The country offers plenty of vacation spots accessible to major city centers.
On a day trip to Coronado, Calif., last summer, Natalie Karic didn't bring very much with her —just a beach bag, a change of clothes and a few CDs for the car ride.
"Road trips are just like any other vacation, except it's really nice that you can do it all in one day," says Karic, 18, a resident of Los Angeles. "It's not so much of a hassle, and it's pretty cheap ... it's an escape from the city."
All the trip cost her was the price of a full tank of gas. A look across the major metropolitan areas of the country shows that Angelinos aren't the only ones with myriad affordable day trips just a gas tank away.
From the beaches of Saugatuck, Mich., to the wineries of Napa Valley and even to the wetlands of the Florida Everglades or to the tropical Florida Keys, there are adventures and relaxing weekends aplenty.
An average, medium-sized sedan such as a Honda Accord or a Nissan Altima will go about 300 miles on one tank of gas, according to Robert Sinclair, media relations manager of AAA. That's just enough for a great weekend or day trip within 150 miles of any starting point.
Destinations within easy reach
To come up with our list of 10 places to visit on a tank of gas, we looked at 10 major U.S. cities and polled a panel of experts on top destinations for a road trip within 150 miles of each. The panelists included AAA's Sinclair; Terence Baker, travel editor of Car & Travel magazine; AAA's PR manager Heather Hunter; and Jameson Kowalczyk, publicist for Liberty Travel, the American arm of Australian travel agency Flight Centre Limited.
Good places to go from New York City for a day or weekend trip are Mystic, Conn., located just 133 miles from lower Manhattan and Cold Spring, N.Y., located just 59 miles up the Hudson Valley. From Denver, try Pikes Peak County, located 60 miles south of the city. From Seattle, head for Snoqualmie Falls, a scenic attraction where visitors can hike alongside a 270-foot waterfall. From Charlotte, N.C., try Asheville or Chapel Hill. And it's not difficult to find deals on hotels if a day trip becomes a full weekend away.
"If you can afford to travel this year, it's the time to go," says Hunter. "With the down economy, there are more discounts out there than there's been in recent history."
Those discounts reflect the way people are currently traveling. In the first quarter of this year, the airline industry saw an 11.7 percent decline in the number of passengers compared with the first quarter of 2008 — the largest quarter-over-previous-year decline since the beginning of 2002, according to OAG Aviation, a global data and flight information company. But even with airlines offering good deals at the moment, travelers just aren't snapping them up.
The road trip
If the cost savings in a tank of gas vs. an airplane ticket aren't incentive enough to make a getaway on the road, the fact that it's a different sort of thing to do in the otherwise fast-paced world might be.
"There's a nostalgic element to [road trips]," says Kowalczyk. "There's something very American about road trips; they're a part of our culture."
But just because there aren't the hassles of check-in lines, luggage or metal detectors, that's no excuse not to plan ahead, says AAA's Hunter. "Get your car inspected ahead of time," she says. "You don't want to break down while you're driving."
She also suggests bringing only what you need to minimize weight in the car in order to get better fuel economy. And don't forget to fill your tank in advance, preferably the night before you hit the road.
Last but not least, it's also a good idea to get up-to-date maps, or to use a GPS unit to avoid delays. After all, the whole point is to escape from the city for a short time, not get stuck there in traffic.