8 frugal family summer road trips to take

Whether you want to weave past otherworldly landscapes in iconic national parks, zigzag along craggy coastlines or discover quirky roadside attractions in charming small towns this summer, there are plenty of curious, captivating and offbeat routes to take. And if you don’t want to navigate airport security or pay sky-high prices for plane tickets, road-tripping offers an enticing vacation option.

To maximize savings on your journey, use tools such as the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator and GasBuddy to estimate gas pricing and pinpoint the cheapest nearby stations, says George W. Stone, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Travel. Ready to plot an incredible summer drive? Here are eight ideas from avid family road-trippers to get you started.

Hop on Virginia and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

This 469-mile route traverses quirky mountain towns, scenic overlooks and picturesque trails and cultural sites. The Blue Ridge Parkway is easily accessible from the nation’s capital and the Baltimore metro area, Budget Travel’s editor-in-chief Robert Firpo-Cappiello adds, making it an easy drive for families craving a quick weekend getaway outdoors. Plus, the route hits two prized (and popular) national parks — Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To dodge heavy crowds and costs, Firpo-Cappiello suggests planning a weekday trip and researching camping options. You’ll also find budget-friendly inns, hotels and lodges across the area, making planning a wallet-friendly family getaway a breeze.

This Wednesday, May 9, 2010 photo shows the view from an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Rocky Knob in Floyd, Virginia. (AP Photo/Zinie Sampson)

Drive along U.S. Route 1 in the Florida Keys.

If you’re looking for a fuss-free car trip, consider cruising along the Overseas Highway, says George W. Stone, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Travel. Winding from Miami to Key West, the 113-mile drive packs plenty of scenery, kitsch and kid-friendly attractions. “Families can stop at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to go snorkeling or take a glass-bottom boat, or they can visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon,” he says. Another must: Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for Key lime pie, he adds. For more activity, head to Bahia Honda State Park for some swimming, picnicking and quality time on an actual beach — a rarity in the Florida Keys, he says. Trim expenses by packing a cooler with drinks and nonperishable snacks, he adds.

In this handout provided by Florida Keys News Bureau, traffic rolls on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway on Oct. 16, 2009, in Islamorada, Florida. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau via Getty Images)

Explore southern Utah and Arizona on a Grand Circle tour.

With a mix of sweeping landscapes and dramatic rock formations, the 1,500-mile Grand Circle tour across two national monuments, six national parks and unexpected treasures from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is spellbinding. “Southern Utah plays host to beautiful national parks, with opportunities to hike and drive through Zion and Bryce Canyon, and northern Arizona is home to Monument Valley, which will make you feel as if you’ve stepped right into an old Hollywood Western,” says Firpo-Cappiello. Stone also suggests driving along this classic route — through Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands — to forge lifelong memories together as a family.

In this photo, tourists pose for pictures at Monument Valley on Aug. 25, 2011 in Monument Valley, Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Take a scenic journey across Montana from Glacier to Yellowstone.

For the ultimate park-to-park adventure, drive across Big Sky Country, Firpo-Cappiello says. “This trip [along U.S. Highway 2] takes you from the heights of the Continental Divide and canoeing on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, Montana, through the Flathead Valley and beautiful Flathead Lake and the scenic town of Bigfork, to Philipsburg,” he says. In Philipsburg, a quirky small town, you’ll find versatile food and lodging options. And if you’re driving with wildlife enthusiasts, head to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Afterward, continue on for “jaw-dropping waterfalls, bison sightings and the iconic Old Faithful,” Firpo-Cappiello says. Best of all, with plenty of affordable campsites and lodges at Yellowstone, it’s easy to stick to a budget.

In this photo, mountains are seen behind Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park in Montana on May 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Mike Albans)

Cruise along the Cajun Coast.

Beyond the moss-covered trees and storied antebellum buildings lining the Big Easy, Louisiana’s Cajun Coast offers a fun family getaway. “Its music, wildlife and food make it a vibrant and memorable trip from start to finish. Lake Charles, the gateway to this trip, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, so now is the time to go,” Stone says. Stone also suggests visiting the Mardi Gras Museum and the Jungle Gardens for some wildlife spotting. From Lake Charles, head to New Orleans for a 205-mile drive along Interstate 10, or if you’re planning a Labor Day trip, Stone suggests lingering in Lake Charles to attend the annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival.

In this Aug. 9, 2010 file photo, oyster samples are seen as John Supan, background, a marine biologist with Louisiana State University, pulls oyster samples from his hatchery in Grand Isle, Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, file)

Plan an all-American road trip though the Midwest.

For an off-the-beaten-track road trip, head to Michigan, says Sarah Stocking, Lonely Planet’s eastern U.S. editor. An easy drive from Chicago with abundant opportunities for breaks, a Michigan road trip is ideal for Midwest-based families with young kids, she says, highlighting that the state’s white-sand beaches and brilliant sunsets merit their own visit. From Chicago, head north to Holland, Michigan, along Interstate 196 to give the kids a history lesson, “complete with a 260-year-old windmill at the center of a sprawling public park,” she says. Then, continue north on U.S. Route 31 to Frankfurt, a laid-back surf town, before stopping in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and finishing in Traverse City. Plus, the kids will get a kick out of the National Cherry Festival from July 1-8, which includes time-honored traditions such as parades, an art competition and face painting.

In this photo, a Chicago Transit Authority Green Line train travels West away from downtown Chicago on March 23, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Explore hot springs and other natural wonders in Colorado and Wyoming.

For an unconventional road trip, “put the pedal to the metal and head for Colorado’s hot springs,” Stone says. In Steamboat Springs, “you can soak near wildflower meadows and aspen groves at Strawberry Park Hot Springs.” From there, Stone suggests driving to Glenwood Springs and onward toward Buena Vista, where you’ll find affordable family-friendly accommodations, including nearby Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort. “Along the way, go hiking, stop and sip some craft beer and feast like the ultimate locavore at the Boulder Farmers Market,” he says. For another outside-the-box route, Stock suggests driving from Denver to Grand Teton National Park (roughly a 550-mile journey) filled with hiking, soaks in hot springs and outdoor exploration.

In this Aug 25, 2016 file photo, visitors stroll with their baby as the sun at dawn illuminates mountain peaks as seen from Signal Mountain in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

Cruise along the Cape.

Cape Cod is home to miles of white-sand beaches, sea cliffs and plenty of lobster rolls and ice cream stops in between,” Stone says. For a quintessential New England road trip, plan a 160-mile ride from Cape Cod Canal, skirting Cape Cod Bay along the northern coast head south to explore many unique towns — from funky Provincetown to Chatham to Hyannis to Falmouth. Along the way, make sure to carve out some time to explore the Cape Cod National Seashore before continuing on U.S. Route 6 to wind past charming lighthouses, sublime sea views, quaint bed-and-breakfasts and, of course, requisite clam shacks and low-key beach towns.

In this photo, people watch the ocean with binoculars on Lighthouse Beach on Cape Cod on Aug. 12, 2012 in Chatham, Massachusetts. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(1/8)

More from U.S. News

6 Amazing All-American Road Trips to Take This Summer

The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

The Ultimate Florida Keys Road Trip

8 Frugal Family Road Trips to Take This Summer originally appeared on usnews.com

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2021 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up