Scary statistics and overwhelming rules aside, my quarantine road trip taught me that traveling during COVID-19 can still be safe...and a lot of fun.
As someone who travels for a living, being quarantined in the house since March has been a special kind of torture. So when my hometown of Miami, Florida, was flagged as the new epicenter of the coronavirus, I jumped at the chance to escape for as long and as safely as possible. Over a three-week road trip, I spent time in four states—Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina—all handling (or in some cases, not handling) the pandemic very differently. I stayed in a mix of friends’ homes, Airbnbs, and hotels, and for the first time since the pandemic started, even went to a few breweries, restaurants, and local attractions.
After five months of solid quarantining, it’s safe to say I was nervous to be on the road. But after following expert recommendations and guiding my trip by my 2020 mantra—“What would Fauci do?”—I came back safe, healthy, and testing negative for COVID-19. Through it all, here’s what I learned about road tripping in the COVID era.
INSIDER TIPLooking for road-trip inspiration? Take a look at Fodor’s brand new section, The Best Road Trips in America.
Top Picks for You
Where to Go
Deciding which destination(s) you’d like to visit takes more planning during a pandemic. Before you go, look carefully at the infection rates of cities and states and, just as important, how they’re handling it. Are mask mandates in place? Are cases surging? Are residents following the rules?
Big cities are COVID-19 hotspots, so pick somewhere rural or quaint; besides, during a stressful pandemic, what’s more relaxing than an escape to the Great Outdoors? Head to the mountains, go camping, visit a quiet beach destination, or grab your special someone and discover a charming small town together. If you do choose a big city, pick one with low infection rates and lots of parks or outdoor spaces. Remember: In the safest of destinations, many businesses and attractions are still closed or restricted, so you’ll want to be somewhere that caters to outdoor activities to give you something to do.
Who to Visit
Similarly, you’ll want to be picky about who you visit. If there’s anything we know for sure about COVID-19, it’s that it spreads fast and easily—so you don’t want to spend a lot of time with someone who could put you, or the people you live with, at risk. While we’re generally avoiding tourist attractions, this is a great time to get in some QT with far-away family and friends. That said, you don’t want to see everyone! While many of us miss getting to see our grandparents, be considerate, and stay away from anyone who is elderly or high-risk until it’s safe for them to accept visitors. Along the same lines, don’t visit someone who you know hasn’t been following the rules and could put you in danger.
Pack, Pack, and Pack Some More
Overpackers, it’s your time to shine! If you’re nervous about travel during COVID-19, chances are you won’t want to stop for more than you absolutely have to—like unavoidable gas or bathroom breaks. Knowing this, you’ll need to plan ahead and pack everything you think you might need for the road.
Road trip snacks like Pringles and Sour Patch Kids are always a nice treat, but if you don’t want to stop for meals, make sure you bring more filling items like sandwiches, fruit, peanut butter, and breakfast or protein bars, too. Pack water and energy drinks to keep yourself alert and hydrated, but try not to drink too much to limit bathroom stops. Bring lots of hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, Lysol, paper towels, gloves, masks, and even a face shield, if you want some extra COVID comfort. Not flying means you have ZERO restrictions when it comes to packing, so pack it all!
INSIDER TIPRoad trip packing in the COVID era isn’t just about the drive—consider the destination, too! Bring your own linens and towels if you’re worried about cleanliness, and research available grocery delivery services in advance. If options are limited, pack accordingly.
If you’re driving somewhere far, or driving with kids, at least one bathroom stop is inevitable. Fear not! It’s totally safe to use a public restroom, so long as you’re smart about where you go and how you handle it. Remember, “clean” is not the same as “disinfected.” Put on your mask and disposable gloves, and bring Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer with you. If you have a copper alloy key (like a KeySmart CleanKey), you can use it to open bathroom doors and stalls or even to turn on the faucet when it’s time to wash your hands. Wipe down surfaces and door handles with Lysol wipes, and if there are other people present, maintain social distancing. After you’ve touched the last public surface or door, throw away your gloves, wipe your key, and wash your hands with hand sanitizer for some bonus peace of mind.
INSIDER TIPHighway rest stops, fast-food restaurants, and grocery stores are all quick and easy bathroom stops—but based on crowd size, I found fast-food restaurants to be the best option. Since most people are opting for takeout or delivery these days, bathrooms in fast-food restaurants are relatively empty and unused.
When it’s time to fill up your tank, be as careful as you would in a bathroom. Wear disposable gloves when touching pumps or pump keypads, and pay with a credit or debit card to avoid interactions with a cashier. As soon as you’re done, toss used disposable gloves in the nearest trash can, wipe down your credit card, and use hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands before getting back in the car. If there are COVID-19 germs at the pump, following these steps will sufficiently reduce your chances of transferring them to your car door handle—and as a result—inside the safe space that is your car.
INSIDER TIPOut of gloves? Use a paper towel or napkin to hold a gas pump or type on a payment keypad, and throw it away before getting back in your car. In a pinch, it works!
So you know where you’re going, but where do you stay? This might be the toughest decision you’ll have to make. If you know someone who has been quarantining safely—and who is comfortable accepting safely-quarantined visitors—staying with them is your best option. If they’re following the rules and haven’t been infected, contracting COVID-19 is highly unlikely.
If that’s not an option, do your research! Check hotel websites to see their updated hygiene policies. For example, Marriott has now expanded its cleaning processes and restricts anyone (even housekeeping) from entering guests’ rooms once they’ve checked in. If you feel safer having a place free from shared common areas or elevators, look for standalone Airbnbs with “Superhosts” or “Airbnb Enhanced Clean” designations. Want to avoid all people, safe or not? Camping tents fit the guidelines! Just follow our “Bathroom Breaks” tips when using those communal campground bathrooms and showers.
INSIDER TIPDon’t just believe what the website says; your best judges of COVID-appropriate stays are going to be other nervous travelers like you. I learned the most by reading reviews and seeing what recent guests said about my hotel or Airbnb’s cleanliness and safety.
Clean Your Accommodations as Soon as You Arrive
No matter where you stay or what their rules are, always do your own disinfecting. In fact, before you unpack, pull out your Clorox wipes or Lysol spray and wipe down anything prior guests might have touched. Think go-to surfaces like door handles, lamp and light switches, sinks, toilet handles, shower supports, TV and stereo remotes, clocks, hangers, window cranks, mini-refrigerators, and anything else that looks enticing.
INSIDER TIPWash water and toothbrush glasses with soap and water—or better yet, ask the concierge if they have disposable cups you can use throughout your stay (or bring them from home).
What to Do for Fun
Even with rules and restrictions in place, there’s a lot you can do safely. The key is to be outside or in open spaces where you can practice social distancing. Don’t know what to do? Go hiking or bike riding or take a stroll through a cute downtown area. Visit a local park or garden. If you’re near the water and it’s a beautiful day, try paddleboarding or kayaking, or rent a boat and get out on the open water.
Not in the mood for some fun in the sun? Grab a drink at a local brewery or vineyard where wearing masks and social distancing are enforced. In general, avoid shopping malls, indoor venues, theme parks, destination landmarks, and overcrowded parks, beaches, and sandbars, especially in places where infection rates are high.
INSIDER TIPWhen I was in North Carolina, I still found plenty to do that was local, fun, and safe—like visiting Biltmore House and Estate in Asheville, driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway for incredible mountain views, or beer-hopping at the outdoor Ponysaurus Brewing and Fullsteam Brewery in Durham.
Where to Eat
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), takeout, delivery, and curbside are considered “Lowest Risk” COVID dining options—and they don’t have to be boring! With many chefs having pivoted their COVID menus, a lot of high-end restaurants are offering pricier menus at affordable rates. Knowing this, use this opportunity to try restaurants you wouldn’t normally, and take your curbside meal to a park to make it a picnic. If you’re staying in an Airbnb with a full kitchen and have access to grocery delivery services, open a bottle of wine and cook your favorite meal. Even if you cook every night at home, there’s always something special (and dare we say, romantic?) about cooking on vacation together.
If you’re feeling bold, dining outside at a socially-distanced restaurant still falls in the CDC’s second-lowest risk category. It’s not for everyone, but I did it and felt very safe.
Use Common Sense
The nation’s leading health organizations and experts have come up with their guidelines for a reason. Use them! Wear your mask. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have immediate access to a sink, use hand sanitizer like it’s your job. Don’t touch your face.
And above all, practice social distancing. If you go to a restaurant and see that it’s crowded (even if you’re outdoors), leave. If you’re in a grocery store and someone is getting too close, take a step back. If there are too many people at the beach, come back later or keep walking until you find an empty stretch. At the end of the day, none of these suggestions from scientists and doctors require much sacrifice—they’re just new habits that we, as a society, can form together.