Go with the slow

Boats, trains and automobiles

Think about your last vacation. What do you remember? Did you hurry from one activity or place to another, getting a bird’s-eye view of too many things to really enjoy the journey?

If so, there’s good news. Use 2024 to do something different. Try exploring iconic highways, riding the rails to multiple destinations or boarding a riverboat on the country’s waterways.

“There’s a growing trend called ‘slow tourism,’ a chance to enjoy the journey, make memories, eat like a local, participate in experiences and discover the heart of a destination,” says Berkeley Young, president of Young Strategies Inc., a tourism research and consulting firm that works with destinations across the country. “You can travel by road, rail or boat, set your own pace and create lasting memories — all without a passport.”

SheBuysTravel CEO Kim Orlando says she has seen an increase in domestic travel for families, girls’ getaways, affinity groups and multiple generations.

“Domestic destinations are packed with experiences that range from riverboat cruising to road trips, and it’s usually more affordable than traveling overseas,” she says. “Vacation varieties are endless: mountains, deserts, oceans, lakes. Busy cities and charming small towns offer travelers diverse cultural experiences and cuisines.”

Orlando says traveling domestically has many advantages. “The language, roads and monetary systems are familiar, and time differences are not as drastic, giving you more fun time in your destination and less stress. You can literally hop in your car and go.”

Asphalt icons

When asked about America’s iconic drives, a few big names may pop into mind: The Pacific Coast Highway from Dana Point, Calif., to Leggett, Wash.; Historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles; and U.S. 1 on the East Coast from Key West, Fla., to Fort Kent, Maine.

“Taking a road trip along any of America’s iconic highways opens up a whole world of itineraries, regardless of where you live and what you enjoy,” Young says.

Choosing a highway route rather than a connect-the-dots system of interstates can make for a more relaxing vacation and become a chance to learn by getting off the interstate and enjoying the journey, Young adds.

Kim Taddie, a retired nurse practitioner, never saw the ocean until she was nearly 22 years old and working in Maryland. These days, she travels around the globe with her husband Gordon McLachlan. They have spent much of their 40-year marriage on the road.

“Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, our family would go camping, but only to places nearby, so I’d never really been anywhere until my early 20s,” says Taddie. “When we met, Gordon [was] an avid traveler. It was a perfect match. I wanted to travel more, and Gordon was living my dream.”

Aside from their globetrotting, they’ve traversed the U.S., mostly on the road in their motorhome. One of her favorite courses is Route 66, the famed highway between Chicago and southern California.

“Route 66 was the first transcontinental highway; traveling along the two-lane asphalt road is like going back to the 1950s with [its] roadside attractions, motor courts, crazy statues and all kinds of nostalgia,” she says. “It’s not as popular as a travel route since the interstates have opened up, but it is so worth the drive because of what it represents in our country’s history.”

McLachlan is quick to mention the 1,650-mile Pacific Coast Highway, which hugs the shores of the Pacific Ocean from Dana Point, Calif., north to Leggett, Wash.

“Spectacular views, the chance to see whales and other wildlife, plus memorable sights like Big Sur between Carmel and San Simeon, the Avenue of the Giants in Weott, Calif., and the Heceta Head Lighthouse in Oregon, are why we keep going back,” he says. “Camping in state parks along the way allows us to take our time and discover other treasures, too.”

Littlefamilyadventure.com’s Nicky Omohundro writes about family travel. “Our country’s iconic highways are a great place to start for a family road trip,” she says. “Each has its own trademark stops.”

She advises tackling renowned highways in sections, and she often travels with no cellphone, just a map. “For me, when we do this, it’s more about the journey than the destination,” she says. “And we’re never disappointed.

“Kitschy street art in many of the towns, retro diners, motor courts and gas stations are just a few of the reasons we love Route 66,” Omohundro says. “You almost have to see it to believe it. Giant statues of American music and film stars like Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe at the Braidwood, Ill., Polk-a-Dot Drive In and the Catoosa Blue Whale in Oklahoma prove the point. The route doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

In addition to Route 66, travelers can hop on several other iconic routes in Illinois. The Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River along the state’s western border, connects 10 states. Along the Illinois border, some popular sites include Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Fort de Chartres State Historic Site in Prairie du Rocher and Old Chain of Rocks Bridge near Madison.

U.S. Route 50 connects Ocean City, Md., to West Sacramento, Calif., and cuts through southern Illinois between Vincennes, Ind., and St. Louis. Following the road west, you’ll find yourself along The Loneliest Road in America upon reaching Nevada.

The Historic National Road, which originally began in Cumberland, Md., and ended in Vandalia, Ill. (the state capital at the time), was the first highway built entirely with federal funds. It has since been extended to St. Louis.

Rolling down the river

The sight of a paddle-wheeler cruising down the Mississippi River conjures up romantic images of an earlier time in America’s history, when waterways transported pioneers and settlers westward. Today, traveling by riverboat or small ship has been significantly modernized, yet the romance and adventure remain.

“People today love the different twist on vacations in the U.S. that our small ships offer, and traveling the country’s waterways by riverboat opens up a whole new experience that’s like a flashback in time,” says Alexa Paolella, manager of public relations for American Cruise Lines. “No passport is required, and your hotel travels with you from port to port, so you unpack once. It’s a much more relaxed pace for discovery, with more time to explore small river towns and picturesque shoreside villages, especially the places large cruise ships don’t go.”

American Cruise Lines’ fleet of 19 ships sail America’s coastlines and rivers. Accommodations vary from 90 to 180 passengers, depending on the vessel. Classic paddle-wheelers and modern riverboats navigate the Mississippi and Columbia rivers.

The company’s small cruise ships transport guests along both coasts of the country with itineraries from Alaska and Puget Sound to cruises exploring the New England coast to the Florida Keys. It has also added national park tours to its offerings.

“All our cruises offer a variety of experiences and activities ashore each day, providing access to larger cities but also the opportunity to relish the unique experiences only found in the smaller towns along the way,” Paolella says. “Onboard, curated entertainment and chef-prepared daily meals complement the comfortable and relaxing travel that comes with sailing on America’s waterways.”

Ride the rails

With more than 21,400 miles of routes and more than 500 destinations across 46 states and parts of Canada, travel via Amtrak connects people to big cities, small towns, national parks, historic sites, popular travel destinations and off-the-beaten path adventures.

“Train travel can be a good alternative to driving or flying, and these days, customers have many options when taking a trip by rail,” says Kimberly Woods, senior public relations manager at Amtrak’s Washington, D.C., office. “Diverse destinations and the variety of routes and accommodations broaden choices, whether you’re traveling with children, as a couple, solo or with a group of friends.”

Amtrak is the only national passenger rail service in the U.S., and in 2023, more than 28 million customers chose Amtrak for travel, according to the company’s annual report.

“We’re seeing a strong increase in people who choose to travel with us because of the convenience, the chance to see more of the country than flying, and the simple novelty of being on a train,” she says.

Amtrak offers multiple options to travel short distances, like from Washington, D.C., to New York, Chicago to Milwaukee and to and from various locations in southern California.

Leisure travelers opt for overnight travel on several long-distance trains. The configurations of accommodations can include several types of service. First class offers private rooms with chairs that convert to upper and lower berths, larger bedrooms, family suites and accessible bedrooms. Coach cars have extra legroom and dedicated luggage storage.

The white-tablecloth dining car features traditional chef-curated menus. Customers can visit a cafe car to purchase more casual options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Passengers can also bring their own food, beverages and snacks. Basic Wi-Fi is offered, and passengers can travel with small pets or bring their bicycles.

In the northeast between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, customers are traveling for work, vacation or maybe a day trip. However, as Amtrak’s routes fan out westward, the number of leisure travelers increases.

“Chicago is our hub for western itineraries to Seattle, Washington state, Portland, Oregon, Oakland/San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a variety of other destinations along the way in large cities and smaller towns alike,” Woods says.

Amtrak has named the California Zephyr as one of its most scenic routes, which begins in Chicago and travels through Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City and finally to San Francisco.

In addition to direct routes, spur lines fill in across the lower half of the country. The Amtrak USA Rail Pass includes hop-on/off access for 10 segments over 30 days for a single fare.

“When you travel by train, you can be as busy or relaxed as you want,” Woods says. “You’ll have space to work, read, watch movies on your devices, have good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations or just sit back and look out the window to enjoy the scenery.”

Best resources for local knowledge

“Some of the best planning resources are state tourism divisions and local convention and visitors bureaus,” Young says. “Their job is to know their states, towns and counties and to provide easy ways to take a vacation that suits your interests and lifestyles.”

Every state has a dedicated department with staff whose job is to promote tourism by creating numerous trip plans for all interests, such as music, culinary, cultural and historic. Research them first before drilling down to specific stops along the way via city, town or county-specific visitors bureaus and welcome centers.

“State and local agencies work with local attractions, accommodations, dining and special events and maintain extensive information about what to do, the best times to visit, outdoor activities and much more,” he says. “They have access to information about recommended routes, and many times offer promotions for hotels, restaurants and attractions.”

Young says that true leisure travel is about the experience, but many vacationers are in a hurry to get where they’re going and miss interesting discoveries along the way.

“Just remember, don’t sweat the tiny details. Determine the path you want to explore, book your transportation and some lodging, and get out there,” he says. “Fill in your itinerary as you go along. Meet locals and eat local. Be adventuresome; go find the real America.”