Road Trip

Greetings from: Massachusetts

The Stuck at the Airport crew is on a road trip in Massachusetts.

And we’re taking in some of the classics, including looking for lobster and eating at classic diners.

Museums are on the list, of course. And we made a stop in Salem, MA to visit the Peabody Essex Museum, which has a wonderful exhibition about the city that goes way beyond the witches.

We were delighted to learn that Alexander Graham Bell completed the first successful long-distance telephone call from Salem in 1877. And that the Parker Brothers game and toy company, now a Hasbro brand, was founded in Salem in the late 1880s.

Witch weathervane and Monopoly game courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

Welcome Back, Tourists. Here are the Rules.

[This is a story we wrote for NBC News]

Americans embarking on spring break trips and summer vacations this year face a bevy of new fees, rules, and restrictions in some popular destinations that are rethinking how many visitors to welcome and what types of behavior to accept.

As the post-pandemic travel rebound continues, the return of tourists — and their wallets — is good news for most destinations. At the start of this year, more than half of Americans had plans to travel in the next six months, according to the U.S. Travel Association, and a third of leisure travelers are planning to travel more this year than last.

But taking a page from Venice, Italy, which banned cruise ships in 2021, and Amsterdam, which is launching a campaign to discourage its rowdiest revelers, many U.S. cities are welcoming back visitors on new terms — in some cases with higher price tags.

Lake Tahoe, California

This year, the Lake Tahoe, California, region had the misfortune to land on Fodor’s Travel’s list of places to reconsider visiting in 2023, after suffering traffic congestion, crowded hiking paths, and trashed beaches. It was the downside of a pandemic-era boom in visitors that many outdoor destinations saw while other activities were suspended or came with greater health risks.

“Locals felt the city was too small for the influx of people coming into town,” said Sonia Wheeler, community service officer for the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. “People couldn’t get home from the grocery store sometimes because there was too much traffic from tourists heading to or from the ski resorts.”

Officials hope to strike a new balance. Policies rolled out during and since the pandemic have tightened restrictions on vacation rentals around Lake Tahoe, with a combination of caps and outright bans in towns along its shoreline.

Now, sixteen area groups are trying to hammer out a stewardship plan that recognizes that “our environment, our economy, and our communities are wholly interconnected,” said Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Executive Director Julie Regan. Ideas on the table include parking reservations and encouraging off-peak visits, an agency spokesperson said.

In the meantime, strict enforcement of new laws targeting vacationers — including $500 fines for noise complaints and for using outdoor hot tubs from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. — have helped.

“Locals still have concerns about the influx of tourists,” Wheeler said, “but since most vacation rentals have been outlawed, except for certain areas of town, our officers aren’t responding to as many complaints.”

The pandemic was a mixed blessing for many destinations

Early on, it gave some communities “a chance to breathe and enjoy their towns, and parks, and beach without the crowds, traffic, noise, etc.,” said Alix Collins of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Travel. But it “also gave them a time to think about how to better manage tourism moving forward.”

As with Lake Tahoe, many areas’ recalibration efforts are “more of a result of the pot boiling over” from tourism pressures, particularly “on traffic, housing, and daily life,” said Seleni Matus, the executive director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Elsewhere, the challenge is getting visitors to better coexist with locals.

“A good example is Port Aransas, Texas,” said Cathy Ritter, whose consulting firm, Better Destinations, helped the Gulf Coast town on a barrier island outside Corpus Christi develop a marketing campaign and a mascot aimed at guests.

One goal, she said, was “to educate visitors on the etiquette of using the golf carts locals use to get around.”

Fees At Popular Hawaii Parks

In Hawaii, where state officials expect tourist numbers to recover fully by 2025, a program of timed reservation tickets for out-of-state visitors that rolled out at popular state attractions just before the pandemic is being expanded.

As of last May, nonresident visitors at Oahu’s Diamond Head State Monument, one of Hawaii’s most heavily trafficked parks, must pay $5 per person for timed entry reservations and $10 for parking. Previously, all comers were welcome, anytime, for $1 per person and $5 for parking.

“Before we put the timed reservation system in place, Diamond Head could have more than 6,000 visitors on a busy day,” said Curt Cottrell, administrator of Hawaii’s Division of State Parks. “Everyone wanted to hike at sunrise or in the morning, and the parking lot could be a crushing mass of walk-ins, Ubers, rental cars, and trolleys.”

The timed system caps visitors at 3,000 daily and spreads them out throughout the day. “Now the summit isn’t crowded, there aren’t long lines at the bathrooms and we’re generating four times the revenue with half the people,” Cottrell said.

Separately, a proposed $50 “green fee” — modeled on arrival charges levied in Ecuador’s Galápagos National Park ($100 per person), Bhutan ($200 per day), Costa Rica ($15 per person), Palau ($100 per person) and elsewhere — is working its way through the Hawaii Legislature.

Glacier National Park visitors 1960

On the U.S. mainland, a timed vehicle reservation program — piloted over the last two summers to reduce crowding during popular times at Rocky MountainGlacier, and Arches national parks — will be back in force this summer.

The reservation fee is in addition to vehicle entry fees collected at most national parks.

“Visitation numbers continue to climb toward pre-pandemic levels,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief spokesperson for the National Park Service. “Parks piloting these systems are seeing less congestion at the entrance stations, on the roads and trails, and in parking areas, resulting in improved visitor experiences and visitor safety.”

The changes have drawn some concerns about potential inequities in accessing public parks.

“I love and support” efforts to protect destinations and improve the visitor experience, said Todd Montgomery, director of the Sustainable Tourism Lab at Oregon State University, “but how you do that can be a slippery slope.”

Extra fees and reservation systems can create barriers for visitors with limited travel budgets, those who can’t easily access the internet, and people whose jobs make it difficult to plan vacations months ahead, Montgomery said, “so it needs to be done in a thoughtful, equitable and fair way.”

Other outdoor destinations are focused on coaxing better conduct out of guests.

Starting in 2017, trail ambassadors stationed at many popular Oregon trailheads have been offering advice to visitors on safety, ethical use of public lands, and Leave No Trace practices.

“At the time, we were hearing from local sheriff’s offices needing support for search and rescue, from land managers about increasing issues around trash and dog poop on trails, and visitors creating social trails in unauthorized areas,” said Elizabeth Keenan of the Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance.

“All those issues increased during the pandemic, with new recreators and ‘pandemic dogs’ out on the trails,” Keenan said. Ambassadors now spend more time guiding visitors to restrooms and water access, describing the terrain and elevation for better decision-making, and passing out poop bags, she said.

Some communities are simply steering visitors away.

Citing concerns that a potential oil or sewage spill from a visiting cruise ship could harm California’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Monterey City Council voted in February to stop providing dockside support to cruise liners, effectively telling them to go somewhere else.

And they are. Before the pandemic, 15 to 20 cruise ships stopped at Monterey Bay each year, said City Manager Hans Uslar. “Now I see in their advertising that the port of Monterey is out, and instead they’re spending another day at sea,” he said.

Before the pandemic, tourism income in Monterey County averaged about $3.2 billion annually, of which about $1.5 million came from cruise passengers, Uslar said.

“I’m OK with the loss of the cruise income,” he said, “because in return, the product we are selling — which is the natural beauty of Monterey Bay — is now a tiny bit safer. And that is not something you can quantify in millions of dollars.

Road Trip Memories

Courtesy Library of Congress

Road trips can evoke nostalgia for childhood, family, and adventures. And for many people, there are objects and in-the-car experiences indelibly tied to those journeys. 

For some, it is a game, a song, a special snack, the seating arrangements, or a life lesson.

Here are some road trip memories we gathered for a story that ran on AAA Journey.

Please feel free to add your own road trip memories in the comments.

Windshield Duty

As a kid on family road trips, “I was too young to drive, had no radio rights and no money to contribute for gas or snacks,” says Michael Ashley Schulman, who grew up to be an investment officer in Southern California.

But Schulman could help wash the windows when the family stopped for fuel during road trips.

“To this day, swirling a sopping wet sponge on a stick across an insect-laden front windshield, cleanly squeegeeing the water in long methodical swipes with a rubber blade, and then wiping the run lines down with gas station brown paper reminds me of childhood summer road trips across America,” Schulman says.

Music and Singing

Peg Boettcher remembers driving with her family from Illinois to California in a blue-and-white finback station wagon when she and her brother were, respectively, 3 and 4 years old.

“We sang B-I-N-G-O all the way there,” says Boettcher, “And when we reached our destination, we were forbidden from ever singing that song again. When I hear that song now, I think of my poor dad white-knuckling it for days.”

When he was a kid, “no movie made a greater impression on me than ‘Rocky,’” says Baruch Labunksi, a digital marketing entrepreneur in Toronto. “Sylvester Stallone was every man, and I remember wanting to know what it would feel like to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art like he did in the movie.”

When his family drove from Toronto to Philadelphia, Labunski’s parents played the Rocky soundtrack along the way, timing it so that the move theme song, ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ was playing as they approached the art museum. “Now, I always make a playlist for road trips, and I’ve even made ones afterward to commemorate a trip,” Labunski says.

Treats, Games, and Souvenirs

For Heather Clardy Dickie, a creative director based in Dallas, road trips were all about the hidden treats.

“Mom bought dime store toys and hid them around the car,” Dickie says. “We had many cross-country family trips, and these judiciously timed offerings distracted my little brother and me from the pent-up restlessness and the outbreak of sibling wars. The toys led to game-playing and, most importantly, preserved my dad’s sanity.”

David Shaw, now a facilities director in Pittsburgh, was the youngest of 12 kids. He says when he was growing up, the family vacations always involved car trips to see older siblings that had moved away.

“We always stopped at the first Stuckey’s [a highway truck-stop chain]. My mom would get butter pecan ice cream, and we would pick up Mad Libs,” Shaw says. “On the road, we would play games such as Punch Buggy, I Spy With My Little Eye, and spot the license plate from the farthest away state.”

Seattle cookbook author Cynthia Nims associates road trips with games, including “one that had things to look for (a cow, a water tower, etc.) and a little red window to cover items after you’d seen them. I haven’t thought about that in years.”


Boston-based travel writer Keri Baugh says Chex Mix always reminds her of road trips in the 1980s. “That snack, coupled with canned/powdered Lipton iced tea in a cooler immediately takes me back to that long road trip from Pittsburgh to Orlando,” she says.

For Shelia Jaskot, a media consultant in Silver Spring, Maryland, it is Cheetos. “Growing up my parents never let us eat anything in the car. I thought it was normal. I never knew people ate food on road trips until I started driving myself,” Jaskot says.

Now when she takes road trips with her husband, they buy a bag of puffed Cheetos (she stays away from them at home because they are high calorie and messy). “They can be dangerous, but sometimes a yummy snack is worth the long drive,” she says.

Memories of Lost Items

On long road trips, treasures and essentials like food, books, stuffed animals, and sunglasses may get lost.

For Eric White, an account director who lives near Chicago, it was a tiny set of keys.

“In the mid-80s, when I was 6 or 7 years old, the family was on a road trip from Illinois to the ‘West,’ and, at Wall Drug [a tourist mall in South Dakota] I bought a pair of handcuffs,” White says. “Soon after, with the handcuffs on, I lost the keys through the back of the seat. The next stop was Mount Rushmore, where my parents made me wear the handcuffs. When we returned to the car, they cut me loose from them with a paperclip. Oh, the memories!”

Roadside Stops

Road trips often involve scheduled or — better yet — unscheduled detours to visit roadside attractions such as the Oregon Vortex in Gold Hill, Oregon, or the World’s Largest Frying Pan in Long Beach, Washington.

Negotiating for those stops can be a memorable road-trip tradition.

“We had property up near Darrington, Washington, on the Stillaguamish River that we would visit during the summer,” says David Lynx, director of the Larson Art Gallery at Yakima Valley College. His dad would often pull off the highway for a trip through the giant drive-through cedar stump on Highway 99, which is now a walk-through attraction at the Smokey Point rest stop near Arlington along I-5.

“It was always fun for us kids, but my dad got tired of this over the years,” Lynx says. “So, he would drive past it and tell us, kids, that we would go through it on the way back. The only thing was that you couldn’t reach it when you were traveling southbound because the stump was on the northbound side of the highway.

“It took us a couple of times, but we learned that trick.”

Road Trip: Ellensburg, Washington

Far off adventures don’t really need to be that far away from home.

Our road trip team spent the afternoon in Ellensburg, WA, just about two hours from Stuck at The Airport headquarters in Seattle. And while we didn’t get to do everything on our list, we revisited two favorite places with fresh, post-pandemic (we hope) eyes.

Dick and Jane’s Spot

We’ve pulled off the highway numerous times over the years just to see Dick and Jane’s Spot, across from the police station at 1st and Pearl St., and it always delights us.

The art-filled yard of artists Jane Orelman and Dick Elliott (now deceased) has changed a wee bit over the years, but it’s still ” dedicated to the philosophy of ‘one hearty laugh is worth ten trips to the doctor.’

Kittitas County Historical Museum

Some people skip the historical museums when they visit small towns. We start there. And the Kittitas County Historical Museum is one of our all-time favorites, with exhibits on everything from antique cars, and the famed Ellensburg Blue Agate, to medical and military history, and a hallway filled with neon signs rescued from long-gone local establishments.

Bonus: Double rainbow spotted from the hotel parking lot

Nice to end the day with a double rainbow,

Good – and bad – news for summer road trips

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

American travelers are expected to hit the open road by the tens of millions this summer.

But this is some news they could probably do without: gas prices, when adjusted for inflation, are expected to average $3.84 a gallon for regular this summer, the highest level since 2014.

That’s according to estimates released Tuesday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent research organization. 

Prices like that, combined with the highest level of inflation in more than 40 years, will keep some travelers off the road and cause others to rethink their plans. But a survey done by AAA in early March, when average gas prices reached record highs, found that of the 52 percent of Americans planning to take a vacation this summer, 42 percent said they would not consider changing their travel plans regardless of the price of gas.

Juliette Coulter would have liked to be in that 42 percent. She hasn’t seen her parents, who are in their 80s, or her extended family for more than three years. There will be a big family reunion in July in Lake Tahoe, California. Coulter is not going to miss it, but some of her plans have changed. 

“We talked about driving to the reunion from here in Dallas and stopping along the way at the Grand Canyon. But then gas prices just started going higher,” she said. “With the gas, the hotels, and the meals there and back, we figured out it would be less expensive overall for our family of five to fly.” 

Airfares on her route have gone up, too. But she was able to use frequent flyer points for some of the tickets. And she bought the rest. 

“I guess the Grand Canyon will have to wait,” she said.

Some things can’t wait. Charles Jaferian will be a high school senior in the fall, and he has decisions to make about college. He and his father, Warren Jaferian, a dean at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, had plans to visit 19 schools over spring break and the summer. Now they will be making some of those visits online, and some without Charles Jaferian’s mother, due to the rising cost of travel. 

After driving 800 miles to see eight schools in Pennsylvania during spring break, “it became apparent that we needed to curtail our travels and rethink our travel plans accordingly, given high gas prices, distances between prospective universities, and higher prices for all associated hotel, dining, and other costs,” Warren Jaferian said. “A virtual visit is good, but it’s just not the same as seeing a campus in person and being able to ‘see’ yourself there.” 

Relief from high gas prices

Cities and states would like travelers to be able to “see themselves” in their towns, too. Many have instituted or are considering gas tax holidays to keep drivers coming.

Lawmakers in more than 20 states have introduced legislation that would put a pause on gas taxes or temporarily reduce tax rates, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Drivers could save an average of $4 every time they fill their gas tanks as a result of the pauses, an NBC News analysis showed.

That could pay off for someone like Gary Whitehead, who spends a lot of time at the gas station. Since 2020, Whitehead has been traveling the country in a Toyota Tundra with an 18-foot trailer hitched to the back. Without the trailer, the Tundra gets 15 miles to the gallon; with the trailer, it gets less than 9 mpg. 

Whitehead is about to head up the California coast to the Pacific Northwest. 

“I’m spending more time planning and using various applications to find gas, camping spots, and more direct routes,” he said in an email sent during a stop at a campsite with limited cell phone service. “I just checked gas prices in Santa Maria, and they are $5.70 a gallon there now. Blah!”

To encourage travelers to get in their cars, this summer some hotels are rolling out packages that include gas rebate cards and other road trip-friendly incentives.

For example, the Drake Oak Brook, near Chicago just launched an “Are We There Yet?” package that includes a $75 gas card, a car freshener, a road trip kit with card games, a travel pillow, and other goodies, plus a to-go meal for two and pre-departure coffee drink. (Prices start at $395). Guests who show their gas receipt when checking in at the Georgian Lakeside Resort in Lake George, NY get $20 off each night of a minimum 3-night stay. And Sentral, which offers short- or long-term apartment stays in Austin, Miami, Chicago, and Denver has a Summer Road Trip offer that includes a daily $15 gas credit on a minimum 4-night stay.

Of course, there are ways to eliminate the sting of high gas prices. Drive something that doesn’t take gas.

Some rental car companies have hybrids and electric vehicles in their fleets. But they’re tough to get ahold of, “and they’re renting at a premium of well over $100 or $120 a day when a normal vehicle is $40 or $60 a day,” said Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics at J.D. Power. “The average American pays about $50 more a month every time gas goes up by $1 per gallon. As painful as that is, you’d have to drive a lot each day to make (renting) economically feasible.”