Couple sitting outside RV by the fire

The Resurgence of the Great American Road Trip

6 min read • Aug 26, 2020 • Kayla Voigt

“All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road,” Jack Kerouac writes in the American classic “On the Road.” The Great American Road Trip remains a quintessential travel experience since the 1950s, whether it’s crisscrossing the country or just getting your kicks on Route 66. 

The first successful cross-country road trip occurred in 1903 when a man named Horatio Jackson took a $50 bet that he couldn’t make it from New York to San Francisco in 90 days. RVs, or recreational vehicles, came not long after, with the first invented in 1910

A lot has changed since then, with RVs exploding in popularity after the Winnebago began mass-producing them at an accessible price point in 1967.  “Road trips have a universal quality,” Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs told PBS. “The real joy of the road trip lies in its spontaneity and unpredictability.”

The RV has become the hot vehicle for the summer, and it’s changing the landscape of domestic travel as we know it.

RV Sales Skyrocket for the Summer

With the pandemic, travelers have few safe options. RVing, with accommodations, food, and transportation in one contained area, seems to be the safest. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans planned to take a road trip at some point this summer, citing low gas prices and safety concerns. According to Arrivalist, which runs a daily travel index, road trips peaked July 1 for the 4th of July weekend. 

That’s probably why 46 million Americans are expected to take an RV trip this year. “I think we’re going to see a lot more demand,” RVshare CEO Jon Gray told Business Insider. “I think you’re now getting a new group of people buying them, which has people who are substituting it for more luxurious vacations that they typically took.”

Airstream, one of the most popular RV brands, originally projected losses for the year. Much to their surprise, sales increased 11% month over month for May, with no signs of slowing down. “Since we came back in May, sales have literally been through the roof, well beyond what we think was just pent up demand from the month of April,” Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler told Business Insider. “Orders continue to come in and retails continue to happen at a very brisk pace, so there’s something going on here that it’s beyond just a bit of pent up demand.”

More Americans choose to rent RVs than ever before through services like RVshare, which is similar to Airbnb in that it connects empty or unused RVs to travelers looking to use them. Bookings skyrocketed in May with a 650% increase year over year on the site.

What Pandemic Road Tripping Looks Like

The appeal of the RV mainly comes from the ability to seal off yourself and your family from other travelers, which is impossible on flights, cruises, or in hotels. “It’s hard to imagine another travel option that would be safer,” Maria Sundaram, MSPH and PhD, told SELF. “You can travel by yourself, so you don’t have anyone else in the car with you, and you also can make your own decisions about when and where you might need to stop.” 

And while there’s always this romantic idea of an American road trip stretching from coast to coast, the majority of American road trips this summer fall closer to the “staycation” category. 48% of travelers in a July 2020 Ipsos survey said they would be renting a home or camping within driving distance, focusing on remaining secluded and avoiding crowds. 72% of respondents said they’d be taking their cars no matter what.

With so much demand, every travel guide has posted a take on road tripping in style, with advice ranging from stocking up on food to prevent stopping to downloading apps for major chains to use contactless pay options in the drive-through and noting coronavirus travel restrictions state-by-state. 

The one thing every guide recommends? Researching every aspect of the trip more thoroughly than you would otherwise. “Even if you’ve done this trip multiple times, you need to take the research a step further,” AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano says in their road trip guide. “You may run into some temporary closures.”

Should Americans Hit the Open Road?

The real question is not whether Americans can RV, but if they should.

When considering a destination, the CDC recommends asking yourself:

  • Is COVID-19 spreading at your destination?
  • Do you, or someone you live with, have a higher risk of infection?
  • Will you be able to maintain social distancing at your destination?
  • What are the state and local travel requirements?

“There is still the risk,” University of Maryland Professor Luisa Franzini told CNN Travel. “[It’s] during the trip when they stop at the gas station to get gas or go to the restaurant. That’s certainly risky. And then once they arrive at their destination, there are risks, too.”

If you choose to take a road trip, you have to do so responsibly, evaluating each potential contact point not just as a risk to yourself but also to others you may spread the disease to without knowing. “If you were to ask me where I would feel comfortable road tripping at this point, it would really only be to larger, open-air destinations,” added Sundaram. “That includes campgrounds where there aren’t that many people. But I wouldn’t say the risk is reduced if you go to a rural area. You still want to be really careful about taking as many precautions as you can.”

Staying home is still a better idea than traveling, all things considered. “COVID-19 cases and deaths have been reported in all 50 states, and the situation is constantly changing,” says the CDC website. “Because travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.”


Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.