We’ve spent nearly 30-years road-tripping together and today we’re sharing 30+ things to do on a road trip that are free or low-cost.
We’ve always been a road-tripping family. When our kids were little, my husband often worked out of state and the kids and I often joined him. Sometimes, we would travel along with him, and other times, depending on how long he expected to be away, the kids and I would drive separately to meet him.
However, if you’re new to road tripping or you just need a few ideas to stretch the budget and occupy the kids, we have some ideas for you.
Actually, we’re sharing our list of 30 fun things to do on a road trip. Best of all, these road trip ideas are mostly free or relatively inexpensive.
30 Things to do on a Road Trip that Won’t Break the Bank
These are some of our favorite things to do and see while road tripping but it’s not exhaustive. We’d love to hear what you enjoy when you travel so make sure you leave us a comment at the end of this post.
1. Visit the Local Visitor Center
The best way to learn about the places you are passing through is to visit the local visitor’s center. They will often have a small museum about the history of their town, brochures about things to do in the area, and some may even have scavenger hunts and prizes to get visitors out and about exploring their town.
2. Find Roadside Attractions
I love roadside attractions! Sure, they may add a bit of time to your trip, but isn’t it about the journey, not the destination? From creepy roadside attractions to roadside dinosaurs, there’s always something interesting to see with a short detour.
3. Take a Scenic Byway
Sure, the interstate is usually the fastest way to get there, but it’s never the most scenic route. There are over 120 scenic byways in the United States (Ohio is home to 27). In order to be designated a scenic byway, a road must have at least one of the following qualities: scenic, natural, historic, cultural, archaeological, or recreational.
4. Visit a National Park, Monument or Historic Site
The National Park Service manages over 400 units across all 50 states. From the grand National Parks to lesser-known National Monuments and National Historic sites, there’s always a National Park Service site to check out along the way.
5. Play the License Plate Game
A great game to pass the time with kids in the car is to play License Plate Bingo or the License Plate Game. There are Bingo cards you can print out, or just tally up points for anyone who spots a new state on passing license plates.
6. Go For a Hike
Inevitably, you will need to stop and stretch your legs along the way. Why not take a short hike? Apps like AllTrails can help you locate nearby hikes and filter by difficulty and distance. Even a short walk in a city park can perk you up and prepare you for the next long stretch of road.
7. Find a Covered Bridge
At one time, the US had more than 14,000 covered bridges. Only about 1,000 remain so they are a cool thing to see along the way. Covered bridges can be found all over the US, but are particularly prevalent in the Midwest and Northeast.
8. Go Chasing Waterfalls!
Who knows what TLC meant when they said “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” because it’s one of our favorite things to do. There are waterfalls in every state. Sometimes, they’re right next to the road, while other times you may have to hike a bit to find them. Either way, it’s always worth it to detour for a waterfall view. Bonus points if there’s a swimming hole at the bottom!
Birders know that there are unique birds all over the country at any given time of year. If you really love birds, you might even plan a road trip around a special migration spot. If you have limited time, you might just grab your binoculars and hang out at a local park or forest preserve for a bit.
Read this post to find out more about bird watching for beginners.
10. Find Geocaches
Besides hiking, another fun way to stretch your legs on a road trip is to go geocaching. With just a cell phone and a geocaching app, you can go on a hunt for geocaches. It’s like a modern-day treasure hunt, where the geocacher is given GPS coordinates where they can find a small prize or container with a register or log.
11. Explore Historic Markers
This is a personal favorite of mine, especially after visiting Sewah Studios in Marietta Ohio where the markers are made. Historic markers add very little time to your journey, and you never know what you might learn. For homeschooling families, they are a great way to incorporate a history lesson!
There are dozens of International Dark Sky Parks in the United States. These places have been designated as dark sky places due to a lack of light pollution. It may be a national park or a community, but generally, anytime you get away from city lights, you are bound to see some spectacular sights if you just look up.
13. Admire Public Art
From open-air art museums to public murals, public art can be found nearly everywhere in the United States. When you are mapping out your road trip route, check the destination websites of the towns you’ll be passing through. They will often have a guide to public art that includes murals and sculptures.
14. Visit a Local Garden
One neat thing about traveling is seeing the different things that grow in different regions. Most cities have a public garden and/or a botanical garden. These places often have a reciprocation program, meaning if you have a membership to your local botanical garden, you may be allowed free admission to other gardens while traveling.
15. Find a Muffler Man
These giant statues became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, when family road trips became all the rage. They stand anywhere from 14 to 24 feet tall, and come in many forms. You may have seen Paul Bunyan or a Native American. At some point, these figures became popular for advertising muffler shops.
16. Visit a Living History Museum
Living history museums are another great way to break up a long drive. These museums recreate historic settings, often with employees dressed in period clothing to show how people of the region lived during important periods of time. They often include family-friendly attractions such as craft workshops and petting zoos.
17. Find a Trail- but not the Kind You’re Thinking Of
No, we’re not repeating ourselves. While hiking trails are great, there are many other kinds of “trails” you can follow on a road trip. There are “quilt trails” in 43 states, where you can see unique barn quilts in the countryside. There are food trails, like the donut trail in Butler County, Ohio. Flagstaff, Arizona has a brewery trail, as I’m sure many other areas do as well. See what’s unique to the region you’re passing through, and follow a new trail.
18. Visit a Presidential Library
Every United States President since Herbert Hoover has had a Presidential Library built in their home state. They are more than just your typical library, and encapsulate a lot of history as well. From the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa to the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Illinois, there are Presidential libraries all over the country.
19. Tour a College Campus
Whether you take a guided tour or just roam around on your own, college campuses are a great stopover on a road trip. Often a trip down memory lane, it’s fun to soak up the youthful energy of the college students. Universities often have interesting museums and art collections you can see for a very low price. As a bonus, you can usually get really tasty and cheap food near campus.
20. Explore a Local Cemetery
A visit to the local cemetery doesn’t have to be a spooky or macabre experience. Cemeteries are often similar to a peaceful garden, with the added bonus of a history lesson. There are some really cool cemeteries in the United States. If you’re into pop culture, you can also seek out famous gravestones. There’s a pretty cool Jimi Hendrix memorial just outside Seattle, for example.
21. Sample a Local Snack
Every region has a specialty snack. Whether it’s boiled peanuts in the South, lobster rolls in the Northeast, pizza in New York City, a Navajo taco in Arizona, or Pasties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, go the extra mile to try local food on your road trip. Skip the fast-food chains and try something new! Even if you prefer to picnic on your road trip, check out the chip aisle; you might find an interesting new flavor to try with your homemade sandwiches!
22. Visit an Animal Rescue Organization
If you are an animal lover, you may want to incorporate some volunteer work into your road trip. Or just take a tour of a rescue or rehabilitation center. It takes a bit of research to suss out the good from the bad (hello, Tiger King) but it’s a great road trip activity. Some examples include the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, or the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center.
23. Learn About Local Architecture
Whether you take a guided or self-guided tour, you might be surprised at the changes in architecture around the country. Both commercial and residential architectural styles differ greatly from state to state, and you can learn a lot about an area by studying the architecture.
24. Visit Jewel Box Banks
In the early 20th century, renowned architect Louis Sullivan designed several “jewel box banks” throughout the Midwest. Several of them are still in use as banks in towns like Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Sidney, Ohio. Others have been repurposed as commercial businesses or visitor’s centers.
25. Find the State High Point
Unless you are a skilled mountaineer, I don’t recommend this in states like Alaska, California or Colorado. However, this can be a fun task in other states, especially in the Midwest and the South. Florida has the lowest high point, at 354 feet above sea level, while Kansas’ Mount Sunflower stands at 869 feet above sea level. Can you make the summit?
26. Collect State Quarters
Starting in 1999, each state received its own design for the 25-cent piece. The front of each coin still features George Washington, but the back is unique for each state. For example, the Georgia quarter features a peach, while Ohio commemorates the birthplace of aviation pioneers. You can buy collector’s kits to keep track, but it’s fun to collect quarters from each state you pass through.
27. Visit the State Capitol
If you happen to pass through a state capital on your road trip, take some time to visit the Capitol building. They are often very majestic buildings surrounded by expertly manicured gardens. You might even catch the local government in session.
28. Hunt for Fossils, Arrowheads, or Gems
Like geocaching with the direct coordinates! Depending on the area you are visiting, you may have an opportunity to hunt for fossils, arrowheads or gems. In the Western US, you’ll find lots of opportunities for gold mining. You can dig for diamonds at an Arkansas state park, or mine sapphires in Montana. Just be sure you know the local rules and regulations for removing any artifacts. You may just want to take a picture and return what you found for the next travelers to pass through.
29. Look for Movie Locations
Sure, you can tour the lots at Universal, but it’s way more fun to seek out the small-town shooting locations of your favorite movies and TV shows. Whether it’s the Goonies house in Astoria Oregon or the house from “A Christmas Story” in Cleveland Ohio, it’s a fun experience to see something from the movies in real life. You might even watch a few of the movies ahead of your road trip to build excitement. (Some of these are private homes, others are open to visitors. Do your research and make sure you are respectful of private property!)
If you enjoy seeking out movie locations, you may be interested to know that there is an entire trail of filming locations for the Shawshank Trail.
30. Take a Factory Tour
Factory tours are great fun, and chances are, you’ll have several opportunities on your road trip. Often given for a minimal cost, you get a behind-the-scenes look at how your favorite products are made. In Ohio, we have toured an ice cream factory and a motorhome factory. Some well-known companies like Ben & Jerrys, Harry & David, Budweiser, and Tillamook offer factory tours, with free samples, of course!
31. Browse Antique Stores
I may have mentioned a time or two that I have a fascination with milk glass. It’s common when we’re traveling to stop in some antique stores to see if I can find a unique piece to add to my collection. Plus, antique stores are different across the county. While you may find a ton of primitives in the New England states, along the Oregon Coast, my husband and I found a ton of art deco.
You know we love road trips and are always on the hunt for more great “finds” when we travel. What type of attractions or activities do you seek out when you travel? Leave a comment and tell us about it below.
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