The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The demise of the great American road trip

Prices are displayed on a gas pump at a Conoco station in Denver on May 21. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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This summer ought to mark the return of the great American road trip. After more than two pandemic years of staying home and staying safe, Americans could be excused for marking the unofficial start of summer on Memorial Day weekend like so many Indy 500 drivers, racing out to enjoy the freedom of the open road.

I just completed a drive from Ann Arbor, Mich., to New Orleans, my first road trip since 2019, and I’ve got a message for you: Fasten your seatbelts. The skyrocketing price of gas is an obvious problem, but inflation (or making up for lost revenue) has also jacked up hotel room rates. The Post recently reported that the average daily hotel price in March had zoomed 40 percent year over year. Another pothole in the road-trip dream: The U.S. labor shortage has meant many businesses, especially in the hospitality trade, are thinly staffed, leaving customers fuming.

And you can’t even relax behind the wheel — somehow, the coronavirus pandemic made drivers crazy, with last year’s U.S. traffic death toll the highest in 16 years: 42,915 fatalities, more than a 10 percent jump from the year before. Preliminary numbers indicate that 2022 could be worse.

Maybe fly instead and then rent a car? No help there. Airline ticket prices are in the stratosphere and, as The Post said this spring, “The rental car ‘apocalypse’ isn’t over.” Rates are startling — if you can even find a car.

The travel industry had been eagerly looking forward to this summer as a pandemic bounce-back. But even if Americans desperate for a change of scenery do start traveling, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to enjoy it.

“Industry greed is tapping the brakes on a red-hot vacation season,” consumer advocate Christopher Elliott wrote in a recent newsletter. “Even I’m having second thoughts about travel. And all I do is travel, so that’s saying a lot.”

I didn’t have the option of staying home: I was relocating to New Orleans. When the schedule changed because the moving company was short-staffed, I decided to make the best of the situation and treat the journey like a leisurely road trip instead of a forced march.

I knew that gas prices would be high — they’ve more than doubled in the past 18 months. But it was staggering to see gas stations advertising $5 a gallon, and they turned out to be the norm. When I found the bargain price of $4.39 per gallon in a Chicago suburb, I filled up. (The cheapest I paid anywhere during the trip was $3.79, just outside Oxford, Miss.)

I had intended to stay a night or two in Chicago, but the hotel rates were so alarming that I drove on to Evanston, a college town, in search of a better deal. A discount-hotel app found a place for $100 a night, the lowest rate of my trip.

I thought it would be fun, as I traveled south, to avoid staying in chain hotels and instead find unusual, interesting accommodations, but every hotel where I wanted to stay cost more than $200 a night — too much for my budget — so opted for the reliable and reasonable but less romantic Hampton Inn.

There, I got another surprise. “Stay over guests” — those spending more than one night — no longer received automatic daily housekeeping service unless they requested it. My room rate was basically that: a rate for a room.

Not wanting to add to the overburdened housekeepers’ workload, I made my own bed, hung up my towels and emptied my own trash. Sure, those are all things I routinely do at home, but it used to be that one of the treats of staying in a hotel was not having to do them.

Even after I reached New Orleans, the underwhelming reality of today’s travel environment took another bite. Friends invited me to dinner and told me to pick any place I liked. I know the city pretty well, and thought we’d all have fun at a big, festive place called Commander’s Palace. I called to make a reservation — it was the middle of the week, so I didn’t think getting a table would be a problem. But there was nothing available, not until four days from then.

We dined elsewhere. Later, I chatted with Commander’s co-owner Ti Adelaide Martin, who said the restaurant can’t seat as many customers as it used to because she can’t find enough workers. A big turquoise “Now Hiring” sign hangs a few feet from the illuminated Commander’s marquee.

Maybe you’re thinking about forgoing the great American road trip and just flying (despite the pricey fares) to Florida and going to Disney World instead? Get ready for the “Most Magical Place on Earth” to make your cash vanish. With price hikes and unexpected fees, The Post reports, frustrated Disney fans “are voicing new levels of disenchantment.”

Disenchantment. That may turn out to be a pretty good byword for the summer of 2022.