Is the great American road trip dead?
Rising fuel prices are killing the best vacation ever — or are they?
Cheap airline tickets couldn't do it. Road rage barely made a dent in it. And a two-year pandemic only made us want it more. But now, soaring gas prices are threatening to kill the great American road trip.
Or are they?
The conventional wisdom says, yes, they are. A new survey from research firm Longwoods International suggests that higher prices at the fuel pump are making people rethink their vacations. Specifically, nearly 60 percent of American travelers say rising gas prices will affect their travel plans during the next six months. Only two in 10 travelers say that COVID-19 will influence their decision to travel between now and September.
I hate conventional wisdom because it's so … conventional. And also wrong.
Not only is the American road trip alive and well, but this is the summer to get out there as an absurdly long pandemic winds down. Gas in the U.S. is still affordable compared to the rest of the world, and the American road trip is hands down the best vacation in the world. I’ll tell you why in just a minute.
Where are you driving this summer?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably not going to let high fuel prices get in the way of your next vacation. Where are you headed this summer? And what would make you cancel? Push the red button to leave a comment or scroll all the way to the bottom to join the discussion.
Why we'll never reach a tipping point
The most-cited "evidence" that road trips are roadkill is a new AAA survey that claims at $4 a gallon fuel prices, we'll reach a "tipping point" that prompts a majority of Americans to make "major" lifestyle changes. These include carpooling and cutting back on travel.
But keep reading that survey. It also finds that 52 percent of Americans still have plans to take a vacation this summer. Of those, 42 percent say they would not change their travel plans regardless of gas prices. I have more on the likely effects of the energy crisis in my latest Forbes column.
Why do we want to take a driving vacation this summer?
America loves to drive
More than nine out of ten vacations take place by car, despite what those frequent flier blogs might want you to believe. No, it's not quite as glam as taking a limo to the airport and relaxing in an overpriced lounge before priority boarding, but it is the reality of travel for most of us.
Europe seems too dangerous
Even though Europe is not dangerous — at least the places most Americans visit — there's a perception that it is too close to the Ukraine conflict. Also, people are concerned about lingering COVID restrictions overseas. The result: For an unprecedented third year, most Americans are choosing domestic vacations, a majority of which are — you guessed it! — road trips.
We're done with COVID
It's been a long, long pandemic, and frankly, we are done with it. That's made us defiant about taking a road trip this summer. Read the comments in the Friday Forum if you don't believe me. People are road tripping, no matter how high gas prices go.
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What road trips mean to us
The great American road trip is not just a family tradition and a regarded as a birthright for every American. It is the best vacation ever. And I speak from personal experience.
Even though I grew up overseas, I spent many months on the road in the United States. My father, a minister who worked in Eastern Europe, visited churches across the U.S. every other summer, and that is where I fell in love with the American road.
I have only the vaguest recollection of our earliest adventure in 1969, although there's still a picture in one of our photo albums of me as a toddler playing in the back of a VW Bug on a trip from Freehold, N.J., to Wheaton, Ill. We traveled old-school back then: no child safety seats, no seatbelts.
Road trips became the mile markers of my life while I was growing up. I've marveled at Niagara Falls, stood speechless in front of the Grand Canyon, splashed in the waves of Santa Monica beach and stared at Mt. Rainier’s improbably snow-capped peak during the summer. In every photo, there's a high-mileage VW or a rusty station wagon in the background, and truth be told, I never knew for sure if it would make it to our next destination.
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Why the American road trip is the best vacation ever
Thanks to road trips, I discovered barbecue in Memphis, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, boiled peanuts in Mississippi, and eat-the-enamel-off-your-teeth espresso brewed in Oregon's roadside java huts.
I've laughed and cried on the road. In a remote part of New Mexico in 1993, a warning sign of a cow being abducted by a UFO left me in hysterics. On another road trip, motoring through the back roads of South Carolina on Aug. 17, 1977, I heard on the radio that we had lost Elvis.
Road trips inspire me today. There's nothing like an eight-hour trek through the Arizona desert to help me sort through my troubles. Last summer, I spent eight months traveling across the country with my three kids. During the most difficult moments, the road comforted me with its reassuring cadence, the thump-thump-thump of my tires on the pavement like a mother's heartbeat.
The great American road trip made me who I am. Today, when I'm halfway around the world in Cape Town, South Africa, I often think of my favorite drives: Miami to Key West. Denver to Grand Junction. Malibu to Monterey. Sedona to Flagstaff. And I wonder what it would be like to have my three kids with me one more time, my Grateful Dead playlist on the radio of the Volvo XC90, the open road ahead.
Road trips are the best vacation ever. Gas at $4 a gallon is a small price to pay for the quintessentially American experience.
Give up my American road trip? You might as well ask me to renounce my citizenship.
Please share your favorite road trip
Maybe this is as good a time as any to take a break from the horrors of war and COVID and consider one thing that makes us American: the road trip. What is your favorite road trip? And what, if anything, would make you give it up?
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott drew inspiration from old Godzilla movies for this week's illustration. Except this time, the towering monster is an enormous gas pump demanding money from the populace. "Every time war comes around, it ends up affecting the darn gas pump price," he says. But war and gas are inextricably tied together — "You can't have one without the other."