Back in the early 1990s, when gas prices hovered around an inflation-adjusted average of $2.25 per gallon (according to The Motley Fool), my family took advantage of low fuel prices by going on amazing road trips. The memories I have from those trips are some of the most vivid of my childhood, and I strongly encourage a road trip on any occasion when gas prices dip.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out one of the following locations, particularly the ones that are nearest to your corner of the country. Each of these has ample opportunities for free or low-cost sightseeing and camping. The sights and sounds of American roads will not disappoint your family – and they certainly won’t disappoint your pocketbook.
The key to saving money on a road trip is to find a stunning stretch of highway that’s close to your home. Remember too that road trips are most affordable when most of your expenses are related to the car. It’s easy for well-intentioned road trippers to bust their budget on hotels, restaurants, and attractions. So keep it short and simple, and focus on the scenery, rather than the costly attractions.
Road Trip Destinations for Every Corner of America
1. Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon
Hop on the 74-mile Columbia River Highway just outside of Portland, Oregon, and prepare to see stunning waterfalls, rivers, bridges, and mountains as your travel along the Columbia River Gorge. Most of the historic route follows U.S. Route 30 and Oregon Route 35, though a portion now runs concurrent with I-84 between Portland and The Dalles. You can complete the 48-mile road trip from Portland to the Hood River in just a day, or extend it to two days by staying overnight at a lodge or campsite.
You can see an astonishing amount of wildlife as you look over the vistas, and be sure to stop at free attractions like Multnomah and Horsetail Falls. Consider staying overnight at Brickhaven Bed & Breakfast in Corbett for $100 per night, or camp at Lewis and Clark RV Park and Campground for just $25 per night.
2. Historic Route 66 in Middle America
The quintessential American road trip typically includes an adventure on the remainders of the historic Route 66. From 1926 to 1985, Route 66 snaked its way nearly 2,500 miles from Chicago, Illinois through Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending in Los Angeles, California. Today, markers bearing the “Historic Route 66” emblem line the current roads and highways where 66 once passed.
If you’re ambitious, you can certainly travel the whole stretch of highway, following the historic road wherever current routes allow, but it’s also possible to travel just a few hundred miles down Route 66 as it passes through your home state. Just try to bookend the trip with two of the route’s famous destinations, such as St. Louis, Missouri or Flagstaff, Arizona.
Many vacationers contend that the best stretch of Route 66 is in New Mexico and Arizona, where quirky Americana and history collide. Check out El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico for $100 and up per night, or spend a night camping in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona for $20 per night. Set aside at least three days for a shortened version of Route 66, or a full week if you’re ambitious enough to take on the whole highway.
3. Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire
If you’re feeling daring, head to the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire. The seven-and-a-half-mile road to the peak of Mount Washington averages a 12% grade, and the mountain is known for rapidly changing weather and cloud patterns which make for breathtaking sky views. The road requires payment to enter, so prepare to spend at least $28 for the right to drive when weather permits. You must complete this trip in just one day, as there are no overnight stays available on the road.
Once you make it back to the bottom of the mountain, you can stay at the Top Notch Inn for $69 and up per night, or at the Passaconaway Campground near Conway, New Hampshire, for $22 per night (first come, first served). However, you can only book stays at these locations between May and October due to the area’s inclement winter weather.
If you are still interested in checking out the Mount Washington Auto Road during the winter months, you can ride to the top of the peak by hopping on a Mount Washington SnowCoach for $49 per ticket. Self-drivers are not permitted during the winter months.
4. Route 100 in Vermont
Route 100 is a popular New England tourist destination, linking many of Vermont’s great skiing destinations. Even if skiing isn’t your sport of choice, Route 100 is full of sights year-round, including stunning foliage in the fall, the bright colors of spring flowers, and stops at farms, lakes, and camping destinations.
As you make the trip through the Green Mountains, you can stay at a Gifford Woods State Park campsite in Killington for as little as $20 per night. The campsites are only open between May and October, so plan accordingly.
5. U.S. Route 1 in Florida
Stretching from Maine all the way down to the Florida Keys, historic U.S. Route 1 offers many opportunities for adventure. If you find yourself in Florida, do yourself a favor by riding the highway from the northernmost coast of Florida to the Keys. The entire trip is 545 miles, so spread it out over two to three days of driving.
During the trip, you can enjoy exquisite coastline views, and an extended trip over the ocean itself as you make your way to the Keys. If you make it all the way to Key West, you can save a lot of money by renting a campsite at Leo’s Campground for $39 to $75 per night.
6. Black River National Forest Scenic Byway in Michigan
Check out the portion of County Road 513 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called the Black River National Forest Scenic Byway. It began as a wagon trail in the 1800s, but now offers a stunning opportunity to view the Ottawa National Forest and multiple waterfalls. It’s only a few miles long too, so you can make it a day trip with lots of stops at ski resorts, swimming holes, waterfalls, and hiking destinations.
If you need a place to crash at night, you can’t go wrong with a stay at the Big Powderhorn Lodging Association in Bessemer, Michigan, for $95 and up per night. During the summer, it’s reasonable to try a night of camping at the Black River Harbor Scenic Parkway & Campground for just $14 per night.
7. Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California
You can travel the majority of the length of California on State Route 1, but if you’re limited on time, make sure to check out the stretch of highway between Monterey and Big Sur. You’ll have an opportunity to see sea lions, go whale watching, and enjoy the best lookout points America has to offer, such as the Bixby Bridge or Point Sur and the Point Sur Lighthouse.
This stretch of the highway is only 24 miles long, so you could easily complete it in a day. However, it’s best to savor the lookout points and extend the trip to at least three days. Stay at Saddle Mountain Ranch in Carmel for tent sites that start at $40 per night during the peak summer season.
8. Hana Highway in Hawaii
Hawaii clearly isn’t the most budget-friendly destination in the United States. However, if you’re already on the island of Maui, you simply must make the drive to Hana. You’ll spiral through dense rainforests and stare down ominous ravines during your travel.
The whole trip takes less than a day, unless you decide to spend the night camping at Haleakala National Park in the Kipahulu District of the park. The site is free, though you must pay the $10 park entrance fee.
9. Arkansas Highway 7 Scenic Byway
If you’ve never been to Arkansas, you’re in for a surprising treat. This scenic byway is a 290-mile stretch of Highway 7 that takes only one to two days to travel as it winds you through four of the state’s varied regions past pine and hardwood forests, rivers, and rolling hills. Check out the friendly small towns when you need a break from viewing the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests, which are particularly beautiful in the fall and spring.
Be sure to stop at Knollwood Lodge in Hot Springs to rest and recover in a cottage setting at night. The cabins start at $120 per night during the peak season of May 15th through September 15th. If that’s too expensive for your budget, stay at the Hot Springs National Park KOA. Tent sites start at just under $25 per night during the winter, and at $28.50 on weeknights during the peak summer season ($32.50 on summer weekends).
Additional Road Trip Cost-Saving Ideas
Once you’ve found a destination that piques your interest, implement the following ideas for cost-saving on the road.
1. Go Camping
A night in a modest hotel will set you back $100, but a family-sized campsite might only cost $15 to $30 per night. Of course, prices vary by location, but you’ll likely save a significant amount of money if you opt for occasional camping rather than exclusively staying in hotels.
This option makes the most sense if you already own camping gear, since tents and sleeping bags are expensive. If you don’t already own camping supplies, ask a friend if you can borrow his or her tent for the week to avoid the steep upfront cost. Alternatively, you can rent camping equipment from outdoor stores such as REI, though prices and equipment vary by location.
2. Pack Food When Possible
You may need to stop at a restaurant or fast food joint from time to time, but don’t underestimate the benefits of bringing a cooler full of food on your road trip. Load up on high-energy snack foods such as trail mix, meal staples like sandwich fixings and fruit, and plenty of beverages. Even if you regularly have to buy ice to keep your perishables cool, the $2 cost per bag pales in comparison to the price of feeding a family of four at a restaurant or convenience store.
3. Locate Free and Affordable Attractions
Stay away from expensive attractions such as theme parks, and instead enjoy affordable attractions that can entertain your whole family for an entire day, such as a national park, a swimming hole, or a museum. Many towns also have a variety of free attractions – do your research on a state or city tourism website in advance so you don’t find yourself spending money to make up for your lack of planning.
4. Stay With Family or Friends
Even if you only stay with a family member or friend for one night of your road trip, it can represent significant cost savings over staying in a hotel. You could save up to $250 in one night, which can be applied toward additional attractions or days on the road. Not only that, but the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends is one of the great benefits of road-tripping. Just be sure to return the favor when they travel out your way.
5. Encourage Your Children to Stick to a Budget
If you are bringing your children on the road trip, encourage them to spend wisely. Give each child a set amount of cash before you leave home, and explain that they can spend the money however they like while on the trip. But when the money is gone, it’s gone – this helps your children understand money management, and it prevents you from busting your travel fund on souvenirs.
Vacations aren’t just a luxury for people with a lot of disposable income. The great variety of American geography and topography provides a view of every imaginable landscape, from mountains, to oceans, for everyone who has the means to travel by car.
If you’re still overwhelmed by the prospect of paying for a vacation, even when gas prices are reasonable, consider driving somewhere just an hour or two outside of your hometown. Sometimes, the mere act of escaping concrete and city lights is enough to make your spirits soar.
Where is your favorite road trip destination?