The great American Road Trip is back! Sort of.
As the coronavirus pandemic has made international travel largely off-limits to Americans, many are instead taking a Road trip within the US. In fact, AAA estimates Americans will take 683 million car trips from July-Sept 2020 to satisfy their wanderlust!
After a period of lock downs and quarantines, many Americans are eager to travel again. With cruises not sailing and flights putting people in contact with one another, taking a road trip is emerging as a popular way to travel within the new normal of pandemic conditions. But can a US road trip during the middle of a pandemic be done safely?
The CDC clearly states “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
Any potential road trippers must accept some level of increased risk whenever venturing outside their home. Yet we found that there are many responsible efforts that can be taken to lessen coming in contact with others, which can make for a safer road trip during this pandemic.
Weighing the potential benefits against the increased risks involved with a Pandemic Road Trip can come down to a personal assessment that’s often not clear cut. Even the experts don’t agree for their own personal situations. A NY Times survey of epidemiologists, released in June 2020, reported 56% of the epidemiologists expected to vacation overnight within driving distance during summer 2020.
With a yearning to roam around the US, we personally weighed out our own risk factors and ultimately chose to take a monthlong road trip in July. Yet we wanted to attempt to road trip as safely and responsibly as reasonably possible under the these pandemic conditions.
The CDC reminds us that coronavirus spreads “mainly from person-to-person, between people who are in close contact with one another.” So a big part of our pandemic road safety goals was to simply avoid close contact as much as possible.
Being within the isolation of your own vehicle makes that easy. The safety bubble of your own vehicle is part of the appeal of a pandemic road trip! But how do you minimize close contact at attractions, hotels, food stops, and public restrooms? How can you evade the crowds at popular tourism destinations across the US? What additional planning and precautious would be need to be taken during a pandemic road trip?
We spent the past month crisscrossing the southeastern US in an effort to figure out how to best plan and execute a road trip during the pandemic.
So we wrote this detailed post to share all the pandemic road trip travel tips we learned along the way.
Note: these are travel tips, not medical advice. If seeking medical advice, consult doctors, not travel websites. This article aims to provide practical travel tips, based upon the latest government advisories and recommendations.
Planning Where to Go on a Road Trip during the Pandemic
1) Check State Travel Restrictions
Some US states have placed restrictions on people traveling from other states. These states may require visitors to complete a travel health form, quarantine upon arrival, or show proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test.
This list of travel restrictions compiled by TravelPulse is up-to-date as of August 2. The map below visualizes this list, with states (in red) that have some form of advisory. It should be noted that some states (like South Carolina) are recommendations not mandates, some (like Illinois) only apply to cities (Chicago, in this case), and many of the restrictions only apply to those who are coming from specific states.
With somewhat complex and evolving state restrictions, interstate roadtrippers should verify directly with each state to review required and/or recommended protocol to follow when traveling there.
Be sure to consider how you can conform to any state requirements. If there’s a mandate to quarantine upon arrival, understand exactly how that would impact your trip from being able to do nearly anything.
2) Opt Outside
When planning potential road trip stops, the great outdoors can offer great appeal. Rural destinations are in vogue as more and more people are opting outside, which often makes it easier to keep distanced from one another.
Hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, cycling, paddle boarding, swimming, and scenic drives are just a few outdoor activities where keeping distanced from one another can be accomplished with ease. Therefore mountains, beaches, lakes, and forests can make naturally good choices for a US road during the pandemic.
Even for the less-active types, scenic drives can provide a great taste of the outdoors from the safety and comfort of a car. Having just drove the entire 469-mile length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, we can vouch that it offered plenty of intrigue and splendor experienced from right behind the steering wheel.
3) Reconsider Popular Destinations and Discover Alternatives
Do you have a great idea to escape your city and head out to an interesting outdoor destination? It’s possible that others have come up with the same idea. Notable national parks and popular summer beach destinations are among locations seeing thriving tourism numbers, in spite of the ongoing pandemic.
We noticed this firsthand when we visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Year after year it’s ranked as the most-visited national park in the US and we saw no signs of a slow down during our summer 2020 visit. There were crowded parking lots, congested roadways, packed trails, and loads of people congregating in the tourism towns that serve as a gateway to the park.
Instead, consider discovering lesser-visited alternatives nearby. America’s National Parks are spectacular. But it can be worth looking into nearby State Parks or National Forests too. For example, our visit to the Great Smokies was met with crowds, but the nearby Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest remained serene and lightly trodden.
While visiting coastal Virginia in early July, there were reports of crowds along Virginia Beach. Yet less than an hour drive away, the quaint town of Cape Charles boasted nearly empty beaches during that same weekend.
Crowded situations during a vacation can always be a little annoying. Yet during pandemic times, crowds can feel increasingly irritating and potentially dangerous. To appease that anxiety, it can be worthwhile to do a little extra research to uncover lesser-visited gems nearby.
We suspect that popular fall foliage destinations in the US have a chance to be more crowded in 2020 than ever, as Americans continue to satiate the yearn to get outdoors. Go against the grain and consider a road trip in the other direction from the masses. For example, in the autumn, once-popular summer beach destinations tend to quickly thin out, even in areas where warm temperatures linger.
4) Tip to Gauge How Busy a Destination May Be: Check Occupancy Rates
How can you tell if a tourism destination may be susceptible to crowds during the time of your road trip visit?
If hotels are selling out, that’s a pretty good indication you may arrive to crowded conditions. Booking.com, one of the most popular hotel booking sites, shows whenever a searched destination is reaching capacity. After searching, a box can appear above the search results to show the percentage of Booking’s inventory that is unavailable. Note, this only occurs when a destination is filling up.
So take a quick search on Booking.com and if you don’t see this box with an unavailability percentage, that should help to appease crowding concerns.
5) Strategically Plan Popular Destinations during Weekdays
Popular destinations are often popular for a reason. They have great appeal.
If you’re adamant on including a popular destination during a pandemic road trip, plan it during the mid-week. You’ll likely experience less visitors. Accommodation prices tend to ease too.
Be strategic in going to lesser-visited locations over weekends, then proceed to popular spots during the weekday.
6) Road Trip Close to Home
You don’t necessarily have to drive across the country to enjoy the fun of a road trip. Rediscover your own back yard! You likely have an inside advantage of local knowledge of some lesser-known spots that are within a tankful of gas.
This may be a perfect time to consider checking out that interesting place a few counties over you’ve been wanting to get to.
Not straying far has further advantages. If someone were to get sick, you’re within easy reach of returning home.
7) Avoid Emerging Covid Hotspots & How Locate Them
Don’t unknowingly road trip into a Covid hotspot! Take some time to familiarize yourself with the current infection rates of your road trip destination(s) and the locations you may be passing through during your road trip.
A great visualization, showing county-level data of where cases are currently emerging, can be found on the New York Times Hot Spots Map. It shows the share of population with a new reported case over the last week.
As infection rates change over time, this can be a good resource to check while planning and again before embarking on a road trip. Be sure to browse through any areas you may be passing through. That can help to avoid any stops in potential hotspots along your road trip route.
8) Cities Have Obvious Drawbacks, but Don’t Ignore Entirely
While making an attempt to avoid other people and crowded spaces, it’s a logical move to cut cities from any pandemic road trip itinerary. Busy cities can more easily bring about situations where visitors will be in close contact with other people. There’s also a greater potential of encountering closures of indoor attractions, tours, nightlife, and more. So it may be best to avoid to cities altogether.
Yet while road trippers are flocking to outdoor destinations, we found surprisingly empty scenes across some of the US cities we included on our recent pandemic road trip itinerary.
Take Washington DC, for example. There was virtually no one throughout the Washington Mall to the extent that we were able to get streetside parking right next the Lincoln Memorial. DC’s outdoor spaces and monuments were largely open. Yet nearly all museums and government buildings were closed to the public. Still, stopping into the nation’s usually-busy capital gave us a unique opportunity to walk amongst DC’s landmarks while it was remarkably free of any other tourists.
But with many closures, a big city like DC is not somewhere we’d want to linger. Yet it can still make for a most pleasant day visit, while keeping amidst the outdoor sights. (Note: DC has since enacted some travel restrictions for those arriving from certain states.)
If considering a city visit during a pandemic road trip, be careful to research what’s open and think about what activities you’ll actually be able to do while keeping distanced. Think about what you may be able to do and see outside.
9) Check Local Mask Mandates
Some localities are requiring face masks only for indoor settings. Other places are requiring masks be worn outside too. Meanwhile some states aren’t requiring masks at all. The mask rules can be different all across the US and they continue to change too.
It’s a lot to keep up with. Be sure to know the local laws of everywhere you may be roadtripping through, or else you may wind up with a citation.
At time of publishing this article, 34 states have issued some form of statewide face mask mandate. This list being maintained by AARP.org has been updating state mandates as they change. Take a minute to review the current status of any state on your road trip itinerary.
Even if a state doesn’t have a mask mandate, it can be worth further investigating if there are mandates at the county or city level. For example, Florida does not have a statewide face mask mandate. But many counties do.
Preparations to Consider Before a Pandemic Road Trip
10) Now Is the Time for a Tune-Up
Before you drive off on your road trip, ensure your car will make it the distance. Running into car trouble can lead to the close contact situations experts recommend avoiding. If you need a tow, you’ll likely be forced to ride with a stranger to get to the shop.
Many roadside incidents can be easily prevented. So before taking off, check your tires, car battery, and engine oil. Has your car been making a funny noise? Now is the time to get that checked out.
Do you have a spare tire, a jack, and everything needed to change a tire on your own? This is a good time to check to ensure you’ll be able to able to change it yourself and hence avoid unnecessary contact.
11) Consider a Covid-19 Test and/or Quarantine before the Road Trip
Some states are requiring a negative Covid-19 test or a mandatory quarantine before entering. Even if not, departing with a negative test can be a responsible effort to help give some peace of mind that you’re not spreading the virus to communities you’re road tripping through.
Those traveling from a Covid-19 hotspot may want to be particularly vigilant in getting a test before taking a road trip to help ensure you’re not spreading the virus.
Covid-19 testing facilities are becoming more prevalent in many parts of the US, making it increasingly possible to get tested. So where can you get a test before your road trip? The CDC advises visiting your state or local health department’s website to look for the latest local information on testing.
Do note that test results can sometimes take several days to be returned. So consider allowing an appropriate amount of time before your road trip to get tested, before quarantining while awaiting the results.
Personally, we did a nasal swab test at a drive-thru facility before departing on our road trip. We found the process to be quick, easy, and painless. However, the lengthy wait times we encountered for the results was frustratingly long, causing us to quarantine longer than anticipated prior to our road trip.
12) Checklist: Extra Items to Pack for a Pandemic Road Trip
Before the pandemic, we all needed to remember three basic items before leaving the house: keys, wallet/purse, and phone. Now items like masks and sanitizer are filling our pockets whenever leaving the house.
There are additional items we’ve packed for a road trip that we would have never considered during pre-pandemic times.
Here’s everything we’ve added to our pandemic road trip checklist:
- Disinfecting wipes (like Lysol) – Clean questionable areas encountered during a road trip.
- Disinfecting spray & paper towels – This can be used instead of the often out-of-stock wipes.
- Extra masks – Pack extra in case you misplace or it gets dirty.
- Extra hand sanitizer (60%+ alcohol) – To use when you can’t wash your hands.
- Plastic gloves – For pumping gas and other instances.
- Snacks and drinks – Avoid stopping by preparing in advance.
- Thermometer – If you’re feeling sick, take your temperature.
- Health insurance card – Just in case.
Accommodation Travel Tips during a Pandemic Road Trip
13) Check Cancelation Policies and Consider a Higher Rate for the Ability to Cancel
Hotel cancelation policies have been changing rapidly throughout the pandemic, initially easing for consumers and later starting to tighten up again. For road trippers booking accommodation in advance, it can be wise to secure rooms that have a flexible cancelation policy. When booking, be vigilant to carefully check when the cancelation deadline is and if there are any cancelation fees.
Sometimes hotels will charge a slightly lower rate for non-cancelable rooms. While we always love a good deal, our advice during the uncertainty of this pandemic is to pay a slightly higher rate for the ability to cancel. Conditions can change quickly, and you may need to reconsider your road trip.
14) Avoid Interior Spaces by Staying at a Roadside Motel
America’s roadside motels are having a moment. Motels have always offered some of the best accommodation bargains in the US during a road trip. Yet now roadside motels also helping to minimize contact with others and avoid shared indoor spaces.
Many roadside motels throughout the US are ideally positioned to limit contact. That’s because motels in the US commonly have rooms that open up directly to the outside.
This means that there’s no need to walk through interior hallways or take interior elevators. You can go directly from your car to your room, with no contact with anyone in between.
Of course, you may still need to check-in at the front desk and receive a room key. Yet we always found plexiglass installed and enhanced sanitation at the motel front desks we recently checked into. Additionally, some motels are beginning to offer contactless check-in procedures with the help of mobile apps and other technology.
During our July road trip, we stayed at eight different motels. Some were better than others, of course. But we found them all to be clean, cheap, cheery, and met our needs. It can be well-worth it to check reviews and cleanliness protocols. Search around. We tend to find some of the best motel deals on hotels.com and booking.com.
15) Ask about Hotels’ Sanitization Practices
Many hotels throughout the US have committed to increased cleanliness protocols to help keep their customers safe during the pandemic.
Yet some hotels may be making more of an effort than others. It may be worth doing a little sleuthing to gain some assurance before booking.
If it’s a chain hotel you’re considering, most have posted their new cleanliness protocols directly to their websites. Those who really want to have some assurance before booking can call the individual location to ask the front desk what they’re doing to help keep guests safe.
Questions to consider asking:
- How have cleaning processes changed since the pandemic? (Listen for new sanitization or disinfected policies).
- What is the check-in procedure? (If at a front desk, listen for plexiglass or mask-enforcement).
- How long is room left vacant between stays, after cleaning?
16) Consider Staying in One Place
A classic US road trip often involves many different stops throughout a diverse driving route. Yet doing so during the time of a pandemic can increase exposure to additional people, more indoor spaces, and more hotel rooms.
To reduce all the additional contact, it could be worth designing a road trip to one single destination and staying put there. Consider a place where there is outdoor recreation at your doorstep to further avoid exposure and contact with others. Book somewhere with a kitchen or kitchenette to be able to have meals without contact. It can be possible to plan a quarantine getaway!
17) Using Short Term Rentals and Airbnbs during a Pandemic Road Trip
Short-term house and apartment rentals, such as through Airbnb, can be another consideration for accommodation to avoid contact by booking a whole place entirely to yourself. It can be assuring to stay somewhere with no shared spaces, no front desk, and no contact with anyone else. Many Airbnb rentals in the US are using self check-in procedures, with a lockbox or keypad, to ensure a contactless experience.
A bonus of a short-term rental is having your own kitchen and dining areas. That way guests who are really trying to limit their contact with others can bring their own food and have a place to prepare it. It can also be nice to have a proper dining area, whether cooking it yourself or getting take-away.
But what about cleanliness? The level of hygiene falls upon each individual Airbnb host. So there must be some faith and trust involved. Recent reviews and extra cleanliness information hosts are leaving in their listings can help to build confidence and ease any concerns.
Airbnb has also introduced an enhanced cleaning initiative for hosts who choose to commit to this rigorous cleaning protocol. It goes beyond a simple cleaning by also sanitizing the entire space and a five-step cleaning process to cover every room. When browsing Airbnb, look for “enhanced cleaning” highlighted in the listing, as shown below. You can read more about it here.
Airbnb hosts also have the option to offer a “Booking Buffer,” to create a vacancy period between stays. That way the home stays empty for a set period of time (default is 72 hours) as a precaution to address the possibility of particles that may remain airborne for a few hours.
Personally, during our road trip, we booked one Airbnb, a beautiful cabin while in the mountains of North Carolina. We found it to be immaculately clean and had an excellent experience.
Search Airbnbs for your road trip destination.
18) Re-clean High-Touch Areas
We like to trust that doorknobs and light switches have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected by the hotel cleaning staff. Yet how well those areas are cleaned will ultimately depend on the thoroughness of each individual housekeeper.
So whether at a hotel, motel, or Airbnb, give yourself some extra assurance. Let your germ-freak flag fly and bring your own wipes or disinfecting spray to clean such areas yourself.
These are high-touch areas in hotels you may want to consider disinfecting:
- Air-conditioner knobs
- Remote control
- Light switches
- Charging ports
19) Consider Forgoing Housekeeping Services
If you don’t want a stranger breathing in your hotel/motel room, you can simply request not to have housekeeping during your stay. Ask yourself whether you really need someone to make your bed each day.
If staying a few days, you can always ask for new towels to be dropped outside your room.
Travel Tips for Eating & Drinking on a Pandemic Road Trip
20) Stock Up on Snacks and Drinks before Your Drive
During any long drive, it’s inevitable someone will get thirsty or have a snack attack. Under normal circumstances, it would be second nature to roll into a convenience store to satiate that craving. But doing so now can add unnecessary contact in a potentially crowded interior space.
So just plan in advance! Pack your favorite snacks and beverages before your road trip. It’ll decrease contact with others and will likely save a few bucks on the often-inflated prices at roadside stops.
We’re big fans of the contactless drive-up pickup that many supermarkets are now offering across the US. So for recent our road trip, we used that to load up on groceries and packed a cooler full of our favorite drinks.
21) Download Drive-Thru & Take-Out Apps to Avoid Contact during Payment
Fast food is nearly an essential part to any American road trip. Drive-thrus and curbside pick-up can help to limit contact too. To take it an extra step further, you can also eliminate the exchange of money and credit cards by using an app.
So what’s your favorite guilty pleasure? Nearly all the fast food and quick-serve joints have apps now. While you’re still connected to wifi before your road trip, download the associated apps for all your favorite fast food places.
That way, you’ll be able to submit the order and pay for it through the app. Then you don’t have to potentially use a dirty pen to sign a credit card slip or exchange cash.
The perks of using these apps go beyond limiting contact. Ordering in advance can decrease wait times. Apps can provide a convenient way to customize orders. Many apps also offer exclusive money-saving deals and promos. We’ve been using the Panera app to sip free coffee during our road trip with this free Panera coffee subscription offer.
22) Support Local Restaurants and Get Curbside Pick-Up
Fast food can be convenient while on the highway during a road trip. But local restaurants in tourism destinations would love to have your business too! Restaurants all across the US have pivoted during the pandemic to offer takeaway options such as curbside pick-up.
If restaurant dining rooms aren’t open in your travel destination or if you’re not comfortable dining out in the pandemic, take-out can be a great alternative to consider getting a taste of the local food.
Check a local restaurant’s website to see if there may be a way to pay online. Or call to ask if you can pay by credit card over the phone.
23) Instead of Enclosed Bars, Try Outdoor Spaces at Local Breweries & Wineries
While many restaurants are opening back up, lots of bars across the US remain shuttered by local laws. Yet it seems many local breweries and wineries across the US have been successful in getting around the that.
We’ve found vineyards and brewpubs tend to offer outdoor spaces that can make patrons feel more comfortable. Sipping outdoors at a local drinkery can be a great way to soak in the local vibes while remaining outside and distanced.
Alternatively, we found many breweries doing takeaway business, selling freshly brewed bottles, cans, crowlers, and growlers of beer to-go. So it’s always possible to snag some brew to then enjoy the local suds wherever you’re staying.
24) Have a Picnic!
The pandemic can give us all a perfect excuse to picnic during a road trip. Enjoy a lunch al fresco!
Those roadtripping to outdoor spaces across the US should have no problem finding picnic facilities in places like national parks, forests, recreation areas, and state parks. Even many highway rest stops have picnic areas. Most are naturally spaced apart from one other, making it easy to keep distanced.
If it’s a highly used picnicking area, you may want to consider cleaning and sanitizing it first. Or bring a blanket and your own picnicking supplies to set up a spread in an open park space or field. Enjoy!
25) Make Sure You Have a QR Reader Downloaded to Read Restaurant Menus
Many restaurants across the US are no longer using paper menus. Instead, you view the menu right from your own phone, using a QR code. But you must have a way to scan it.
So be sure to have a QR Code scanner on your phone before dining out during your road trip. iPhone users should be all set, as the camera already has a built-in QR code reader. Android users will need to search for and download a QR code scanner app from the Play Store.
Travel Tips for other Stops during a Pandemic Road Trip
26) Use Gloves to Pump Gas
Inevitably during a road trip, you’ll be stopping to refuel after burning through each tank of gas. Unless you’re only driving through New Jersey or Oregon, where full-service gas attendants are the law, you’ll likely need to grab that gas pump yourself.
There’s no telling how many (hundreds, thousands?) of people have also touched that same gas pump since the last time it was cleaned. Pack some gloves to add a layer of protection for each time you need to gas up.
We bought a 500-pack of these inexpensive gloves on Amazon.
27) Carefully Choosing Where to Stop for Bathroom Breaks
Where is best to use restrooms during a pandemic road trip: gas stations or rest areas?
There are pros and cons to each and each individual location will vary. Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference and opinion. We’re happy to share ours, as we stopped at many gas stations and rest stops during our recent pandemic road trip.
We found most highway rest areas are open and clean. We noticed rest area bathrooms tend to have better cleaning than gas stations, overall. We even witness lots of extra cleaning going on at many rest areas. Some even had every other toilet blocked off to help keep people distanced. Despite these increased measures, some rest area bathrooms had an abundance of people congrating together in the clean facilities.
Meanwhile we find the bathrooms at gas stations, on average, were less trafficked than rest areas. Yet they also tended to be less clean overall. We also encountered a higher chance of soap or paper towel being empty at gas stations. So you might be subjecting yourself to a more filthy experience overall. But the trade-off is the possibility of having entire bathroom to yourself, not breathing the same air as multitudes potentially packing a rest area.
So it’s a crap shoot either way. (No pun intended.) Personally, we felt more comfortable with the reliable cleanliness we found at rest areas. Whichever you use, make sure you keep distanced and wash those hands!
Fast food joints may be a further consideration. But they can also have similar cleanliness issues found at gas stations. More importantly, many fast food places we came across were limited to drive-thru only, so restrooms may not be an option.
Travel Tips for Pandemic Road Trip Destinations & Attractions
28) Make Advanced Reservations for Attractions
An emerging trend we noticed throughout our recent road trip were new ticketing and reservation policies popping up everywhere.
Many local attractions are now requiring tickets purchased online in advance. Some walk-up attractions are now requiring reservations at designated time slots, with limited ticketing to help regulate potential crowding. For example, while passing by the popular North Carolina tourist attraction of Grandfather Mountain, we noticed ticketing booths closed as they were only taking online reservations.
So before simply showing up, as you may have been able to in the past, be sure to check any attractions’ website for up-to-date info.
29) Show Hiking Etiquette
With the pandemic limiting indoor activities, more and more people are discovering the pleasures of the great outdoors. Yet many people we encountered on the trails seem to be unfamiliar with hiking etiquette.
On top of the usual hiking etiquette, the distancing protocol of the pandemic adds an extra layer of complexity. So here’s a quick review of some simple courtesies we can all show to another while on the trail.
- If hiking in a group, leave plenty of room on the trail for other hikers to safely pass.
- When passing someone, consider masking up as a courtesy to the hiker(s) you’re passing.
- If needing to take a break, find a safe place to step off the trail. Don’t stop in the middle, blocking others.
- Hikers going downhill should yield to those climbing uphill.
- Slower hikers be mindful of those who may be approaching you from behind.
- Faster hikers kindly make your presence known when approaching others.
30) Snap a Pic of Informative Signs or Maps
Throughout National Parks and other popular outdoor spaces, visitors will frequently encounter maps of hiking trails or detailed informative signs. These can become a cluster, as people congregate close to another to read such information.
Instead of adding to the crowd, use your phone to take a picture. Then read it wherever you want to lessen the gathering at the sign.
During our road trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway, we ended up with so many pictures of signs that we’d return to our car to read. Just be sure to go back to delete those pics from your camera reel when you’re done to free up space, unless you want to reference it later.