Over the last 7 months, as we all navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of questions and many debates as to just what behaviors and activities are safe. One of the many questions is whether it is safe to travel. Like many others, our views on this have shifted, for a variety of reasons.
In February, we felt perfectly safe with our April plans to fly to Arizona for a family vacation. By early March, we thought it would be safe for us but maybe not for Grant’s dad and stepmom. Just a couple of weeks later, in mid-March, we canceled the entire trip. Indeed, for the first time in many years, we did not travel at all over Spring Break.
To Travel or Not to Travel
Like many others, we hunkered down at home for the second half of March, all of April and most of May. By early June, we had canceled our summer trip to Hawaii but were still itching to get out and explore the world. At the same time, we did not want to be reckless with our behavior. We recognized that there was much we did not know about this virus.
As the country started opening back up in late May and June, we decided that an RV trip was a safe option for travel during the summer. Traveling with our RV provided us our own bed, bathroom and kitchen. We wouldn’t have to rely on someone else’s cleaning standards or potentially crowded hotels or restaurants.
In June and July, we took our RV on a road trip through South Dakota and North Dakota. At that point, both states had relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases and provided plenty of opportunities to explore outdoors. We always enjoy being outside, exploring national parks and other scenic areas. Thankfully, that continues to be a safer option than indoor activities during the pandemic.
While many folks were hesitant to travel over the summer (and some still are), the reality for us was that being in the Dakotas was actually much safer than being home in Georgia. Indeed, we watched the summer surge from afar and dreaded returning home at the end of July.
Ultimately, we had a great trip and have taken a couple of other road trips in the past couple of months. We’ve learned a lot and adjusted our expectations and behaviors accordingly. Hopefully, these tips for road trips during the pandemic will help you when deciding if and how to travel.
Do Your Research and Know What to Expect
It doesn’t take a lot of travel to know that conditions and precautions vary greatly throughout the country. Indeed, during the summer surge in Georgia, we still felt perfectly safe visiting restaurants, breweries and museums in South Dakota. Meanwhile, in Custer, SD, where we stayed for three weeks, COVID-19 cases went up 10% while we were there… from 10 to 11.
While it is sometimes frustrating to not have a more cohesive national response to the pandemic, we recognize that each region and community has different conditions at different times. For this reason, it’s important to know what to expect at your destination and along the way.
In fact, one reason we feel comfortable with our travel over the past few months is that many places have more stringent precautions than we do at home in Georgia. Whether you are concerned about the current spread of COVID-19 or the restrictions and precautions in place, remember these conditions change frequently and differ greatly across the country.
Now, you’ll find mask mandates in some cities and even some state-wide mask mandates. Some cities or states have restrictions on restaurants or other establishments; others do not. Do not assume that what is true for you at home will be the same everywhere else. I imagine most folks would be surprised at the lack of mandated precautions where we live in Georgia.
Also, be sure to research any potential closures or restrictions at specific destinations you plan to visit. While South Dakota had very few general restrictions, we did find some of the smaller museums, in particular, were not open.
Visiting National Parks During the Pandemic
Most everyone agrees that outdoor recreation is one of the safest activities during the pandemic. With that, it might seem that national parks are fully open. The reality is that some are and some are not.
Yes, outdoor areas at parks are generally open. For the most part, you won’t find any restrictions on hiking trails or scenic drives and overlooks. That said, anything that is indoors or requires a tour (even if outside) likely will be closed or open to small groups only. We’ve found some visitor centers are open, others are not. Same with campgrounds.
The good news is that even when the visitor center is closed, most parks will have rangers available to answer questions and assist visitors. We even found a “walk-up” bookstore at Great Sand Dunes National Park, complete with window shopping, allowing us to get our traditional magnet souvenir!
National parks remain a popular destination for road trips during the pandemic. We have found more services at national parks over the last month or two than we did over the summer. Still, there is a lot of variation and you should always check the official park website and/or social media as you’re planning your trip and know what to expect.
In particular, many Native American reservations remain closed, which may limit access to some national parks. For example, the majority of the South Unit of Badlands National Park and the east side of Glacier National Park remain closed due to tribal ordinances.
Be Prepared for Limited Services
Even when there are very little overall restrictions in a particular region, conditions can vary greatly from one business to another. Some places restrict the number of customers or are offering drive-through only. Basically, you should always be prepared for limited services.
Thankfully, we’ve found little to no restrictions at gas stations across the country. Since gas is one of the biggest necessities during a road trip, that’s a great thing! And, while the offerings can vary greatly from one gas station to the next, you’ll almost always have some options for basic snacks and drinks at a gas station.
Fast food establishments seem to vary a bit more. Over the summer, we sometimes had difficulty finding a place where we could go in and order. Unfortunately, when you’re towing a camper, you can’t just pull through the drive-thru!
Thankfully, within the last month or two, we’ve found more fast food establishments have their dining rooms open. Still, there have been a few times that we’ve had to go to a couple of different places looking for a place to get food and find a bathroom (more on that below).
For this reason, you may want to carry some snacks and drinks or even supplies to make peanut butter and jelly or something else easy. You just never know what you’re going to find (or not find) in a particular location.
Cash or Credit
Many businesses are requesting credit card payment or exact change to reduce the spread of germs or because of the coin shortage.
We almost always pay with credit cards so we can earn rewards, so this is not a problem for us. Paying with Apple Pay, Google Pay or other contactless payment options offer even more transaction security while reducing the spread of germs even further.
We always make a point to use Apple Pay whenever we can because it is much more secure than swiping a card or using a chip. Any time you use Apple Pay (or Google Pay and Samsung Pay), your actual credit card information is never used, instead of relying upon a one-time use token.
We know not everyone loves credit cards, though. In this case, carry as much change with you as possible so that you can always offer exact payment. Or, consider getting a prepaid credit card or gift card that you can use.
We’ll also take this opportunity to remind you that if you’re using a credit card, be sure to always pay your statement in full so you don’t get hit with interest or other fees.
Finding a Bathroom on the Road
If taking road trips during the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the complete lack of public restrooms in this country. Let’s be honest, finding a bathroom can be difficult even without a pandemic. When road tripping, our preference is almost always to stop at a rest area unless we also need food or gas. It’s just faster and easier.
Unfortunately, not all states have rest areas that are frequent enough to be helpful. For example, you’ll just about consistently find rest areas every 30-45 minutes on every interstate in Florida. That is definitely not the case in Georgia or many other states.
If you are stopping at a gas station, fast food or another establishment for a bathroom, we encourage you to always make a purchase. It’s just the courteous thing to do.
It is important to remember, though, that not all fast food locations will have a dining room that is open. In fact, we stopped at one McDonalds that had an open dining room (at least for ordering) but bathrooms were not available. I’m can’t lie; that was a bit frustrating.
Bottom line… use the bathroom any opportunity you can! You never know when you might get another chance. We made this mistake on our last trip while driving through eastern New Mexico on I-40. We got to an area with little to no services and no bathrooms plus a closed rest area. Needless to say, when you gotta go, you gotta go, and sometimes that means a bush off the side of the road.
What to Expect at a Hotel
While staying in a hotel may not seem like the best idea at first, we actually have found it to be very clean and safe. Most hotels have increased their cleaning and sanitizing protocols, hotel rooms generally have individual heating and air systems and most hotels we’ve been to have adjusted their breakfast service for increased safety.
We predominantly stay at Hilton hotels and have been very pleased with their CleanStay program. These enhanced cleaning standards include disinfecting surfaces, switches, handles, and TV remote inside rooms. You’ll also find the CleanStay seal on your door, indicating your room has not been entered since being cleaned. Additionally, housekeeping services are restricted, unless requested, to reduce the potential spread of germs. Finally, common areas are cleaned more regularly.
We’ve stayed at Hilton, Holiday Inn and Marriott hotels over the past few months and every hotel we’ve visited has required guests to wear masks in common areas.
Hotel Breakfast Service
Breakfast protocols can vary but all have been modified, depending on local regulations. Most notably, gone are the help-yourself buffets. Admittedly, some of these changes have been a bit frustrating, especially when trying to get on the road quickly in the morning. Ultimately, though, we appreciate the efforts to keep guests and employees healthy.
At the Tru by Hilton in Amarillo, TX we were offered a bagged breakfast with yogurt, a Kind bar, a banana and a bottle of water. Not a bad breakfast at all but yogurt is not easy to eat if you’re driving.
Most Hampton Inn’s have had limited prepackaged food only that, honestly, wasn’t really anything we were interested in. The Hampton Inn in Memphis, TN offered a sausage biscuit we could take to our room to heat.
Our best breakfast experience was at the Holiday Inn Express in Middlesboro, KY. Here, attendants took orders and prepared our plates for us from their usual buffet. With this, we were still able to get hot food, such as eggs, bacon and biscuits in addition to yogurt, muffins or fruit.
Know Your Cancellation Policies
We always pay attention to cancellation policies when booking hotels and attractions. Now, we look at those even closer.
Many large chain hotels allow a no-charge cancellation up to 24-48 hours in advance of your stay. Smaller hotels may have a one-week advance cancellation policy or might charge a cancellation fee. Be sure to check these and make sure are comfortable with whatever the cancellation policy is.
When we booked the Holiday Inn Express in Middlesboro, KY for our trip to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, we actually paid a little extra for a more lenient cancellation policy. With a flexible cancellation policy, you can cancel your trip if conditions change, attractions close or you get sick or are quarantined for direct exposure.
Finally, if you’re relying on trip insurance to cover cancellations, look at your policy carefully. Many do not cover pandemics or general travel quarantines. When we canceled our Hawaii trip, we had to cancel four different hotel stays. The added twist was we had booked all of them with Chase Ultimate Rewards Points.
Ultimately, we got everything canceled and all our points refunded. Along the way, we learned that the Chase Sapphire Reserve trip insurance did not cover cancellations due to Hawaii’s general traveler quarantine. It would only cover canceling the trip if we personally were quarantined by a doctor or health department.
Final Thoughts on Road Trips During the Pandemic
We fully recognize that the decision to travel (or do much of anything outside the home) is a very personal one. Everyone’s health and comfort level is different and we fully respect each family’s decisions to stay home or travel.
If you’re interested in traveling, there absolutely are safe ways to do so. And, if you’re going to travel we encourage you to take the appropriate precautions for your health and the health of others.
With a road trip, you mostly stay contained in your own vehicle and can decide for yourself where to stop. We haven’t taken a flight yet, though we’ve considered it. Ultimately, though, we like the flexibility and independence that a road trip offers. Generally, it’s a little easier to cancel a road trip or even return home early, if needed.
Yes, it was prudent to stay home early on in the pandemic. Now, we’re all itching for normalcy. Travel is one step toward that. Road tripping and choosing outdoor activities is one way to travel responsibly. Hopefully, we’ll continue to be able to travel safely. If that changes, we’ll adjust our plans accordingly.