I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Road trip movies
When people think of summer movies, they often think of the latest superhero and action-packed blockbusters, classics that defined the genre like Jaws, childhood summer stories like The Sandlot, or movies that they’ve watched at the drive-in on warm nights. But there is a type of movie that can get you in the mood for summer just as easily as any of the above: road trip movies.
Road trips remind audiences of vacationing, of taking chances, of getting out of your own head after being cooped up all winter. Whether it’s the nice weather, the change in pace, or inspiration from others, road trip movies can inspire us all to get out on the road and have an adventure. Below are 12 road trip movies that are helmed by very different characters with very different purposes in very different locations throughout the United States. Please note, there are spoilers ahead.
When Harry Met Sally - The end of the trip; the beginning of the movie.
The trip that kicks things off: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
When Harry Met Sally plot summary
Recent college graduate Sally Albright agrees to share a ride to New York with her friend’s boyfriend, Harry Burns. After a trip full of bickering, the two part ways only to meet up again every few years until they decide to become friends, which leads to them eventually getting together, breaking up, and then getting married.
Why it's great
The trip only lasts through the first act of the movie, but it’s the event that kicks off the story and shows how incompatible the two main characters are. It also shows how people change over time.
The Harry and Sally who ride to New York together at the beginning of the movie do not resemble the two who end up together at the end of the movie. Every main personal attribute is established in these scenes, from Harry’s dark side to Sally’s meticulous restaurant ordering. They bring out the worst of each other before bringing out the best.
Fozzie's Studebaker at the Studebaker National Museum in Indiana
The road trip to fame: The Muppet Movie (1979)
The Muppet Movie plot summary
The first appearance of Jim Henson’s Muppets on the big screen involved the gang’s origin story by way of a cross country road trip to Hollywood. When Kermit hears about a call for “frogs looking to become rich and famous,” he decides to leave his beloved swamp in pursuit of his dream to make “millions of people happy.” One by one, the rest of the Muppet gang is introduced, and Kermit’s solo trip becomes a group outing during their numerous stops which explores a multitude of movie genres and mixes the vibe of old Hollywood musicals with classic Muppet humor.
Why it's great
The look and tone of this movie is constantly shifting as Kermit and the gang embark in pursuit of their dream of becoming famous. The journey begins on a lone bicycle, switching to a Studebaker, followed by a station wagon, and ending on a tour bus, the size of each vehicle growing as Kermit’s entourage expands.
Each scene is peppered with celebrity cameos and gags that populate each stop on their journey. Gonzo gets carried away by a bunch of balloons, Rowlf busts out his wisecracking wit during a bar side piano number, and Miss Piggy shows off her karate moves to save Kermit from an evil German scientist, all within a span of a few minutes. Yet, somehow, it all fits together into a coherent story about following your dreams and doing it with your friends in tow.
Little Miss Sunshine Trailer
The broken family road trip: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine plot summary
When young Olive Hoover places as a finalist in The Little Miss Sunshine competition, her family drops everything to drive her from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA so that she can compete. With their conflicting agendas, personalities, and concerns, the six of them must keep it together to battle the numerous road blocks in their path so that Olive can make it to the pageant in time.
Why it's great
Most road trip movies depict the disaster that traveling can be, especially traveling with family. However, this film places extreme yet realistic conflicts in their path, from car issues to leaving Olive behind at a gas station to getting pulled over by the police.
Also, the trip couldn’t come at a worse time, with Olive’s father, Richard, struggling to close a deal to promote his motivational program, her Uncle Frank’s recent suicide attempt, her voluntarily mute brother, Dwayne’s, ever-growing hatred towards the family, her grandfather’s uncontrolled heroin addiction, and her mother, Sheryl, overwhelmed with trying to hold it all together. The humor is dark, the desert setting adds a dismal feel to their journey, and the tone is relatable for anyone who has suffered through a tense family trip.
Logan rests on Laura's Lap during their drive to North Dakota.
The on the lam trip: Logan (2017)
Logan plot summary
Set in the not-too-distant future, an aging Wolverine agrees to transport a woman and a little girl to Canada in exchange for a fee large enough to allow he and his surrogate father, Charles Xavier, along with their friend and mutant tracker, Caliban, to buy a yacht that they can use to sail into retirement. But things go horribly wrong, and Logan, Charles, and the little girl, Laura, go on the run to escape an evil organization that is after Laura and her abilities. The three damaged outcasts are chased from the Mexican border all the way to North Dakota in what will become Wolverine’s final mission.
Why it's great
Superpowers and story aside, this is what happens when an action movie and a road trip movie come together. Its R rating makes for an “anything goes” premise, and its established characters are twisted and turned on their heads.
This, along with the futuristic yet realistic setting discards all audience expectations. There are lighter moments, even funny in the unorthodox family dynamic mixed in with violent and unexpectedly tragic moments. It gives the movie room to explore these three characters as if it were a family drama as they maneuver through different situations along the way.
Mundane situations, such as gassing up at a rest stop and eating a home cooked meal from a grateful family, suddenly turn violent and deadly with enemies are always on their tail. The tension comes from all angles, both internally and externally, but their only option is to keep moving. So, that’s what they do.
Almost Famous Trailer
The tour trip: Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous plot summary
A 15-year-old high school student named William Miller lands a job with Rolling Stone Magazine, covering an up-and-coming 70’s fictional rock band named Stillwater on the road much to his mother’s disapproval. Desperate to get a one-on-one interview with the band’s lead guitarist and star member, Russell Hammond, before he needs to get home for graduation, he finds himself easily distracted by the attention, the lifestyle, and the band’s number one groupie, Penny, as he travels with them by bus and by plane from gig to gig and city to city.
Why it's great
The road trip story is the driving force in the pacing, character arcs, and plot development of this tightly packed story. As the tour progresses, so do tensions with the band along with the urgency of William to get back to his normal life.
Each city brings with it its trials and tribulations, a life lesson, and a growing appreciation of how it feels to be not only included, but revered, by rock stars. But it also helps William to show that this is not real life. It’s a surreal existence that tries to write its own rules without any regard for others’ emotions or the larger world that lies beyond Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Green Book Trailer
The work turned buddy trip: Green Book (2018)
Green Book plot summary
Italian New Yorker Tony Lip takes a job driving African-American classical musician Dr. Donald Shirley on a tour through the deep south in the 1960’s, using the Green Book issued to African Americans traveling through the south to find safe places to stop along the way. The politically incorrect Tony slowly goes from treating the job as just a job to serving as Shirley’s protector, battling varying levels of racism and learning, at least in this instance, to put stereotype aside in order to strike up a true friendship with his employer.
Why it's great
Despite taking place in December, the mainly southern locations on Shirley’s tour give this film a more fair weather feel. It also has a breezier tone despite its tense premise.
Because Lip is obnoxiously blue collar and Shirley is a prim and proper figure, this makes them complete opposites in ways that go far beyond their race. As with any story that pairs two very different individuals together, Lip introduces Shirley to a more laid-back lifestyle of fast food and hit music while Shirley helps to soften Lip’s rough edges by helping him to write letters to his wife and learn to follow the rules rather than break them.
Many have criticized this film upon its release for various reasons. However, to view it through the prism of a part-comedy, part-drama, part-history lesson road trip that’s trying to entertain more than preach at its audience makes it fitting for this list. This film makes a heavy subject much easier to swallow, and the audience can appreciate the struggles that groundbreaking figures have had to endure in order to pave the way for others.
Pee Wee thumbs for a ride in search of his stolen bike.
The quirky trip: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure plot summary
Pee Wee Herman is a unique individual who loves his bicycle more than anything in the world. But when it is stolen outside of a shopping center, he sets off on a cross-country mission to get it back.
Why it’s great
An entire movie about man-child Pee Wee Herman looking for a lost bike? It shouldn’t work. The stakes are low, and the character is too strange, but this movie withstands not only its goofy premise but also the test of time.
The story takes the idea of Pee Wee’s lost bike seriously, and the era of 80’s materialism really helps to sell conflict. But as Pee Wee takes off with his signature style of funny voices, pun-filled gags, and colorful landscapes, we’re taken on a ride as we see the country through Pee Wee’s eyes.
He’s driven and focused on his mission, yet he takes the time to have fun, to meet new people, and to learn some life lessons along the way. His adventure is probably the most fun of anyone’s on this list including:
- watching the sun rise in a T-Rex
- dancing on a bar counter in front of a biker gang
- visiting the Alamo
- leading security on a bike chase through Hollywood backlots.
An unorthodox family is bred through the zombie apocalypse in Zombieland.
The found family trip: Zombieland (2009)
Zombieland plot summary
Four strangers who refer to themselves by the names of U.S. cities agree to drive to California to visit an amusement park in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. The park, Pacific Playland, is said to be a zombie free zone that will offer them a respite from their constant running. Together, they battle zombies, learn to trust one another, and fulfill their pursuit to have some fun, find a home, and eat a Twinkie in the middle of their new reality.
Why it's great
The zombie classic Night of the Living Dead began with a group of strangers trapped in a house surrounded by the undead. Many zombie films since have worked off of this premise of walling the main characters into one place for the duration of the movie, whether it’s a mall, a bunker, etc. This film shows how the genre has evolved to show what the world has become by driving through the destruction and decay of civilization.
The four main characters: Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita, and Little Rock, have learned how to survive by following specific rules, and one of those rules is to keep moving. This presents several opportunities for all out comedy, particularly in their mistrust of one another and the comical ways in which they take down their enemies.
But with transportation scarce and ammunition in high demand, they have no choice but to go along for the ride. As a result, they learn that there is not only safety in numbers, but a makeshift family can be pieced together so that they are not just surviving but have something to live for.
Rain Man Trailer
The long lost brother road trip: Rain Man (1988)
Rain Man plot summary
When Charlie Babbitt learns that his recently deceased father has left the majority of his inheritance to an unknown older brother, he seeks out this brother, Ray, who turns out to be autistic. Charlie ends up taking him from his personal care home.
Intending to drive him back to Los Angeles so that he can bargain for a larger share of his inheritance, Charlie finds himself overwhelmed with dealing with Ray’s special needs. From refusing to fly to demanding that he maintain his daily meal, dressing, and TV routine, selfish Charlie learns to put Ray’s needs above his own.
Why it’s great
Many road trip movies explore the humor and tension that comes with placing two or more varied personalities in close quarters and watching the comedy and drama unfold. Charlie and Ray could not be more different, one being a selfish, worldly, con artist while the other is an emotionally unstable, sheltered savant.
Charlie is constantly trying to steer Ray in the direction that he wants him to go while Ray is stuck in his own world, refusing to budge from the routines that keep him comfortable. Going on the road uproots his routine, and what becomes a nightmare trip for Charlie turns out to be a bonding experience with the brother he never knew he had, a brother who offers him insight into their stone-cold father, jogs long lost memories of his past, and teaches him to put others before himself.
The search for Big Bird turns into a multi-car road trip for the people of Sesame Street.
The preschool road trip: Follow That Bird (1985)
Follow That Bird plot summary
When the Society of Feathered Friends decide that Big Bird should be living with a family of birds instead of the mixed bag of characters on Sesame Street, he is sent to live with a foster family in Illinois. But Big Bird can’t adapt to his new home and decides to walk back to his nest and his friends.
The journey is longer than he anticipated, and when the residents of Sesame Street finds out he’s gone, they set off to go get him. At the same time, Big Bird is being pursued by his social worker, Miss Finch, who wants to send him back to his foster family, the Dodo’s, as well as by two evil carnival workers who want to kidnap Big Bird and force him to perform in their show.
Why it's great
Unlike its cousin film, The Muppet Movie, and most road trip movies, this road trip movie explores what it would be like for a six-year-old to go on a road trip by themselves. Big Bird’s journey is mostly on foot, which allows him to stop every once in a while to meet new people, see new things, and experience different ways of life. However, his main focus is just getting home. Along the way, there are plenty of songs, chase scenes, and funny gags.
The Garden State road trip is a short but important one.
The trip that ends the movie: Garden State
Garden State plot summary
On his final day in town (attending his mother's funeral), Andrew’s friend, Mark, take he and new friend Sam on a scavenger hunt to track down a going away present for him. They begin at a retail store where they run into an old high school acquaintance who tries to pitch a pyramid scheme to them before they can get away.
After returning a set of knives pulled straight from the store’s shelves, Mark takes them to a hotel where he trades a helium tank for information from a bellhop as to the whereabouts of the gift. This leads them to a recently discovered quarry which has halted plans to construct a new mall on the property. The man hired to protect the land while the project is going through litigation is their third and final stop.
Why it’s great
This is a road trip that barely ventures outside of Andrew’s hometown, yet it caps off an intriguing third act full of twists and turns and culminating in a realization that Andrew needs to start living his life to the fullest. The trip feels like a waste of time with its confusing locations and strange characters. But then it leads to Mark returning the necklace that he had stolen from Andrew’s mother while burying her. It’s a small act of redemption that helps Andrew to properly grieve over the death of his mother, to take life as it comes, and go along for the ride.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Trailer
The final trip: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World plot summary
When all efforts to stop a catastrophic asteroid from colliding with Earth are thwarted, humanity prepares for its last few weeks of existence. One man, Dodge, continues with his normal routine, going to work each day to sell insurance over the phone, his wife having just left him the night of the confirmed eminent apocalypse. Then, he reads a letter sent by his high school sweetheart who asks to see him again. After escaping an angry mob with his neighbor, Penny, she offers to help find the woman in exchange for a plane ride home to England to spend time with her family before the end of the world.
Why it's great
Many road trip movies are driven by a spontaneous shot in the dark to a particular destination or goal. This one is no different. The odds of both characters reaching their intended destinations are slim, given the breakdown of society, time restraints, limited transportation options, and the unlikely odds of finding two people in the chaos of humanity’s final days.
What is different is the balanced view of the world in this hypothetical scenario. Movies about the end of the world tend to lean towards a feeling of hopelessness through the total destruction of our cities, society’s morality, and the main characters’ mentality.
This film demonstrates multiple ways that individuals deal with the approaching apocalypse. Some engage in mob mentality, some throw out all rules, some commit suicide, while others are survivalists, party, and make the most of the time they have left.
Dodge and Penny experience each of these scenarios within their journey. In the end, it’s not about the fact that the world ends but about how they had someone to spend their final days with.
What is your favorite road trip movie? Leave your answers in the comments below!