In the United States, Canada and parts of Europe, a rest area, rest stop or service station is a public facility, located adjacent to a highway or interstate, at which drivers and passengers can eat and drink, take a stroll, let their children play in grassy park-like areas, walk their pets, check their vehicle's radiator, sleep and use the toilet before resuming a long drive on the road.
Generally, the standards and upkeep of rest areas facilities vary. Rest areas also have parking areas allotted for buses, tractor-trailer trucks (big rigs) and recreational vehicles (RVs).
Many government-run rest areas tend to be located in remote and rural areas where there are practically no fast food or full-service restaurants, gas stations, motels, and other traveler services nearby - on highway signs, these services are often denoted by symbols of a fork and knife, a gas pump, and a bed, respectively. The location of rest areas are usually marked by a sign on the highway; for example, a sign may read "Next Rest Stop - 10 Miles".
Driving information is usually available at these locations, such as posted maps and other local information. Some rest areas have visitor information centers or highway patrol or state trooper stations with staff on duty. There might also be drinking fountains, vending machines, pay telephones, a gas station, a restaurant or a convenience store at a rest area. Many rest areas have picnic areas. Rest areas tend to have traveler information in the form of so-called "exit guides", which are often contain very basic maps and advertisements for motels and tourist attractions.
The Highway Oasis near Belvidere, Illinois.
Privatized commercial rest areas may take a form of a large service center complete with a gas station, arcade video games and recreation center, and fast food restaurant, cafeteria, or food court all under one roof immediately adjacent to the freeway.
These are very common on intercity freeways in some European countries (Italy is famous for its Autogrill chain), but are rare in most parts of the U.S.
Many rest areas have the reputations of being unsafe, especially at night, since they are situated in remote areas. California's policy is to maintain existing public rest areas, but no longer build new ones due to the cost and difficulty of keeping them safe.
In the United States
In the United States, rest areas are maintained and funded by the transportation or highway bureaus of the state government. For example, rest areas in California are maintained by Caltrans.
In most U.S. states, the government does not rent space at its public rest areas to private businesses; indeed, some states, like California, have laws explicitly prohibiting that practice. Therefore, private businesses must buy up land near existing exits and build their own facilities to serve travelers. Such facilities often have signs several hundred feet tall that can be seen from several miles away (so that travelers have adequate time to make a decision).
In turn, it is somewhat harder to visit such private facilities, because one has to first exit the freeway and navigate through several intersections to reach a desired restaurant's parking lot, rather than exit directly into a rest area's parking lot.
Florida's Turnpike is a major exception, with rest areas built between the northbound and southbound lanes, and rented out to private food and gas companies. Another exception is the Highway Oasis found along tollroads in northeast Illinois. Nearly all of these rest areas are built on top of a bridge over the highway, and they are full service rest areas. One highway oasis is built along side the highway instead of over it.
The interior of the Belvidere, Illinois Highway Oasis on Interstate 90
near Rockford, Illinois.
The Massachusetts Turnpike, New York State Thruway, New Jersey Turnpike, Ohio Turnpike, and Indiana Toll Road also have rest areas with extensive services.
A type of rest area located just after the state line in the U.S. is sometimes called a welcome center. However, because air travel has made it possible to enter and leave many states without crossing the state line at ground level, some states, like California, also have welcome centers inside major cities far from their state borders, often at airports.