Growing up in Europe and the Middle East, I romanticized the Great American Road Trip. Whereas in other places, a road trip might be merely a less expensive way to get from point A to point B, in America, it was clear that a road trip—like the ones portrayed in books like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or movies like Thelma & Louise and Little Miss Sunshine—was akin to an awakening. So while a cross-continent road trip through Europe when I was younger remains one of the most memorable travel experiences of my childhood, it wasn't due to being on the road itself, but rather to exploring different cities, if not countries, every day. (It didn't help that I got severely carsick as a child.)
Yet, in the past few years, I have found myself appreciating being on the road—and not just because it takes a lot more to get me carsick. While it may have to do with the fact that I have traded European pastures for the iconic American landscapes I had previously only known from books, movies, and Georgia O'Keeffe paintings, it's mostly about the headspace the road allows me to enter. For me and so many other young people, the past 18 months have been nothing if not emotionally taxing, the politically fraught times contributing to feelings of helplessness and like we're in control of nothing—including our future. It's no wonder, then, that we seek to control other areas of our life, even if it's as minor as an end-point on a map. This summer, as I spent my vacation taking a quintessential Northern California road trip—starting from San Francisco, going down to Monterey, Big Sur, east into Sequoia National Park, before going back up north to Sonoma, Napa, and ending in San Francisco—it dawned on me how at peace I felt driving for hours through the same dusty, sandy landscapes; my mind felt stable and even, mimicking the unchanging pattern of sandy roaded-mountains, with an occasional burst of clarity, not unlike the visual sensation of witnessing a deep blue body of water or a bright green patch of greenery emerging from an otherwise-dry landscape.
I am not alone. "Nearly six in 10 millennial travelers have taken at least one road trip during the past 12 months," says Steve Cohen, senior vice president for travel insights at travel and hospitality marketing firm MMGY Global. "In fact, in the last four years, the percentage of road-tripping millennials has doubled." According to the data collected for MMGY's 2018-2019 Portrait of American Travelers®, this trend will only continue, with 62 percent of millennials intending to make one or more road trips in the next 12 months.
The comeback of the road trip can be attributed to several things. According to the MMGY, the top reason millennials cite for taking road trips is the "ability to make stops along the way." Valerie Joy Wilson, of Trusted Travel Girl, who just got back from a road trip from Northern California to Oregon, explains: "Millennials are all about unique experiences, and the allure of a road trip is that you can make it truly 'yours' by selecting the stops, places you stay, and destinations. You can really dive into an area if you're traveling via car versus just staying at a hotel in a foreign location." There is no set schedule, no regulated time to arrive or depart a destination, and you have the complete independence to explore a place on your terms.
It's that flexibility that appealed to me this summer. As I made my way back from Big Sur to Monterey, having spent a little (read: a lot) more time at the take-your-breath-away scenic Bixby Bridge and watched the fog clear at Nepenthe, a restaurant perched mountainside overlooking the Pacific, I realized that I wouldn't make it to Point Lobos State Park, the “'crown jewel' of California's 280 state parks,” before it closed for the night. I, instead, stopped in the middle of Highway 1 by a hikeable-looking mountain. As I made my way to the grassy top, I found a single bench overlooking the ocean where I would spend the next half-hour, looking out at the breathtaking view, phone tucked away, the experience akin to meditation.
That thrill of making discoveries is another commonly cited reason for millennials chucking their Away suitcases into cars. "Millennials value exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations, and having your own wheels is sometimes the only way to reach them," says Jose Pablo Toscano, CEO of Jubel, a travel start-up known for its "Surprise Trips," which send travelers to mysterious destinations based on surveys they take. This trend also goes hand-in-hand with experiential travel, which has skyrocketed the Airbnb popularity and experiences that put local culture above luxury and comfort.
And, of course, for a generation defined by entering the work force during a recession, it is also a lot more economical. "As millennials have become more socially conscious and environmentally friendly, they've also learned to be economical. Hence, they will take to the road in their hybrid cars—three or four people to a vehicle—and explore the U.S. and Canada, eating locally sourced food," says Dr. Kurt Stahura, dean of the College of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Niagara University. He says the American road trip has become the Eurail for today's youth. "Sure, many will also want to backpack around Europe, a traditional rite of passage for young travelers, but plenty are also saying, 'Why don't I see the U.S. first?' Truly, we have so many great national parks, cities, monuments, and other attractions that it's hard to ignore them." According to travel expert and founder of TravelPulse.com, Mark Murphy, a road trip doesn't even have to stretch far, as long as it's a new destination: "The number one thing that millennials want to do is travel, even it means just checking out a cool hike, a hidden quarry filled with water, or simply watching the sunset from a different locale." It's no surprise, then, that old-fashioned camping, too, is on the rise among millennials.
Its also to do with nostalgia. Just look at the resurgence of the VW buses and RVs as proof. Millennials long to take road trips that they remember from their childhoods, a time when they were free from technology and the stresses of push notifications alerting us to The Terrible News of the Day. This idea of freedom is not unlike the one popularized by the road-loving Beat Generation; the idea of being able to focus on only the road ahead with no distractions, save for an audiobook or a podcast, is a tempting one; the act of speeding down an empty, desolate road, ironically, acts as an emergency brake on our over-stimulated bodies and minds. (Of course, it helps that picturesque parks and hanging cliffs also provide some incredible photo ops for social media.)
So whether it's a way to abandon a rigid travel schedule, have the flexibility to jump on the road last-minute, find under-radar destinations on the go, or a reflection of the economy, millennials are back in the (car)seat. This time, though, the destination is unknown.
Ahead, expert tips for getting the most out of the journey.