The road trip is a quintessential American experience, just like apple pie and baseball, and now is the time when your fellow citizens start pulling out the atlas and begin tracing their fingers over possible routes. We've rounded up some nifty resources to help you plan your trip -- including how to find off-the-beaten track sites and a couple of sites to help you beat high prices at the pump.
A good place to start is the Automobile Association of America (www.aaa.com). Anyone can become a member for around $65 (although this will vary from state to state). Once you've joined, you'll have access to Triple A's handy Triptiks (handy flip maps of just your desired route), emergency roadside assistance, discounts for hotel stays and more. We've always considered this a wise investment.
In addition AAA's maps, the Internet has seen an explosion of trustworthy online mapping tools. Google got into the mix recently with its launch of Google Maps (http://maps.google.com), and you can still rely on sites such as www.mapquest.com and www.randmcnally.com.
We also suggest that you check out www.byways.org. Part of the United States Department of Transportation, the National Scenic Byways program denotes particular roads around the United States as "All-American Roads" or "National Scenic Byways" based on cultural, historic, natural, scenic or other qualities that distinguish it as exceptional. The site provides detailed maps on each of the 93 designated routes as well sites to see along the ways. Stretching beyond breathtaking views, these roads are all about a little bit of everything. Pick any of these (at least one has to be on a road near you) and start driving.
If you like the offbeat, check out www.roadsideamerica.com. It's a site filled with the bizarre, the mundane and the sometimes indescribable -- it's truly democratic since it's listings of buildings, sites, towns and more that barely fit the label "tourist attraction" are submitted by readers. Dying to see the world's largest six-pack? Head to Heileman Brewery in LaCrosse, Wisconsin to take a gander. If you're the sort of passenger who gets a thrill every time the car passes by one of those mysterious giants who stand as silent sentinels in front of muffler shops, then this is the site for you. Just click "Muffler Men" in the top navigation bar to go to a map that pinpoints where you can find one near you. When you finished hunting down esoterica for the day, you can use the site to find old-school motels as well, a feature we really like.
When you're on the road, you have to eat, and for every niche there is a website. Click over to www.roadfood.com to find an extensive compendium of coffee shops, rib joints, taco stands and what have you. This fantastic resource currently lists over 1,000 eateries scattered across the US and parts of Canada. Once you register (it's free), you'll have access to an easy to use site search and readers forums.
Of course, no column on road trips would be complete without a nod to scary gas prices. Fortunately, as this Newsletter as reported before, you can turn to two online sites that help you find the most affordable prices at the pump. At www.gaspricewatch.com (the name really says it all), you'll find listings of actual prices at specific gas stations around the country as reported by volunteers who post their findings in their local communities. Of course, those prices are only as good as the scouts who keep the site updated, so you will find some holes. Regardless, most major areas are well represented. A second excellent resource is www.gasbuddy.com, not only lists prices, but also provides charts that allow to see the trending of prices in a specific area, some great tips on how to increase your vehicle's fuel efficiency and active readers forums.
Share your tips and favorite resources on our Road Trips Message Boards today.