others flying direct to their destination is their ideal vacation.

  15. I think it absolutely has to do with the relative cost of travel. And when you grew up and where you lived. I grew up on the east coast; we’d do occasional day-trips to hike in the mountains, but on the other side of the mountains, there be dragons. When I was a wee little thing, we’d drive up the coast to visit family on major holidays — the reason I detest the CT turnpike with an unreasonable passion. Then when money wasn’t quite as tight, we’d take the train — amtrak didn’t do fare buckets back then, and prices were still pretty cheap in the northeast. Sometimes, there were airline sales for $99 r/t (oh, piedmont, how I miss thee). Now, 20 years later, (ahhh… the fresh breath of deregulation) there are still airline sales for $99 r/t (I suppose even less if you flew NK).

  16. I guess I don’t *technically* do cross-country road trips, since I live smack dab in the center, but my wife and I are still avid road trippers. In fact, we’re probably going to be doing more of them until our tyke is a little older. (Sorry, I know many folks fly with infants and toddlers, but we have zero interest in dealing with the hassle, or dealing with an in-flight meltdown.) I don’t know if I’d call the long road trip a dying breed, but if it is declining, it probably has to do with the proliferation of cheap airfare, which has pushed the cost of flying a family below the break-even point compared to driving. As an example, I can often fly from Dallas to LA for less than $250 roundtrip these days. Even with three tickets, once you factor hotels on the way, food costs, gas, etc., the economics of driving simply aren’t as favorable as they once were.

  17. I’m glad your family gets to travel together in the air and in the car–what a great way to spend time together and create wonderful memories.

    As for the late ’80s there were definitely deals to be had. Southwest used to offer the best value. I remember when they had sales where they sold tickets for $20/segment. You didn’t have to go to a travel agent to book your ticket, you could do so over the phone.

  18. Oh, the memories. Whenever I look back upon my childhood in the 1960s I inevitably focus on one aspect: the yearly drive to visit grouchy old Aunts Inga and Eva Ethel (aka Evil Ethel).

    Every summer, I was crammed into the back of whatever model Ford my dad was driving that year and forcibly hauled from our cool, comfortable home in San Francisco to visit the irritable aunts in miserably hot & humid Chicago.

    Some highlights:

    Dad was a chain smoker. He would puff away on one cigarette after another with the car windows rolled-up due to the air conditioning. It was like riding cross-country in a gas chamber.

    Dad was originally from Denmark. Being a typically thrifty Dane meant that we stayed at the cheapest roadside hovels he could find. A nice, cheerful, clean Holiday Inn was a needless luxury in his eyes. He did try to accommodate me by picking a place that had a pool. Inevitably, the pool would be overly chlorinated and I would spend the night in misery with burning eyes. Oh, and I had to share a double bed with my sister.

    One summer, we drove from SF to Chicago and then down to Florida. We were driving through either Alabama or Mississippi and were in search of a cheap motel. We came across one that had an unlit neon sign saying “colored people rest stop.” I demanded an explanation as to the meaning of that sign and got a very forthright lecture on the history of race relations.

    I could go on with my recollections but this comment is already way too long. Travis is right; the age of the great family road trip is dead. At the time, I really dreaded those trips. Now, I look back upon them with great fondness. They were, indeed, quite a uniquely American cultural experience.

  19. I don’t know if fewer people are taking road trips but I’ve seen a precipitous decline in the number of RVs and similar road-trip type vehicles here in San Diego over the years I’ve lived here. This place still gets invaded in the summertime from tourists, most of whom fly in but a large number drive here from Arizona but I’m not sure that qualifies as much of a road trip.

    We never took road trips of any distance when I was young because our relatives lived 2600 miles away. Most often we would go up the coast of California and camp on the beach for a week or drive to San Francisco or Yosemite. About every other year one parent would take one child on a flight back east to visit relatives but we never made a family trip by air travel due to cost – it was extreme.

  20. Not necessarily dead. We have done the metro New York to south Florida drive several times–over 3000 miles on the minivan round trip. Try flying that with five people around Christmas or New Years or anytime surrounding school vacations. Cost is insane (we used to do it). Then try renting a minivan in south Florida (over several times the cost other times during the rest of the year). If there are irregular opps when you fly during that period, accommodating 5 on completely booked flights is highly problematic. In general, hotels on the journey are cheap, it is a great way to rack up paid nights for status and also a great way to use up that Marriott cat 1-5 voucher. So, totally worth it to us to pack whatever the minivan will hold and save thousands of dollars.

  21. It all depends where you are going. I want to drive to Alaska, but then I think I could do it for free right now. So I have a hard time justifying the drive. Plus time is always an issue and driving just takes more time. We will be road tripping in Spain this week.

  22. I went on a crosscountry trip back in 1980. Two friends, a dog 62 convertible vw van. We spent 3 mos. On the road. In 2 weeks my mom and I are leaving for 3 weeks. Can’t wait! !

  23. Imperator, you should share more memories for those of us (like me) who find them intriguing and amusing. Thanks.

  24. About five years ago we drove from Sacramento to Key West up to New York and bank. It was a good trip will do it again.

  25. Many of the above reasons pertain, but the main one is – who the heck can take two weeks off their job anymore (not to mention have any vacation left for other holidays)? Anything less than two weeks for a driving trip is not worth it. We used to do many as a kid and would love to do one for my daughter. However I’m scarred from years of working for very well known Fortune 100 media companies, where the prevailing ethos is, if we can do without you for two weeks, we can probably do without you permanently.

  26. I mean just why. Look at SFO to jfk

    12 hours of flying versus 90 hours of nonstop driving. With sleep, gas, food etc it’s 144 hours versus 12 and way more pricey.

  27. This article bring flood of memories of road trips. Over 40 years of memories and we are still rolling across the country to this day. My father was from Iowa and living in Oregon, so we went back to the Midwest often. Three weeks vacation was common. Growing up, we always take the long route home, which is the most interesting part of the road trips.

    Road trip are more costly, but memories are priceless.

  28. Two summers ago my wife and I drove from Seattle to San Diego on the PCH. We set up intentionally to do this and it was great. I’m glad we did when we did because it can be hard driving along the cliffs. We flew into Seattle and out from San Diego to our home in Minnesota. The entire trip was 11 days and it was great. We spent two days in Seattle at the start and two days in San Diego at the end…I’d suggest it for anyone.

  29. Take them every year. Sometimes multiple times.

    Just got back from driving the Blue Ridge Parkway + Skyline Drive (technically not cross-country, but it was nearly a week in the car). Not long ago, drove Arkansas to Michigan over a week plus. Previously drove Calgary-to-Calgary to take the Going-to-the-Sun Road and see Banff. Have driven around the outside of Florida, through the Dakotas and Montana, as well as Oklahoma and Kansas – three trips, not one!

    Definitely not as exciting as First Class, Round-the-World trips, but there is plenty to see out there, and people tend to forget. With that in mind, headed to Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong later this year, you know, to balance things out. 🙂

  30. I live in Alaska where the residents here fly more per capita than any other state. We are seeing an increase every year in the amount of motor homes coming up here and cruise ship passengers. Condor And Iceland Air have seasonal flights now to Anchorage.

  31. Yep. I’ve been traveling back and forth across the country throughout the 80s, 90s and into the mid 2000s. Florida to Los Angeles, New Orleans to Las Vegas, a rare trip across the Midwest to New Jersey. But in 2013, my sister and I took our most epic road trip ever, from San Diego to Key West. But I started traveling long term in 2015 and did a lot more flying. Still, I’m hoping to return to Europe and the UK in a month or two, and I want to travel by train as much as possible. I love trains the most.

  32. I dont like long roadtrips, id rather fly somewhere and enjoy the destination, tour around, hassle free. the longest roadtrip ill do is LA to SF and even then im complaining. its just so tiring…

  33. Your post was timely because we are leaving this weekend on a road trip from Seattle to Washington, DC and back. My wife and I thought it would be a good idea to show our 9-year-old son some of the country. Two years ago, we drove to the Bay Area and back and he enjoyed seeing the scenery. We considered flying but decided against it so he could see some places that his friends have talked about (e.g., Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore). He also interested in various wars so we will stop at some battlefields, especially from the Civil War.

    I remember that, when I first traveled to Europe many years ago, I and many of my fellow American travelers promised that we would see more of the U.S. when we returned. I want to make sure that my son doesn’t feel that way when he starts traveling overseas on his own some day.

  34. My wife and I (we live in Thailand) just did Route 66 for the last 2 weeks and a bit from Chicago to LA. Was a great trip! We avoided the highways and enjoyed fantastic views etc.
    What surprised me most, that we were normally alone on the roads. Not a single car for miles…
    Would definately recommend it.

  35. Hey Travis, it’s really cool you’re keeping it real for your kids!
    It’s important for kids to experience the other side, and not end up like entitled prats always flying Business Class. Good on you!

  36. So true. Here in Europe we went by car or – even more oftenly – we took a bus. Two days and two nights from Czech Republic to Spain or Greece – you name it. Of course I mean busses with slightly reclinable seats, no bed, no nights in the hotels. 48 hours on the way.

  37. >12 hours of flying versus 90 hours of nonstop driving. With sleep, gas, food etc it’s 144 hours versus 12 and way more pricey.

    Your math seems to be created at Google. Back in science-land, no matter what route planner you use it’s a 43-47 hour non-stop drive.

  38. The only people I know who do road trips these days are families with schoolteachers who can take 2 weeks or more for a long drive. Mind you, I live in western Canada where distances are vast.

    When I was a kid growing up in the 80s though, flying vacations were pretty rare. My neighbourhood was solid working class where everyone’s dad seemed to work at the gas company, the phone company, the railroad or other types of jobs that paid well even if you didn’t have a degree. Everyone did a flying vacation at least once, but it was exceptional, like the one trip to Disney World, or the big trip to California or whatever. Definitely not an annual event for most kids. The immigrant kids were the only ones I knew who ever flew overseas, they’d go back to Europe or Asia to visit grandparents. It was only 30 years ago but in some ways it was quite a different time.

  39. Assuming this is US focused, we did one last year whilst moving for my wife’s 3-month work assignment 🙂 From NH/NY/MA to Northern CA in around 20 days on a mostly Northern route… then spent a few months there with work, and drove back but doing a more Southern route for a similar time but starting in Southern CA. It was great fun! I made my wife commit to staying in Hilton brands so we could maximise the Diamond status, and get a tonne of points in the process (and save on breakfast).

    We could have flown but we wanted more of an adventure, and we needed the car anyway.

  40. We are retired and regularly take long road trips – by long I mean in the 7-15,000 mile range.

    I wanted to see Alaska so last year drove from Kelowna (near Seattle) to Anchorage. The only way to see the country is to drive through it. I managed to do this as a one-way by selling and ancient Trooper in Anchorage and flying home. Only one road in and out so a repeat trip was not attractive.

    The previous year we drove to Toronto to start a flight to Europe. We travelled through the US to take advantage of cheap gas and accommodation (partial mattress run). We chose a different route each way.

    The previous year we drove to St. Johns, Newfoundland and return. I had worked in St. Johns in the ’70’s but had never driven the Island from Cornerbrook to St. Johns. Great trip.

    The year before we drove from Kelowna to New Orleans in a loop through the NE states and then back through Texas. Another very interesting trip.

    Before that we rented a Toyota mini-camper and toured around Australia for 90 days. Perth – Melbourne – Sydney – Great Barrier Reef – Ularu – Darwin and back to Perth. Won’t do that trip again as there is a lot of nothing between the Western States and Queensland (nullabor etc). But sure was a great opportunity to meet with other travellers at night in the campgrounds so that made it very worthwhile.

    In September we sill rent a car in Warsaw and travel through Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria to see Eastern Europe.

    Unless your trip is exclusively the destination then it does not pay to fly – rent a car – fly – rent a car as you never see all the little towns and scenery between stops.

    So for us the road trip is never dead. But there are some trips that I would not do again. (Lima Peru to Puerto Monte, Chile and return (one long road through the Atacama Desert).

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