5 American road trips to take with the family this summer

May 24, 2020

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The great American road trip is a tried-and-true family tradition. Driving the country’s scenic highways and stopping to explore anything that catches your eye — perhaps a stunning viewpoint, a side-of-the-road lobster shack or a historical marker — is a wonderful way to explore the United States with your family this summer. It’s also a great way to save money while exploring, whether you rent an RV or find affordable hotels, motels or camping sites along the way.

Not sure where you can visit with the current COVID-19 restrictions in place? Check our state-by-state guide to reopenings to stay up to date on the latest information.

Related: Opening America: A state-by-state guide to reopening

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Of course, road tripping with kids brings a few challenges, including keeping them entertained and dealing with possible car sickness. Try using one of the fun kid-friendly voices for the Waze app to give directions to keep everyone laughing. Think about bringing iPads that can attach to the back of headrests and make a list of car games to play. Old-school favorites such as I Spy, license plate finder and 20 Questions are as good as ever. As for the latter, be careful what you feed children before getting in the car (no spicy or greasy food), make sure there’s enough air flow in the car and check into Dramamine if your child is over two years old (but talk to your doctor first).

If an accident does happen, make sure you are prepared with extra clothing, plastic bags and paper towels or wipes.

Acadia National Park (Photo by Seth K. Hughes / Getty Images)
Acadia National Park (Photo by Seth K. Hughes / Getty Images)

Packing a good credit card for gas fill-ups is also a very smart move. Check out TPG’s guide to the best 2020 cards for gas here.

Now that we have the logistics out of the way, here are five classic summer road trips in the United States.

Related: The 7 best starter travel credit cards

Appalachia to Nashville

Explore Appalachia with a big finish in Nashville on this route through West Virginia and Kentucky. Start in West Virginia’s capital Charleston, which is at the convergence of three major state highways — fly into Yeager Airport (CRW) if necessary.

West Virginia has largely reopened. Hotels are open and after Memorial Day, Phase 5 begins, allowing bars to open at 50% capacity and museums, visitor centers, zoos, spas and massage businesses to open. Kentucky began its gradual reopening on May 11. Starting on June 29, bars can reopen and groups of 50 people or less will be allowed. Tennessee’s stay-at-home order expired on April 30 and restaurants reopened to diners on April 27. Tennessee will also begin to reopen larger, non-contact attractions including recreational parks, museums, racetracks, theaters, waterparks and auditoriums. Hotels and home-sharing are open and allowed, but with new safety measures.

The Nashville skyline. (Photo by Malcolm MacGregor/Getty Images)
The Nashville skyline. (Photo by Malcolm MacGregor/Getty Images)

Visit the state’s picturesque Capitol building, which has a gold leaf-covered dome that’s five feet taller than the US Capitol’s; the West Virginia State Museum, where you can learn about Appalachian history and culture; and the Avampato Discovery Museum, an interactive science museum for all ages.

Stroll down the tree-lined Capitol Street and stop into one of several restaurants there, or get tender barbecue with stellar sides from the acclaimed Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill.

All the major hotel chains are here. Use your Marriott points at the Charleston Marriott Town Center (Category 3, 15k to 20k points per night) or Four Points by Sheraton Charleston (Category 3, 15k to 20k points per night), or your Hilton Honors points at Embassy Suites Charleston Historic District (37k to 70k Hilton points per night).

From Charleston, head straight into Kentucky and the horse capital of Lexington. Visit the famous Keeneland Racecourse and tour the Kentucky Horse Park, then go to the revitalized Distillery District for pizza, ice cream, beer, live music and, of course, bourbon. From there, it’s a short drive to Louisville — stop at Claudia Sanders Dinner House for a classic southern family-style meal.

Louisville is full of attractions; some great family-friendly ones include the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, the Kentucky Science Center and cruising the Ohio River on the oldest river steamboat, the Belle of Louisville.

The original 21c Museum Hotel is in Louisville, and now that it’s part of Accor, you can use your points for a stay in the hotel with attached contemporary art museum (it’s also home to the acclaimed Proof on Main restaurant), or splurge at the historic and luxurious Seelbach Hilton (36k to 70k points per night).

Read more: Best Hilton credit cards for family vacations

Finally, head south to Nashville for a big finish in Music City, where you can stay at Marriott’s first triple-branded property while you check out attractions like the Country Music Hall of Fame, Radnor Lake State Park, Nashville Zoo and the Grand Ole Opry. Don’t forget to get some made in Nashville chocolatey treats at the Goo Goo Clusters Shop before flying out of Nashville International Airport (BNA).

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Lake Michigan highlights

Hug the lake on this drive that starts in Milwaukee, heads south to Chicago and then back up through Michigan, ending in Traverse City.

Wisconsin’s governor is encouraging people to maintain social distancing, but re-openings are being left to local governments. Even some amusement parks and water parks are opening. Illinois’ stay-at-home order is set to expire on May 29, but the state has already begun its phased reopening. On May 1, state parks were allowed to reopen and some other recreational activity was allowed to resume. In Chicago, religious services, gyms, museums and the lakefront will open later this summer (think July). Michigan has been under one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the nation with virtually everything closed except grocery stores. Some of those strict regulations have already been eased, but the official stay-home-order isn’t set to expire until May 28.Hotels are back open with new safety protocols. State parks and beaches are back open, but swimming pools are closed. Anyone traveling to the state from out-of-state is asked to quarantine for 14-days.

Fly into Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) and explore the city’s Lynden Sculpture Garden, Milwaukee Art Museum, natural history Milwaukee Public Museum and the hands-on Discovery World Science + Technology Center. Grab a burger and frozen custard at the famous Kopp’s. Kids are sure to love the spy-themed SafeHouse.

Use Hyatt points to stay at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee (from 8k points). You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to your Hyatt account at a 1:1 ratio. Or, spend Marriott points at the Milwaukee Marriott Downtown (Category 5 from 35k per night for standard room with two queen beds, or 55k per night for a similar room on the concierge level). This may be the time to use your up-to-35k Marriott free night certificate that you earn each year on the card anniversary of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.

Head south out of town, and in about an hour you’ll hit the Jelly Belly Visitors’ Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin: the perfect pit stop. From there it’s a little more than an hour to Chicago, with its loads of family-friendly hotel options and attractions like Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago Sports Museum and Millennium Park, to name a few.

A view at dusk of the Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier. (Photo by Gautam Krishnan / Unsplash)
A view at dusk of the Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier. (Photo by Gautam Krishnan / Unsplash)

From Chicago, curve around the lake shore, stopping at the stunning Indiana Dunes National Park for some outdoor lake time before driving up to the charming Holland, Michigan, a Dutch-founded town on the shores of Lake Macatawa that’s home to a centuries-old windmill, a tulip festival and Dutch-inspired food, like the classic pastries from deBoer Bakkerij & Dutch Brothers Restaurant.

The beautiful lakeshore includes Holland State Park, Laketown Beach, Tunnel Park and an adorable red lighthouse.

(Robert_Ford / Getty Images)
(Robert_Ford / Getty Images)

Traverse City is 168 miles north, with numerous small towns and the Huron-Manistee National Forest to explore along the way. Once in Traverse City, enjoy some well-earned beach time. (Most years if you’re there in July, you should check out the National Cherry Festival, although it’s been postponed for 2020 due to the coronavirus.)

For some real family fun, stay at Great Wolf Lodge and enjoy its indoor water park, or spend IHG Rewards Club points at West Bay Beach, a Holiday Inn Resort. Points availability can be hard to come by, but summertime stays start around $250 per night. You can earn points by spending on the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card. Fly out of Cherry Capital Airport (TVC).

Big Bend National Park in Texas

This 150-mile long national park along the Texas and Mexico border makes for a gorgeous and adventure-filled road trip. Fly in and out of El Paso International Airport (ELP) and then drive about 300 miles east to enter the remote park with a stop in Marfa along the way. Another option is to take an Amtrak train to Alpine, Texas, or start from the San Antonio/Austin area. Either way, you’ll likely enter the park at the town of Marathon, where you can stay at the historic Gage Hotel and eat at Brick Vault Brewery and Barbecue.

Gov. Greg Abbott lifted travel restrictions for travelers to Texas on May 20. As of May 21, all air travel restrictions to Texas have ended. All road travel restrictions have also been eliminated.

Driving through Big Bend National Park. (Photo by DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images)
Driving through Big Bend National Park. (Photo by DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images)

Once inside the 800,000-acre park, the epic drive presents picturesque attractions at every turn. Hugging the Rio Grande and containing the stunning Chisos Mountain Range, much of the park is inside the Chihuahuan Desert. Other highlights include driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, discovering the Terlingua Ghost Town, walking the Santa Elena nature trail, ziplining at Lajitas and exploring Boquillas Canyon. Best of all, there are plenty of kid-friendly hiking trails, and boat rides up the Rio Grande.

If you don’t want to camp, Big Bend Holiday Hotel has several options in the area, or stay at Lajitas Golf Resort. This isn’t a part of the world where traditional hotel points will do the trick, so look to your fixed-value points to defray your expenses.

Central California coast

California’s epic coastline is ripe for adventure, although under these current conditions, we highly suggest you check every single destination on your list to ensure that local COVID-19 ordinances permit exploration. The state is currently still under tight restrictions, which include injunctions to stay home except for essential travel or permitted activities.

Kids will enjoy exploring the central part of California the best: tons of animals, history and, of course, crashing waves. You can fly in and out of Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield (BFL).

First, drive to Pismo Beach. Check out the Monarch Butterfly Grove, walk the new Pismo Pier and rent a multi-person surrey that you can pedal down the boardwalk. Eat at Splash Cafe and sample the goods at Old West Cinnamon Rolls.

Spend the night with your Hilton Honors points at the Hilton Garden Inn San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach (23k–40k points per night), or try the lovely and affordable SeaCrest OceanFront Hotel.

Pismo Beach i(Photo by Geri Lavrov / Getty Images)
Pismo Beach (Photo by Geri Lavrov / Getty Images)

From there, get on the Pacific Coast Highway and head north along the coast to Morro Bay, where you can see the striking Morro Rock, the last of the Seven Sisters — a chain of ancient volcanoes that lie between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Try to catch it at sunset.

Then drive up to Cambria for a bit of farm love. Cuddle some goats, see goats and cows getting milked and of course eat some cheese at Stepladder Ranch and Creamery then ride on a Clydesdale horse at Covell’s California Clydedale Ranch. Explore the beautiful Moonstone Beach and grab a bite to eat at Robin’s.

Keep heading north to San Simeon, where you can’t miss the adorable seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, just off the highway. Then head inland a bit to visit the famous Hearst Castle and its 127 acres of gardens, pools and paths. If you’re lucky, you may even spot some zebras (yes, really!) on the tram ride up to the castle. Use 10k Choice Privileges points to sleep at the Quality Inn near Hearst Castle (San Simeon) or, for a more luxurious option, try the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort.

Hearst Castle view from plaza
The view of the Pacific Ocean from the South Terrace at Hearst Castle. (photo: SundryPhotography/Depositphotos.com)

Drive coastal Maine

The eastern coast of Maine is full of rocky cliffs, swirling waves and quaint lobster shacks, making it ideal for a drive up the winding roads that overlook the Atlantic.

The state that calls itself “Vacationland” has faced a serious challenge during the COVID-19 outbreak: how to maintain its visitor-friendly stance while also keeping the virus out of the state. If you’re visiting in the coming months, you can expect to be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. All of Maine’s lodging — including hotels, B&Bs, and home rentals — is closed currently though a plan for reopening is now in place. All of these businesses may begin accepting reservations for June 1 and later, though for out-of-state residents, the 14-day quarantine requirement still stands. Campgrounds are open as of Memorial Day weekend, but to Maine residents only. Services reopening in May include: golf courses; guided hunting, fishing and boating excursions with fewer than 10 participants; drive-in movie theaters; select state parks and trails, and marinas.

Start in Portland, a fun and walkable city where local COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to lift. If you need to, fly in and out of Portland International Jetport (PWM) or Boston’s Logan International Airport (BOS), which is two hours south of Portland. Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT) in Manchester, New Hampshire is a good Southwest Airlines destination as well.

Explore the city’s Old Port district where you can stop and buy the kids some fudge while you peruse pottery and jewelry. Then head to the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine and climb up the Portland Observatory for sweeping harbor views.

 

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Portland also has a great food scene. Some family friendly spots include Two Fat Cats Bakery, Duckfat, Silly’s and Salvage BBQ.

Use your Marriott points to spend the night at the Residence Inn Portland Downtown/Waterfront (Category 6, 40k to 60k points per night), which has an indoor pool. Or you can choose the funky Press Hotel (Category 7, 50k to 70k points per night), which is part of the Autograph Collection, if you can find availability. Alternatively, use your Marriott free night certificate that arrives on your card anniversary with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, which is valid on any hotel where an award night redemption costs 50,000 points or less. If you have Hilton Honors points, the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Waterfront Portland is a good option, where award nights range from 41k to 70k points.

Continue north through Freeport and stop at the L.L. Bean Outlet before heading on to Rockland. Visit the Farnsworth Museum and check out the Maine Lighthouse Museum and the Coastal Children’s Museum. Stop for hot dogs at Wasses or buy picnic supplies at local co-op the Good Tern and take them to Birch Point State Park. Rockland also hosts the Maine Lobster Festival every summer. If you want to use points, the Hampton Inn & Suites Rockland is your best bet (34k to 60k points per night).

From Rockland, drive north to Bar Harbor and the adjacent Acadia National Park for a few days of incredible hiking and biking, sailing and kayaking, swimming in Echo Lake and the best popovers in the state at the famous Jordan Pond House. For your local lobster fix, try Beal’s Lobster Pier. Use your Hilton Honors points (33k to 80k per night) at the seasonal Hampton Inn Bar Harbor (open from May to October under normal circumstances), which has panoramic ocean and mountain views as well as two pools. The Holiday Inn Bar Harbor Resort is another option at 50k IHG points per night.

Bottom Line

Road trips do not have to mean burning rubber all day to cover as much ground as possible. In fact, some of the best trips look nothing like that at all. They focus on amazing sights and experiences along the route.

Although states are still under varying phases of reopening as coronavirus restrictions are lifted across the country, many states are open for business for those travelers ready for a summer getaway. Make sure to do your research ahead of time and call any lodging and attractions on your itinerary to confirm their status, and make sure to be ready to comply with any PPE or social distancing requirements still in place. With a little planning, you can still pull off a great summer road trip.

Has your family hit the road? What was your favorite route? Let us know!

Additional reporting by Katherine Fan.

Featured image by Westend61 / Getty Images

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