Several weeks ago, Eric von Foerster and his son drove from Bellingham, Wash., to Great Lakes, Ill., for his wife’s graduation from the U.S. Navy’s Recruit Training Command. They loaded up their Mazda 5 wagon/minivan, visited scenic spots and historic sites (the Badlands, Mount Rushmore) and shared an experience they probably couldn’t have any other way.
“It wasn’t as fast [as flying], and driving can be more expensive, depending on when you buy your plane tickets,” says von Foerster, “but we found that we got to see and do a lot more.” And, he adds, they had plenty of company: “I talked to people at rest stops and a lot of them were saying that normally they’d go to Orlando or the Bahamas. Now they’re doing the road trip thing.”
Thinking of joining them? If so, consider making a pre-trip pit stop at one or more of the following Web sites. They won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but they can provide plenty of interesting information along the way.
Several Web sites will help you calculate gas costs, but Cost2Drive.com adds some new twists to the mix. Combining gas-mileage data from EPA with price information from 80,000 retail gas stations, it’ll calculate gas costs for 20,000 vehicles based on make, model and year (1990–2009). Better yet, instead of using average fuel prices, it uses your vehicle’s projected range to calculate where you’re likely to fill up and what you’ll pay at that point.
For example, driving our 1993 Toyota Corolla from San Francisco to Los Angeles (382 miles), we’d probably have to fill up near Bakersfield and would spend a total of $45.47 on gas. If we took our 2001 Saturn SC2, we could make it another 50 miles before refueling, plus we’d spend only $37.39. (If, perchance, we were driving a Lamborghini Murcielago, it would cost almost $110 — it takes premium, after all — but hey, we’d be driving a Lamborghini, so there’s that.)
For trips over 200 miles, the site goes one better, bringing up the comparable airfare from Kayak.com based on the best prices Kayak users have found over the last several days. (SFO–LAX was $108 roundtrip on the day I looked.) It’ll also calculate your trip’s carbon footprint and provide a link to TerraPass.com, where you can purchase the appropriate offset. (Score one for our older, slower cars: offsets for the Saturn or Toyota run $5.95; the Italian stallion calls for $11.90.)
Two years ago, while visiting family in Roanoke, Va., Elizabeth Muse thought a day trip to somewhere nearby would be fun. Jumping on the computer, she says, “I thought there’d be a site where I could type in where I was, what I wanted to do and how far I wanted to drive, and it would give me a list of all these great things. I couldn’t find anything.”
So, she and her business partner, Cathy Jolly, created A Day’s Outing. Accessing an easy-to-use landing page, users enter their location, interests, preferred driving distance (10–120 miles) and dates of travel (e.g., today, tomorrow, next seven days or a custom date range). Searches can be filtered via a dozen parameters (fairs and festivals, history and heritage, wheelchair accessible, etc.) and, in contrast to most tourism sites, the results transcend a specific city or state.
For now, the site contains extensive listings for Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., along with more limited information for surrounding states and the rest of the country. (Listings are augmented with Google Maps and a link to Orbitz.com for hotel reservations.) For a recent search for a mid-August trip to Charlotte, N.C., for example, I discovered an animal park, outdoor movie series and monster truck bash all within an hour’s drive.
The site is designed primarily for women and their families — lots of kid-friendly activities and no listings for nightclubs or casinos — but it can also be a useful resource for business travelers. “If you have 30 extra minutes after your last meeting,” says Muse, “you can find something to do.”
Finally, consider FreeMapTools.com, which, truth be told, may be better suited for killing time at the office than making time on the road. Despite the site’s bare-bones layout, you can use it to calculate a radius around any point on the planet, figure out the area within a proposed route and determine the geographic “center of gravity” when you and up to nine friends want to come together from disparate locations.
In fact, the site will even show you where you’d come out if you tunneled straight through the earth. As it turns out, most of us were wrong growing up: if you live in the contiguous U.S., you don’t end up in China, but rather, somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
I don’t recommend taking the Lamborghini.
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .