Making your trip in a car undoubtedly reduces your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 because of how contained you are from others. It’s way less risky than taking a plane or a train right now. But by leaving your household and hitting the road, you’re still running the risk of spreading the coronavirus, and should take precautions — especially if you’re planning to drive longer distances.
Unless you’re purposefully limiting your mileage, you’re going to need to get out of your car at certain times. It’s smart to plan your route and be aware of the COVID-19 risks in the areas you’re driving through — if you’re driving through a hot spot, you may wish to limit your stops.
Bring an ample supply of wipes to keep your car disinfected by wiping the steering wheel, surfaces, gearstick, parking brake and inside the dashboard every time you return to your car from a gas station, rest stop, restaurant or lodging — basically, from anywhere you’re around people or touching surfaces.
Keep a sealed bag in your car for disposing of your used wipes and gloves. Stash your mask(s) safely somewhere where you can easily and quickly grab it.
You’re almost certainly going to need to stop for gas, so remember to wipe down gas pump handles with your disinfectant wipes. You might consider bringing a supply of gloves to wear when refueling and using gas station restrooms — just remember to avoid touching your face when you’re wearing them. When stopping for gas, wear your mask at all times.
When stopping for food, always consider drive-thru, grab-and-go or take-out over in-restaurant dining. With the potential for breaking social distance, decreased ventilation, increased time in one spot and the risk of surface transmission, indoor dining really is a “perfect storm” Maldonado says. Any time you spend inside somewhere like a restaurant will really increase your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. And if you do decide to dine indoors and spot that it’s a buffet, turn right around, Chin-Hong advises.
If you’re renting a car, consider the rental company’s cleaning and pick-up policies. And it goes without saying that now is not the time to be giving rides to strangers or picking up hitchhikers, either.
Are Hotels OK to Stay in Right Now?
They’re open again after initial closures, that’s for sure. So if you’re planning to stay in a hotel, it’s up to you to do your due diligence and research their COVID-19 policies and prevention practices before you make a reservation.
The CDC recommends considering the following:
- Call and ask if all staff are wearing face coverings at work
- Make the most of options for online reservation and check-in, mobile room key and contactless payment
- Ask about any extra prevention practices being implemented by the hotel, such as plexiglass barriers at check-in counters, and physical distancing signs in the lobby
- Ask if the hotel has updated policies about cleaning and disinfecting or removing frequently touched surfaces and items (such as pens, room keys, tables, phones, doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons, water fountains, ATMs/card payment stations, business center computers and printers, ice/vending machines and remote controls)
If you decide to stay in a hotel, the CDC recommends the following practices:
- Wear face coverings — especially in the lobby or other common areas — and limit close contact with others
- Minimize use of areas that may lead to close contact (within 6 feet) with other people as much as possible, like break rooms, outside patios, inside lounging areas, dining areas/kitchens, game rooms, pools, hot tubs, saunas, spas, salons and fitness centers
- Consider taking the stairs — otherwise wait to use the elevator until you can either ride alone or only with people from your household.
- Choose contactless options when possible, like room service orders for example
If you want to further clean your room upon arrival, here’s the cleaning protocol the CDC recommends.
If you’re reserving a self-contained property, you’ll certainly be encountering fewer people than you would in a hotel. “Self check-in” is often a filter on rental property searches, which will allow you to remove the need to interact with your hosts.
Drs. Maldonado and Chin-Hong stress the importance of checking the reviews for anywhere you’re considering staying.
Many owners are promising enhanced COVID-19 cleaning procedures, and increased spacing between guests. You’ll want to know that they’re cleaning and disinfecting anywhere you’re going to stay, especially if someone was there right before you. If a place has zero reviews, you’re lacking potentially crucial information — so you may choose not to book such a property.
You might consider messaging or chatting with an owner or host to drill down on their policies and cleaning practices. They’ll understand: this is a pandemic. And if they don’t? Don’t stay there.
When it comes to travel in general, you basically want to assess what Dr. Chin-Hong calls the “COVID-19 values” of the place you’re staying, as well as the surrounding area. Talk to people, like hotel owners or locals: Are people taking COVID-19 seriously? Have they been masking?
Can I Travel to See My Family?
A lot of people are wondering this right now, especially as the pandemic has prevented many families from maintaining their usual physical contact for months now.
For folks who are determined to travel, and want to minimize their risk, we created this short checklist quiz in consultation with medical experts and government health guidelines, to help you keep track of your household’s distancing habits and test for leaks in your stay-at-home bubble.
When you try the quiz you’ll be reminded that taking precautions will reduce, but can’t eliminate, your risk.
OK, I Traveled… and Now I’m Worried I Might Have COVID-19. How Long After I Return Should I Get Tested?
Maldonado and Chin-Hong confirm that there’s a window of around two to 14 days from when you are exposed to when your symptoms show, or when you would test positive. The average length of time for this is about five days. That means, our experts say, that getting a test five days after you return from traveling is a good rule of thumb.
They advise being extra sure to maintain your usual pandemic protocol of keeping social distance and wearing a facial covering in public before you get your test. These precautions mean you can be somewhat reassured that even if you did contract COVID-19 on your travels, the risk that you’ve infected others is much lowered.
Is International Travel Off the Table Right Now?
Basically, yes. The CDC’s guidance, which they say is “updated frequently,” still recommends that you avoid all nonessential international travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the significant risk long-haul international flights pose to spreading the coronavirus globally, you could find yourself stuck in multiple sticky situations even if you’re able to book a flight. For one thing, several countries are currently barring entry to travelers from the United States.
Even before you leave, plans and reserved tickets could be thrown into total disarray as airlines are canceling many international flights and travel within another country can be totally unpredictable. If you manage to get on your flight without cancellation, the country to which you’re traveling could change its travel rules and deny you entry as a noncitizen with very little notice.
Even if you do manage to enter another country, you could be exposing yourself to an overwhelmed health care system, where your access to potentially urgent medical care if you contract COVID-19 would not be guaranteed. This isn’t to mention the possibility of travel restrictions within that country, and with bordering nations.
Lastly, as the CDC warns, choosing to travel internationally right now might mean having to remain outside the United States for “an indefinite length of time.”
What Else Should I Consider When I’m on My Trip?
The big takeaway? If you decide to go against official guidance and travel this fall, this isn’t going to be a “normal” vacation. You will be 100% less carefree than you might usually be on your time off, and you’ll be doing things like:
- Planning your route to check it doesn’t take you through any COVID-19 hot spots, rather than taking the scenic route
- Choosing a restaurant based on how far apart their outside tables are, rather than what you see on their menu
- Arriving at your rental property and disinfecting the surfaces, rather than jumping in the pool straightaway
- Strolling 20 minutes into a downtown area where you’re staying and having to turn back because you’ve realized you’ve forgotten your mask
If all of this sounds incredibly stressful, you might reconsider why you’re choosing to take a trip right now — and potentially redesign your plans.
If you’re looking for rest and relaxation, it may be that, in 2020, traveling isn’t what’s going to provide it.