Essential Steps for Planning a Family Trip During COVID-19
For many, summer usually means family travel (sometimes in the form of a big trip), but COVID-19 has complicated things this year. We’ve gleaned some insight into how to start cautiously getting out of the house—we know, for example, that outdoors is generally safer than indoors, everyone over two should wear a mask, hand sanitizer can mitigate risk, and social distancing is key. But tackling the many moving parts of a family vacation, while factoring in those concerns? It can feel like it's more trouble than it's worth.
Ultimately, the choice to take a trip right now is a personal one that involves many different factors, from individual risk status to personal comfort levels, to how cases are trending where you live (or are going). But if a respite from coronavirus-induced cabin fever is what you and your family need, consider the below a road-map for starting to plan a family getaway in an unprecedented summer—whether that's a day trip to a nearby state park or a week in a rented cabin. Here is your nine-step travel planning checklist.
1. Read up on travel restrictions
Stay up to date on federal, state, and local recommendations and restrictions, and check back for potential changes regularly. Make sure you know what your destination, any other destination you might pass through, and your home state and county are asking of travelers. Some state governments, like Hawaii and Florida, may require those who have recently traveled or are arriving from hot-spot states to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival (this may include returning residents). Before you travel, you'll also want to check Harvard's new COVID risk-assessment map. In red-colored places, stay-at-home orders have become necessary again, researchers say, even if that is not reflected in local policy.
While many international borders remain closed, those that are open to U.S. travelers, including Cambodia and Barbados, are requiring everything from active COVID-19 tests on arrival to several-thousand-dollar deposits for potential medical costs.
To stay on top of these rapidly changing restrictions, there are a few sites you can bookmark, including the CDC’s recommendations for travel in the U.S., state health departments' websites, and—if you need to travel internationally—the U.S. State Department’s country-specific COVID recommendations.
2. Check in with your doctor
During the COVID-19 pandemic, immunization rates have decreased, particularly in children, as many kids skip routine check-ups. No matter your age, you should be up to date on vaccines when you travel since there’s always the risk of contracting new diseases beyond COVID-19. It's also a good idea to have each family member speak with their doctor about individual risk and essential safety precautions to take, based on the family trip you have in mind, early in the travel planning stage. They are the best bet for advising on whether it is safe for you, specifically, to travel right now.
3. Know everyone’s risk status
The CDC notes that those with an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 (including older adults like grandparents and those with underlying health conditions) should limit their travel. In addition to speaking to your doctor about your risk status, consider the condition of those you may visit on your travels as well, including elderly family members. A trip to visit family may feel like a conservative travel plan right now, but that's not the case for higher-risk family members outside your bubble.
4. Avoid coronavirus hotspots
Choose your destination wisely. Before destinations throughout the world started reopening in May, The World Health Organization (WHO) suggested that rates of COVID-positive tests be less than 5 percent before visitors are welcomed—a rate experts agree creates a safer environment. States like Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Illinois remain under that threshold; Arizona, Florida, and South Carolina currently have higher rates. You can compare all states’ positivity rates here and look at the CDC’s COVID data tracker, which tracks cases by state, here.
Destination aside, plan to be flexible. “As you travel in a pandemic, it’s important to understand that at any point, restrictions and guidelines may change,” explains Amin. A destination might put a stay-at-home order in place or a state may mandate a quarantine, for example, and you'll need to be prepared to roll with those changes.
5. Consider location and crowds when booking accommodations
Many hotels around the world are offering deeply discounted rates to encourage summer travel, others have created new lobby rules, and—when you take the proper precautions—many experts tend to agree that it’s okay to visit hotel staples like a pool. But large, high-rise hotels with many shared spaces and elevators can be riskier than private accommodations, says Shoshana Ungerleider, M.D., an internal medicine physician based in San Francisco.
Companies like Airbnb have launched booking buffers between guest stays and have released new cleaning guidelines for hosts (though experts still often urge travelers to bring their own wipes to clean high-touch surfaces such as door handles). Plus, the accommodations are simply more private than a busy hotel.
Wherever you stay—a cabin getaway, a home in a less well-known beach area, a hotel in a National Park—experts suggest remote locales over more populated ones and fewer crowds over bigger ones. If you can, pay for your stay in advance and opt for contactless check-in.
While some travelers have taken to packing their own pillowcases and sheets, ultimately, you should only book accommodations where you trust all the necessary measures have been taken in advance of your arrival.
6. Consider your mode of transportation
It’s impossible to know if one type of travel is holistically safer than others—but airports, bus and train stations, and rest stops are all places you could pick up the virus, from both other people and surfaces. That’s why experts generally suggest short-distance road trips, where you have more control over surroundings and you’re not breathing the same air as strangers.
If you are flying, a TSA-compliant pandemic essentials bag (with an extra set of clothes to change into when you de-plane) can help minimize risk, experts say.
Know your airline’s in-flight policies (like required masks, for example), read cancellation and booking policies, and—to reduce risk—choose airlines that are leaving middle seats open (such as Delta), suggests Amin. Consider travel insurance, too, in the event that someone gets sick. Download boarding passes to your phone and check bags to reduce touch points in the airport and the cabin, she adds.
7. Pack a pandemic essentials bag
Stock up on your pandemic essentials well in advance, knowing that shortages and long-lead times for delivery are possible. Staples should include hand sanitizer, face masks, disinfecting wipes, health insurance cards, a thermometer, latex gloves (for one-time use in public spaces), and hand soap, says Ungerleider. If you’re driving, bring enough snacks and drinks with you to prevent unnecessary stops.
And remember: Hand sanitizer can be flammable, says Nerurkar. “Take the hand sanitizer out with you when you’re getting out of the car, especially when there’s hot summer sun.”
8. Plan outdoor activities
This summer, planning—and booking ahead—is everything. When plotting out your itinerary, opt for outdoor activities, and know that things like landmarks, destination restaurants, and other attractions might be closed or unsafe right now. (Experts generally recommend skipping indoor activities, like museums, for the time being.) Hours may also be limited, and reservations may be required for crowd control. But there are plenty of ways to keep family members entertained in the outdoors: camp, hike, bike, spend time at a quiet beach, or visit a nearby National Park. “Overall, for travel this summer, trips that emphasize time outdoors are the safest,” says Chia Wang, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.
9. Prepare children for staying safe
Travel is a means to teach children about the world and the people around them. But this summer, conversations with strangers aren’t so simple. “Prior to traveling, speak to your child about the importance of physical distancing, hand washing, and wearing a mask,” suggests Amin. To prepare your kids for the different protocols that this summer’s vacation might bring, play a game beforehand and act out how your journey will stand out from past ones.
Children respond to guidance, and explaining the whys and leading by example matters, she says. Mid-trip, don’t panic over an accidental hug your child gives a new friend, either. “Gently remind them later how to protect themselves and others from germs,” suggest. Amin. Children will still be children, even in a pandemic, but taking advantage of learning opportunities will benefit the entire family.
We're reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a regular basis.