10 Tips For A Southern Road Trip

On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.

1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn’t there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there’s an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you’re off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won’t have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).

2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there’s plenty to see, and it’s nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.3) Make a list of what you want to eat. The South isn’t just southern food these days – I found a fantastic penne bolognese in Birmingham, and exquisite sushi in Lexington, Kentucky. There is tons of Mexican food all over the south, including The Taco Truck in downtown Birmingham. But for the most part, you’re here and you’re going to want to eat southern food. So make yourself a list: barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, grits, crab, gumbo, peach cobbler, whatever your heart fancies. Then, find it. And if you discover a restaurant you like, don’t hesitate to go back again. I did that with Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and the Market By The Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, because I liked both menus so well. Likewise, you might find a fast food chain that appeals to you such as Zaxby’s, Backyard Burger or Krystal. Go ahead and indulge!

4) What do you want to do? Some people visit car plants, the way I did. Others want to see minor league baseball parks. Some folks like the beach, others want to play golf, still more like to shop. The variety is endless. You can plot a route around all those things, just do your research ahead of time. Southern states’ tourism websites are an amazing source of tips and routes. I particularly like 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama.

5) Prepare for some challenging driving. Along with weather extremes, the South is much more hilly and even mountainous than people expect. Cities like Birmingham and Chattanooga are full of hills. Greenville sits not far from the mountains. Atlanta’s traffic is legendary. This isn’t like driving through the west, where you can put on cruise control and let your mind wander. You’ll have to pay attention.

6) Watch out for daredevil drivers. When I left Greenville for Atlanta, I noticed highway signs imploring motorists to allow more space when passing trucks. They might as well have said, “please don’t cut people off.” It’s startling to have a car pass you and wind up inches from your front bumper. It’s also a little disconcerting when you’re already going the speed limit and someone roars up and tailgates you. In New York City, they honk; in the South, they move.

7) Take time to go off the beaten path. Southern states do an admirable job of pointing out historic attractions; just look for the brown signs along the highways. And keep your eyes open for in-town signs, too. I found the delightful Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia that way, I discovered Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace, and I discovered the sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s Montgomery, Alabama, home while I was looking for something else. Likewise, you can do a driving tour of sites from The Help near Greenwood, Missouri, and visit the state’s outstanding Blues Trail (there’s even an app). These places exemplify the richness of the Southern road.

8) Go ahead and be a tourist. I’ve been to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and the beaches near Mobile. There is a reason why people visit these places: they’re part of American history and culture. Don’t turn up your nose because there are school buses parked outside. You might learn something you forgot from school.

10) You don’t have to give up Starbucks. In fact, I think there may be more Starbuck’s per highway exit across the South than in any other part of the country. There’s a branch of the Christmas Tree Shops in Birmingham, for homesick New Englanders, and college football loyalty is every bit as deep in Tuscaloosa and Auburn as in South Bend and Columbus. (When I showed up in navy, orange and white for a meeting, someone remarked, “You’re wearing your Clemson colors today.” That was news to me.) The South is more like America than the north, Midwest or West suspects – in fact, it is America, writ colorfully and large.

Tropical Storm Begs Question: Why Travel During Hurricane Season?

Tropical Storm Isaac is the ninth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. It threatens the eastern Caribbean and the southern U.S. coastal areas with flight and power disruptions, cruise ships detours and more. But as we head into September, traditionally the most active month of the hurricane season, some travelers are still eager to drive, fly or sail through the area – but why?

Considered “off season” in the tropics, school will be back in session and vacation time over for many. Still, bargain hunters know that peak hurricane season is traditionally a time for some of the best deals of the year.

To get deeper into reasons for traveling during hurricane season we turn to a poll by Travelguard, a leading seller of travel insurance, who polled travelers to learn how hurricane season, running through the end of November affects their travel plans.

Scheduling is key- The study indicated that travelers are able to overlook the threat of a hurricane disrupting their vacation because summer schedules make it more convenient. It’s when they can go. Travelers also cited travel deals (19%) and fewer crowds (13%) as reasons to travel within the hurricane belt during summer and fall.

Taking the Kids, or not- Though hurricane season falls during the peak summer travel season, only 9% of travelers polled actually travel with their children during this time. The majority (59%) prefers to travel with their significant other, while other popular travel companions include friends (12%) and multi-generational family (10%), with 10% opting to go solo.

Willing to take their chances with cruise vacations– During hurricane season, one-quarter of travelers polled opt to brave the open seas and cruise to multiple destinations within the hurricane belt. Back on land, popular destinations for travelers include Florida (16%), Mexico (11%), Georgia and the Carolinas (9 %). Only 5% of those polled visit the popular Caribbean destinations of Jamaica, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

When it Rains, It Pours- Travel can be unpredictable, and traveling to a hurricane-prone destination during hurricane season even more so. As a result, more than half of respondents to the Travelguard poll are most concerned with weather-related trip cancellation or interruption, loss of non-refundable expenses, medical emergencies, or inclement weather making accommodations uninhabitable.

Thinking about buying travel insurance now? If traveling during hurricane season, travel insurance companies require that insurance be purchased before a storm is named to be covered if it affects travel plans.

Flickr photo by Stuck in Customs

Could a hurricane still disrupt your vacation?

If you have a vacation planned to the Gulf of Mexico coast between now and the end of November, the odds that it will get screwed up by a hurricane are declining rapidly. Hurricane season ends on November 30, and it looks like it’s going to be remembered as a pretty mild one, with only 16 named storms, nine hurricanes and five hitting Category 3 or higher. There haven’t been any major storms to make landfall.

So, it looks like 2010 will resemble 1951, according to an Insurance Information Institute blog post – the only year to have at least five major hurricanes but none actually making landfall in the United States.

There’s still a chance that a big one could disrupt your travel plans: think Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for example, which followed Hurricane Katrina and was the fourth costliest hurricane in terms of insured losses ($11.3 billion, adjusted for inflation).

[photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr]

Ten things to do when it rains on your vacation

Barbra Streisand gets it. Rain is the enemy.

I mean, yes, rain is important to our environment and makes all the beautiful things you see on a vacation possible, but when you only have a few days in paradise, rain can really spoil things. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where your dream day of biking or skydiving is canceled due to a torrential downpour, you get it. If you’ve ever come back from a week on an island without a tan … it’s just so sad, isn’t it?

Hurricane season in the Caribbean is upon us (June to November), and while that’s not likely to mean actual hurricanes, it does usually mean you’ll get some rain on your budget tropical excursions. Here are ten ideas to make your rained-in vacation days a little less disappointing. The important thing is to have fun and enjoy yourself anyway.

Ten things to do when it rains on your vacation:

1. Write postcards.

This is an excellent activity for the type-A among us. Writing postcards is potentially something you were going to do anyway, so doing it while it’s raining is actually a very clever use of time. Just try not to be too sad when you look at the front of the postcard and see that sun shining like a jerk.

2. Museums.

So, maybe you weren’t really planning to go a museum, but rain is a good excuse to go get yourself cultured up. If you were planning to visit a museum, this should be a no-brainer. Rain means “do your indoor activities today.” It’s like a message from the universe. A soggy, awful message, but a message nonetheless.

3. Library or lobby bar.

Many hotels and resorts have a library or lobby bar where guests instinctually gather when it rains. Strike up a conversation, make some new friends, have a margarita at 10 AM. Why not? It’s raining. All bets are off.

4. Sleep.

10 AM margaritas frequently lead to naps, and that’s okay. In fact, if you open your eyes in the morning and see rain from your hotel bed, why not sleep an extra hour or so — maybe it will be over when you get up. After all, vacation is about relaxing and rejuvenating, and catching up on all that sleep you missed this year is imperative. Imperative!

5. Games.

On a rainy day, get down to the gift shop early before they run out of decks of cards. Your hotel’s front desk may also have board games you can borrow, and if your hotel has a casino, there are a bunch of games to play there, too (albeit expensive ones). Don’t even try the game room; it will be overrun. Make up your own goofy games if you’re feeling especially restless. Sad photo ops in the rain can be a hilarious pastime.

6. Eat.

Rainy days are a perfect opportunity to dig into the local cuisine. Head into town in a rental car and try out some authentic eating establishments and grocery stores. You may be surprised at the strange food you find — and you might make one of your most lasting memories of the whole trip.

7. In-room movies.

If you’re someone who likes to get things done, why not knock a few titles off your Netflix list by curling up with the in-room movie selections? Rain can be a good excuse to watch movies you’d be embarrassed to go to or have in your home.

8. Theater.

Live theater? Quoi? Yes. Ask your hotel if there is any live theater in the vicinity and go check out a play, a concert or whatever’s playing. This can be an unexpected blessing; you may see an unforgettable performance or learn more about the local culture than you would have otherwise.

9. Spa.

See if any appointments are available at the spa. If there isn’t a spa on the property, the hotel can probably recommend a good one nearby. This may be the only option more relaxing and restorative than sleep.

10. Go out and enjoy the rain.

Can’t stay inside anymore? Then bundle yourself up (if it’s chilly) or put on your swimming suit (if it’s hot) and go play in the rain like a kid. Splash in the puddles, get messy and have fun. Don’t get in the pool if there’s lightning, and certainly don’t go out if the conditions are dangerous (like if there’s an actual hurricane going on), but playing in the rain can relieve the very angst the badly-timed stormy weather gives you.

Hurricane season is for bargain-hunters

Hurricane season will not keep travelers from their destinations! A recent survey by TripAdvisor®, which mined the opinions of more than 1,000 U.S. travelers, reports that 43 percent plan to hit a hurricane-prone destination this summer or fall – peak hurricane season. This is up from 36 percent last year. Sixty-five percent of the survey’s respondents are doing this to take advantage of a “significant savings.”

Blame the financial crisis.

An already dismal market for travel companies is likely to be exacerbated by storm risk in areas traditionally visited by hurricanes. To 25 percent of the survey respondents, this is why they’re going. Another 25 percent they could be convinced to enter hurricane neighborhood for discounts of greater than 50 percent on travel and accommodations.

Many of these survey-takers speak from experience. Thirty-two percent of them have been through hurricanes while on vacation … and it would take a lot to get them to leave. Eleven percent would bail when a Category 1 storm hits, and another 18 percent would move for a Category 2. The tipping point is Category 3, which would prompt 26 percent to leave, with a Category 4 storm shedding another 10 percent. Three percent of respondents would leave for a Category 5 storm, and only 2 percent would stick around regardless of hurricane potency. A whopping 29 percent answered, “I don’t know.”

Thirty percent of respondents simply avoid certain destinations because of hurricane risk, with the Caribbean the destination most avoided during storm season. Fifty-five percent would only cancel their plans if a storm was imminent, while 19 percent would cancel on possibility alone. Some hedge their bets – 30 percent said they are likely to buy trip insurance to protect their hard-earned cash from hurricane-related cancelations.

“Despite some reluctance to visit hurricane-susceptible destinations during storm season, a large number of travelers are willing to roll the dice if the price is right,” said Michele Perry, vice president of global communications for TripAdvisor.