It's been a weird time to be a travel blogger. Which is not surprising, I guess, since the world has been shut down due to a global pandemic for three months and counting.
During this strange time, I've found myself often agonizing over the things I post, carefully crafting my messaging to make it clear that I'm not encouraging unsafe travel during a global pandemic – but also taking into account how much the travel industry (which employs 1 in 10 people globally) is hurting right now.
Back in May, I published a photo on my Facebook page of an empty road, explaining how experts are predicting that road trips are likely to be extra popular this summer, especially for Americans. I asked whether anyone was planning a road trip of their own for later this year.
Several people commented – including one who gently reminded readers (and me) that my photo was from near Monument Valley, on Navajo tribal land, and that it's not actually a good idea to encourage anyone to visit these parts of the US right now since the Navajo Nation has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
I was aware of how badly Native American communities have been hit by coronavirus. Earlier in May, both Elliot and I were baffled that nobody seemed to be talking about the fact that Doctors Without Borders deployed teams for the first time in history to locations in the US, mostly to offer aid to the Navajo Nation.
The comment on my Facebook photo wasn't accusatory at all, but it did made me take a step back and think about all the other things people may not be considering when planning their summer travels this year.
So I thought I would write about it. I of course am NOT a medical professional, so I can't talk expertly about COVID-19 from a virology standpoint. But I DO know a thing or two about tourism management and traveling in general, so I hope these tips can help you think a little more critically about any trips you might be planning for this summer.
A word on travel and coronavirus
Before we get into the tips that I can offer you, I think it's important to talk about a few truths when it comes to travel and COVID-19.
First of all, this is a virus that was able to spread so widely and so quickly because of travel. The world is more connected now than it's ever been, and that fact is how COVID-19 spread to almost every nation in the world in just a matter of months.
And even though many countries closed their borders to travel and went into lockdown mode, viruses don't respect border restrictions. We need to remember that the act of traveling is a major way that this coronavirus has spread.
So, even though many countries and states are beginning to open back up now, it's important to remember that the pandemic isn't over. COVID-19 hasn't disappeared. We've just slowed down the transmission rate enough that there are now enough hospital beds available to care for people who get sick.
Any travel in the coming months is likely to carry some risk – both for you, and for people in the places you visit. Deciding how much risk you're willing to take on (and how dedicated you are to minimizing risk to others) may help you decide where and when to travel.
How to plan a safe US road trip during the COVID-19 pandemic
As states, national parks, hotels, and more begin re-opening to tourism this summer, it would likely be futile for me to tell you that you should still stay home. The tourism industry is seriously hurting, and guaranteed it doesn't want me to tell you that, either.
So, instead, here are some things to keep in mind before starting to plan a road trip for this summer. Remember, this isn't just about us wanting to travel; it's also about keeping in mind that our travels can (sometimes unknowingly) have ripple effects that will affect other people, too.
Here we go with the tips:
1. Consider traveling closer to home
The very first trip Elliot and I took post-lockdown was an overnight trip to stay in a treehouse near a state park in Ohio. It was only a 1.5-hour drive from our house, meaning we didn't even use a full tank of gas to get there and back.
These “one-tank trips” are a good option to consider, especially for overnight and weekend trips in areas where COVID-19 is still spreading (or maybe hasn't reached yet). Not only are these trips usually more affordable (and family-friendly!), but they can limit the possible chances of exposure, both for yourself and others.
Taking a road trip that minimizes the need to stop at rest stops, gas stations, restaurants, and other places where you can't avoid coming into contact with other people is just smart right now.
Plus, I guarantee that the tourism and hospitality businesses near your home are hurting just as much as ones further away.
2. Consider a self-contained trip
Elliot and I have been talking about a potential road trip somewhere in the US for later this year. And while we haven't yet settled on a destination or route, we have settled on a mode of transportation: we want to rent a small RV.
RV, travel trailer, motor home… whatever you want to call them, these self-contained recreation vehicles are perhaps one of the safest ways to road trip right now. Because they combine your transportation and your accommodation into one unit, taking an RV trip can lessen your need to stay at hotels, use public restrooms and campsites, and eat out at restaurants.
Traveling in a self-contained vehicle isn't entirely corona-proof since you'll still need to stop for gas, stock up on food, find places to park overnight, and possibly empty your tanks at some point on the road. But you won't need to interact with people nearly as much as if you were staying in hotels and eating most of your meals out.
We're looking into renting an RV from Outdoorsy, a site that allows individuals to rent out their personally-owned RVs and campervans – kind of like Airbnb, but for RV rentals. I like this idea much more than renting an RV from some big corporation or rental car company.
Stay tuned for more info on what we're planning!
3. Plot out your route ahead of time
Once you decide on a timeline and vehicle, the next thing to think about is where you want to travel. This summer is not going to be the time for spontaneous trips, or making decisions on-the-fly. I think it's going to be really important to plan ahead for a few reasons:
- Not everything will be open. There are still going to be closures, restrictions, and new policies to deal with. Places that you previously could have just rocked up to randomly may be requiring advanced reservations or timed ticket entry this summer. Others may be closed. Some states or communities may still even be recommending self-quarantine for anyone coming from out of state. You NEED to research these things ahead of time.
- Reduced capacity. Because of social distancing guidelines, there are restrictions on how many people can be in a public space at any given time. Theme parks, restaurants, national parks… they're all going to be affected by this.
- There will still be hotspots. As COVID-19 cases begin to drop in early hotspots like New York City, the virus is only just “arriving” in some other parts of the country. Like I said, this pandemic isn't over. Make sure you know what the situation is like in the places you hope to visit before you go. You can see a county-by-county breakdown of cases in the US here, and also see how each state is doing in its reopening efforts here.
So, when planning a trip, you'll probably want to avoid new hotspots, know whether the places you want to visit are even open/operating, and keep in mind that the travel experience is going to be different from how it was before.
Because everything is changing so quickly, it might be difficult to plan a road trip more than a month in advance.
4. Skip the places you know will be crowded
People have been cooped up at home for months. So it shouldn't be a surprise that, as things begin to open back up, people are going to be flooding into those places all at once.
On our first night away from home since COVID-19 began in the US, Elliot and I visited a state park on the first weekend its river was open for recreation sports like kayaking and tubing. The parking lots and campsites were PACKED, and very few people were wearing masks or doing much to stay away from other people.
Assume that well-known national parks, theme parks, and other popular attractions will be similarly crowded, especially if they've just recently re-opened to visitors.
I would probably not plan to visit places like Zion National Park or Yellowstone or Yosemite anytime soon, as these places are usually ridiculously crowded during the summer months as it is.
Road tripping in the USA usually means exploring the great outdoors and seeing the amazing landscapes that make America special, but this summer might not be the appropriate time to plan a bucket list US road trip.
5. Make a plan for how you will navigate necessities
Along with making a plan for your overall route, you'll need to consider how you'll be prepared to navigate necessities like getting gas, eating meals, using public restrooms, etc.
Remember: it's not only about making sure YOU don't get sick, but also about protecting others.
The easiest things you can do are wear a cloth mask when out in public (don't have one? you can order one here), wash your hands as often as possible (and use hand sanitizer when hand washing isn't possible), and sanitize high-touch objects yourself with wipes.
And obviously try to continue practicing social distancing as much as possible!
Will it feel a little bit crazy to do all of these things all the time? Maybe, but that's the reality of what traveling responsibly will look like this summer.
6. Consider where you will stay
If road tripping in a self-contained vehicle isn't a possibility for you, consider where you'll stay if you're planning a road trip that will require overnight stays.
Being inside any enclosed space with other people is generally something to be avoided right now, but many hotels are working hard to make sure their guests are as safe as possible. This can include contactless check-ins, only allowing take-out from hotel restaurants, and potentially even providing guests with masks and hand sanitizer.
If you're going to be booking hotel rooms, do your homework beforehand so you know what extra precautions different properties are taking. This might be a case where staying at a larger chain hotel might actually be a good idea, as the bigger brands like Marriott and Hilton have been very transparent about what they're doing to keep people safe.
And even though many hotels are employing new cleaning procedures, most experts still recommend wiping down high-touch surfaces (like light switches, the toilet handle, and that almost-always-gross remote) on your own when you go into a room.
If you're staying more than one night, you may also want to forego housekeeping service to help ensure you're the only one touching things in your room while you're staying there.
When it comes to non-hotel accommodation, be careful about Airbnb and other rentals – this definitely isn't the time to be renting a room in someone's house, or planning to stay in an apartment or even condo complex where it might be difficult to avoid being around full-time residents.
And if you're considering camping? I'm not an expert on camping, but the first thing I'd say is that it will be important to check on whether campsites along your route are even open (many still remain closed as of writing), and which amenities are available if they are open. It won't help you much if campsites are open but restrooms/showers are not.
If this homework is more than you want to do in order to plan a trip, then I highly recommend just sticking to day trips closer to home for now!
7. Respect when things are closed
Some hotels, restaurants, national parks, and attractions may remain closed for a while longer, especially in areas where COVID-19 cases are on the rise.
Believe me, these places don't WANT to be closed during what is typically the busiest travel season of the year in the United States. But sometimes keeping the doors shut is just the best course of action right now.
If you come across a park, attraction, or public space that is still closed, please respect those closures. It's definitely NOT okay to skirt barriers or ignore signs about closures just because you feel you have a right to be somewhere.
And if local communities are asking tourists to stay away, even if areas around them are technically “open?” You should respect that, too (more in the next section on why this may happen).
8. Be mindful of at-risk communities
When we talk about the spread of COVID-19, it's important to remember that this virus isn't affecting all communities equally. Smaller, rural communities with fewer hospital beds are at higher risk simply because their healthcare systems literally can't support more than just a couple of people needing ICU care at once.
Similarly, communities with large populations of Black and other POC residents have also been hit disproportionately hard by this virus. Why? Well, that's a complex question. These populations are less likely to be able to social distance due to living situations (hello, systemic racism in our housing market), and many of them are working the low-paying jobs that we've deemed “essential” during this crisis. Black and other minority Americans also tend to have less access to good healthcare.
The issue has been so starkly clear that many cities (Cleveland first among them) have moved to declare racism a public health crisis.
In terms of how this might influence your travel plans, keep in mind that simply saying you'll skip large cities and crowded areas might mean you'll be putting rural destinations with less access to healthcare at risk instead.
At the same time, remember that many of the people working lower-paying jobs in the hospitality industry may be from minority groups that are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Yes, those people may still want (and need) to work, but it's up to us to be responsible travelers and help mitigate the risks they'll face from us.
9. Don't visit the Navajo Nation
Speaking of at-risk communities, don't plan to visit the Navajo Nation this summer. The Navajo Nation is a sprawling reservation that covers more than 27,000 square miles, mostly in north-eastern Arizona, but also reaching into New Mexico and southern Utah.
It's likely that you might not know much about the lands run by indigenous groups in the US, but what's important to know right now is that Native Americans in modern times have suffered higher-than-normal rates of poverty, unemployment, under-education, and negative mental and physical health issues.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the Navajo Nation has been particularly vulnerable. Social distancing is difficult in a culture where it's normal for multiple generations to live together under one roof, and uneven access to supplies and even running water (because yes, there are still people in the US who live in homes that do not have running water) makes it difficult to even adhere to hand-washing guidelines.
Add to this an underfunded healthcare system (and only a handful of hospitals to serve 180,000+ people in a space the size of West Virginia), and it's not actually so surprising that the Navajo Nation surpassed New York City for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the US in mid-May.
If you're planning a Southwest road trip this summer, don't plan to visit any places in or near the Navajo Nation. Not only are most of these places closed anyway, but they simply do not need any additional potential carriers of the virus visiting right now.
This means no Monument Valley, no Antelope Canyon, no Canyon de Chelly. I personally would probably also skip the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell/Glen Canyon, Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, and any other areas that might require driving through Navajo land in order to get there.
This is a blow to the Navajo Nation, which heavily relies on tourism for its economy. But this is a case where they are putting peoples' lives above tourism dollars, and we all need to respect that.
10. Practice Leave No Trace
This should be a given no matter where and when you're traveling, but it's going to be especially important for everyone to practice Leave No Trace principles when traveling this summer.
SO many more people want to get out of their houses right now, and are flooding to places once they open. This has lead to an increase in trash and pollution, overcrowded trails and outdoor spaces, and a general disregard for the nature we're all so desperate to explore again.
Getting out in nature is a good option right now, but only if we do it responsibly. Pack out your trash (especially those used gloves and masks – gross), pick up your dog poop and dispose of it correctly, don't go off trail, be careful with fire, and keep in mind that you're not the only one out there.
11. Have contingency plans
Finally, part of the process of planning travel for this summer should include having a Plan B – and maybe even a Plan C and D.
Know how you'll handle situations where things end up being closed when you arrive. Have a plan for what you'll do if places you hoped to visit are overcrowded. And definitely think about what you'll do if you end up getting sick.
Yes, it's true that your chances of catching COVID-19 are going to be relatively low in many places as the summer wears on, but the risk isn't going to be zero anywhere in the United States. Considering what you'll do if you start exhibiting coronavirus symptoms needs to be part of your planning, too.
I realize that this post might sound a bit doom-and-gloom, but I'm just being realistic with you about what travel (and especially road tripping) will be like this summer.
Can you still plan a US road trip in 2020? Yes, I think you can. But there are a lot more things to plan for this year than there usually would be, and I encourage you to consider them all before deciding on where and when you'll go.
I hope this post has given you some helpful tips, and that you'll be safe out there on the road this year!
READ NEXT: 25 Tips for Planning Your First US Road Trip
This post was written in summer 2020, so things *have* changed since then (i.e., we have effective vaccines now!), but traveling this summer will still require some extra legwork. You’ll still run into closures, reduced capacity, plus just tons of demand at popular domestic spots like national parks. Campsites will likely fill up in advance, and many museums and restaurants will require reservations, so the spontaneous road trip isn’t possible right now.