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By Maggie Tomasek
We all want to enjoy our summer but we want to be able to do it safely. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to take a vacation nowadays is by hitting the road.
We’ve compiled some of the best cheap road trips in the U.S., so no matter where you live or where you want to go, you have some great options. (And of course, any of these excursions can be upgraded from cheap road trips to fancier road trips, depending on your lodging, dining and sightseeing choices.)
During one eight-hour drive on Highway 101, you will see some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes this country has to offer. That’s why you’ll want to actually take more than eight hours to see it all. From the Puget Sound in the Seattle/Tacoma area, head on up to the western rugged coastline with towns like Dungeness (as in the crab) and Sequim (the “lavender capital of North America.”) You can find an abundance of hiking trails, lakes and even some hot springs, plus the Hoh Rain Forest, one of the largest temperate rain forests in the U.S.
The beauty of driving historic Route 66, which spans more than 2,000 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, is that you can make your road trip as short or as long as you want. You can drive through seven states and hundreds of cities small and large, so you can truly customize your stops by what interests you most. Whether kitschy attractions are your thing or you prefer camping and nature, Route 66 has something for everyone.
This route from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and Tennessee is chock full of scenic overlooks, waterfalls and other natural beauty. Fun fact: it’s also America’s longest linear park, stretching 469 miles over 29 counties. The Blue Ridge Parkway boasts plenty of terrific stopping points, like the Linville Gorge, the Linn Cove Viaduct, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway passes through 10 states along the Mississippi River, from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. You can admire the architecture and native history (you’ll definitely want to stop at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa), plenty of gorgeous overlooks and parks, and even some museums (check out the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin). And of course, you’ll encounter all of the river-related attractions you could ever want. Technically, you can drive the whole byway in 36 hours, but most travelers dedicate 7-10 days when planning a road trip on the Great River Road.
Like Route 66 and the Great River Road, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is so expansive that you can spend a weekend or a couple weeks taking it all in. More than 200 years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled from Illinois to the Pacific Ocean and back – a trip that took two years – visitors can retrace the path, albeit along roads and highways instead of the water routes the expedition group navigated. With over 100 sites and 3,700 miles to cover, there’s no shortage of history and natural beauty to experience along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
For a twist on the cheap road trip, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail offers history, nature and bourbon buffs a great option. You can visit nine distilleries across Kentucky and learn about the history of the hard liquor, which Kentuckians have been making in the state’s Bourbon County since the 1700s. If bourbon isn’t your thing, or you need a break between distilleries, the trail also features natural wonders like Red River Gorge, Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Falls.
No matter where you decide to go, the key to cheap (and safe) road trips is planning. While spontaneously jumping in the car can be exciting, it’s also a surefire way to blow your budget. Securing passes to national parks in advance, packing food for picnics, or picking out free entertainment options can help you save money and spend wisely when planning a road trip. Looking for more ways to stretch your travel budget? Check out these tips to help you save on your next road trip.
Maggie Tomasek is the marketing manager of special projects at Alliant. She began her career as a journalist for newspapers in Utica, N.Y., Des Moines and Cincinnati before moving to Chicago in 2009. Maggie is an eight-time Chicago Marathon finisher and a lifelong creative writer with a passion for comedy. Her mom instilled in her a great sense of fiscal responsibility, and her big sister told her to throw that responsibility out the window every once in a while in the name of life experience. So far, that combination of financial advice has worked out pretty well for her.
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