Concept of road trip is changing in the US, customized plans jack up cost
When the coronavirus hit, Jill Sunderson and her investment banker husband Jason nixed their planned summer trip to Barcelona.
Instead, the Hinsdale, Ill.-based couple is taking their children, ages 11, 8, and 6, on a self-drive trip through South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, all planned with the help of SmartFlyer, a full-service travel company catering to high-end corporate and leisure travelers. “In the past, the U.S. was always on the back burner," she says. “We always rationalized flying somewhere, because it would introduce the kids to a different culture."
In the wake of the novel coronavirus, however, the great American road trip is getting an alluring makeover.
Forget the family Suburban and free, AAA-generated maps. The latest itineraries from outfitter Black Tomato, called Take the Open Road, are created in partnership with Auberge Resorts Collection and Mercedes-Benz. Travelers living within 100 miles of the car brand’s New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Atlanta flagships can request complimentary home delivery and pickup of vehicles that are pre-programmed with destination-specific playlists and stocked with picnic baskets.
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Five-night trips start at nearly $5,000 per person, though such add-ons as two nights at a fully-serviced pop-up glamping site in Arches National Park in Utah can bring the price tag up to $18,875 per person.
In addition to overnights at Auberge properties, including Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo., and Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley, Calif., the itineraries also include a private charter of an America’s Cup antique motor boat and truly away-from-the-crowds heli-hiking adventures.
For Black Tomato and many other travel outfitters, the humble road trip is emerging as a Hail Mary for travel outfitters to make up for months of lost revenue. “Like many industries, we have to pivot and adjust to changing needs and demands," says SmartFlyer’s Robert Merlin, who has started to swap travelers’ summer trips to Europe—like the Sundersons’—with splashy U.S. drives.
If his new product is any indication, Black Tomato co-founder Tom Marchant agrees. His company ordinarily focuses on money-is-no-object voyages to places like Rwanda and Japan. Last year, domestic U.S. trips made up only 15% of Black Tomato’s business, but the combination of scarce summer flights, wariness of taking to the skies, and extensive travel restrictions abroad are forcing change.
Marchant does, however, see a silver lining: “We often find ourselves guilty of looking past incredible experiences that lay conveniently in our backyard."
‘King of the Road’
Depending on what travelers are prioritizing—safety, nature, comfort, hospitality—these glammed-up road trips trips can look very different. Risk-tolerant travelers craving a taste of the “old normal" are open to checking off America’s bucket-list attractions with the help of a driver, staying at remote luxury ranches along the way. Hyper-vigilant social distancers may prefer driving themselves and sleeping in a tricked-out RV.
Meredith Broder, an adviser at Avenue Two Travel, believes first-time road trippers will need some hand holding. “You can’t take a luxury traveler and suddenly make them king of the road," says Broder. “You might be sleeping in a rock star vehicle, but you’re most likely waking up in an RV park."
She remedies this by hiring drivers for clients and booking overnights in outdoorsy, five-star lodges such as Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado or the Lodge at Blue Sky in Utah. She’s hiring drivers exclusively from companies that follow guidelines recommended by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and having vehicles disinfected between trips.
Steppes Travel has found a middle ground with its new, two-week, $12,895-per-person Adventure in the American West trip. The self-drive itinerary includes privately guided 4x4 Jeep tours and heli-landings at remote parts of Utah’s Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Also included in the price: the Steppes team is a call away, 24/7, should anything misfire or feel unsafe.
That’s comparable to the new itineraries from Abercrombie & Kent, whose road trips from L.A. to the Southwest and from Chicago to the West also have drivers and private guides. “Not all national parks have five- or even four-star hotels," says A&K USA Managing Director Marty Behr of the current go-to destinations. “We’ve taken the extra steps to find high-end accommodations with separate [socially distant] buildings and in-room dining options." In the event of sudden outbreaks, he adds, his travelers have immediate access to Medivac transportation, telemedicine consults, flexible cancellation policies, and alternate routes—most of which come standard when booking with a reputable travel agent.
Close to Home, Yet Very Far Away
American travelers were already starting to pay closer attention to the cultural riches closer to home, even before Covid-19. Leah Smith, founder of Denver-based agency Tafari Travel, says that’s because hotels across the US have wised-up to the importance of sophisticated local experiences, whether cooking with a professional chef or learning about hieroglyphics with a historian.
Now border restrictions are intensifying the trend. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing," says Sam Highley, founder of American road trip planner All Roads North. His service, which usually fills gaps for travel agents, rather than working directly with consumers, has seen more demand. “What we excel at is the in-between places most Americans aren’t familiar with," he explains, such as the fly-fishing capital Paradise Valley, Mont., just north of Yellowstone.
The challenge, says Highly, is connecting very disparate destinations without airplanes. “A lot of New Yorkers don’t realize Montana is over 2,000 miles away and requires a 35-plus-hour drive," he explains. “But people are deciding to make an experience of the journey."
Not Your Grandparents’ Vacation
Today’s road tripper isn’t just interested in Point A and Point B, and the focus on larger-than-life experiences can make these trips as much of a logistical challenge as an African safari. “A US road trip often has 40 different components," explains Highley. Among them are driving directions, where to catch the sunrise at the Grand Canyon, or which town plays host to the quirky “Running of the Sheep." There’s also improved access to in-demand hotels such as Chico Hot Springs, a lodge with hot springs just north of Yellowstone in Montana. These are the details that make a road trip worth outsourcing, he notes—and worth a price tag in the low five figures.
Not all travelers are ready to return to hotels. Jer Goss, president of luxury motorcoach company Goss RV, says that even without summer concert business, May rentals are on a par with 2019. These days, he’s spending an hour vs. the typical 10 to 15 minutes on calls with potential renters. “The first question is always: ‘Where can I go,’" he says. “People think of the standard KOA campground, but we have connections at luxury motorcoach resorts that feel like the Ritz, with golf courses and pools and ‘room’ service." Hearthside Grove, an RV resort in Petoskey, Mich., even brings in local chefs to host cooking classes.
As for the motorcoaches, they have all the amenities of a five star hotel, including gourmet kitchens, living rooms, flatscreen TVs, and Wi-Fi. Even the price tag is comparable: Weeklong rentals top out at $40,000, the price of a Mercedes C300. If you saved for Lake Como this summer and end up at Lake Michigan, at least you can stay in style.