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The Great American Road Trip is changing. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, road trips are the go-to family vacation option now. But a road trip in 2020 will look different than any road trip before. From the miles you’ll drive to the destinations you’ll choose, here are 12 road trip trends for a mid-pandemic 2020.
Ah, the Great American Road Trip. It’s a rite of passage for many families across the United States. But as flights got cheaper and the world opened up, more families chose to fly over America in search of more distant shores. The Covid-19 pandemic has reset so much of modern life, family vacations included. Some families are choosing to stay home until there’s a vaccine. But families who plan to travel are more likely to hit the open road.
A Daily Travel Index from Arrivalist that uses GPS data from across the USA to measure consumer road trips of 50 miles or more, is predicting that Americans will take 36.8 million road trips over the Fourth of July weekend. That’s the biggest road trip weekend of 2020 so far, but it’s still down 11 percent from the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) travel prediction last year, when it expected 41.1 million travelers to road trip over the July 4th holiday.
Here are 12 ways road trips will look different in a pandemic.
1. Exploring Close to Home
Families are ready to get on the road again, but they’re not ready for a coast to coast adventure. They might take the Pacific Coast Highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Great River Road Scenic Byway, but only the part that’s in their own state. Even then, they are likely to drive only a short distance along those classic roadways.
Americans plan to start slow, with day trips. That’s how I started — with a really looooong day trip, four hours each way to see my kids in Detroit. I took their grandparents along, so we couldn’t stay. But nothing was going to keep me from seeing the kids, even though it meant I spent eight hours in a car so I could spend three hours with them!
TravelingMom Catherine Parker is a more typical day tripper. She and her teens did a day trip from their home in Austin, Texas, 45 minutes away to spend the day hiking. They brought with them hand sanitizer, masks and their own snacks and water, reducing the need to interact with people.
FinanceBuzz found that only 3 percent of the people it surveyed plan to travel more than two hours away from home over the July 4th holiday this year. This is not the time to plan a long road trip to hike the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Valley. Instead, check out the trails, roadside attractions or botanic garden you always meant to visit near you. It’s going to be awhile before most families feel confident enough to plan an epic road trip from Chicago to California on Route 66.
2. The Outdoors Are In
TravelingMom Yvonne Jasinski headed to the end of the world — Worlds End State Park near her home in Pennsylvania. Her goal: To stay away from people and common facilities. She brought everything she would need for the camping trip, from her own food to her own portable shower.
Yvonne is right on trend. National parks, state parks, uncrowded beaches, and mountain air are all getting a fresh look from families that previously might have flown to popular family vacation spots like Miami, New York City, San Diego, Seattle or Las Vegas.
Smaller parks like Acadia National Park can be easily overwhelmed with visitors. But even larger parks like Great Smoky Mountains can still feel crowded. Ask the park ranger for ways to have a socially distant vacation in the park. If you’re lucky, the ranger will point you to her favorite hiking trail, one with incredible views and small crowds.
Destinations with lots of wide open spaces and fresh air — Wyoming, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska and Colorado to name a few — are on the radar.
Be sure to check these sites to see what’s open and the rules for visitors before planning your trip:
- Covid Act Now and Covid by State keep track of infection rates by state so you can easily compare possible destinations,
- Masks for All keeps track of which US states and which countries require people to wear masks in public and
- MultiState COVID-19 State Reopening Guide keeps track of what’s open and what’s not so you can plan accordingly.
Even cities are finding ways to keep people outdoors. Free Tours by Foot, which operates worldwide, has revamped its tours in DC, Charleston, San Francisco, and New Orleans so there will be no interior stops. The group will add similar tours in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.
3. Being Careful is #1
When TravelingMom Christy Emmanuel and her brood, ages 6 to 10, arrived in Berlin, Maryland, they were looking forward to spending time at the beach. But when they arrived, the beach was really crowded, despite officials’ efforts to police it. She brought masks, but then had to fight with her kids to keep them on their faces, and to keep them six feet away from others.
Being careful goes well beyond wearing masks and washing your hands. For Kate Moore of Parked in Paradise, it means focusing on low-key, safer activities — no rock climbing or adventurous hikes. She doesn’t want to risk a rolled ankle or broken arm that would require a trip to the nearest hospital emergency department.
4. Packing Heavy
Bringing along everything you might need — from snacks to portable potties — makes it easier to avoid unnecessary contact. One TravelingDad has been packing a potty since his kids were just getting out of diapers. Adult versions of a portable potty run from the basic pee bottle for men and shewee for women to a personal porta potty. Or, you can do what my dad used to do and bring along an empty coffee can “just for emergencies.”
5. Clean Freaks Win
I’m the germophobe who has been doing this for years – wiping down my seat when I get on an airplane and cleaning the hotel room. Before anyone unpacks, I wipe down the high-touch surfaces — tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs and door locks, closet and drawer knobs, light switches, touch screens, remote controls, handles, desks, toilet handles, sinks, and coffee pot. To be sure they’re disinfected, use EPA-registered household disinfectants.
Adrienne Carrie Hubbard of Hubbard Family Travels makes her own disinfectant solution. The recipe: add 5 tablespoons of bleach to one gallon of room temperature water.
Check out these germiest places in a hotel and find out why you’ll want to bring a Ziploc bag when you check in.
6. Bathroom Concerns
Hotels are spending a lot of money promoting their new cleaning and disinfecting protocols, but families are worried. They’re renting RVs instead. Why? The bathroom, according to John Gann, owner of Texas Camper Rentals.His eight campers are fully booked through the end of the summer.
He’s had multiple customers book RVs for long distance trips mostly so they would be able to carry their bed and bathroom with them. One family was headed to California to see relatives. They booked the camper for three weeks although they only used it for the first two days and the last two days of the trip. They drove straight through, stopping only once — to spend the night in Albuquerque, New Mexico — between Texas and California.
7. We’ll Sleep Differently
TravelingMom Jenn Mitchell and her husband drove from their home in Massachusetts to a small Airbnb in New England. It was a side apartment off a main house on a small lakeside property. Before she booked, she talked with the owner to go over her cleaning methods. That went so well that she’s heading to a VRBO property near Cape Cod for the 4th of July Week. That house has its own dock, kayaks, and other equipment so they won’t have to share a beach or worry about social distancing in public areas.
Jenn is a typical mid-pandemic traveler, according to Travelocity. The company did a survey that shows 1 in 4 families is planning to take a summer vacation this year, but:
- Bookings for ranches, cabins and houseboats have increased by 100% or more in certain parts of the country. Booking data between May – June 2020 show a 140% increase in private vacation home rentals and 115% increase in cottages.
- The demand for condos is up 45% compared to the same period in 2019.
Sometimes all you need is to sleep in a different place, says TravelingMom Jamie Bartosch. She, her husband and two teens drove two hours to the Waterpark Capital of the World and DID NOT GO TO A WATERPARK! Instead, they rented a big house with a pool table and fireplace and spent time outdoors hiking, kayaking and golfing.
The key to enjoying a vacation with the same people you’ve spent months quarantined with? Space, Jamie says. Lots and lots of space, preferably outdoors. “Even though we’re all so sick of each other, at least we’re sick of each other in a lovely state park … and in a house that’s twice the size of the one we live in,” she says.
8. Families Become Digital Nomads
Digital nomads — people who can work anywhere because they work online via computers — used to be carefree, childless 20-somethings who needed nothing more than a laptop, a cup of carefully brewed coffee and a decent wifi connection to work from anywhere in the world. But the Covid-created remote work and distance learning is growing a whole new crop of digital nomad families. If we can work and the kids can learn at home via Zoom, we can do it in the back seat of the car, in the RV, in the Airbnb and at the campsite, whether we’re in the Rocky Mountains, Memphis, or Monterey.
That’s how Mikaela Walker, managing editor of Orlando Parents magazine and the mom of two kids, ages 6 and 11, plans to do it next year. She’s switched the kids to virtual school. They’ll be exploring the Grand Canyon and the national parks in Utah next fall when the rest of the kids are back in school or sitting around the dining room table waiting for the next Zoom lesson to start.
9. Camping is Cool and RVs are Hot
RV bookings have nearly tripled since last year and have increased by more than 1,600% since early April as travelers opt for a safe, cost-effective means of travel this summer. RVShare, the Airbnb of RV rentals, says top destinations for its renters are: Yellowstone National Park; Grand Canyon National Park; Nashville, Tennessee; Ginnie Springs, Florida; New Braunfels, Texas; Garner State Park, Texas; Lake Powell, Arizona; Zion National Park in Utah, Wisconsin Dells, and Valdez, Alaska.
You don’t even have to check into a crowded campground, says Steve Johnson, publisher of Boondocker’s Bible. Stay super socially distant by boondocking. That’s where you follow dirt roads deeper into forests, mountains, and canyons and camp right in the middle of nature with no one else around. Just don’t expect to find water and sewer hookups, so come prepared with everything you’ll need while you’re there and be a good citizen by packing out your trash.
The U.S. Forest Service publishes “Motor Vehicle Use Maps” that illustrate every forest road where boondocking, also called “dispersed camping,” is allowed. There are fewer rules, no “quiet hours” and you can collect firewood off the ground, pick wildflowers and gather edible plants, Steve says. Best of all: It’s free — and the stargazing is included at no additional charge.
10. Planning is Paramount
Traveling amid a pandemic is no time for winging it, says TravelingMom Liana Moore. When she and her family were planning to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Snow Mountain Ranch near Rocky Mountain Park, she read everything she could about the destinations. They brought masks and washed their hands. A lot.
Melanie Musson, a writer for CarInsuranceComparison, her husband and their five children, ages newborn to 9, already have road tripped differently this year. They usually visit museums, zoos, aquariums, waterparks, and other crowded attractions. This year, their trips will be “shorter, closer to home, and centered on the outdoors. Instead of a hotel with a pool, we’ll stay in a tent by a lake. Instead of a zoo, we’ll hike in the woods and study the wild animals,” she says.
Their first trip was to Grand Teton National Park where the older kids filled out a Junior Ranger workbook she printed out at home before they left. They ate all of their meals “in” at the campsite, prepared from supplies they brought with them from home.
If you plan to stay in hotels, stop at rest stops and eat in restaurants, you’ll want to plan those, too, to make sure you they are open and you know the rules around social distancing, mask wearing, and quarantines.
For example, Maine requires all visitors who are not residents of Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont to sign a Certificate of Compliance before checking into a hotel, campground or Airbnb. The form asks whether they have received a negative COVID-19 test result. If not, they will be required to quarantine in Maine for 14 days. Other states with quarantine rules include Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia.
Meagan Tenney, her husband and four kids ages 3 to 11, are full-time travelers. When they drove from Arizona to Florida mid-pandemic, they were stopped at the Florida border and asked if they had come from New York. They hadn’t, so they were allowed to enter. If they had, they would have had to answer more questions about whether they had been sick and would have been required to quarantine for up to 14 days. On the way to Florida, they passed through Gallup, New Mexico. All of the highway exits were closed to quarantine the whole town because it had been hit so hard by the coronavirus.
11. A Plan B is Important
This can take many forms:
- Have a second nearby destination in mind in case you arrive to find a spot too crowded or already closed to visitors. TravelingMom Tip: ALWAYS check the website or call ahead before setting off for your destination. Things are changing quickly. The site could close, the rules could change, admissions could close.
- Bring a paper map in case your technology fails. You don’t want to stop strangers to ask for directions.
- Pack spare chargers for your phone and electronics.
- Prep the car to avoid breakdowns and always pack an emergency kit.
12. Going it Alone
Or in small groups. Natalie Lloyd, a family travel blogger at Blissmersion, lives in Mexico with her husband and two children. Her most recent road trip was to a small 4-room hotel an hour from their home. Because of the Covid-inspired pause in travel, hers was one of only two families at the hotel. There was ample outdoor space, including a 2.5-mile round trip hike, and a pool. “It was the most peaceful and relaxed we’ve been in months,” she says.