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Affordable High-Tech Cars: Your Road Trip BFF

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
updated September 29, 2021
2017 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel 018
Courtesy Chevrolet
A new generation of automobiles delivers fuel efficiency, safety, entertainment, and interactivity minus the sticker shock.

Budget Travel has been celebrating the Great American Road Trip for more than two decades, and while some of our favorite drives (think Utah’s National Parks, New England’s autumn leaves, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula...) remain the same, the vehicles in which Americans hit the road have evolved exponentially.

For Budget Travelers like me, who came of age when a car was, well, just a convenient means to get from Point A to Point B, the latest crop of high-tech rides c3an seem a little sci-fi - you’re basically driving a hybrid smartphone/entertainment center that talks. For that reason, we sometimes assume all that technology is out of reach for thrifty shoppers.

Nope.

A new generation of reasonably priced cars, such as the latest models of the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, Toyota Yaris, Ford Focus, and Subaru Impreza, offers an array of tech-driven benefits that will transform your next road trip. 

Some of the features that are standard or reasonably available in cars under $20,000 include:

Wi-Fi. You can enliven your next family road trip by Skyping with family and friends (or co-workers, if you’re into that kind of thing), or downloading music, books, TV,  and movies to your devices while on the move.

Interactivity. For those of you who can’t bear to be separated from your phone, texting, and music apps, features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto put those apps right on your car’s display screen, allowing you to talk to Siri, Google Maps, and other programs.

Mobile App. Some manufacturers offer an app that transforms your phone or tablet into Mission Control for your car. Send driving directions to your vehicle before you get behind the wheel, start or stop your engine, lock or unlock the doors, or check on Wi-Fi settings and diagnostic information ahead of your trip.

On top of the interactive features, we’re seeing great fuel efficiency (especially from the Chevy Cruze Diesel), safety features like a rear-view camera for help with parking and rear traffic, and unexpected roominess in smaller cars that allows for all the packing space you need and some elbow room for passengers.

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Road TripsTravel Tips

Read This Before You Rent a Car

Despite rising gas prices, 80 percent of U.S. families are planning a road trip this summer, up 10 percent from last year, a recent AAA survey found. But for many people, taking that dream road trip requires renting a car, which can be a stressful, confusing, and expensive process. The rental car industry is notorious for its array of sometimes confusing options for customers. Last year one in five car renters reported problems with their service, according to J.D. Power’s annual North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study. For consumers, the rental car counter can be treacherous. “Rental car agents are paid on commission, so they’re incentivized to try to upsell you for everything,” says Jonathan Weinberg, creator of AutoSlash.com, a service that tracks rental price changes to help get consumers the best deals. “If you ask whether you need something, they’re going to say yes.” Also, since many rental car companies are good at burying fees and surcharges in long rental agreements—you know, the paperwork you barely glance at before signing—the onus is on you to thoroughly research your options. Indeed, “when renting a car, it’s a ‘buyer beware’ transaction,” says Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group, which tracks the rental car industry. Follow these steps to drive down the costs on your next rental car and enjoy a cheaper, happier road trip. Bring your own transponder Going through a toll can bring unexpected fees when you use the rental car company’s transponder (e.g., E-ZPass, SunPass). “It varies by company, but usually you’re going to get charged a convenience fee of $5 a day starting on the first day that you use it,” says Weinberg. In other words, if you’re traveling for a week and go through a toll on the first day, you’ll get charged a $35 fee for the whole week regardless of whether you go through more tolls. READ: "15 Last Minute Weekend Escapes" Thus, you’ll want to use your own transponder on the trip. If you need to buy one, you can do so online or at some convenience stores like Publix, CVS or Walgreens. Don’t prepay for the car Many rental car companies give you the option to prepay for the rental in exchange for a reduced price, but there are some major caveats. For starters, you’re locking yourself into that price point, but rates often drop as the pickup date approaches—potentially below the prepay rate that you accepted earlier. If that happens and you try to re-book for the lower rate, you’ll get slapped with a cancellation fee of about $50, which could effectively negate the amount of money you’d save by rebooking. The good news is you can still reserve a vehicle without paying for it upfront; then, if the rate drops, you simply cancel and rebook. “Renting a car is not like booking a seat on a flight, where you’re stuck with the reservation,” says Mark Mannell, chief executive of CarRentalSavers.com. “There’s no penalty for cancelling and rebooking.” Don’t prepay for gas When you pick up the car, you’re given the option to pay ahead of time for the car company to refill the gas tank when you return the vehicle. However, you’ll save money by refilling the tank yourself for a couple reasons. First, “anything that’s left in the fuel tank that you bought is non-refundable if you opted to prepay for gas,” says Abrams. Also, when you prepay for gas, the rental company charges you the “local market rate” for the fuel but it’s often more expensive than gas stations that are just a few miles away. “Rental car companies aren’t gas stations,” says Abrams. “They provide fuel as an accommodation, and they charge a premium for it.” READ: "25 Most Beautiful Cities in America" To maximize your savings, use the free GasBuddy app (available on iPhone and Android) to find the cheapest station near the airport. When you return the car, take a photo of the fuel gauge in case the rental car company tries to charge you refueling fee later, advises Abrams. Take photos of pre-existing damage Many companies will provide an inspection report when you pick up the car, but you should still take photos of any pre-existing damage. (Many camera phones also let you time stamp pictures.) If there is pre-existing damage, make sure the rental agent records it in the agreement. Also, don’t forget to take photos when you return the car, says Mannell. Don’t automatically buy rental car insurance Insurance through the rental car company can cost up to $50 a day, depending on the plan you select, but you may already be covered through your existing car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, or credit card. Weinberg says most auto insurance policies include coverage for rental cars. Still, it’s good to check with your insurance company or credit card issuer ahead of time to make sure you’re covered. (NerdWallet.com, a credit card comparison website, has compiled a list of which cards include rental car insurance.) Look into renting from an off-airport location Airports often charge rental car companies airport concession fees, which the rental companies then pass on to customers. As a result, daily rates at off-airport stations can be up to $20 or $30 cheaper per day, so it’s wise to survey your options. Just make sure you factor in the cost of a taxi or Uber ride to the off-site location when comparing prices. After all, “if you’ll wind up paying $50 for a taxi, it may not be worth it,” says Abrams. Compare rates at independent agencies Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise are the three largest rental car companies, but there are a number of smaller agencies that offer competitive rates, such as Fox Rent a Car and Advantage. But you may have to make some concessions if you rent from one of these companies. “You’re not usually going to get newer car models at discount agencies,” says Weinberg. Also, a lot of independent agencies don’t have airport locations. One car rental agency you may want to research carefully is Payless. The Better Business Bureau recently issued a nationwide warning to consumers after having received more than 800 complaints about Payless in the past three years. (The BBB has given the company an F rating.) READ: Read This Before You Book a Vacation Rental Redeem discounts for premium memberships Rental car companies offer discounts to members of frequent flier programs and credit card holders; AAA, Costco, and BJ’s also offer members deals on rental cars. These discounts can often be combined with discount codes from the rental car company. For example, a full-size car rental from Hertz at Ronald Reagan National Airport was $281.85 in a recent search, but plugging in a AAA member discount code and a Hertz discount code dropped the rate to $201.90.

Road Trips

Northwest Nirvana in Oregon

DAY 1: Portland to Mt. Hood Maple-bacon-wrapped dates, a fried-egg sandwich, a side of biscuits with huckleberry jam—from the spread in front of us, you’d think my family and I are fueling up for a triathlon. In truth, the only physical activity we have planned between now and lunch is a quick waterfall hike, but we’re at Tasty n Sons, a Portland brunch institution, and when you’re here, you eat (tastynsons.com). Tasty n Sons is our launch point for our road trip from Portland to central Oregon. Our mission: to convince our almost-5-year-old son, Theo, that road trips are the best trips so that he and his younger brother, Baxter—who, for now, follows Theo’s lead in every way—will happily pile into the car anytime we want to explore our country. If we fail? We set ourselves up for years of are we there yet?” pleas from the backseat. As we head east on Highway 84, Darrell talks up our first stop, telling the kids all about Multnomah Falls, a 611-foot-tall waterfall a quick 40 minutes outside of Portland. A secret spot this is not—2.5 million people visit the falls each year—but that doesn’t make it any less spectacular. Theo is appropriately awed when we step out of the car and get our first glimpse. His only disappointment is that we can’t get right up next to the actual water—a sentiment I anticipated, which is why I choose Horsetail Falls as our next stop. There’s not an official count of waterfalls in Oregon, but there are at least 238, and likely more. Horsetail Falls is one of my favorites for a few reasons. For starters, getting there requires a drive along Historic Columbia River Highway, a narrow two-laner covered by a canopy of evergreens. And then there’s the hike in—an easy 15-minute climb of switchbacks that stops you in your tracks with surprise views of the Columbia River Gorge. But the waterfall itself is the real draw. The falls shoot out in the shape of a horsetail, and hikers can walk not just right up to the water but also behind it, thanks to a cave-like overhang in the rocky bluff. On warm summer days, the pool formed by the falls is a playground for swimmers and their dogs, but temps today are in the mid-60s, so we settle for dipping our toes in the chilly waters. By the time we get to Hood River, a small town whose placement on a bend in the Columbia River draws windsurfers from around the world, we’re ready for lunch. Pfriem Family Brewers feels tailor-made for us, with seasonally inspired pub fare—including a children’s menu with more than just mac and cheese—and a corner toy area where kids can play while their parents finish their IPAs and fresh-hop brews (pfriembeer.com). The brewpub is also in the ideal location: right across the street from Hood River Waterfront Park, where the kids’ climbing wall, seesaws, and swimming beach make for the perfect place to work off road-trip energy (hoodriverwaterfront.org). Fed and happy, we wind up Highway 35, a quiet road that leads away from the river to The Gorge White House (thegorgewhitehouse.com). The historic house and farm is on the Fruit Loop, a 35-mile drive in the Hood River Valley dotted with U-pick farms, wineries, and farm stands with views of Mt. Hood in all its glory, all 11,250 feet of it (hoodriverfruitloop.com). Again we’ve anticipated Theo’s reaction: “But can’t we play in the snow?” And so we’re off to Timberline Lodge, the only ski area in North America with year-round skiing (from $260 per night, timberlinelodge.com). As we check in, Theo and Bax are out the back door and falling backward blissfully into the powder. We’ve barely traveled more than 100 miles, but we’re more than happy to have Timberline as our home for the night. It feels exactly how a mountain lodge should: rustic, sturdy, and with three gargantuan fireplaces at the base of the 90-foot stone chimney, cozy. DAY 2: Mt. Hood to Bend We let ourselves linger at Timberline for the morning. The lodge’s Cascade Dining Room can feel a little formal during dinner if you have young kids in tow, but the breakfast buffet is easy and casual. We pile our plates with farm eggs and freshly baked muffins, and then head outside to the Pacific Crest Trail. Depending on which direction you go, the path will take you as far north as Canada or as far south as Mexico, stopping at each border. Today we settle for an easy walk, pausing every two minutes for the kids to “discover” another rock or hunk of moss. The transition from the west side of the Cascades to the east side is always a surprise, even for those of us who’ve made the trip before. In a matter of just a few miles, the lush vegetation and skyscraping evergreens are replaced with a high-desert landscape of sagebrush, juniper, and crackled dry dirt. Tumbleweed bounces across the road as we make our way east on Highway 26. This is the longest stretch of our trip—90 miles from Timberline to Smith Rock State Park—and the kids are itching to run by the time we pull into the park entrance. We’re immediately endeared by the welcome center, an unassuming hunter-green yurt, and we duck in for advice on kid-friendly hikes. The ranger suggests walking along an easy trail that will give us up-close views of Smith Rock, a towering monolith formed from a volcano’s ash explosions a half million years ago. Sure, Smith Rock is especially popular among rock climbers, but this place is for everyone—photographers mesmerized by the golden light on the rock face, families hoping to spot a river otter or golden eagle, mountain bikers looking for an adrenaline rush. We’ve brought a picnic to maximize our outdoor time and avoid wrangling the kids in yet another restaurant. We coax the boys back in the car with the promise of huckleberry ice cream from Juniper Junction, which Darrell and I spotted just outside the park’s entrance on our way in. Ice cream in hand, we set off for Bend, just 25 miles south on Highway 97. I’m not usually one to waste valuable vacation time inside a hotel, but I make an exception at McMenamins Old St. Francis School (from $170 per night, mcmenamins.com/oldstfrancis). The McMenamin brothers are famous in Oregon for two things: being instrumental in pushing through a 1980s Oregon law that allowed breweries to sell their beer on the premises (hence kicking off the region’s craft-brewery craze), and restoring abandoned buildings like schools and churches and turning them into hotels and brewpubs. Old St. Francis School was, just as its name implies, a Catholic school. The McMenamin brothers bought the building in 2000 and turned it into a hotel, keeping so much of the original character you’d swear you need a hall pass when you walk down the long corridor. The big draw, for me at least, is the mosaic-tiled soaking pool. My family and I suit up and climb in. The warm saltwater recharges us, and by the time we get dressed, we’re ready to hit the town. With Mt. Bachelor in the distance and the Deschutes River running through it, Bend feels like the quintessential outdoorsy town. Polar fleece is acceptable attire anywhere you go, gear shops abound, and the town boasts tons of breweries. We’ve heard rave reviews of the beer at Crux Fermentation Project, and when we learn it has an outdoor area with a fire pit and cornhole setup, we’re sold. The kids improvise their own cornhole rules, and Darrell and I actually get a (very) rare20 minutes to talk only to each other. Small victories, but we’ve learned to take them whenever we can. DAY 3: Bend to the Lodge at Suttle Lake The next morning I practically bound out of bed in anticipation of breakfast. We’re going to the original Sparrow Bakery, a tiny spot in the Old Ironworks District that churns out the most incredible pastries (thesparrowbakery.net). The morning is sunny and almost warm, giving us the perfect excuse to sit in the outdoor courtyard and enjoy the bakery’s famous Ocean Rolls, croissant dough rolled in cardamom, vanilla, and sugar and baked to flaky perfection. We’re eager to get to The Lodge at Suttle Lake, almost an hour northwest of Bend along Highway 20. I’ve saved it as our last stop for a couple of reasons. The first is to soak up the property as it is now, a lakefront lodge and series of cabins that feel sweetly unsophisticated. The second is what the place is about to become. The team behind the Ace Hotel Portland recently bought it and are about to relaunch the property as The Suttle Lodge & Boathouse (thesuttlelodge.com). The character I love will remain, but the team will put their fun, design-savvy stamp on it, making it, as they put it, “a relaxed Cascadian forest lodge as imagined by a gently debauched scout.” There will be a beer garden with lawn games, a huge roaring fireplace to gather around for card games and spirit sipping, arts and crafts workshops, and canoe, kayak, and SUP rentals. In other words, summer camp for the whole family. We’ve rented one of the stand-alone cabins for the night, and as we sit on the porch soaking up the fresh air and bright sun, I tell Theo about how we’ll be able to rent boats here on our next trip and ask if he’d want to come back. “Can we make it a road trip?” he asks, and Darrell and I actually high five each other. Mission accomplished.

Road Trips

The Ultimate (Affordable!) Iceland Road Trip

"Do you want to keep going?” I asked, looking from the map on my phone to Richard, my fiancé. We were at least 20 minutes from Háifoss, one of Iceland’s highest waterfalls, and had just turned off a smooth, beautifully paved route onto one covered in baseball-size gravel. Without a word, we both knew that meant a 40-minute round trip spent dodging rocks to avoid getting a flat, listening to our 2003 Rav4 whine with the strain of the climb, and bracing ourselves during violent jostling that would leave our bodies vibrating long after we returned to the tranquil asphalt.  Perched in the driver’s seat, Richard pressed down on the gas pedal in response. A smile crept across my lips as I trained my eyes on the road ahead.  It was never really a question: Of course we’d keep going. I’d been dreaming of Iceland’s otherworldly landscape for years, and Háifoss promised the kind of off-the-beaten-path beauty that makes you stop in your tracks and forget everything on your to-do list back home. We arrived as the sun was edging down toward the horizon. There wasn’t another soul around—or anything to prevent us from falling 400 feet to the valley below, where a river snaked through green slopes. From where I stood across the canyon, Háifoss and its neighbor waterfall, Granni, appeared as thin streams pouring downward for an eternity. The sound of gushing water filled my ears and my soul. After an hour of staring, awestruck, neither of us wanted to leave. But the light was fading, and we still had 50 miles till our hotel.  To make the most of our trip, we took as many vacation days as our bosses would approve (a week and a half) with the goal of seeing as much as we possibly could. We followed fares and opted for a Wednesday departure, which saved us some cash. And we used Instagram as a guidebook, scrolling through photos tagged #Iceland and #MyStopover and following natives like @ozzophotography, then marking places on a shared Google Map. Looking at our scatter-plot of sites, it was clear we’d have to circle the entire country to get to everything, staying at eight different hotels along our route, which started and ended in Reykjavík. Crazy? Maybe. However, when you’re crossing a destination off your bucket list, you go big. And we did.  FIRST…REYKJAVÍK  Before setting out to circle the country via Route 1, known as the Ring Road, we spent a day exploring downtown Reykjavík. We rode a snug elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja church for a sweeping 360-degree view of the colorful capital city (about $7, hallgrimskirkja.is), browsed hip clothing and home decor boutiques on Laugavegur street, then warmed up inside Harpa concert hall (free, harpa.is) while wind and rain pounded boats in the harbor outside, nature whipping them into a roiling stew as they held tight to the docks.  I’ll freely admit it: I’m the world’s pickiest vegetarian, so I’d wondered about my mealtime options in a seafood-and lamb-loving country. I even packed a box of granola bars just in case. Gló, a casual, chic restaurant—decorated Nordic-style, all pale neutrals with wooden accents— with four locations and deliciously healthy vegan and vegetarian food, like pesto-topped vegetable lasagna, proved I had no reason to worry (from about $15, glo.is). After the day’s biting rain, we savored each steaming forkful and gleefully plotted our journey.  READY TO RIDE  When we picked up our rental car from SADcars, the man behind the counter hurried through a list of crucial precautions:  • Don’t drive faster than 90 kilometers per hour (about 56 mph) on asphalt or 80 kph (about 50 mph) on gravel.  • Be careful when the road’s surface changes from rocks to pavement (“that’s where the accidents happen”).  • Open your door against the wind and hold on so it doesn’t rip off the hinges.  To be frank, the poor Rav4’s beat-up body showed signs of disregard for his last warning. Still, it had four-wheel drive and came cheap from a company that promised “older but good, solid cars.” Sounded legit.  The electronic parking meters took a few tries to figure out since we don’t know Icelandic (thanks, Google Translate!). Eager to untether ourselves, we struck out the next morning.  ON THE ROAD  Reykjavík’s wide, multi-lane highway quickly shrank to a “bi”-way. Not two lanes per side; two lanes total. The buildings began to thin out, too, with horses and sheep as our faithful roadside companions. Whizzing by resplendent green mountains, we gazed toward the peaks, making a game of spotting woolly white specks and marveling at how they’d climbed so high. On gusty days, horses huddled together, still as statues except for the wind in their manes.  As we drove, my eyes flicked between our car’s front and side windows, trying to piece together the panorama. You can only see so much out of a windshield. Luckily, there are plenty of spots to pause and quite literally spin around in wonder. About 45 minutes from Reykjavík, the Golden Circle holds a cluster of attractions, including Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Kerid crater lake (admission to Kerid about $3, kerid.is). Farther out, the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls as well as Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon all sit right along Route 1, making my job of navigator a breeze. Shoulders aren’t ubiquitous, yet whenever we had the urge to pull over and get a better look at moss-covered mounds of lava or a mountain disappearing into clouds, a patch of gravel conveniently appeared.  On our third day, we met a trio of Germans at the U.S. Navy plane that crashed onto Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in 1973, the wreckage now a hidden—and, as of press time, now prohibited—attraction. Comparing notes, we learned we were traveling the same distance, yet we had a week less to accomplish the feat. “You must drive fast!” one of them laughed. It was true: On paper, each leg of our trip didn’t look that far—the longest drive totaled five hours—yet we couldn’t resist breaking up the drive and taking vertiginous hikes to glimpse unmissable waterfalls, like Glymur and Hengifoss. This would be a whirlwind trip. A MOST EXCELLENT ROUTINE This wasn’t a vacation we wanted to spend lolling about. Our daily routine: Get up around 7 a.m.; eat our money’s worth of skyr, toast, cured meats, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs at each hotel’s breakfast bar (free at some hotels); hit the road before 9 a.m. Early departures guaranteed we’d beat tour buses to the first waypoint and have Iceland’s sights to ourselves for a few moments.  Coming from a country where road gridlocks are a part of life, driving in Iceland is bliss. Here, three cars feels like heavy traffic, stoplights are an anomaly, and potholes don’t seem to exist. There are a few exceptions: Between Höfn and Lake Mývatn, we clung to the side of a cliff on a stretch with no guardrail. We climbed mountains so steep we barely reached the speed limit with a foot to the floor. Following the coastline where a magnificent fjord cut deep into the land added kilometers to the odometer—the definition of “scenic route.” NOURISHING MIND AND BODY As the evenings fell, we didn’t have to search far to soothe our road-weary bones: Geothermal waters are one of the country’s natural wonders, our one monetary indulgence. The famous Blue Lagoon isn’t the only option—though it’s likely the most crowded (from about $45, bluelagoon.com). Near the Golden Circle, we relaxed on foam noodles in the Secret Lagoon’s inky depths (from about $22, secretlagoon.is) and, in the north, watched the sunset from the blue raspberry–colored pools of the Mývatn Nature Baths (from about $28, myvatnnaturebaths.is). With each dip, any lingering tension floated away.  Unlike on American highways, fast-food joints don’t appear at regular intervals, despite the popularity of sightseeing via car. Towns often comprise a few houses, a coffee shop, and a hotel, with the latter two doubling as restaurants. In the northwest fishing town of Hvammstangi, we warmed up with pork chops and curry soup at Hladan Kaffihús, surrounded by a collection of antique coffee grinders (from about $12, 354/451-1110). At Stracta Hótel Hella, the hip staff wears chambray button-downs and serves “the freshest from Hella’s fishmonger” (from about $13, stractahotels.is).  Another favorite—and, I want to add, ingenious—combination: the restaurant/greenhouse. Cucumbers grow just across the room at Fridheimar, and I went back for seconds of serve-yourself tomato soup and freshly baked bread. Potted basil and scissors decorate each table for snipping leaves to garnish your piping-hot bowl (from about $15, fridheimar.is).  HOTEL HINTS  Although we booked the trip four months in advance, some cities, like Vík, didn’t have a single vacancy. So we adjusted our itinerary based on lodging availability. That’s how we found Hótel Hellnar (from about $145 per night, 354/435-6820), where the town has fewer than 10 residents. Rooms have a view of Faxaflói Bay or Snaefellsjökull glacier, and the lobby doubles as a cozy bar. Over bottles of Einstök ale, Richard and I lamented the one downside of road trips: You fall in love with a place only to pack your bags a few hours later.  In Iceland, there are no shortcuts; no faster or smoother ways. Detours, on the other hand, are plentiful—and perfect for travel serendipity. Driving on gravel west of Saudárkrókur, we heard a mysterious loud thud. With no cell service and no passersby to flag down, we proceeded cautiously, inch by potentially perilous inch. At the nearest guesthouse, we phoned the rental car company, then drove up and down the streets of Búdardalur (population 266) in search of the recommended garage. “I think I can fix it,” the mechanic semi-confidently informed us, his legs peeking out from under the Rav4. Pro tip: If you’re afraid of car trouble, join a bus tour. Us? We embraced the adventure.  Inside the shop, surrounded by shelves of windshield-wiper blades and WD-40, a pair of old-timers gossiped over free coffee—some experiences are universal no matter where you are in the world. The mechanic kept his word: In two hours we were on our way, with new brackets holding up the gas tank. (The old ones had rusted out, and the tank had fallen on the drive shaft.)  As our 12-hour days on the road whizzed by, we realized that an ambitious road trip over alien terrain might not be the textbook definition of a romantic paradise. Yet, in its own unforgettable way, it was.  If you go on a journey of this kind, let it be in Iceland, and let it be with someone you love. Because traveling this country is like a relationship worth holding onto: The rough spots only serve to bring out the surrounding beauty—and there’s an endless supply of that. We didn’t get to visit every waterfall, and we narrowly missed a mountainside swimming pool I still dream of taking a dunk in, but the memories that still burn brightly in my mind are pulling each other up a mountain steeper than we’d bargained for, watching the sunset at 10 p.m., and stealing a kiss beside a secluded waterfall.  It would take a lifetime to see it all. We’ve already started a map for next time.  Three Rules of the Road  1. Set Your Course: Check road conditions at Road.is before setting out. Strong weather can cause sections to be impassable. Carry a hard-copy map in case reception cuts out or a battery dies.  2. Find Your Soundtrack: Our clunker didn’t have an auxiliary input, and the radio often disappeared into static. Before setting out from Reykjavík, we stopped at 12 Tónar, a record store that specializes in Icelandic music (12tonar.is). Compilations, including This Is Icelandic Indie Music and Icelandair’s Hot Spring series, kept us more than entertained.  3. Get Recs from Residents: For food, shopping, hotel, and culture suggestions (including kid-friendly activities) from “a group of picky locals,” download the free HandPicked Iceland app or visit Handpicked.is. 

Road Trips

The Midwest's Coolest Road Trip

Let's be honest: The media has been none too kind to the Rust Belt over the years. The usual visual clichés—shuttered factories and empty storefronts—have reinforced the idea that the region is no vacation destination. That's old news. To bypass the stretch of the Rust Belt between Cleveland and Pittsburgh is to miss out on the pleasures of heritage and history and the excitement of an evolution in progress. I have experienced both the tradition and the transformation of this area firsthand. After living elsewhere in the U.S. for more than a decade, I moved back to Northeast Ohio, hoping to reconnect with what I knew and loved about the region and discover what else is in the works. What better way to become reacquainted with my Rust Belt roots than to hit the road with a new perspective and an old friend—my sister. Day 1: Cleveland to Youngstown, Ohio (75 Miles) We started our trip from my home in the suburbs of Cleveland—a city that deserves far more than a one-day drop-in. A major player in the history of manufacturing in Ohio and a community deeply invested in revival, Cleveland has enough music and cultural attractions, groundbreaking dining spots, and reasonably priced entertainment to justify a much longer getaway. When visiting the North Coast—named as such for Lake Erie, Cleveland’s northern border—for any length of time, do not miss the West Side Market in the Ohio City neighborhood (1979 W. 25th St., crepes from $5). In 2012, the market celebrated its 100th anniversary, and one stroll through the indoor bazaar of fresh meats, pastries, cheese, and produce on a Saturday morning will show you why it has thrived for more than a century. We hit the road on Interstate 80, the Ohio Turnpike. For all the times I had traveled east on the turnpike, never had I stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park—a 33,000-acre preservation framing the Cuyahoga River (1550 Boston Mills Rd., Peninsula). The rolling crests of the valley and rich forest had always been a pleasant sight from the highway, but to actually experience the park is to know that it really is a national treasure. We made the easy hike to Brandywine Falls then enjoyed the cliffs and birches of the Ledges Trail. Just an hour east of the park is the city of Youngstown, a place full of rich traditions and cultural assets. The Butler Institute of American Art is a marvel that boasts more than 10,000 works from the colonial era to the modern and contemporary periods, including paintings by big-name artists like Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Chuck Close, and Georgia O’Keeffe (524 Wick Ave, free). For a different aesthetic, jump across the street to the McDonough Museum of Art, which features primarily contemporary works (525 Wick Ave). The sleek Modernist facility provides a satisfying contrast to the classically designed Butler. A visitor will not go hungry in Youngstown unless she works at it. Diligently. Just two blocks from the art museums is Cassese's MVR, a restaurant that began in 1927 as a pool room and was granted the second liquor license in the city at Prohibition's end (410 N. Walnut St.). Since 1938, the Cassese family has served Italian American favorites named for relatives, friends, and the chefs who have made the food something to keep coming back for. The sauce is still homemade, as is most of the menu. We enjoyed a meal on the back patio, where we took in the sights and sounds of bocce on three gravel courts. We were so engrossed in the games that we almost passed up the pizza. For the crust alone, we're lucky that we didn't. Among all that was familiar in Youngstown, we stumbled upon something new to us: Rust Belt Brewing Company, a craft brewery that makes its beers in the old B&O train station along the Mahoning River and serves them in its downtown Tap House (beers from $4.50, 112 W. Commerce St.). The flight of brews we sampled ranged from the dark-roasted Coke Oven Stout to the deliciously floral Peacemaker Imperial IPA. Jillian Blair, brewery manager, explained the brewery's interest in celebrating the city's industrial identity while refining a familiar concept. "We want to brew a good beer that everyone can enjoy," Blair said. "We think of it as giving back to and honoring the American worker." In the summer months, stopping by one of Youngstown's many Italian heritage festivals is a must. Events like the Brier Hill Italian Fest made eating trailer-prepared cavatelli, spicy sausage sandwiches, and apple dumplings cool long before the food-truck trend (Victoria and Calvin streets). Youngstown, Ohio, to Columbiana, Ohio (18 Miles) Before leaving, we took in two glimpses of Youngstown from Fellows Riverside Gardens (123 McKinley Ave). On one end of the bloom-laden garden is a panorama of downtown; the other overlooks Lake Glacier and the northern edge of 2,330-acre Mill Creek Park. The central stretch of rolling, well-tended lawn invites leisurely strolls with plenty of pauses to smell the award-winning roses. Inspired by memories from childhood, we made our way down to Lake Glacier and rented pedal boats (Glacier Boathouse, West Glacier Dr.). Just a half hour of pedaling across the still, forest- framed lake and we were ready to drift and enjoy the scenery. Farther south in Mill Creek Park we visited Lanterman’s Mill, a working grist mill that has been stone-grinding wheat, buckwheat, and corn just like it did when it was first built in the mid-19th century (980 Canfield Rd.). A short drive south is Columbiana, Ohio, a small village with big rural charm. We stopped by the Shaker Woods Festival, a large gathering of craftspeople that happens for three weekends each August (44337 County Line Rd). We browsed handmade wares under a canopy of century-old trees and sampled roasted pecans, sweet kettle corn, and lemonade shakes, then stayed in the heart of the village at the Columbiana Inn, a fully renovated 1904 Beaux Arts-style B&B (rooms from $125 per night, 109 N. Main St). Its highlights include repurposed-wood decor and innkeeper Paul Bissell's world-famous hash browns—a potato masterpiece of local garlic, cheese, and sausage. Day 3: Columbiana, Ohio, to Pittsburgh (83 Miles) Winding through the Ohio River Valley on the way to Pittsburgh, we stopped where it all started for early colonial settlers and Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin: Steubenville, Ohio. Historic Fort Steuben is a replica of the fort built after the Revolutionary War to house and protect government surveyors ($5, 120 S. Third St). Their task: Lay out the first ranges of the Northwest Territory, the land destined to become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Like Cleveland, Pittsburgh needs much more than one day for true exploration. Two hours at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh was far from enough. We marveled at the bones of Apatosaurus louisae, the dinosaur named for Andrew Carnegie’s wife, Louise, and lingered in the photo gallery—the museum was the first to exhibit photography as art. During a stop for a quick burst of fuel at La Prima Espresso Bar in the Strip District, Italian language teacher turned coffee importer Sam Patti educated us on how to do espresso in the traditional style: Start with a single, well-made shot and enjoy it while standing at the bar, preferably with good conversation and good friends (single espresso $2, 205 21st St). For dinner, we sipped alcohol-free birch beer and chose from an ever-changing selection of "untraditional" pierogies at Church Brew Works—an old church turned microbrewery (pierogie $18.50, 3525 Liberty Ave). Before heading to bed at lovely Sunnyledge Boutique Hotel and Tea Room (rooms from $139 per night, 5124 Fifth Ave), we rode the historic Duquesne Incline ($2.50, 1197 W. Carson St) overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, a fitting end to our Rust Belt road trip: watching the sun set on where we'd been and looking forward to where we might go next.