America’s Best Road Trips on a Budget

Plan a road trip, see the country and save money, too!

Though we may be past the glory days of Cadillac convertibles and into the era of the Prius-powered trek, road trips are still the most popular type of vacation in the U.S. — 79 percent of the family vacations Americans plan to take in 2017 will be on the open road.

And now is a fantastic time to experience this slice of Americana, too. Gas prices are up slightly, compared to this time last year, but that isn't dissuading many people. According to AAA, 10 percent more families are expected to take road trips in 2017. But besides that full tank of gas, old-school map and sense of adventure, what else do you and the family need?

Two words: Route and budget. Although picking a direction and riding the wind with a wad of cash in your pocket has roguish appeal, you're best served with a plan that packs plenty of sights while going easy on the wallet — especially if your backseat is full of small humans who like to ask, "Are we there yet?" at every 5-mile mark. These five trips will have everyone smiling, no matter what time of year you're travelling.

The California Coastline
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The California Coastline

Route: San Francisco to Los Angeles

Total Miles: 451

Total Driving Hours: About 8

This classic American road trip packs a whole lot of sightseeing into a relatively short amount of driving. For much of this drive, you’ll be enjoying the blue oceans and shoreline scenery of the Pacific Coast Highway.

San Francisco to Monterey, 119 miles: Starting in San Francisco, you’ll of course want to check out the iconic Golden Gate Bridge — it’ll cost you a $7.50 toll to experience the drive. At Golden Gate Park, explore beauty on a budget with the general admission fee of $8 (less for college students and young kids) to the Conservatory of Flowers. 

Then head south through Monterey, and venture down to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which will only set you back $10 per day of swimming, hiking and exploring. Check local road conditions and park openings; the recent wet California winter has affected some routes.

Monterey to Pismo Beach, 156 miles: You’ve earned plenty of wine and relaxation from all that hiking, so it’s time to check out some of California’s most laid-back beach towns. Every Saturday, the town of Morro Bay hosts the Main Street Market, which boasts free admission and offers local artisans, farmers and fishermen selling their wares. 

Head 30 minutes south to indulge in a wine flight at Tastes of the Valley in Pismo Beach, voted one of the top 20 wine bars in America by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and leave with three souvenir bottles for as little as $60. Just be sure to check in to your Airbnb before driving.  

Pismo Beach to Los Angeles, 176 miles: Once you hit Southern California, trade your car for a ferry to Catalina Island — keep an eye on Groupon to snag deals as low as $40 for the ride — where you can take in pristine beaches made famous on the silver screen in the 1930s. In Los Angeles, spot celebrities and stay on-budget with free attractions like the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a jaunt down Rodeo Drive. 

To drive this trip at the national average fuel efficiency, be sure to budget about $43 for gas.

The Southwest’s Best Parks
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The Southwest’s Best Parks

Route: A scenic zigzag from Adamana, Ariz., to Springdale, Utah

Total Miles: 865

Total Driving Hours: About 15

If you want to see natural beauty in its purest form, it's time to plan a road trip that's all about gorgeous national parks. You can pay as you go, but if you're planning on hitting up national parks and other federal recreational lands throughout the year, you might save money by purchasing an annual pass for $80.

Petrified Forest to the Grand Canyon, 184 Miles: In Adamana, start with the striking basins and buttes of the Petrified Forest -- you can linger for up to seven days with a car full of people for only $20. After that, how could you not visit the Grand Canyon? You'll need $30 to get your car in — not a bad deal when you consider the access to over 1 million breathtaking acres.

The Grand Canyon to Canyonlands, 295 Miles: Dedicate your second leg to the biggest national park in Utah, the aptly named Canyonlands. Up to 15 people in one car can enjoy the park for $25 a week, which buys you all the hikes and overlooks you can stomach. Be sure to catch a ranger-led stargazing tour to wind down the night.

Canyonlands to Manti-La Sal forest, 177 Miles: Just down the road from Canyonlands is Arches National Park, and isn't called Arches for nothing — this "red rock wonderland" has more than 2,000 natural stone arches. At $25 for a car full of folks, that's only $0.0125 per arch. Then, swap sandstone for greenery at the Manti-La Sal National Forest, where you can camp for as little as $10 a night.

Manti-La Sal to Zion, 209 Miles: End your journey with a real adventure at Zion National Park near Springdale, Utah. With a $30 private vehicle pass and a $15 canyoneering permit, you can rappel and navigate through the beautiful confines of The Narrows, The Subway or the Orderville Canyon, some of which end with a refreshing dip.

For gas, you'll want to budget about $82 as you explore the dunes, steppes and crags along one of the best road trips in the U.S.

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The Blue Ridge Parkway
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The Blue Ridge Parkway

Route: Western North Carolina to mid-Virginia

Total Miles: 387

Total Driving Hours: About 7

Go at a leisurely Southern pace as you tour misty mountains and roaring rivers on this all-American joy ride through dense green trees. Don't forget your country music playlist.

Cherokee to Asheville, 51 Miles: Start your trip in the 1760s by exploring the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, N.C., a living, breathing recreation of Cherokee life featuring guided hikes, arts and crafts, and live performances. The best part? Your edu-tainment only costs $15 per adult ticket. You're also near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular national park in the U.S.

Asheville to Linville Falls, 55 Miles: In Asheville, N.C., experience a fusion of indie arts and down-home culture, then whitewater raft down the French Broad River for about $45 for a half-day trip. Recharge yourself for the next drive with a tour of the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, where you can sample wine, cheese and meats starting at about $15.

North Carolina is home to some of the nation's most beautiful waterfalls, so don't miss out on Linville Falls, a 2,000-foot watery descent located at Milepost 316 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Linville Gorge was America's first officially designated wilderness area, and it won't cost you a dime to check it out.

Linville Falls to Shenandoah National Park, 281 Miles: Wrap up your road trip via Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, about 75 miles outside of Washington, D.C. You'll have access to 200,000 untamed acres for $25 per vehicle. Take full advantage of the space with some fee-free activities like the park's EarthCache program or peep more than 190 species on a birdwatching tour.

This mountainous excursion will cost you about $36 in fuel (and lots more in comfort food).

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Michigan’s Secret Highway
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Michigan’s Secret Highway

Route: Across Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Total Miles: 364

Total Driving Hours: About 6

When you think "great American road trip," you don't often think "Michigan." But if you prefer something off the beaten path and just as gorgeous, the Black River Scenic Byway could be your ticket. And it'll save you some money, too.

Bessemer to Munising, 196 Miles: Start your adventure at Black River Harbor, about 15 miles north of Bessemer. While you're there, pop into the Ottawa National Forest, where you can camp among nearly 1 million acres for as little as $16 per night. Follow Highway 513 and take in the totally free views of the Black River, majestic waterfalls, and age-old hardwood, pine and hemlock trees.

Munising to Paradise, 98 Miles: Stop off in Munising to experience a unique combo of beaches, sandstone cliffs and massive ice formations like the climbable sheets at Grand Island and Trout Bay. Or, if you're not the climbing type and more the spelunking type, explore the ethereal beauty of the Eben Ice Caves. You'll need to rent some cleats, but parking is free.

In Paradise, for adult admission prices of $13 — or $40 for a whole family of four — you can take in one of the stranger road trip sights in America: The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. This haunting landmark hosts hundreds of artifacts from legendary shipwrecks, and you can even trek up a light tower for an extra $5 donation.

Paradise to Mackinac Island, 70 Miles: Your Michigan road trip is about to get even more picturesque, because you're going to end it on an island where there aren't any cars. From Mackinaw City Dock, you can pay about $25 for a round-trip ticket on a ferry to Mackinac Island, a historic American site that seems lost in time. This 1870s-style resort island boasts tons of dining, shopping and adorable bed-and-breakfast-style lodgings, which can be had for as little as $60 per night.

A low-key road trip comes with low-key gas costs, too — just make sure you budget a little over $35 for this one. Of course, half the fun of this drive is taking the old roads that veer off into nothing but forest, so plan to spend a little extra time and gas money.

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The New York Grand Tour
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The New York Grand Tour

Route: From New York City to the Canadian border

Total Miles: 914

Total Driving Hours: 15

On the other end of the spectrum, touring New York State — one of the best road trips in the U.S. — is the mother of all drives, clocking in at more time and mileage than any other journey on the list. But you’ll get more variety than almost any other drive in the country, from metropolitan cities to rustic kitsch.

Manhattan to Montauk, 121 Miles: Start with an urban exploration of New York’s most famous burroughs, from Manhattan to Williamsburg (you can even get the real NYC experience by booking a hostel for as low as $35 per night). Hop over to Montauk in east Long Island, where you can fish, hike or camp at the scenic Montauk Point State Park. Vehicle admission starts at just $8.

Montauk to Woodstock, 210 Miles: While you’re on the great American road trip, it just feels right to visit the home of one of America’s most significant pop-cultural events: Woodstock, N.Y. At the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, you’ll see more than 2,000 paintings, prints, photos, sculptures and more made by American artists. You can also have your own mini-Woodstock with music, theater and film events that start at under $10 at the museum.

Woodstock to Massena, 265 Miles: No classic road trip is complete without a little throwback, and the 56 Auto Drive-in Theater of Massena, N.Y., is just that. Established in 1955, this living slice of Americana pledges that “every night is a double feature.” The movies are current, but the prices are retro — pull up your ride and enjoy two shows for an adult general admission price of just $7.50.

Massena to Niagara Falls, 318 Miles: You can’t get much more iconic than Niagara Falls, which makes it the perfect endpoint for your New York road trip. Since you’ve saved so much cash along the way, feel free to splurge just a little bit by spending about $18 per adult (children are cheaper) to put on a poncho and board the famous Maid of the Mist. After all that driving, you’ve earned it.

A one-way trip through the best the Empire State has to offer will rack up about $86 in gas bills. Oh, and budget a little extra for those hole-in-the-wall gas stations that somehow have the best bagels you’ve ever tasted. 

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