by David Craft
Three thousand miles coast-to-coast with forests and deserts, mountains and prairies, and small towns in between, combined with unique regional flavors and culture, equals countless possibilities for the quintessential US road trip. More and more Americans are doing this each year. The Times recently ran a piece about the "comeback" of the US road trip, and describes it as “a tradition that feels like a national birthright.”
Considering how bad Americans are at taking vacation, the growing popularity of road trips could be good news on that front. The latest data from Project Time Off finds that there has been a very slight increase in vacation time. “The trend line is moving in a positive direction, back up to 17.2 days used in 2017, after losing almost a week of vacation time.”
In a summary of MMGY Global’s 2017-18 Portrait of American Travelers, Anna Blount writes, “39 percent of U.S. leisure travel in the last 12 months included a road trip – up 17 points from the year prior.” This report, based on nearly 3,000 interviews, also found that 85% of US vacations are domestic. This represents almost 14 million more vacations within the US than outside.
AAA supports these findings, noting “55% of Americans are more likely to take a road trip than the year before, and 69% of respondents indicated they were planning to take a road trip in the next 12 months.”
What’s the appeal of road trips?
AAA spokesperson Julie Hall says, "Road trips remain the most popular family vacation option, as they offer the most flexibility and are a great way to build family bonds and create lasting memories." Surprisingly, gas prices don’t seem to have an impact on the decision to plan a road trip. Hall explains, “Gas prices are climbing higher, but not stopping Americans from road tripping.”
Fuel costs may impact travel budgets, but road trips are still a lower priced option and offer other practical benefits too. New York Times reporter Stephanie Rosenbloom cites two major reasons that make road trips attractive (from the MMGY Global report): the ability to stop along the way and the ability to pack however much travelers want. Other benefits include avoiding “the airport pain factor” and the ease of traveling with pets and large families.
The road trip isn’t just practical. The notion of cross-country trips can be romantic, nostalgic and liberating. Skift.com’s in-depth three-part series on The Future of American Road Trip also references the MMGY Global report, noting “75% of road trippers cited experiencing different cultures as a motivation to travel” (versus 69% for those not taking road trips). And in The State of American Vacation 2018, Project Time Off reports “86% of Americans say they have not seen enough of their own country.”
Who’s packing up & where are they headed?
Boomers may be the largest group of those taking road trips (with Generation X in second place), but the number of Millennials exploring the US by car is growing. A combination of saving money and gaining experiences is encouraging this younger group to head out. The most recent edition of Portrait of American Travelers reports 42% of Boomers’ vacations are road trips, and for Millennials its 36%.
According to AAA’s Hall, "We're finding that Americans want to get out and explore new destinations.” Research done by the organization just before the 2017 summer vacation season found that 79% of respondents planned to take an “old school family road trip” with 51% planning to visit a national park and 40% opting for a theme park. The increase in road trippers is likely one of the reasons that visits to US National Parks are growing—20% from 2013 to 2017.
Steve Cohen, the senior vice president for Travel Insights at MMGY Global told the New York Times that US travelers on road trips “don’t want to spend the night any closer than eight hours from home.” Ideally, the trip will have “multiple overnight stops with activities and attractions .”
How is travel & tourism tapping into this market?
Taking more vacation time is good for the traveler, their state of mind, their productivity and family harmony, but it also has a positive financial impact on the US economy. Project Time Off estimates that by increasing the average number of vacation days to 17.2 from 16.8 added $30.7 billion to the economy and created “an estimated 217,200 direct and indirect jobs and generated $8.9 billion in additional income for Americans.”
That spending also benefits travel suppliers. US travelers estimate “40% of their domestic travel this year will be to a new destination,” giving travel companies more opportunities to attract new customers from countless markets.
Over the past couple of years, several marketing campaigns have been aimed specifically at road trippers. Last year, Wyndham’s Super 8 brand ran ads “poking fun at classic road trip fails and highlighting the new rooms.” Motel 6 brand did the same—focusing on “the joys of road trips, as well as the brand’s updated guest rooms.”
Travelodge, another Wyndham brand, partnered with the National Parks Conservation Association to promote the parks, conservation and Travelodge properties near the parks. Skift.com reports, “nearly 50 percent of Travelodge’s properties are located adjacent to a national park and about 70 percent of Travelodge customers arrive by car.”
Tourism departments are also working to attract US travelers taking to the roads. New Mexico’s Tourism Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Latham explains, “Over the past year we’ve seen a resurgence in popularity of road trips across the country, and our research shows that a lot of those road trips are happening here.” She adds, “Visitors to New Mexico are more likely to tour multiple areas than stay in one place, so we’ve made it easy for them to plan a trip by mapping out experiences linked by a common interest.”
In the recently released “Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: The Informal History of the Family Road Trip” Richard Ratay writes about his childhood family road trips in the 1970s. When reviewing the book, Newsday contributor Matthew Price writes: “Ratay misses the family road trips of yesteryear and laments the decline of car-trip protocols, kids sprawled out in back, annoying one another.” Understandably, road trips of today aren’t quite what they used to be (kids are buckled in and navigation apps help you find your way), but that doesn’t mean the increasing number of road tripping Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials aren’t creating a version that will be remembered just as fondly.