Planning and Preparation for Travel during COVID Pandemic
With the world turned upside-down, the COVID pandemic has completely changed the travel game. It has been reset to a completely new playing field – one that does not have a rule book or experienced players. Do I drive or fly? Which destinations are “safe”? Should I join the RV craze? Is it even safe to travel at all?
There are no right answers. Everyone’s comfort and risk tolerance is different so it is not a one size fits all approach. Our first two trips after the COVID surge were road trips to Acadia National Park /Bar Harbor, Maine and the Finger Lakes, NY in July. Both had some interesting challenges, we planned as well as we could and learned from those experiences having overall very great trips. At that time, we were ready to start venturing out, were comfortable visiting driving distance destinations, places with low COVID numbers, and actively enforcing social distancing and face masks requirements. Planning and Preparation for the first trip post quarantine highlights many of those decisions but I wanted to expand on that with this post.
After so many canceled plans for 2020 including a big two week adventure to Vietnam, we were so hesitant to booking a “major” trip, something that required a significant amount of money up front. The road trips felt less risky and the destinations did not require booking excursions or other large purchases ahead of time – really just the accommodations. The overhead of those two trips was low so in the event something happened that we could not go, it was not a huge loss.
Now we face a new challenge – booking a “bigger” trip. One that is far away, one with expensive excursions, one with a plane ride. And not just one plane, two planes and navigating three airports. Are we leveling up too quickly? To tell you the truth, we are both nervous and booked this trip less than two weeks before departing. I wanted to walk you through my thought process on how we got here, things we now know, and hopefully it can help you make the right decision for your future travel.
One thing we have learned so far is if you are traveling in 2020, you have to be flexible and ready to change plans. State COVID websites are constantly being updated with changes and it is important to stay on top of them to ensure some sort of smooth travel. Being from NJ, states are regularly coming on and off the quarantine list. Check ahead of time for anything you may want to do as many companies have chosen to close for the 2020 season. If you are going somewhere that you may leave disappointed because things got canceled or are unavailable, 2020 may not be the best time to travel. But if you are willing to be flexible and take advantage of the things you can, then it can be a great, memorable trip.
Choosing a Destination
This is going to be the most important part of your decision because there are so many variables of a destination that can make it the perfect or worst place to travel during the pandemic.
- As of this post, international travel of the US is still off limits and I doubt that will be a luxury that returns in 2020. Therefore, domestic destinations it is.
- A place without a COVID outbreak! Seems easy enough right? This can be challenging because if a state is having a spike in numbers, is it the entire state or just a densely populated city? California is an enormous state and the outbreaks are focused in the cities, especially LA. Florida’s map has outbreaks throughout the state. Some hot spots are changing by the week. If you have a destination in mind, look closely at the COVID data reported at the state and the measures they are enforcing. Is the state not mandating masks? Red flag for safe safe. Do you have to transition through a COVID hot spot to get to a “safer” location? That can be risky as well.
- Choose a place with lots of outdoor activities – outdoor reigns supreme during COVID! This means also choosing somewhere that has desirable weather for those activities. Basically, try not to get stuck inside too much. While the popular national parks such as Zion and Yellowstone are having record number visitors, there are over 400 national parks as well as plenty more state parks that you can take advantage of – that is how we found Acadia National Park.
- Going somewhere familiar – you have been before, been many times, or even locally – that is what we did for the Finger Lakes. Get your feet wet with your first trip to get to know the new motions of travel during COVID. You want a lower threshold for disappointment if things are not 100% open or limited capacity to where you may not be able to participate. If things were not open, we were not disappointed since we had been before and can easily make the trip again in the future. Plus, being familiar with a location has huge benefits in this COVID world – it is easier to identify the differences in practice since the location is not new.
- Go somewhere with less people, hard to get to, or not so popular. For example, major cities are densely populated. Hard to get to places mean people wanting to get away may not put in the extra effort to make it work. Major National Parks are very popular right now. Acadia National Park was a long 9 hour drive but it being so far into Maine may have turned people away. We were rewarded with a safe destination that was not crowded.
Modes of Travel – Planes, trains and automobiles
Once you have your destination, you have to determine how you want to get there. This could also help determine your destination. If you are only comfortable driving, that may narrow the places you can visit in a short amount of time.
- Driving feels like the easiest / less risky but there are some things to consider. Rest stops and gas stations may not have the most robust cleaning regimen so the more you have to stop, the more contact points you may have. Are you driving your car or are you renting a car? If it is a rental, do not forget to do your own cleaning of pretty much every surface… and even under the bottoms and whatnot. Driving your own car has the benefit of packing lots of “just in case” stuff which is helpful navigating all the new travel toys you have to pack. But if you ware trying to go somewhere far, you may spend a large portion of your time off in the car.
- Planes feel scary but after looking into several airlines, I was less scared. There are airlines that are really doing their part of focus on safety by intense cleaning between flights, leaving the middle seat blocked, and mandating face masks. Some airlines are doing way better than others. I found this website that compared the airlines with COVID safety measures. Delta, Alaska, and (shockingly) Spirit Airlines are constantly being highlighted for their safety efforts. The air in the cabin of the plane is HEPA filtered so at least the air is clean!
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- Trains actually concern me the most as of writing this. I have take the train into NYC several times post quarantine and the number of people riding continues to increase with each visit. At least in my experience, they are not forcing social distancing by blocking seats (every other for example) and the air is definitely not being filtered. You have to depend on people to not pick the seat next to you in a completely open cabin because yes, that happens.
- RV’ing is very popular right – if you can find one and either have endless time off, can take a large chunk of time off, or can work remote, this could be a great option! RVs are not the best for every type of trip so it really depends on what you are looking to do, but it makes for a great COVID trip.
Type of Accommodations
You know where you are going and how you are getting there, now let’s break down the options.
- RVs shine here as you are in complete control of your environment. And that is really key – the more control you have over your environment, the more you can control your risk. The more variables and contact points, the more risk. You can regular you enters and how much you clean and bring all your own stuff, including food. Very COVID friendly!
- Airbnb is still my preference. I book a private “entire” stay so that we are the only ones there and I thoroughly clean upon arrival. Airbnb also has a new badge indicating the host is following a “rigorous cleaning protocol” so be on the look out for that. One feature we typically do not look for is a full kitchen. With each destination having a different policy on dining options and indoor establishments being the hot bed for COVID, having the option to cook has suddenly become important for our trips. So far our Airbnb experiences post quarantine have been great.
- We have had mixed experiences dining out both while traveling and at home. Having the option of even a small kitchenette comes with a big advantage. On this upcoming trip, most dining establishments re-closed for a four week cleanse so I have no expectations of eating out and only cooking /meal prepping at our Airbnbs so I made sure to have a fully stocked kitchen when searching for places to stay.
- Hotel feels like the least desirable option. While you certainly can clean it and dismiss room service, the hotel itself has many other people in it for touch contamination – door handles, elevator buttons, railings, etc. You also do not have the benefit the other two options give of having a full kitchen or even partial kitchen to alleviate the need to eat out.
- One thing I did purchase was this sleep sack – it is a sleeping bag liner but I have used it for the beds. It has a sleeve for the pillow and allows us to stay wrapped in the sack with the rest of the bedding underneath or on top. While I did bring full bedding, pillows, and bath towels for the two previous trips when we drove, since we are flying and do not have the space for all those things, the sleep sack was enough.
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New COVID Travel Essentials
Adding to the ever growing list as new essentials for COVID travel. Suddenly, clothing has become the least of our worries and bumped for the space of these new additions you cannot leave without.
The obvious ones
- COVID test results – have them with you. Even if the state you are traveling to does not require it to enter, be a good human and check that you are safe before leaving. It is best to get tested before you leave and when you get back. It is so so SO important to check the state’s COVID site to know what you have to do to enter – and do not forget your home state for your return! Some states require it to be permitted in without a 14 day quarantine, some require a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival, some do not require anything. Information on these sites is changing almost daily so it is critical to know where to find the information you need and check it frequently. Bottom line, for the unforeseeable future, check the state or country website frequently describing their COVID plan and FAQ for travelers to understand what you need to do to comply with travel regulations and have a successful trip.
- Which COVID test do I need? If you are looking to see if you have an active COVID virus, you have to get the molecular / PCR test (typically nasal swab or saliva collection). The antibody test does NOT tell you if you have the active virus and is NOT accepted by states for entry. Make sure you are getting the right test done. It is far easier to get the antibody test than the PCR test so do your research. Check this page by the FDA comparing the different tests.
- We have used Project Baseline through RiteAid, Pixel through Labcorp, and have even found urgent cares that perform the rapid PCR test.
- Disinfecting wipes – On a plane clean the seats, the seat belt, the tray table, the arm rests, any touch screens or charging ports – anything you can find. In a car clean the steering wheel, all the buttons, the stick shift, keys, the seat belts – anything you can find. At you place of residents, all touch surfaces like tables, drawer handles, light switches, door knobs, keys, faucet handles – anything you can find. So bring at least a full container of disinfecting wipes – you are going to need them.
- Hand sanitizer – TSA now allows for up to 12 oz per person in a carry on (WHOOP!). As a carry on traveler, this is great news. So I can bring a small travel sized bottle in addition to a larger 8 oz of hand sanitizer to refill. Don’t forget to check that your hand sanitizer is legit of the FDA website.
- Hand soap – hand washing is better than sanitizing and you can’t always guarantee hand soap, I always pack my own. To date, I have yet to need it but its a good and easy just in case item to have.
- Good hand hygiene – beyond just hand washing, here are so tips on your hands that you may not have known. Long and artificial nails can hide lots of germs – shorter nails mean less germs. Hand and wrist jewelry can hide lots of germs – are are difficult to clean on the go so we leave them at home. In fact, we have not worn hand or wrist jewelry all of COVID. And clean your phone frequently with a disinfectant – cell phones are soooo dirty (ten times dirtier than toilet seats, one and six have fecal matter!) and your hands are touching cell phones constantly.
- Lots of masks – even more than your undies. And bring all kinds too – disposable surgical ones, N95/KN95, cloth, etc. The buffs/gaiters, knitted masks, and any mask that allows for exhaled air to release through a valve are the lastest to get booted off the acceptable mask list. I wear an KN95 and surgical masks on the plane and wear cloth ones for regular use. While I have nothing to support it, it feels like wearing two masks feels better than one!
The not-so-obvious ones
- A thermometer and pulse oximeter – I monitored our temperature and pulse ox daily when away to catch any early signs of illness. While a fever can mean many things, having a decreased pulse ox (less than 95%) has been one of the symptoms (along with loss of taste and smell) that can help differentiate a fever or sick feeling for a regular old virus from COVID. This is probably unnecessary for most people but I want to be a responsible traveler with peace of mind.
- Medications – in the event you get sick, even if it is not COVID, make sure to bring some over the counter medications with you. I have an entire post on Medications for Traveling.
- A pen – This will be the unsung hero. Think about how many things you have to sign when you are on vacation – waivers for activities, checks for purchases, tips for dining. I packed several of my own pens to avoid using communal ones.
- A cell phone tripod – Gone are the days of asking someone to take your photo… cell phones are ten times dirtier than a toilet seat. Bring a way to allow you to take photos without needing a friendly stranger’s potential COVID germs. I bought this tripod for New Zealand and it worked wonderfully to take landscape shots with use in it – put that camera timer to use.
Well, that ended up being a lot more information than I thought! I am by no means a travel expert – let alone a COVID travel expert – but these are the things I have thought about and navigated to try and find a new travel normal during these COVID pandemic times.
Do you have any COVID travel tips? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear them!