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Here's How To Plan A Safe Road Trip During A Pandemic, According To Experts

When planning a road trip, a fun travel companion, a great playlist, and a thirst for adventure are usually all you need. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made traveling a much more challenging and scary process. Your health and safety, as well as that of those in the communities you're visiting, are the top priority. But even though states like New York and Alaska have put travel guidelines in place indefinitely to ensure infection rates don't drastically rise, and bars, restaurants, and local attractions remain closed, there are still ways to get out of town and soak up the most of the summer season, especially if you're clear on how to plan a safe road trip.

We can all agree that following your wanderlust is not as simple as it used to be, but following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when you do travel (locally, or from state to state — when allowed — in a safe, socially distanced, and responsible manner) helps ensure you're lowering your risk of contracting the coronavirus as much as possible. On its website, the CDC warns any form of travel comes with risk of infection because you're likely to come in contact with other individuals at a gas station, restroom, or restaurant. In those public areas, wearing a mask, washing your hands for 20 seconds, and sanitizing often are extremely important.

While we're not recommending you board a plane anytime soon, experts are mostly in agreement that traveling locally and camping are safe options. So if you're set on just going somewhere right now, we reached out to experts in the public health and travel fields for tangible details and advice to ensure you're traveling safely. Dr. Marlyn Delva, dean of students at the School of General Studies and Faculty at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, says, above all, “Be smart about summer travel. It is understandable that people do not want to stay home, but there needs to be heightened precautions taken to avoid continued spread of this virus.”

With that in mind, here's what to know before you go anywhere.

Research Your Point A, Point B, And Every Potential Stop In Between

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It’s important to understand the state of the virus in Point A so you know whether or not you could be bringing the virus to Point B. You also need to have a plan in place for all the stops you could potentially be making in between. Karen Levy, infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington says you don't want to be responsible for spreading the coronavirus, potentially burdening rural hospitals that may not have the necessary staffing or supplies. Instead, you should constantly be self-aware and take note of where you’ve been, what you've touched, and any relevant symptoms you’ve experienced, such as a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. You should also stay up-to-date before, during, and in the days following your trip by checking in frequently with individual states’ travel websites and coronavirus webpages.

According to Delva, new rules and restrictions are updated and enacted daily based on the latest data, and changes to those plans happen rapidly. A July 21 article on Connecticut's official state website says there's a regional travel advisory in place for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, where any person visiting those states from 31 criteria-meeting states must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, but the states on and off the list change frequently. The most recent restrictions posted by the Department of Health and Social Services in Alaska notes you must present proof of a negative molecular-based COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours prior to departure in order to enter the state or be tested at their airport and then quarantine until the results come back. In the Midwest, Illinois has not yet restricted travel within the state. And in the West, California closed down their indoor spaces, including (but not limited to) wineries, museums, and restaurants, according to a July 13 tweet from Governor of California Gavin Newsom.

When planning your road trip route, use the latest data to make informed decisions on how and where you should be traveling right now. Some destinations and must-see sites may just need to remain on your bucket list for the time being. If a state is posting record-high infection rates, put off traveling there at this time. As Delva notes, you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where your three-day vacation turns into a 14-day quarantine “before the vacation can even begin.”

Choose The Right Set Of Wheels For Your Trip

There are other options you can consider besides hitting the road in your own vehicle. "This is a great time to follow the road less traveled and stray from the beaten path," says Levy, who recommends renting an RV for your trip. You’ll have a kitchenette where you can prepare your own meals and won’t have to rely on restaurant food or grocery store runs. Levy says an RV will also limit your need for other accommodations and use of public spaces.

AAA spokesperson Julie Hall says renting a vehicle or driving your own are both great options, but you should take specific safety precautions either way. She suggests asking the rental agency what cleanliness and safety protocols they’re following, including wiping down seats and door handles. For instance, Hertz started a “Gold Standard Clean” program, which informs customers of their 15-point cleaning and disinfecting process. According to Hall, the program involves attaching a seal to each door indicating no one has entered the car after it was sanitized.

If heading out in your own car is more your speed, you're not alone. Mel Dohmen, senior brand manager with Travelocity, says more than 75% of travelers plan to use their own car this summer for a road trip, according to an internal Travelocity survey. If that's the route you take, consider ways to limit running into crowds. Factoring in your travel times (what times you'll leave and arrive, whether it's smarter to travel mid-week instead of on a weekend, and what times you'll be on the road, thereby running the risk of needing to stop for food or bathrooms) will help prevent crowds, which also reduces your risk of infection.

Decide Where You Feel Comfortable Staying Along The Way

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In normal times, you'd pick a hotel or Airbnb to stay where cleanliness is prioritized. That's still true, even in the midst of a pandemic. But you should also consider a spot where it’s easy to remain distanced from others, like a campsite. Before reserving a spot, “travelers should ask about cleaning procedures,” says Delva, and understand the capacity of the space. You want to make sure you’re not going to be in close contact with people you haven’t been living and quarantining with.

Prior to hitting the “reserve now” button, Dohmen says you can research these procedures online, as well as updated cancellation policies that’ll hopefully provide you with some flexibility in an ever-changing health climate. Any hotel listed on Travelocity now has the ability to highlight what health-related amenities are provided, and Airbnb has a detailed list of articles and resources on their site to help you and your host navigate a safe stay. Levy suggests booking a space for one to two additional nights before your arrival (if you are in a financial position to do so). "The virus can persist indoors, but it dies off rapidly," Levy says. "So, the risk of picking it up in a hotel room will be quite low one to three days after an infected person has been in the space."

Whenever possible, aim to enjoy the bulk of your stay outdoors. This is why reserving a spot at a campsite is such an in-demand idea. It allows you to stay a safe distance from others regularly, and being outside is an effective source of prevention against the virus.

Be Sure To Clean, Clean... And Clean Again

When it comes to cleanliness during your travels, you should have a convenient stockpile of fresh masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes for any stops along the way. Be mindful not to take more than what you expect to need, and be honest about what you expect to use. According to Hall, AAA recommends travelers “disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.” This includes light switches, door knobs, faucets, and remote controls at your accommodations.

You can pack your favorite cloth masks, but Delva recommends wearing disposable masks when using public restrooms so you can throw them out before moving onto your next excursion or leg of your adventure. She also explains how to properly use gloves, saying they “should be used for a moment.” Each activity you do should come with a new pair, and after flushing a public toilet, you should throw the pair you’re wearing away.

Whenever you’re opening doors or using sinks in a public restroom, you should use paper towels to create a barrier between your hands and the door, and then throw them out immediately afterwards. “Travelers may want to wipe seats, or open doors or faucets, with disinfecting wipes as well,” says Delva. If possible, avoid bringing your jacket or handbag into the bathroom and always follow up your public restroom visit with hand sanitizer.

Pack All The Essentials

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As far as the rest of your packing list is concerned, Levy advises, “Travelers should also bring anything they need to reduce the number of times they have to interact with other people while on their trip.” This means you should travel prepared. Keep snacks or meals you can easily transport in a reusable bag or cooler, and if you're going to be in the sun, buy sunscreen ahead of time, not when you get to your destination. Hall notes AAA recommends bringing a thermometer with you too, as well as any travel documentation (like, for instance your recent negative COVID-19 test results) and health insurance cards in case you run into a situation where you’re feeling ill or borders close.

Stay Up-To-Date On Sightseeing Regulations

Once your bag is packed with the essentials and you've taken all of the possible precautions when laying out your route, you'll be prepared to hit the road. Plan to continuously check the official websites for any national parks or attractions you'd like to visit regarding their current regulations and restrictions. By staying on top of the most up-to-date information, you'll know ahead of time if certain activities require mandatory temperature checks or allow limited access to hiking trails.

"Road trip activities are no different than any other activity right now," says Levy. She says even if you're outside exploring a national park, you're still responsible for safely distancing from others and wearing a mask. These extra steps will make you a responsible, respectful, and very prepared traveler.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.

Experts cited:

Julie Hall, AAA spokesperson

Mel Dohmen, senior brand manager with Travelocity

Karen Levy, infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington

Dr. Marlyn Delva, dean of students at the School of General Studies and Faculty at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University