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All washed up

Every motorist who has ever driven 400 sweaty miles has looked longingly at the truck stops and wondered the same thing: Can I use those showers, or not? Fifteen years ago, the answer would have been “No way,” but times have changed. Now that truck stops have morphed into “travel plazas,” there may be a hot shower for you by the side of the road.
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After a long day of driving, especially if you’re on a “speed run,” a shower is often a higher priority than a bed. This is especially true if your destination is the arms of your true love , or -- perhaps even more challenging -- the dinner table of your true love’s parents. You really don’t have time to check into the hotel, so what do you do?

One option is to turn in at a budget motel, but $35 to $55 seems steep for a hot shower. Then you notice a billboard: Truck Stop Next Exit. And you wonder, “Do they have showers? If they do, are they only for truck drivers?”

Truck stops used to cater only to professional long-haul truck drivers. But in the last couple of decades, their clientele has expanded to include motor coaches (like Greyhound), recreational vehicles and passenger vehicles . The names have changed (perhaps you’ve noticed that they’re now called “travel plazas” and “stopping centers” rather than “truck stops”) and they’ve gotten bigger. A few years ago, most truck stops could accommodate only a handful of big rigs and a few smaller vehicles. These days, many facilities can fuel and service hundreds of big trucks , buses, cars and RVs, in addition to feeding their drivers and passengers.

Pilot Travel Centers is one of the biggest truck stop companies, with 270 locations in 40 states. Like a number of other major chains, Pilot has retail stores and brand-name fast-food restaurants that serve travelers hot food 24 hours a day. In fact, Pilot Travel is the 10th largest restaurant franchisee in the United States. Nearly all major truck stops also offer travel conveniences like ATMs, high-speed Internet access , self-serve laundry facilities, truck washes, repair shops, fueling stations and truck scales. The volume of fuel sales gives an idea of how much business flows through these establishments: Pilot will sell in excess of 4 billion gallons of petroleum products this year. These travel oases also have nicely appointed driver lounges -- and showers.

In the mid-1990s, I lived on the road for over six years, traveling in a custom-built mobile office and RV. I frequently stayed overnight at truck stops, where I knew I could work all night and not bother anyone with the noise of the onboard generator powering my computers and other electronic equipment. I always wondered about those showers, but I never felt comfortable crossing the line between professional driver and motorist. In fact, I sometimes came across signs indicating that the lounges (and access to the showers) were reserved for professional drivers. While it could be argued that I was driving for professional reasons, I didn’t drive a big rig or have a CDL (commercial driver’s license). Anyway, I had a perfectly serviceable shower in my RV, so I never asked.

Well, here is the good news: The owners of truck stops and travel centers are now eager to serve motorists along with professional drivers. Yes, they still work hard to provide home-away-from-home services to truckers, who remain their core business customers, and they offer them special discounts and other incentives. But they welcome more casual motorists, too. For example, at TA Truck Centers, the second-largest travel center chain with 163 locations, any driver who purchases at least 50 gallons of diesel fuel gets a coupon for a free shower. Few big rigs fail to meet this minimum, and many RVs easily qualify for the free-shower benefit, too. But if you don’t meet the fuel requirement, you can still get a shower. All you have to do is pay $9 -- a fee that includes a freshly laundered towel, wash cloth, bathmat and soap. While most travel centers’ showers are kept clean and are sanitized regularly, I do recommend wearing flip-flops in the shower. In general, however, the facilities at big truck stops are easily as nice as at a motel.

I have seen shower rates as high as $12, and sometimes there is a towel deposit of $5, but generally anyone may use the shower facilities. While $12 isn’t free, it’s still a bargain when you compare it to the cost of checking into a motel. Of course, if you actually do need a bed, most of the newer truck stops have national chain motels on their grounds. My personal favorites for well-run travel plazas include Flying J, which also offers fuel discounts to RVers, Petro and TA.

The next time you find yourself on the road and in need of a shower but not a night’s sleep, pull in with the eighteen-wheelers, step up to the fuel booth and purchase your shower voucher. Your true love (or your true love’s parents) will thank you.

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of , a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. or visit his .