Car Lust Round Table: Is the Road Trip Dead?
We here at Car Lust have the occasional back-channel email discussions on various topics, some of which end up morphing into something that we think would make a good post to send out for wider discussion. We haven't had one of our Round Tables in a while until our own Rob Podell sent around the following observation on the classic American Road Trip. Some of us have chimed in with our own thoughts and we look forward to readers doing the same in the comments.
I was doing some thinking, and ... I might be wrong here, but is the road trip dead? The reason I ask, is that I just priced out how much it would cost me, in JUST GAS, to go visit a friend in Texas. If I took my prelude, it would cost me about $500 if I drive conservatively. With the Audi, sucking premium and getting only 23mpg, it would cost upwards of $750.
Given that roundtrip airfare would cost me roughly $250, does anybody bother driving anymore? Not only does it take longer, but the gas isn't the only price. Factor in the wear and tear on your vehicle (tires, oil, reduced value with higher miles), the number of times you'll stop for food ($$$), possibly hotels ($), the chance of being stranded due to a breakdown, or the pathetic ways states generate revenue by ticketing speeders.... it's just.. sad.
Only 10 years ago, I drove to Key West, FL with a friend. We took my 97 Neon, and spent about $150 for a 3400 mile round trip. Today, that same trip would cost $325, yet... nobody is getting paid more. That is MORE than double, but the average income in America is actually down compared to 2001. People like to talk about the economy and jobs, but the fact is the price of everything has gone up drastically in the past 10 years, yet nobody is getting paid the same amount to match the increases. I feel like my entire generation is screwed.
So what do you think? Do you have any roadtrips planned? They can be fun, stressful, they take longer, but ultimately I feel they're way more adventurous.. but is it starting to not be worth it?
I think the Steinbeck/Kerouac-style cross-country road trips are basically dead, but regional road trips can still be fairly enjoyable and comparably economical. Heck, I'm driving down to Las Vegas this weekend, which, from Reno, is still cheaper than by car, if only just. It works out to $100 in gas (450 miles each way, $3.60/gallon average, 33 MPG) plus another $15 in fast food, versus $140 in airfare for the full round trip if I book well in advance. Even if it breaks even, the fact that I can get in my car when I want and get to Las Vegas on my own schedule far outweighs any slight economic benefit I might receive by booking the flight three months in advance to secure the non-business rate and taking the plane. If I had to travel to Omaha, on the other hand, well... interestingly, it looks almost the same; it'd be about $320 in gas, probably another $40-50 in food, and another $50+ in lodging, versus roughly $200 each way on Southwest. So, it'd be cheaper by plane, if only just, only instead of taking 22 hours each way, it'd take more like 5 1/2. Taking an entirely different approach, it'd be $131 on Amtrak each way. That's a savings of about $50-60 in gas money in exchange for an extra 10 hours of travel time each way, but all of which would be passively staring out the window, reading, or otherwise doing something other than holding a steering wheel while guzzling caffeinated beverages.
Which brings up an interesting point - the road trip itself might be dead, but cross-country travel probably isn't. Realistically, we have a wealth of options before us that people didn't have in the '60s; remember, the airlines hadn't been deregulated yet, so they were still competing on service (eye candy, top-flight refreshments). This means that, while it was almost impossible for most families to afford a cross-country flight back then, it's basically doable now for at least the top half of American families if they plan a few months in advance. Meanwhile, Amtrak has its faults, but it's done a decent job of turning rail travel from basically "Greyhound on rails" (i.e. something poor and out-of-fashion people do, which is where rail travel was at after World War 2) into a reasonably clean and pleasant experience. At the same time, road trips in modern cars are far more pleasant than the old days - our cars can go longer between fill-ups (no more 150 mile tanks), they don't routinely break down (when was the last time you had to use a water stop to refresh the radiator?), they're more comfortable and better appointed than most *houses* were back then, and, even for the single traveler, they're still economically competitive as noted above.
It's a shame that road trips aren't the $1/gallon slam dunk they used to be, especially since I've been habitually driving small cars since my mom "loaned" me her Justy back in high school. But, all in all, things could be a lot worse, and it wasn't that long ago when they were.
I think it's mostly dead and airline deregulation killed it. Between 1975 (three years before the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978), the average domestic airfare was approximately $140 (in 1983 dollars); by 2000 that had dropped to about $60 (source). Flying was expensive and gas was cheap, so hauling a family of four halfway across the country by air was very pricey compared to driving.
That said, depending on time, distance, and the number of people, it still might be more cost-effective to drive. A family of 4-5 in a minivan going a few hundred miles could very well come out ahead of plane tickets for everyone. I've gone through this calculus myself more than once in the last few years and flying always comes out MUCH cheaper than driving for the Wisconsin-Washington trip, or even to southern California. Now, this might not mean much if your income is at a certain level and you can take the time to do a road trip just for the fun of driving, but it stopped being cheaper quite a while ago.
But you know, there's another issue at play: the couple of times I've suggested driving cross country for fun all of the females in my life have expressed horror at the thought of my driving alone for more than a couple of hundred miles. I mean, I've made that trip three times already -- albeit not since about 1990 -- and while a bit boring at times, I look back at those trips fondly (even when I had to sleep in my car).
Maybe they worried then and I just ignored it (or more probably forgot about it), but it seems as if we've become much more risk-averse in the last couple of decades.
FWIW, there are only two, possibly three, true road trips that I would still like to take: one down Highway 101 (the Pacific Coast Highway) from the top of Washington State to Los Angeles (been on most of the Washington segment already); one on the old Route 66 (Don't forget Winona!); and one possibly across the Trans-Canada Highway. All preferably in my Mustang II, provided I grow fairly wealthy or gas goes under $2 a gallon again. . . .
It also depends on where you're going. Air travel is great for going to places with airports. Rail travel (which I dearly love) is great for major cities and intermediate stops on the line between them. If where you're going isn't described in the preceding two sentences, you drive.
There's also the issue of how you get around once you get there. We have a lot of "snowbirds" in Ohio who move down to Florida in the cold months--they typically drive it because they'll be needing a car once they've arrived, and taking your own ride is a lot cheaper than renting.
Road trips are in my blood. Or at least, they are in my family. For me, road trips started when I was a wee child of 5, in our Chevrolet station wagon, heading from Missouri to California, by way of Texas, Carlsbad Caverns, and the Grand Canyon. Two adults, six kids. My brother sat in the front seat with Mom and Dad, my three oldest sisters in the middle seat, and the youngest sister and me stuck in the very back. The station wagon presented some logistic problems for a family that size. If a child started mis-behaving, they could always make a tactical redeployment (retreat, in other words) to the rear of the car, beyond Mom's reach. That happened one trip...then she brought the yardstick along.
In those days, road trips meant AM radio, sandwiches, grapes, chips, and kool-aid at a rest area; gas stations that gave out free maps and whose refreshments ran from one 25-cent soft drink machine and a gum display all the way up to two soda machines and a few choices of candy bars. Sometimes the soft drink machine was 12 oz cans, but sometimes 10 oz bottles.
When I got a little older, the older siblings all stayed home to work summer jobs during high school and college. FM radio became standard, then personal stereos became prevalent...as long as you had enough AA batteries to last you. Soft drinks cost 30 cents, then 35 cents, then 50 cents a can. Then 16 oz bottles appeared, and chips. All the gas stations started slowly giving way to convenience stores.
But road trips still meant long rides, watching the scenery slide slowly by, comfortable naps in the late morning with the warm sun shining in.
As an adult, road trips were less about leisurely trips to a vacation destination, and more hurried trips to go long distances when airline tickets weren't the best choice. The music started with a cassette deck, then a CD player, and now an mp3 player. 20 oz drinks, then 1-liter soft drinks, Big Gulps of up to 3/4 of a gallon, tall coffees, and energy drinks. Anything to help fight off drowsiness.
I've taken several long road trips over the last few years. A 15-hour trip from West Texas to Kansas City to see a football game, leaving immediately after work on Friday and driving through the night because there was a get-together Saturday evening. Then leaving immediately after the football game Sunday afternoon for another 15-hour trip to Montgomery, Alabama. And the worst one of all: an overnight 11-hour trip from Washington DC to Nashville, Tennessee, through a cats-and-dogs, "severe thunderstorm warning" rain, in a little 4-banger rental economy car with tiny 13" tires, so I could get to the closest branch of my bank to sign for a wire transfer and still have time to catch a plane back to West Texas. Thank goodness even economy cars have mp3 CD players these days, or I might not have been able to stay awake.
I've got my system down now: Burn an mp3 CD with songs that get you excited, and songs you like to sing to; gas up the car and . . .
Each stop should wake you up for at least 45 minutes to an hour. If you get in a good two or three hours of driving before your first stop, there should be no reason you can't get in at least 10 hours of travel (11 to 12 hours total) in that time. Considering most freeway speeds, that should be a good 600 to 700 miles.
At that point, if you are truly exhausted, take a one hour nap. Start again with step one, and you should be able to get in at least another 5 hours before it stops working. These days, I can make 15 hours of driving with just 4 stops.
I wish I could take a road trip from Nashville to the West Coast and back. I'd take I-24 West till it ends, then go on to St. Louis and drop in on a friend or two. Then continue (eventually) to Denver, as I've only seen the inside of the airport there. Again, some friends have invited me to stop by, and to be independent of them by having my own vehicle would be nice.
On the way back, I'd take the Pacific Coast Highway down to Los Angeles, ride around Beverly Hills and Hollywood again for a while, maybe even take the guided tour/walk to see TV's BATMAN Batcave. Then find I-40 and head back east. On that highway you can take a small detour near Winslow, Arizona, to see the Meteor Crater. With a small magnet, you can collect true pieces of extraterrestrial material. I've seen the Crater from a plane, but up close would be too spectacular for words.
Oklahoma City would be a nice stop, then on to Memphis. I haven't been to Graceland since 1997, so another walk through The Jungle Room would be nice. There's also an affordable little deli in The Peabody, and Beale Street would be a blast to see again. Four hours of driving later, I should be back home.
The amazing thing is that the mileage difference between the Northern Route and the Southern Route, without detours, is only about 60 miles. Taking the Pacific Coast Highway would add a few miles, but would definitely be worth it. This would be the road trip of a lifetime. All I'd need is about a month and tons of cash!
Photo credits: The road trip post card at the top comes courtesy of GlobalRoadTrips.com. The Oasis overpass rest stop is from the Signal vs. Noise blog. The old Interstate photo is courtesy Anthony Cagle from a family road trip in the later 1960s (that's a Pontiac Catalina fender there). The Jayco popup comes from Wikimedia Commons. The Route 40 road trip image is from The National Geographic Travel web site. Finally, the excellent photo of the Gateway Arch is by our own That Car Guy.