Road trip: More families set to hit highways this year

LA Times | Travel

Mary Dulik is heeding the siren call of the road this spring, remembering the annual odysseys to Florida her family used to make in borrowed station wagons and camper vans during her 1970s childhood. John Denver tunes blared on the radio, sleeping children sprawled where they liked and mechani...

By Julie Johnson // 04.06.09

Mary Dulik is heeding the siren call of the road this spring, remembering the annual odysseys to Florida her family used to make in borrowed station wagons and camper vans during her 1970s childhood.

John Denver tunes blared on the radio, sleeping children sprawled where they liked and mechanical breakdowns were greeted with a shrug by her Orland Park parents and their brood of five.

Even the worst of those experiences now seem tinged with fun as she and husband Dan map out their first motor adventure with their two young daughters. They're among the millions of Americans planning to hit the highways this year as long-range drives come back into vogue.

It's a resurgence fed by cheaper gas, childhood memories and a general reluctance to splurge by people who are fearful for their jobs, travel analysts said.

Others are fed up with air travel, preferring the grind of the road to delays and fees. The final straw for the Duliks: paying a total of $400 to redeem airline miles for a trip to Hawaii and then retrieving those miles when they had to cancel the outing.

The Naperville family's 18-hour drive to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando will be far different from the outings Mary Dulik remembers.

She used to sleep on the family's luggage; her kids will be belted up. Her family amused themselves with a homemade version of Battleship; her two daughters will watch movies. Her family vehicles always seemed to break down; the Duliks already have shelled out $1,000 to tune up the family's Toyota Sienna.

"Somehow this isn't economical," Dan Dulik said. "It's so like the Brady Bunch."

Welcome to the great American road trip, 2009. From the Grand Canyon to Orlando to the Wisconsin Dells, concession and hotel operators are gearing up for a large influx of roadsters.

"In times like these--and we've seen this before--people tend to go back to things like national parks and heritage vacations to spend quality family time," said Bruce Bossman, director of reservations and sales for the Grand Canyon Railway, a tourist attraction that runs near the canyon's southern rim.

After losing her job, Mila Gumin has time to kill before she heads to law school in the fall. Instead of flying to Europe this summer, Gumin and two friends are cramming into Gumin's Pontiac Vibe hatchback and driving to California.

"When you don't know exactly what's going to happen, or when what did happen was not a good thing as in my case, it's definitely good to have people to share costs with," she said.

Motor marathons used to be an annual ritual when gas cost less than a buck per gallon and AM radio ruled. With five kids in tow, Mary Duliks' parents had to borrow larger transport from friends for their journeys. And those rides invariably broke down.

Even so, "I can't imagine my family even considered [other travel]," Mary Dulik said. "Dan's was the same way. You just drove."

Indeed, the urge to get up and go is etched in the American psyche. The boredom, scenery and travails of the trail are celebrated in American lore.

For 19th Century pioneers who settled the country in wagon trains, there was the cannibalism of the stranded Donner Party.

Mid-20th Century Americans got their kicks on Route 66. Anybody who grew up with a wood-paneled station wagon could identify with the Griswold family of the " National Lampoon's Vacation" movies.

Author Bill Bryson writes in "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America" that every year his father "became seized with a quietly maniacal urge to get out of the state and on vacation. … Every year it was the same. Every year it was awful."

But cross-country driving gradually fell out of favor as rising gas and auto prices coincided with falling airfares that followed airline industry deregulation in 1978. Increasingly, middle-class Americans confined their road trips to shorter jaunts and flew to satisfy their wanderlust.

Many people who've become accustomed to flying swear they won't go back to long-distance driving, even with the bad economy.

Patti and Brian McCumber of west suburban Montgomery say they would sacrifice spending on restaurant meals, if need be, in order to fly to Florida for a Disney vacation with their 3- and 6-year-old girls this spring. "I don't know how much it would save our family," Patti McCumber said. "And it would cost us time."

But the grind of road travel doesn't seem so bad for others who've endured epic flight delays or seen their 3-year-old children patted down by security officials, said travel writer Joe Brancatelli, founder of

Orlando felt the shift last year. During the first nine months of 2008, more out-of-state visitors drove to the central Florida tourist hub than flew--a reversal from previous years--Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. said.

AAA Chicago has seen a 25 percent surge so far this year in requests for TripTik, a mapping service for motorists plotting long car trips. Orlando is the top destination for its Chicago-area members this year, said Lisa Duryea, district manager for the automobile club.

Airlines, meanwhile, are slashing fares and flight schedules to vacation meccas like Orlando and Honolulu. "They're competing against gas prices and for people who just don't want to give up their cash," said Tom Parsons, founder of

Most Americans still spend summer vacations within a few hours' drive of home--a trend that is on the rise this year as more families tighten travel budgets. Devils Lake State Park in Wisconsin is gearing up for a peak summer after breaking attendance records last August. Campsites already are booked for Memorial and Labor Day weekends, said Steve Schmelzer, acting superintendent of the park, which attracts about 1.2 million visitors per year.

The Agnew family, originally from Chicago's western suburbs but now scattered around the Midwest, plans to gather in Galena, Ill., this August to celebrate the 80th birthday of the clan's matriarch, Evelyn Agnew Seers.

Their last big family outing, four years ago, was in Myrtle Beach, S.C. But this year they chose Galena because they didn't feel like splurging, Rick Agnew said. "It was like exploring something without going too far."

Agnew plans to load the car up with essentials from his childhood trips: Twizzlers for the drive, flashlights so his two daughters can explore their vacation digs at night.

During the three-hour journey, they'll play a game invented when he was a child. Every white-topped grain silo they pass will magically become an ice cream scoop. The first to see it will cry out: "There's one for Dad, there's one for Meredith."

Tribune reporters Wailin Wong and Becky Yerak contributed to this report.