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jun 19 2008

Is the great American road trip in danger?

With gas prices soaring, will summer road trips remain an American rite of passage? After all, a lot of gas was burned up across Route 66 in Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Steve Kark, writing for the Roanoke Times, thinks that such "journeys of self-discovery" are getting almost too pricey to be possible: "As the price of gas surpasses $4 a gallon, it's clear that a long summer road trip would be beyond the means of all but the most dedicated of today's young wanderers.... I doubt gas will ever again be so cheap that most of us won't have to think twice about whether we can afford that next long road trip."

That may be true, but I'd like to think that road trips won't die out entirely. I loved (most of) the long, long drives my family took out to the Rockies when I was little. And one of my favorite college memories was piling into a car with a buddy and driving from Madison to visit a friend working on Mackinac Island, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. (By the way, the Upper Peninsula is one of Budget Travel's recently recommended road trip itineraries.)

Even if you have a trunkload of gas money to re-create On the Road, it would hardly be the same. A lot has changed since 1957, when the book came out. Last summer, the LA Times came up with a list of some of the differences between America-then and America-now. For instance, back in '57, the ink on the contracts for the few first interstate roads was barely dry, and only 40 McDonald's existed. Now, there are over 45,000 miles of interstate, and thousands of McDonald's. To get a sense of what remains of Route 66, check out this Fodor's intro.

Helpfully, the federal government has declared more than 100 roadways to be "Scenic Byways" because of their "outstanding archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic value." Some of the roads trace Billy the Kid's routes in New Mexico. Others tear through the Florida Everglades. Find a list at byways.org.

I bet that most road trips can be both inspiring and affordable if you trim your ambitions a bit. Rather than aim to hit both coasts or a dozen states, focus on a smaller area. Plan to see it more thoroughly. A slower pace will boost the odds you actually talk to some locals—perhaps at one of the roadside eateries recommended by Roadfood.com. Many of Budget Travel's own road trips take that tack.

Will your road trip plans change this year? Feel free to post a comment.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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