While most of the world was quarantined waiting out shelter-in-place orders, my family and I were unexpectedly left with no other choice but to travel. After living in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly a decade, a job opportunity presented a clear path for us back to the East Coast where most of our extended family resides. We made our decision to head back East in late March, and plans were in motion quickly thereafter—right as the global coronavirus pandemic started to change life as we knew it.
We ultimately decided that a cross-country road trip provided us greater control than flying (especially as rumors swirled that all domestic air travel could be grounded) and a safer environment for social distancing—especially with a 3-year-old in tow! While our road trip was absolutely a surreal experience (I never thought I’d be taking a road trip during a pandemic!), it was ultimately a success thanks to a few key factors.
Planning Our Road Trip Stops
Once we decided we’d be traveling by car, the first part of planning our road trip to maximize safety was to identify the stops. While 10 years earlier we’d driven out West and had taken our time (nearly 3 weeks!) and visited lots of exciting tourist locations, under the current circumstances our goal was to travel a bit more quickly and to avoid high-density destinations. We determined how long we were willing to drive each day (5-7 hours) and decided to travel on the most direct route (Route 80), meaning we generally knew how many miles we could go between stops. From there, we referenced data on the CDC website to find the safest cities and counties, and then moved on to finding our accommodations.
Picking Our Accommodations
The next step in planning our road trip during a pandemic was to pick our accommodations. Based on the stops we chose, hotels presented a better and more economical option than other options, like an Airbnb. Plus, with rapidly changing regulations surrounding vacation rentals (our usual accommodation preference), hotels gave us the most control. We opted for longer-term stay locations that offered full kitchens so that we could bring and prepare our own food. We called each hotel to ensure they were indeed open and to check on any changes to protocol to be aware of amidst the pandemic. Most had suspended access to pools, gyms, and other communal spaces or activities, as well as stopped offering continental breakfast. We were comforted to see increased cleaning procedures; otherwise, everything was as expected.
Packing the Car
While packing the car doesn’t seem like something you’d have to think much about when it comes to road tripping, it definitely helped to be a bit more strategic. We figured out the things we’d need easy access to each day (i.e. all the snacks, activities to keep non-drivers busy, food to prepare in the hotel, our suitcases, etc.) and kept those within reach. Less frequently needed items were packed on the bottom (i.e. emergency kits, laundry, strollers, etc.) This made getting in and out of the car each day much easier, and made the ride itself so much less frustrating.
Keeping Track of Our Itinerary
With our road trip planned and our car packed, we were ready to hit the road! To make our trip even easier—and within fingers reach—we kept all our travel details in TripIt by forwarding hotel confirmation emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. From there, we could see our full itinerary including check-in and check-out times, helpful attractions nearby, plus, we were able to map one stop to the next. Having everything all in one place made the trip even more stress-free. Keep in mind that even if you don’t have stops planned on your road trip, or you plan to camp instead of stay in hotels or rentals, TripIt still has tools to make planning a road trip simple. Once our itinerary was loaded, we easily shared our plans with family and close friends so they could see where we planned to be each day—something our loved ones really valued in such uncertain times.
Staying Safe at Gas Stations
Once on the road, the only stops we made other than our hotels were gas stations (obviously) to fuel up and to use the restroom. Route 80 is a truck route, which means that while there weren’t a lot of cars on the road, we could be sure that those that were out were stopping at all the same rest stops since they were so few and far between. We took extra precautions to stay safe, using gloves and masks while fueling up and using the facilities. We didn’t linger long, and we did our best to stay socially distanced from others. Before returning to the car, we were sure to carefully dispose of trash, thoroughly disinfect hands, and wipe down high-touch surfaces in the car.
While this wasn’t the road trip of our dreams, it was a successful one—with no unexpected events, thanks to our preparation. Our time on the road was meditative and peaceful. Even though we were taking a road trip during a pandemic, it felt like the world was almost normal at moments (though much less crowded).
If you plan on taking a road trip of your own, even while shelter-in-place orders remain for some parts of the country, keep in mind some of these tips. While it might not be the iconic “American Road Trip” of lore, it can still be a fun way to explore while staying safe.