Photo by Jennifer Flowers
Photo by Jennifer Flowers
The scenic drive up to the Amangani in Jackson, Wyoming
What is it like to take a road trip through the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic? AFAR deputy editor Jennifer Flowers shares her experience.
In a green meadow in western Montana, a chalk-white horse named Doc took me past a sea of purple wildflowers, and I momentarily forgot my troubles.
My father and I were riding through a tree-shaded hillside path at the Resort at Paws Up, a working cattle ranch in the western part of the state that has become a respite for celebrities, with its glamorous tents and enormous stand-alone timber homes. We were on our first stop of a 12-day road trip across the northwestern United States, and even then, I knew I had achieved my goal: to abandon, even for a few fleeting moments, the chaotic events of my year thus far—largely thanks to COVID-19.
Finding peace was no small feat for me. Friends and neighbors were sickened or killed by the novel coronavirus. Seventeen days of sheltering in my apartment near one of New York City’s worst-hit hospitals, where sirens blared through the night. A hauntingly empty flight to Seattle, cat in tow, to ride out the pandemic with my parents. A 14-day quarantine in an extended stay hotel before joining them in their home. Another two months passed as I sat hiding from an invisible enemy in my shrunken world. That’s when I noticed the confinement began to eat away at my emotional health: Tears came often and quickly, and smiles were few and far between. Never in my life had I craved the freedom of wide-open spaces more.
Not everyone will want to take on the burden of the evolving precautionary measures that responsible, risk-averse pandemic travel will require. And that’s understandable: While I found the respite I was seeking on the road, my travels weren’t anxiety-free. Headlines about a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. toward the end of June gave me the jitters, despite the fact that the states we visited weren’t seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases at the time. A handshake between my father and a guide at one resort sent me into a panic, and I’ll admit that disinfecting practically everything in sight gets old fast. But ultimately, I’m glad I ventured out when the moment felt right. And I’ll be dreaming of my trip with Doc through wildflower-filled meadows during the months ahead.
If you’re thinking about hitting the road during the pandemic, be sure to study the situation in your destination, and read the CDC’s guidelines on how to take precautions. Here are six things to know:
Travel equals increased risk of infection. There’s no way around it. Every gas pump, door handle, and human encounter elevates the potential for exposure to the novel coronavirus. It’s about managing that risk and weighing all the factors. Those factors can include your health and the health of your household, the current COVID-19 case rates in your place of origin or destination, the viability of getting there by car, your caretaking responsibilities at home, and the window when you want to travel.
I was planning to travel alone until my father, who turned 78 in May, volunteered to help me drive. Fearing his increased risk of COVID-19 infection due to his age, my initial answer was no—that is, until he persuaded me otherwise. My dad is of sound mind and body and knows the risks to his own health, and he told me there was no way in hell he was going to pass up what might be our last chance to take the father-daughter road trip we had talked about for years but had never taken.
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To manage our risk, we picked states with fewer cases and visited remote counties with the lowest COVID case numbers. We wore masks in all urban centers and public areas (rest stops seemed particularly busy, so we decided early on to wear masks when using them, especially in bathroom stalls). On the road, we ate meals in our car instead of in restaurant dining areas. We disinfected our hands after touching anything, and we made a habit of disinfecting the surfaces in our hotel rooms, public tables, and seating in hotels. We picked activities that got us outside, like a self-guided walk in Idaho and a socially distanced group backcountry tour to a ghost town in our own private off-roading vehicles in Montana.
We also made sure we looked after our health: For us, that meant plenty of rest and daily vitamins, and extra layers of clothing on hikes and walks. We played it safe with the weather, postponing an e-biking trip on a rainy day in Sun Valley, Idaho, and opting to take siestas in the afternoons rather than squeezing in an extra activity, especially after long car rides.
That clusters of outbreaks can pop up anytime and anywhere—even in destinations with fewer cases—means that you need to be OK with the idea of last-minute changes or even cancellations. (Travel insurance—particularly those with cancel for any reason plans—can help.) In the time leading up to your trip, stay vigilant about the situation in both your place of origin and your destination.
Ask: Are residents of your state required to quarantine upon arrival in your destination, or on the flipside, will your state require you to quarantine if you return from a particular state? Travelers to and from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, for example, need to check whether they’re coming from one of a growing list of states that require a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in the area. Be sure to find out the cancellation policy of your hotel, as many retreats are revising their cancellation policies for this kind of scenario. (The Lodge at Blue Sky in Utah, for example, changed its 60-day cancellation policy to 48 hours in advance so guests can stay home closer to their trip if they feel safer doing so.)
While we didn’t have to cancel any big plans, we did witness hotel, state, and business policy changes during our trip. We pulled up to the Lodge at Blue Sky on the same day that New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut added Utah to their mandatory 14-day quarantine list. (This didn’t affect us, but the staff were wondering what it meant for their handful of New York bookings.) In Sun Valley, Idaho, the charming Warfield Distillery & Brewery in Ketchum was able to debut its newly expanded space to the public when it reopened, but with face masks and fewer tables. When we arrived in Oregon, the state had just announced a mandatory indoor mask order, which meant that even guests had to comply, whether they liked it or not.
Every hotel varies on its mask-wearing policies, social-distancing rules, guest capacity limits, and cleaning protocols, and they might not always be in line with your comfort levels. What this means is that you and your travel companions need to set your own standards together, and communicate those standards with staff so they can help you maintain them.
Some hotels I visited—such as the Lodge at Blue Sky in Utah and the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum, Idaho, had put up plastic shields at the check-in desks—while others hadn’t. The Resort at Paws Up in Montana uses ultraviolet lights to disinfect the rooms, while the Allison Inn & Spa has invested in $1,800 vaporizer machines to disinfect guest rooms. Some—not all—hotels created 48-hour vacancy windows between guest room occupancies. While most hotels encouraged wearing a mask indoors, only one hotel, the Allison Inn & Spa, required it; the Allison was also the only hotel we checked into whose staff took our temperature upon arrival.
My father and I called all the hotels in advance of our stay to learn about their new cleaning policies, and then we created the following routine on the road: When we arrived, we disinfected surfaces in the rooms we occupied, turned down housekeeping for the duration of our stay, rode elevators alone, and avoided valet parking whenever possible. (At the Amangani, valet parking is required due to limited space on its hillside location, but the masked staff disinfected the front seat area each time they moved our car.) While we did eat in public hotel dining areas, we opted for outdoor seating when possible, and we wiped down our table and chairs with antibacterial wipes before we sat down.
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We also learned to speak up when someone else was unknowingly violating our boundaries: When we were in Ketchum, Idaho, a teenager almost joined my father and me on an elevator ride, and when I said we preferred to take the lift alone, he apologized.
Hotels want you to feel safe, but guests need to help make hotel workers and the communities they visit feel safe, too. Guests and staff alike are all navigating this new reality together.
Remember: Every traveler brings risk from their place of origin. I wasn’t with just Montanans in Montana. I was sharing common areas with New Yorkers, Texans, and Californians, and I was adding my Washington State germs into the mix. You don’t want to bring the virus into a community with relatively few cases, and that means the new default courtesy for any visitor is to wear a damn mask.
If you’re planning to be in close contact with a guide, perhaps in a vehicle or a boat, have a candid conversation about mutual comfort levels. We talked it over with Jared, the head guide at the sleek hillside Amangani in Jackson, Wyoming, who took me and my father on a private, five-hour wildlife viewing drive through Grand Teton National Park. Our car was a large SUV, so we all felt comfortable enough to take off our masks to hear Jared better when he regaled us with stories of famous park residents, such as the bear known as “399,” who at 24 is one of the oldest grizzlies living in the wild. We kept the windows rolled down to allow the air to circulate (it was a beautiful day, so this was easy), and we made frequent stops to stretch our legs and get outside. We all had our hand sanitizer at the ready and used it anytime we made contact—like passing each other binoculars.
Hotels and resorts are trying their best to safely reopen, but in some cases, experiences in high-touch facilities—such as spas or gyms—may be temporarily closed or have restricted access. Talk about these limitations either with your travel advisor or with the hotel before you commit to going, so that you aren’t disappointed when you get there.
On our road trip, the Allison Inn & Spa in Oregon temporarily lowered its rates because of limited facilities (the spa and pool are closed). Near the resort, many wineries are still open for tastings, but by appointment only, so booking in advance is essential. The Allison Inn has connections to the best local wineries and can help you if you give some advance notice. When we were at the Lodge at Blue Sky in Utah, the adjacent High West Distillery had just reopened for tastings and lunch, but the staff weren’t able to offer distillery tours because of new health guidelines. During our stay at the Amangani, we noticed that restaurants and stores in Jackson, Wyoming, were open for business, but all had mask requirements and strict caps on visitor numbers.
Patience in the name of better health standards is a virtue, too: It can take longer to clean and prepare guest rooms now, which might mean a longer wait before you can check in. Try to be as understanding as possible.
Your home state may not require that you to get a COVID-19 test or quarantine upon returning, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider it. Even if you don’t exhibit symptoms, you may still be contagious, according to the WHO. If you’re hoping to get a test directly after your trip, sign up in advance: Depending on the testing capabilities of your state, you may encounter a several-day wait. My dad and I had intended to take a test right when we got home, but we had to wait more than a week to get an appointment and another 72 hours to get the results.
Whether you get tested or not, consider isolating yourself to minimize your chances of becoming a spreader in your own community. Because the safer we play it, the better chance we’ll have of finding ways to travel responsibly within the United States until there’s a vaccine.
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