Navigate Fourth of July traffic with helpful apps and alternative destinations

WASHINGTON — The grill is ready, the sunscreen is stocked, and for many Americans, the luggage is packed.

This Fourth of July weekend, nearly 42 million people will trek 50 miles or more from their homes to celebrate the holiday, AAA predicts — the highest number since 2007.

“A large reason for the bump up in travel is the fact that the economy is stronger this year, the jobs report has had a slight uptick, and also gas is cheaper than it’s been in at least five years,” says Laura Powell, travel expert and blogger at The Daily Suitcase.

But the good news for the American economy isn’t the best news for those planning a weekend getaway.  Of the 42 million people expected to travel for the Fourth, an estimated 85 percent will drive to their destinations.

If you’re hitting the road, it’s best to pack your patience. Of course there are also a number of free apps that can help you along your journey. Here are Powell’s top picks:

  • The driving app Waze has become a popular tool for many drivers, thanks to its crowdsourced map and navigation system, which alerts users to real-time traffic situations, such as jammed roads, police traps and road hazards.
  • Members of AAA can download the association’s app for free. The tool has maps, provides navigation and allows users to submit requests for roadside assistance. It also offers recommendations for rated hotels and restaurants.
  • Sit or Squat is perhaps one of the most unique apps in the travel market. In search of a clean restroom? The app, which is sponsored by Charmin, allows users to search for nearby restrooms, and even filter by cleanliness, handicap access and more. “Especially if you have kids and you’re in search of clean restrooms, it’s nice to have that one,” Powell says.
  • If you need to fill up but don’t want to get ripped off, Gas Buddy comes in handy. The app searches for the cheapest gas in the area. Users can also search by city, state and ZIP code to find the best deal on fuel.
  • Hotel Tonight is the perfect tool for planning a spontaneous trip or for finding a last-minute deal when driving through the night isn’t an option. The app posts deals that users can book for that night. Powell warns that the app doesn’t list hotels everywhere in the country, but it covers most of the major markets.

Another way to escape the traffic on I-95 and other highly traveled beach-access roads is to avoid those roads completely. Instead, opt for an alternative Fourth of July vacation.

“A lot of people are going to be going east to the ocean, so I recommend going west, instead,” Powell says. “Head toward the mountains; the weather is going to be cooler and the traffic is going to be a lot lighter.”

Harpers Ferry in West Virginia is a great town for outdoor adventure; there’s plenty of hiking, zip lining and white water rafting. Visitors can also take guided tours through the historic town, and visit museums and exhibits.

If being on the water is still your idea of a perfect Fourth, consider driving to a nearby lake, rather than a beach. Smith Mountain Lake is located in Bedford County, Virginia, just outside of Roanoke, and is about a five-hour drive down Route 29 from the D.C. area. Many lake visitors rent houses, but there are also nearby hotels and camping options for last-minute travelers.

For a day-trip option, drive out Route 66 and branch off to a number of Virginia vineyards. Many, such as The Winery at Bull Run, Trump Winery, Keswick Vineyards and Boxwood Winery, have live music, food and other festive events planned for July 4. If you’re out that way, Swing by Great Meadow for the area’s largest fireworks display.

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