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Road trip the Southeast on a budget

By Robert Firpo-Capiello
January 12, 2022
Charlotte Skyline

If you’re looking for a road trip that delivers some of the highest highlights of the Southeast, we’ve put together a peerless itinerary that takes you from the biggest city in North Carolina to the oldest city in America, with plenty of good eats, arts, and natural beauty along the way. Start your engine!

Charlotte

Your Southeast road trip begins with a taste of Charlotte, North Carolina. The largest city in the “First in Flight” State, Charlotte offers a menu of contemporary Southern cuisine like the exquisite BBQ at Midwood Smokehouse, several important art collections including the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and the unique Levine Museum of the New South with its focus on events after the Civil War. A stop at the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a must for racing enthusiasts and newbies alike.

The Linn Cove Viaduct during an Autumn sunrise on the Blue Ridge ParkwayThe winding Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America's best drives © Pierre Leclerc Photography / Getty Images


Boone & Blowing Rock

From Charlotte, you’ll head north (don’t worry, we’ll get you down to South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida eventually) for about two hours on I-77 and US 421 to the scenic Boone and Blowing Rock region. The epicenter of beauty here is the stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway that passes through the region on its way from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, boasting seemingly endless hiking trails and scenic overlooks. Don’t miss the chance to witness living history with the costumed actors at Hickory Ridge Museum, and get to know the flora of the Boone area at its namesake Daniel Boone Native Gardens. In nearby Blowing Rock, spend the day at Ultimate Adventure park with zip lines and other out-of-this-world pursuits. Rest your head at reliable lodging like the Inn at Crestwood, in Boone, with rooms starting well under $100/night.

Streetside market stalls near a dining area on Grove ArcadeThe shops and restaurants in Asheville's Grove Arcade is a can't-miss experience © MilesbeforeIsleep / Shutterstock


Asheville

The drive from Boone to Asheville, less than two hours south on US 221, takes you into the heart of one of America’s hippest small cities, brimming over with culinary delights (including a delicious and imaginative vegan scene), craft beer, and vibrant local arts. But the great outdoors will most likely dominate your Asheville stay, including canopy tours, hot air ballooning, and zip lining. After hours, we recommend an evening at Well Played, a unique “board game cafe,” and a well-earned sleep at the Residences at Biltmore, starting at under $120/night.

An illuminated footbridge at nightThe illuminated Falls Park Liberty Bridge in Downtown Greenville at night © Kevin Ruck / Shutterstock


Greenville

About an hour and 15 minutes from Asheville on I-26 East and US-25 South, Greenville, South Carolina, beckons with an exceptionally walkable downtown that boasts cool shopping, artist studios and galleries, and great food (including the Greenville BBQ Trail Tour). Start your morning with a cup of coffee at Falls Park before you traverse the Liberty Bridge, a 345ft-long span over the Reedy River. A variety of comfy motels offer rooms at well under $100/night, and for a little over $100/night you can get a room at the Hyatt Place Greenville/Haywood.

Alpharetta

From Greenville, head south on I-85 for about two hours and 15 minutes and discover Alpharetta, Georgia. Explore more than 750 acres of parkland, try some of the 200+ restaurants like Cabernet Steakhouse or Chiringa with its coastal cuisine. Be sure to set aside your evening for music at one of the world’s finest jazz clubs, The Velvet Note.

Mossy trees hang over a park fountainSavannah's Forsyth Park Fountain during the early evening © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock


Savannah

A four-hour drive from Alpharetta on I-75 South and I-16 East brings you to the uniquely charming city of Savannah. Take your pick of activities, including strolling along Bull Street from square to square to Forsyth’s Park discovering the city’s decidedly European flavors; visit the Savannah College of Art and Design with its exceptional SCAD Museum of Art; and for more art, both classic and new, visit the Telfair Museum, in Savannah’s Historic District, and the Jepson Center. Dining options include fresh oysters and shrimp at Bernie’s. Bunk down for a night or more at the Old Harbor Inn, with rooms under $150/night and worth every penny.

The town square in St Augustine, with Spanish architecture and palm treesSpanish Renaissance architecture at Flagler College in St Augustine © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock


St Augustine

Once you succeed in bidding adieu to Savannah and its charms, head south on I-95 about two hours and 45 minutes to discover the oldest city in the US. St Augustine, Florida, was founded in 1565 by Spanish settlers and delivers an experience that feels a world away from the beach towns and theme parks we associate with the Sunshine State. Explore the iconic Castillo de San Marcos, spend some time getting to know local history at the city’s exceptional museums, and enjoy a diverse menu that reflects St. Augustine’s native, colonial, and immigrant cultures (try Collage Restaurant for its international menu and romantic setting in the Historic District). Book a room at the utterly charming Villa 1565, starting under $125/night.

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Road Trips

The best Pacific Northwest road trip

Two major vacation-planning questions pop up again and again: City or country? Ocean or mountains? But there are places where the answer to both questions is, “Yes, yes, yes, and yes.” America’s Pacific Northwest may be the best example, boasting Pacific beaches and the coastal mountain range, the cities of Seattle and Portland, gorgeous rivers and forests, and the decidedly cool little city of Boise, in the foothills of the Rockies. Ready to get started? Here, a step-by-step itinerary that’ll take you across one of the US’s most rewarding regions. Seattle Kick off your Pacific Northwest road trip in Seattle, Washington, where you’ll indulge in fresh seafood, legendary coffee, sea kayaking, and more. Pike Place Market is iconic and busy but worth a visit for fresh fish and other culinary delights – strolling and shooting pics is free. Don’t miss Seattle’s cool museums, including the rotating exhibits and excellent guided tours at the Frye Art Museum, the world-class collection at the Seattle Art Museum, and the immense (and immensely impressive) works to be found in Olympic Sculpture Park. See the full list: 51 affordable discoveries across America 2020 Speaking of parks, Seattle’s ample green spaces deserve to monopolize much of your time here; from the little Waterfall Garden Park in the city’s Pioneer Square section to the 500+ acres of forests and beaches of Discovery Park, you’ll have to remind yourself you’re still in town. And for dramatic panoramic views, forgo a trip to the Space Needle and instead head to Kerry Park or Queen Anne Hill. If you plan to spend a night or more in Seattle before hitting the road, downtown’s Hotel Max has a convenient location for walking to major sights and its stylish rooms are the perfect place to rest up before hitting the road. The Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is one of the largest temperate rainforests in the US © maislam / Getty Images Olympic National Park From Seattle, you’ll hit I-5 South, then 101 North as you arc around the bottom of Puget Sound and then up the Olympic Peninsula, a two-hour drive to one of the National Park Service’s lesser known but utterly unforgettable destinations: Olympic National Park. Here, visitors can indulge in miles of Pacific coast, exploring the one of the US’s last temperate rainforests, and ogling the coastal peaks on easily accessible hiking trails. Comfortable lodging within the park includes Kalaloch Lodge, with rooms starting well under $150/night; the nearby charming town of Port Angeles also boasts an array of affordable properties. In March and April, Portland's cherry blossom trees explode in a riot of pink © EchoGolf Photography / Shutterstock Portland From the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll dip into Oregon: take I-5 South for the three-hour drive to Portland’s exceptional food scene and parks. For those who put eating at the top of their travel to-do list, Portland is an epicenter of yum. For retro-chic ambience and beef and martinis, reserve a table at Clyde’s Prime Rib; explore the city’s penchant for the artisanal at its countless craft breweries, charcuterie and cheese shops, an array of affordable and tasty food trucks. And, much like Seattle but on a smaller scale, Portland boasts parks, including Mt. Tabor and Forest Park, that’ll keep any visitor busy for days, and a bike-sharing program with dozens of stations makes it all the easier to explore. You’ll love Jupiter Hotel, an upscale riff on a mid-century motor lodge in the city’s Lower Burnside neighborhood, with affordable, pop-art-informed rooms. The Columbia River Gorge offers splendid vistas around every bend in the river © Zack Frank / Shutterstock Columbia River Gorge From Portland, you’ll pass in and out of Oregon and Washington along I-84 East and WA-14 for about a half-hour on your way to indulge in a journey along the Columbia River Gorge, with its ample scenic turn-offs and nearby world-class wineries. The Cascade Mountains serve as your scenic backdrop as the river cuts its way through the range on its way to the Pacific; keep an eye out for waterfalls within sight of the highway and consider pulling off for mountain biking and hiking. If you’re planning to spend a night or two, impressive nearby properties such as Westcliff Lodge and Columbia Gorge Hotel & Spa offer reliable, wallet-friendly lodging. And spending the night allows you to make time for sipping some of the region’s exceptional pinot noirs, chardonnays, and other wines. Bustling Boise features many downtown events, such as the Boise Farmers Market in late spring © Darwin Fan / Getty Images Boise Boise, Idaho, will welcome you with its array of funky downtown shops, mountain trails in the foothills of the Rockies accessible right from town, and an overall design-forward vibe. From the Columbia River Gorge, take I-84 East for the five-hour drive. (If you’re looking for a stop in between to break up your ride, consider Baker City, Oregon, which features a restored downtown, carriage rides, and the bordering Elkhorn and Wallowa mountains.) In downtown Boise, you’ll love shopping at one-of-a-kind establishments that offer vintage finds, local-themed books, and artisanal treasures such as barrel-aged vinegar and olive oil. While strolling, keep an eye out for public art, which the city has made a priority, including a tree crafted from scraps of metal and other projects that enliven the streets. If you’re visiting in April through December, stop by the Capital City Central Market for an incredible array of Idaho-made crafts and foods. And we absolutely love how the Modern Hotel and Bar offer art-inspired rooms and a restaurant that draws on diverse French and North African influences, all in an upgraded former motel with rooms starting under $150/night. The Snake River Valley is two hours from Boise and features breathtaking views © Robert Alexander / Getty Snake River Valley Cap off your road trip by discovering Idaho’s Snake River Valley – a two-hour drive from Boise along I-84 East – where a visit to the 500ft-high Perrine Bridge spanning the Snake River Canyon will take your breath away. Explore the canyon’s south rim along a paved trail, and don’t miss one of the most Instagram-worthy sights on this trip, Shoshone Falls. Bunk down in nearby Twin Falls, where there are several reliable motel chains that offer good value. Produced by Budget Travel for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Budget Travel alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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How to road trip New England on a budget

The United States start in these six rugged states. And when British explorer Captain John Smith explored New England’s shores in the early 1600s, he grasped the charm and resilience of his surroundings – and officially made it the birthplace of a nation. Of course, in addition to all its fascinating history, this northeast corner of the country is a hotbed of beautiful nature, culture and family-friendly entertainment – encompassing a spectacular culinary scene and a wide variety of affordable accommodations to discover and enjoy. Want to spend more time exploring this diverse and distinct region? Here’s a blueprint to a reasonably priced road trip in New England – from Portland, Maine, to Mystic, Connecticut. From winding trails of the Appalachian Mountains, including eight mountains over 14,000ft in elevation, to the splendor of New Hampshire’s wild coastlines, you won’t have to miss a thing. Portland, Maine Come for the lobster, stay for… well, everything else. Portland might be Maine’s largest city, but you’ll be able to appreciate the craggy shorelines and secluded beaches as well as the preservation of the historic, yet quaint, Old Port district. The stunningly well-kept Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse in the state and is surrounded by the 90-acre Fort Williams Park, where you can hike, bike, picnic or sit by the beach. See the full list: 51 affordable discoveries across America 2020 Ready for some culture? The Tate House Museum whisks you to Maine’s pre-revolutionary times, and the Portland Museum of Art, founded in 1882, is sprawled over three buildings – one designed by the late “starchitect” I.M. Pei. The dining scene is vibrant, and you can indulge in inventive small plates at Central Provisions, where most entrees are under $15, and $6 craft cocktails at the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club’s Happy Hour. Of course, if its seafood you’re after, don’t miss the brown butter lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co. The Press Hotel offers fun, boutique accommodations in the same building which housed the Portland Press Herald until the newspaper moved offices in 2010. Maine's High Peaks Region is stunning at any time of year, but during the fall it really shines © Holcy / iStock / Getty Images Plus High Peaks Region, Maine Just over two hours’ drive from Portland along I-295 is this stunning, family-friendly destination with 10 mountain peaks over 4000ft. Perfect in any season, you’ll also be dazzled by its glacial lakes and clear rivers. If you want a scenic drive, take some time to tour its scenic byways, like High Peaks and Grafton Notch, which will give you a quicker way to view the spectacular surrounding mountains. Water sports include pontoon boat rides, fly fishing, kayaking and swimming – though it’s also well known for its ski resorts, Sugarloaf and Saddleback Mountain. The town of Stratton is the perfect place to refuel and relax, and you can grab some comforting yet inexpensive options at the Looney Moose Café or head for burgers at the White Wolf Inn and Restaurant. The Mountain View Motel offers cozy rooms with full kitchen, and even allows furry friends to join you on your adventures. Though there is a lack of amenities, like a pool or restaurant, this motel makes up for it by offering gorgeous views and super-low room rates. Bucolic lakes and cottages await you in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom © DenisTangneyJr / E+ / Getty Northeast Kingdom, Vermont Head westward on State Route 16 to enter this out-of-the-way, northernmost region of Vermont. Shimmied up against the Canadian border and the upper Connecticut River, it’s known for its peaceful splendor. Taking up approximately one-fifth of the land and over a quarter of The Green Mountain State, you can explore its over 200 lakes and ponds while also appreciating the accompanying dense forests and eight state parks. Bikers, hikers and backpackers flock to this region to hit the Kingdom Heritage Trail system, which includes the Bluff Mountain Community and Gore Mountain Trail, while other adventure seekers might head to gape at Troy’s Big Falls, a monstrous undammed waterfall which includes a sheer cliff face of over 80ft. Burke Mountain offers downhill and cross-country skiing with over 200 inches of annual snowfall as well as views of the geologically profound Willoughby Gap (kids ski free in March). Country cooking is on the menu at the Peacham Café, housed in a former firehouse while the more seasonal Mike’s Tiki Bar offers cocktails and 30 beers on tap under its thatched roof, with hearty grub from partner Vermont Food Truck as an accompaniment. For budget travelers, the Willoughvale Inn and Cottages offers calm, stunning landscapes and a little history, with its accommodations named after historical figures and places, like The Robert Frost suite or The Songadeewin Lakeview Cottage. New Hampshire's diminutive coastline packs many surprises © mountinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus Seacoast and Portsmouth, New Hampshire From the Northeast Kingdom, head southbound on I-93, swinging left in Manchester, New Hampshire, to arrive at this state’s miniscule coastline. Enjoying an intoxicating mix of culture and maritime activities, this region straddles Maine and includes ownership of the Isles of Shoals and Star Islands. The entire Seacoast region covers 18 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, but head to Hampton Beach for family fun as well as a dazzling white-sand beach. Don’t want to go too far to lay your head? Room at Ashworth by the Sea, run under $150 a night, and the property features a heated pool with retractable roof to keep the kids happy as well as three different restaurants for breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails. Portsmouth, near the mouth of the Piscataqua River, is the country’s third oldest city and is an excellent jumping-off point for the living history of the Strawbery Banke Museum, the American Independence Museum and the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire. The dining scene is varied and abundant, and you can enjoy a more upscale, locally sourced meal at the Black Trumpet Bistro or head to Ceres Bakery for an affordable, casual selection of soup, salad, sandwiches and an array of homemade pastries. Stay at the lovingly renovated Hotel Portsmouth, a former 1881 mansion with vintage charm and free continental breakfast. Falmouth is sometimes overlooked on a trip to Cape Cod, but it's worth a stop © Kenneth Wiedemann / E+ / Getty Falmouth, Massachusetts Take I-495 southbound to loop around Boston (or stop in for a bit if you have the time) and arrive in Cape Cod and the pretty little town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. This official Preserve America community was also the residence of Katharine Lee Bates, the author of treasured tune, “America the Beautiful.” History aside, this serene corner of southwest Cape Cod is also home to over 70 miles of ocean shores, eight distinct villages and the Shining Sea Bike Path, with nearly 11 miles spanning farms, ponds, cranberry bogs and even salt marshes, spitting you into the village of Woods Hole. Here, you can not only catch the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, but also tour the marine science facilities and aquarium at the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Head to Old Silver Beach for swimming in the calm, blue waters and views of Buzzards Bay and stay for the summer seafood dinners and vibrant sunsets at the beachfront Sea Crest Beach Hotel. Falmouth also offers further budget accommodations at Admiralty Inn & Suites and The Red Horse Inn, both of which have rooms for under $100 per night. Even if you've had your fill of lighthouses by now, you can never get enough fiery sunsets © Shobeir Ansari © Moment / Getty Narragansett, Rhode Island Trace the coastline westbound to arrive at this quaint and quirky seaside surf destination in Rhode Island, which offers access to smaller state park beaches like Roger Wheeler and Salty Brine. There you can watch the boats and local fishers, as well as the reliably vigorous waves of Narragansett Town Beach. Take a surf lesson from Warm Winds Surf Shop or just relax on the sand – or hop on the Block Island Ferry to do a little maritime exploring, including the Point Judith Light, a working lighthouse built in 1857. Because this is New England, historical landmarks abound and you can visit the 23ft Narragansett Indian Monument, carved from a single Douglas fir tree on Kingstown Road. To fully appreciate your surroundings here, tuck into the local seafood , and Aunt Carrie’s is known for its golden fried clam cakes ($5 for a half dozen) and chowders. The Anchor Motel is a budget-friendly choice, with 15 rooms directly across from Scarborough State Beach. Mystic Seaport is a great stop for families © Photo by Brian T. Evans / Moment / Getty Mystic Seaport, Connecticut No, cult favorite coming-of-age flick Mystic Pizza wasn’t actually filmed at its namesake restaurant in this sweet, seaside hamlet less than an hour west of Narragansett on US Route 1. But if you pop in for a slice and a selfie, you won’t want to miss the rest of this village situated along the Mystic River. Bluff Point State Park is home to over 800 acres of lush land for hiking, biking and fishing, and the historic district straddling the river has something for everyone, including the still-working Bascule Bridge built in 1920. The popular Mystic Aquarium was recently certified by the American Humane Conservation and makes a welcome home to sea lions, penguins and even sharks, while the Mystic Seaport Museum concentrates more on history, with a working preservation shipyard and recreated 19th-century village to explore. Ford’s Lobster is an affordable, BYOB treasure on the water, featuring fresh lobsters as well as lobster roll and lobster bisque. Stay at The Whaler’s Inn in downtown Mystic, comprised of five different buildings, each housing rooms and suites with a nautical theme. Produced by Lonely Planet for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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How to road trip the Midwest on a budget

Defined by wide-open swathes of farmland, friendly small towns and attractive urban cities (not to mention the bonus of much lower prices for gas and lodging than you’d expect to pay on the coasts), this down-to-earth territory holds all the makings of a memorable road trip. St. Louis, Missouri With affordable attractions, tasty food and river city culture, St. Louis makes a great starting point to kick off a Midwestern road trip. At 630ft, the iconic Gateway Arch is required viewing, and America’s tallest man-made monument. The CityArchRiver project recently revamped the land that surrounds the landmark, updating facilities and adding green space and bike trails. Take the tram ride to the top for the best bird’s eye view in town, or catch a ride to cruise the mighty Mississippi on a paddlewheel-powered riverboat (snagging an America the Beautiful Pass will save you a few bucks on ticket prices). During baseball season, Busch Stadium and Ballpark Village come alive with avid Cardinals fans rooting for the home team. Even if you’re not attending the game, the sports energy in town is contagious. Site of the 1904 World’s Fair, 1300-acre Forest Park is a one-stop cultural cache that includes museums, a zoo, a science center, a greenhouse, lakes and pedestrian paths — all free to access. There’s no charge to tour the historic Anheuser-Busch Brewery grounds and admire the Budweiser Clydesdales either. After exploring, sample some classic fried ravioli at any of the old-school Italian restaurants on the Hill and order up some ice cream or frozen custard at Ted Drewe’s. See the full list: 51 affordable discoveries across America 2020 Hop on Route 66 to get your kicks © Flash Parker / Moment / Getty Route 66 Heritage Project, Illinois Get your kicks! Gearing up to celebrate its centennial in 2026, America’s Mother Road accounts for 300 miles of scenic byway on its Central Illinois leg between St. Louis and Chicago, (running 2,400 all told out to California). Meet up with Route 66 by crossing the Mississippi River at the Chain of Rocks Bridge and make a day of it heading northeast to take in the scenery through Litchfield, Springfield, Bloomington/Normal and Pontiac. Commemorate the journey by snapping selfies against Americana-rich backdrops like the 30ft Gemini Giant at Wilmington’s Launching Pad drive-in, Paul Bunyon holding a hot dog in Atlanta and the Joliet Correctional Center where Jake and Elwood served time in the Blues Brothers. Hole up in a mom-and-pop motel if you need a break from the long day of driving, and keep your own motor running with a pit stop to refuel at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook. A mix of museums and public art await you in Chicago © roman_slavik / Shutterstock Chicago, IL Route 66 ultimately deposits travelers in Chicago at the end of the road. A two-time World’s Fair host, the Windy City delivers a winning combination of history, sports, food and culture, inviting visitors to stick around and explore for as long as they like. Take your pick of Museum Campus attractions like the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum, then venture north up Michigan Avenue to the renowned Art Institute of Chicago. Hot tip: a CityPASS packages these and a couple other top attractions to save visitors 50% on premium admission prices across the board. After strolling through Millennium Park and taking a few photos at the Bean, take a spin on the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier and window-shop your way up the Magnificent Mile. Chicago boasts a strong theater community with performing arts showcases, concerts and events happening every night of the week, often with last-minute or day-of ticket discounts available. You definitely won’t lack for great eats, whether you opt to indulge in affordable local favorites like deep-dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs and global cuisine galore, or splurge on a high-end meal at one of the city’s finest dining establishments. Milwaukee is a former Rust Belt city with a under-the-radar food and drink scene © Visit Milwaukee / JMKE Photography Milwaukee, Wisconsin From Chicago, it’s just a quick 90-minute journey north up I-94/I-41 to Milwaukee, a town that manages to stay humble while still impressing visitors with its style and substance. The Harley-Davidson Museum is a pilgrimage destination for legions of brand-loyal customers. After a visit, learn all about the city’s beer heritage with a tour of Miller Brewery or Sprecher Brewery. You’ll need something to eat, and wholesome dairy is what’s on the menu (this is Wisconsin, after all), namely in the form of cheese curds, butter burgers and frozen custard. Milwaukee’s Public Market in the Third Ward offers a one-stop opportunity to sample it all under one roof. When the weather’s nice, the river and lakefront encourage locals and visitors to get outside and enjoy some water recreation. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Art Museum (the Santiago Calatrava-designed “wings” that fan open and shut twice a day are a free show in and of themselves), a reputable repertory theater and a rocking roster of summer festivals keep Milwaukee solidly rooted in the arts. At the end of the day, the historic (and haunted?) Pfister Hotel proposes stylish confines in which to rest your weary head. Visiting Lambeau Field packed with Green Bay fans is an experience like nothing else © Brenda Spaude Green Bay, Wisconsin Keep on trucking up I-43 for about two hours and join “the Pack” in Green Bay, Wisconsin’s oldest settled community where pro football reigns supreme. Don some green and yellow to show your loyalty for raucous tailgating at the 80,000+ seat Lambeau Field; the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, tours of the stadium and the Titletown entertainment district next door are available all year long. Sports aren’t the only attraction here, though — breathtaking hiking territory abounds with landscapes that show off dolomite cliffs, waterfalls and beachfronts. Made from hearty stock, Green Bay residents don’t shy away from the long cold winters, opting instead to make the most of the season with ice skating, tubing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. You can always thaw out in front of any of the local restaurants, cafes and brewpubs that feature cozy fireplaces. Or, belly up to a local bar for a good old traditional Friday-night Wisconsin fish fry. Duluth, Minnesota It’s a five-hour jaunt across S.R. 29 to Chippewa Falls and then up US 53 over the Minnesota state line into Duluth. Along the idyllic banks of Lake Superior, the great outdoors are alive and well here, especially during the fall when the Northwoods foliage bursts into spectacular shades of burnished orange, red and gold. Settled by the Sioux and Chippewa tribes, the city now serves as entrance to the North Shore Scenic Drive that runs 154 miles up to Grand Portage, just shy of the Canadian border. The Aerial Lift Bridge is Duluth’s crown-jewel landmark, raising and lowering nearly two dozen times each day to accommodate the passage of ships and boats traveling into and out of the harbor. The Canal Park district appeals to visitors with charming local restaurants to frequent and the Lakewalk to wander. Gooseberry Falls is one of Minnesota's best parks © Explore Minnesota / Micah Kvidt Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota From Duluth, follow the North Shore Scenic Byway 40 miles northeast past glimpses of the lake, forests and rock formations to wind down the journey at Gooseberry Falls, one of Minnesota’s most stunning state parks. Stretch your legs with a walk around the Falls View Loop to drink in the namesake Upper, Middle and Lower cascades. A slice of cherry crunch or French Silk at Betty’s Pies in nearby Two Harbors makes the perfect sweet finale. You might also like: Midwest travel ideas: 8 under-the-radar destinations to visit in America’s HeartlandHow to road-trip Canada on a budgetAudiobooks to narrate your US road trip Produced by Budget Travel for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Budget Travel alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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Road trip the Southwest on a budget

From the fun of Sin City to the jaw-dropping beauty of the national parks, this scenic route packs amazing sights and tastes into a manageable itinerary. If you’re looking for a vacation that includes warm sun, gorgeous desert landscapes, snow-covered mountains, and big-city stye, the American Southwest is a go-to option. Here, you’ll discover the 24/7 excitement, of Vegas, the otherworldly landscapes of national and state parks (think humanoid-like cacti and red rocks), and the vibrant communities and culinary scenes of Phoenix and El Paso. Here, a step-by-step affordable itinerary that includes wallet-friendly lodging, plus the best places to grab a taste of Southwestern flavors. Las Vegas, Nevada Start your engine in Las Vegas, where the legendary Strip beckons with endless neon and who-has-time-to-sleep gaming, food, and drink. Even the grandest hotels here typically offer reasonable nightly rates – rooms at Circus Circus Hotel, Casino, and Theme Park, for instance, can start as low as $25/night, but keep in mind that taxes and standard charges can add at least another $40/night to your stay. Before hitting the road, you may want to catch a concert, theater performance, or stand-up comedy, and remember that Vegas offers plenty of quirky off-the-beaten-path delights such as the Neon Museum with its incredible array of bright lights and kitschy designs, and the surprisingly riveting National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, more commonly known as the Mob Museum. Food options, from shockingly affordable buffets to $700 burgers deliver something for every culinary preference. (Take a Taste Buzz Food Tour for a taste of a little bit of everything.) Valley of Fire State Park is known for its strange "beehive" rock formations © Carol Polich / Lonely Planet Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada Less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas along Route I-15 North, Valley of Fire State Park, in the Mojave Desert, feels like a world away. As you enter the park, you’ll stay on Valley of Fire Scenic Byway, the only main road, which runs about 11 miles, connecting the east and west entrances. Pull over for one of the park’s exceptional hikes, where you can explore the iconic red Aztec sandstone formations that give the park its name – timing your visit to include at least one sunset is as must, as the combination of golden light and deep red of the rocks creates the namesake “fire” display. In addition to its geological wonders, Valley of Fire is also home to remnants of prehistoric communities, such as roadside petroglyphs and ancient rock art. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like antelope, bobcat, coyote, and Nevada’s state animal, the desert bighorn sheep. Arrive with picnic foods and snacks and plenty of water, and pack layers of clothing: winter temperatures can veer from the mid-70s to freezing; summer temps range from more than 100 degrees in the day to much cooler at night. You can treat Valley of Fire as a day trip from Vegas, or book one of the park’s 70+ campsites for the night. Sprawling Phoenix holds many surprises © tonda / Getty Images Phoenix, Arizona From the Vegas/Valley of Fire area, you’ll want to set aside a day for the 300-mile drive along US 93 South to Phoenix, Arizona; if more than four hours in the car feels like a long trip (westerners reckon driving distances differently from those visiting from back east), plan a stop in Kingman, Arizona, where a stop at the Alpacas of the Southwest ranch will delight kids of all ages. Once in Phoenix, you’ll want to spend at least a full day discovering America’s fifth-largest city (with a population of more than 1.6 million). Hike the trails on Camelback Mountain for the best vistas; visit Papago Park with its red rock buttes, botanical garden, and zoo just minutes from downtown; and drop by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s former winter home, Taliesin West, a Unesco World Heritage site, for its beautiful synthesis of modern design and desert-inspired rooms and gardens. Don’t miss the Heard Museum, celebrating the history and culture of Native American people with an extensive collection of art and artifacts. Fuel up at the award-winning Pizzeria Bianco, in Heritage Square, and when it’s time to rest your head, Phoenix offers an array of affordable lodging such as the stylish Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix. See the strange saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park © Dmitry Vinogradov / 500px Saguaro National Park, Arizona From Phoenix, you’ll hit I-10 East for the two-hour drive to Saguaro National Park. Get ready to meet the gigantic, humanoid forms of Saguaro cacti, some as high as 50ft and as old as 200 years. Some visitors swear the cacti take on a truly human appearance and personality, which only adds to the otherworldly quality of this Southwestern road trip. The park is also home to 8000ft mountains and unique desert wildlife such as javelinas, desert tortoises, and the Mexican spotted owl. Start at one of the park’s visitor centers for maps and advice about hikes, museum exhibits, a cactus garden, and ranger-led programs. Lodging options for visiting Saguaro range from posh digs in nearby Tucson, such as the University Inn to camping in the backcountry of the Rincon Mountain District (check in with the park’s visitor center for up-to-date camping options). Blossoming El Paso is a worthy stop on your Southwestern road trip © Beau Rogers / 500px El Paso, Texas From Tucson, you’ll get back on I-10 East for a four-hour drive across New Mexico before you dip into the western corner of Texas, where El Paso awaits. This vibrant city is ready for its closeup. A construction boom in recent years has led to exceptional hotel bargains, such as comfy and reliable stays at the Doubletree or Holiday Inn Express, and a renaissance of community spirit. Catch a minor-league baseball game and cheer for the hometown Chihuahuas, sip an exceptional local craft beer, and hop a ride on the newly restored streetcar line. Set aside at least a day to get to know this important border city’s art museum and gorgeous Franklin Mountains State Park. Strange cave formations await you in Carlsbad Caverns National Park © PHOTO 24 / Getty Images Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico Hit US-62 East for the two-hour drive from El Paso to one of America’s most extraordinary national parks, Carlsbad Caverns. Aboveground, the park is home to beautiful grassland, the lovely Guadalupe Mountains, and canyons. Below, you’ll explore the unique cave system that rivals any on earth for its scale and visual impact – at 250ft high and 4000ft long, it’s truly like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Ranger-led tours of the caverns, guided hikes among the mountains and canyons, and other hands-on programs keep every member of the family engaged. Reliable lodging is available about a half-hour’s drive from the park, in Carlsbad, NM, ranging from roadside chain motels to Quality Inn & Suites. Produced by Lonely Planet for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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