How Road Trips Have Changed Over the Past 50 Years


H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

Are We There Yet?

Over the past year, the pandemic led many of us to rediscover the simple joy of the road trip. Though a cherished national pastime, piling into the car for hours at a time doesn't exactly look the same as it did when Americans took to Route 66 in their Chevy Impalas and Ford Country Squires. From what we're driving to where we're stopping, here are several reasons today's road trips look little like what they did 50 years ago.   

Related: Vintage Photos of Classic American Road Trips

Family prepares to go on a trip in their 1960 Ford Falcon.
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images CC

We've Ditched the Station Wagons ...

In the '60s and '70s, the terms "family car" and "station wagon" were practically synonymous. Popularized as baby-boom families started hitting the road in the '50s, the behemoths of your childhood may have even had rear-facing third-row seats that you probably fought your siblings for. But as The Atlantic notes, the minivan displaced the station wagon as the dominant family vehicle in the '80s, and today, the SUV (arguably a station wagon in a sportier costume) reigns supreme as the practical kid hauler.

Related: Classic Station Wagons We Miss From Childhood

1956 Dodge Custom Royal
Transcendental Graphics / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

… and American Cars in General

Five decades ago, the Big Three were truly dominant. GM, Ford, and Chrysler had a combined market share of more than 85% throughout the 1960s, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Compare that with 2018, when their market share was 44.2%. Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans, Hyundais, and other foreign brands are just as dominant on American roads today, with Toyota in particular making it into the top three brands, after GM and Ford.

Related: 'Foreign' Cars That Are Made in America

Young woman fastening seat belt
Harold M. Lambert / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

We're Actually Wearing Our Seat Belts

Clicking those seat belts is second nature these days, but in the '70s, that wasn't the case. In fact, it wasn't until 1964 that all cars were required to have seat belts, and the integrated lap and shoulder belts we're so familiar with today weren't mandated until 1974, according to the CDC. Seat-belt laws were what truly got us to buckle up, though. New York was the first state to require seat-belt use, but not until 1984. 

Related: How Driving Has Changed in the Past 50 Years

Girls Read Travel Guide On Car Trip.
David Hume Kennerly / Contributor / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

The Kids Are in Car Seats

If — and that's a big if — you or a sibling used a car seat in the '70s, chances are it looked something like a medieval torture device (just check out this Ford Tot Guard from 1973). More likely, the baby was in mom's arms, and the kids were freely crawling all over the seats, maybe even sleeping on the floor. In 1978, Tennessee became the first state to require car seats, and the rest of states eventually followed by the mid-'80s.  

Related: Picturesque Road Trips You Can Take in a Weekend

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

We're Getting There More Quickly

If those childhood road trips seemed like they took forever, your memory isn't playing tricks on you. President Richard Nixon famously signed a national speed limit of 55 mph into law at the beginning of 1974, but many states already mandated similar or lower speeds. We finally got to speed up to 65 mph in the 1980s, and in the mid-'90s, states regained control from the federal government, leading to today's hodgepodge of (mostly higher) speed limits.   

Related: Products to Get Your Car Road-Trip Ready

Cars crawl along the downtown connector of Interstate 80 and Highway 101 to the Bay Bridge on September 20, 2013, in San Francisco, California
George Rose / Contributor / Getty Images News / Getty Images CC

Our Route Is More Direct

Another big reason it's taking us less time to get from Point A to Point B today: Construction of the Interstate Highway System we've grown so reliant upon didn't get underway until 1956, and it would be years before several major highways were complete. For instance, I-80, which links California and New Jersey, wasn't complete until 1986, while the more northerly I-90 wasn't done until 1991. 

Related: Beautiful Road Trips That Celebrate American History

girl and a dummy of a child serve as the subjects in this demonstration of a new auto crash restraint system, 1968
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images CC

We're More Likely to Get There Safely

Even though we're going faster, better roads and the more widespread use of seatbelts and advancing safety features in cars, from airbags to technology like lane-departure warnings, mean our road trips are still safer, by and large. In 1975, there were 3.35 deaths per 100,000 vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2019, there were only 1.1. 

For more great travel guides and vacation tips, please sign up for our free newsletters.

ClassicStock / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

We've (Mostly) Ditched Paper Maps

Whether your car has a built-in navigation system or you rely on a smartphone app like Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions, it's probably been awhile since you unfolded a paper map or cracked open a road atlas. Contrast that with previous decades, when the only thing more essential for a road trip than a full tank of gas was a TripTik from the AAA. Incidentally, TripTiks retain a surprisingly dedicated fan base, according to the BBC, but in a true sign of the times, there's also an app for that

Cape Vincent, NY: Scene at an Esso filling station. An attendant pumps gas into an automobile. Undated photograph, circa 1940's.
Bettmann / Contributor / Corbis Historical / Getty Images CC

Gas Was Cheaper — Well, Kinda

If you were hitting the road in 1970, you paid an average of 36 cents for a gallon of gasoline, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That sounds like the steal of the century, but if you adjust for inflation, the price difference isn't quite so stark — that's about $2.50 a gallon in today's dollars. Of course, as anyone who lived through the '70s can tell you, cheap gas became a rare thing indeed once the OPEC oil embargo took hold. Fortunately, today's cars are more fuel efficient than their classic counterparts. 

Related: The Cost of Gas the Year You Were Born

View of unidentified motorists refueling at a coin-operated gas station, Los Angeles, California, October 5, 1973.
Scott McPartland / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

We're Pumping Our Own Gas

Speaking of gas, chances are good that someone else was pumping it for us in the early '70s. It seems like self-service gas stations have been around forever, but many states prohibited customers from pumping their own fuel until the '80s (and Oregon and New Jersey still prohibit self-service). Another convenience that we definitely didn't have then: The ability to pay at the pump, which wasn't commonplace until the 2000s. 

Related: How Gas Stations Have Totally Transformed Over the Past Century

Woman driving an air-conditioned car, Island of Ibiza, Balearic islands, Spain
Construction Photography/Avalon / Contributor / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

We're Spoiled by Air Conditioning

Raise your hand if your legs ever stuck to a hot vinyl seat in a stifling car on childhood road trips. In those days, the only real climate control you had was the option to crank the window down a few inches. It wasn't until 1969 that air conditioning was in more than half of new cars, according to Automobile magazine; today, A/C comes standard in nearly every model. Of course, that's not all: Many of today's vehicles also feature zoned climate control and even heated and cooled seats. 

Related: Tail Fins, Hood Ornaments, and Other Classic Car Features You Don't See Anymore

Close-Up Of vintage Car Radio
Susanne Boehme / EyeEm / Getty Images CC

We Have Way More Listening Options

Decades ago, fighting over the radio dial on a long road trip was practically a contact sport, and when you drove out of range of one station, you had to scramble to find another. These days, while there are still a surprising number of traditional-radio listeners, we have a lot more options. The number of podcast listeners, for instance, zoomed up more than 100% between 2014 and 2019, according to Digital Music News. There are also 34.5 million satellite-radio subscribers today, Statista reports.

Related: The Biggest Summer Anthems From the Past 50 Years

Businesswoman using digital tablet in car

We're Glued to Our Devices

If that fuzzy radio station didn't cut it several decades ago, your other entertainment options were limited. Maybe you brought a comic book or a novel, or you played road-trip bingo or a painful game of "slug bug." Today, most members of the family are outfitted with smartphones, tablets, Kindles, and laptops loaded up with games, movies, and other entertainment options. Audi introduced in-car Wi-Fi in 2011, and the option is making its way into an increasing number of new cars. 

USA - Lincoln Highway - Iowa - McDonalds drive through in Lincoln
Roger Hutchings / Contributor / Corbis Historical / Getty Images CC

We're Hitting Up a Drive-Thru for Lunch

If you got hungry on a long drive 50 years ago, one of two things usually happened: Mom pulled out a loaf of bread and some lunch meat, or you stopped at whatever local dive you could find. Fast-food joints were just starting to embrace the drive-thru window in the 1970s, but it wasn't long before they figured out they had a major success story on their hands: As early as the '80s, half of business was from drive-up customers, according to the Smithsonian.

Related: Fast Food Restaurants Then and Now

Husky rest stop in the mountains of Colorado, with Esso gas station, 1966
Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

We're Skipping the Rest Stops

One of the hallmarks of long-haul travel in the U.S. is the interstate rest stop, but compared with 50 years ago, they're becoming an endangered species. Cash-strapped states have been consolidating and shutting down rest stops as travelers increasingly stretch their legs, grab snacks, and fuel up at flashier travel plazas and commercial strips. For instance, Ohio had close to 300 rest stops in 1961; it had fewer than 90 in 2017, state officials told USA Today

Related: Road Trippers Go Out of Their Way for These 30 Convenience Stores

Bel Air Palms Motel
Found Image Holdings Inc / Contributor / Corbis Historical / Getty Images CC

We're Probably Staying at a Chain Hotel

One of the biggest road-trip adventures from times of yore: Praying for a mom-and-pop motel with a vacant room to magically appear on the horizon. Today, our overnight stays are a lot more predictable, with quiet stops at cookie-cutter chains like Holiday Inn Express or Courtyard by Marriott. As of the end of 2019, less than 40% of the nation's hotels were independently owned, according to the New York Times, compared with two-thirds in 1989. Even more stark: There were only 16,000 motels in 2012, down from 64,000 in the mid-'60s, according to Smithsonian magazine. 

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

Our Cars Are More Reliable

It's hard not to have a soft spot for classic cars, but here's one thing we definitely don't miss: Frequent breakdowns. As The New York Times notes, it was almost unheard of for a car to make it to 100,000 miles in the '60s and '70s, but today, cars routinely hit 200,000 miles and more before they're put out to pasture. Much of that is thanks to computerized engines and transmissions that simply mean new cars are "harder to break," opines.

Related: These Cars Are Most Likely to Surpass 200,000 Miles

A waitress serving snacks in an airplane Party Lounge, 1960
Found Image Holdings Inc / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

We're Less Likely to Road Trip At All

Compared with the '60s and '70s, Americans have been increasingly likely to take to the skies instead of the road. More than 205 million passengers flew on domestic airlines in 1975. In 2019, that number was 926 million, according to the New York Times. COVID-19 has meant somewhat of a renaissance for road trips, with travelers staying closer to home and steering clear of airports, but is it just a blip? Probably: While recent passenger numbers aren't yet at 2019 levels, they've rebounded big time from 2020, TSA statistics show.

Related: I Drove Cross-Country During the Pandemic — Here's What I Learned