Truck Stops: Not Just for Truckers
These days it's easy to travel coast to coast and find the same old big-box retailers and fast food outlets at just about every interchange.. Sure you can stop there, but what's the point of that? If it's 7-Eleven you want, you might as well stay home. One way to really embrace being "out there" on your next road trip is to pull in at a truck stop instead of a Wal-Mart, Taco Bell or Texaco the next time you need to make a pit stop.
And yes, you can stop there -- even if you're not driving an 18-wheeler. Truck stops used to cater exclusively to professional long-haul truck drivers, but in the last couple of decades, they have begun to welcome motor coaches (like Greyhound), recreational vehicles and passenger vehicles, too. (Perhaps you've noticed that they are now often called "travel plazas" and "stopping centers.") They're bigger, too. A few years ago, most truck stops could accommodate only a handful of big rigs and a few smaller vehicles. These days, many facilities can fuel and service hundreds of big trucks, buses, cars and RVs -- and feed their drivers and passengers.
It's easy to find truck stops along the route you're planning for your next road trip, and there are plenty of them. Pilot Travel Centers, operated by one of the biggest truck stop companies, has 270 locations in 40 states. Like a number of other major chains, Pilot has retail stores and brand-name fast food restaurants that serve travelers hot food 24 hours a day. In fact, Pilot Travel is the 10th-largest restaurant franchisee in the United States. Nearly all major truck stops also offer travel conveniences like ATMs, high-speed Internet access, self-serve laundry facilities, truck/RV washes, repair shops, fueling stations and truck scales.
One good reason to stop at a truck stop is the price of fuel, which is often lower at truck plazas than in the rest of the surrounding area. One of the best-managed chains, Flying J, provides fuel prices online for each of its locations nationwide. Prices are updated daily, and the company prides itself on providing the most accurate fueling expense data on the Web.
I like the gas prices, but what I really like about truck stops is the retail stores. I love to walk the aisles and marvel at the array of merchandise on the shelves. Some of the automotive tools may look familiar, but few stores offer the following items all within 20 feet of each other: an audio tape on New Age mediation, a Browning knife, a Garmin fish finder, an aromatherapy reed diffuser, a genuine wood-grain noise-canceling CB mike, a Joan of Arc VHS tape, a 250-channel preprogrammed police scanner, a die-cast collectible fuel tanker, a metal detector, the complete "Seinfeld" series on DVD, a rocking chair, a deep-fat fryer, an excellent selection of women's watches, cameras, the world's largest assortment of beef jerky and other salty snacks, a DISH satellite "finder meter," a cordless drill, a 12-volt ionizer and air purifier, several styles of small refrigerators, coffee makers, mugs, T-shirts, flashlights, electric blankets and the little gizmos that truckers use to lock their trailer doors.
There's education and entertainment to be had at truck stops, too -- starting with the truckers themselves. I always try to say hello and strike up a conversation with professional truckers. For people who have chosen such a solitary working environment, an amazing number of them are garrulous and extremely well-versed on the news of the day. Most have satellite TVs and listen to talk radio as they drive, and they're often eager for face-to-face conversation after a long day in the saddle.
Then there's the always-fascinating truck rodeo that takes place nonstop in the truck parking lot as professional drivers finesse their huge trucks into tightly packed parking spaces. Although I've driven large vehicles and backed into some very narrow spots, I'm always astounded by the skill displayed when a driver swings an extra-long truck around and backs it up, nearly blind, into an empty slot. It's very entertaining to watch, and I'm sometimes tempted to hold up an Olympic-style scoring card when I've seen a particularly impressive move.
And then there are the showers After a long day of driving, especially if you're on a "speed run", a shower is often a higher priority than a bed. This is especially true if your destination is the arms of your true love, or -- perhaps even more challenging -- the dinner table of your true love's parents. You really don't have time to check into the hotel, so what do you do? One option is to turn in at a budget motel, but $35 to $55 seems steep for a hot shower. Then you notice a billboard: Truck Stop Next Exit. And you wonder, "Do they have showers? If they do, are they only for truck drivers?"
No, they're not. While truckers receive special discounts at the showers, most truck stops welcome other motorists, too. For example, at TA Truck Centers, the second-largest travel center chain with 163 locations, any driver who purchases at least 50 gallons of diesel fuel gets a coupon for a free shower. Few big rigs fail to meet this minimum, and many RVs easily qualify for the free-shower benefits, too. Don't meet the fuel requirement? No problem. You can have a shower for just $9 to $12 -- a fee that includes a freshly laundered towel, wash cloth, bathmat and soap. (There may also be a $5 towel deposit, but you get that back if you turn the towel back in.) While most travel centers' showers are kept clean and are sanitized regularly, I do recommend wearing flip-flops in the shower. In general, however, the facilities at big truck stops are easily as nice as those in a motel. Of course, if you actually do need a bed, most of the newer truck stops have national chain motels on their grounds, too.
So, the next time you hit the road, consider taking a break with the eighteen-wheelers. Whether you're in search of gas, snacks, a shower, a roll of duct tape or an entertaining conversation, a truck stop might just be the perfect solution to your road trip needs.