Planning a road trip during a pandemic
Disclaimer: We acknowledge that we are incredibly fortunate to still have our jobs, our health, our home, and to not personally know anyone who has lost their life to COVID-19. We understand that travel of any kind is a privilege and that there is inherent risk of contracting the virus every time you leave your own home. We acknowledge that traveling right now is not the right fit for everyone, but when we started talking about planning this trip, we both agreed that our own mental health would benefit from spending a week in the vast expanse of the incredible National Parks that lie only about a 16 hour drive from our home in northeast Kansas.
Understanding the risks, I spent a great deal of time planning the logistics of this trip. I would say that I spent more time planning this domestic, week-long road trip than I did for any of our international trips, even our early 2019 trip to Asia, where we had to navigate visas and a very real language barrier. In this post, I will share the things I thought about when planning this trip so that we could minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 as much as possible, so that you can utilize some of my tips if you decide to plan your own pandemic road trip.
Initially, I was really against the idea of going anywhere while COVID-19 was raging all around us, but as we began talking about what a very carefully-planned road trip could look like, I began to see ways to keep us safe while still exploring a part of the country we hadn't yet been to together. Ultimately, we decided to take advantage of the shoulder season in a couple of the National Parks that are within reasonable driving distance from our home in Northeast Kansas, Grand Teton and Yellowstone.
Planning the Route
The first thing I like to do when planning any kind of road trip is to space out our overnight stops so that we're doing around 4 hours of actual driving time every day. Because Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are about a 16 hour drive, straight through from our home, our first two driving days will be a little bit longer, to give us more time in the Parks. Most of the other driving days, we will be driving for around 4-6 hours, not including stops for sightseeing (or delays for bison crossings).
Finding the "Safe" Spaces
One of the top concerns I had in the beginning stages of planning was that we couldn't avoid stopping several times between our home (Lawrence, Kansas) and our first lodging location (Loveland, Colorado). We would surely need restroom stops and the opportunity to get out of the car and stretch our legs throughout the 9-ish hour drive. Initially, we were planning to "chance it" with Western Kansas rest stops and gas stations, where mask compliance would likely be very low, given many Kansas counties decided to reject Governor Kelly's mask mandate back in July. We knew there would be potential for close contact with people who were pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, so we tried to think of alternatives.
Shortly after we started planning our trip, WalMart announced that they were rolling out a national mask mandate in all of their stores. If you know anything about the Midwest, you know that there are WalMarts almost everywhere. While I'm certain we will run into unmasked individuals in some small towns in less populated areas, by stopping at WalMarts and national grocery stores along the way, we'll be much less likely to encounter those people in small enclosed spaces than we would in gas station or roadside rest stop restrooms.
Hotel vs. Airbnb
Airbnb has always been a favorite lodging option for us and the ability to book stand-alone properties where we wouldn't have to share a lobby or air supply with anyone else was very important to us for this trip. Doctors largely believe, given all the opportunities to encounter other people while staying in a hotel, Airbnbs are safer options for lodging, right now. Knowing that Airbnbs are a safer option, we chose to book only Airbnb accommodations for our trip.
We also chose to book with hosts who are committed to Airbnb's new Enhanced Clean policy. This policy guarantees sanitization, not just cleaning and the policy is continually updated based on guidance from world health experts. Many hosts also guarantee that their properties will remain empty for 24-72 hours after one guest checks out, before a new guest is allowed to check in.
Overall, we felt like Airbnbs were a better option for us and would provide us with safer accommodations with fewer opportunities to be exposed to the virus.
Eating on the Road
Another consideration we made was how we were going to handle eating while on the road. So many of our trips are based around food tours, trying new things, and mapping out the most recommended restaurants in the area we're visiting. This trip is a little different. Our main priority is that we're able to find restaurants who offer curbside carryout. We're even packing our own plates and silverware in case restaurants don't provide those when we pick up our food.
We're also planning to pack a cooler for quick bites on long travel days, and for lunches while in the National Parks. Many of the Park restaurants and snack stands are closed due to COVID, so we're planning to have easy-to-prepare lunches directly from the car while gazing at the awesome scenery of the parks.
When we booked our Airbnbs, I even reached out to each host to ask for their recommendations of local restaurants who are following CDC guidelines and doing curbside carryout. We don't plan on eating at any physical restaurant location during our trip, whether inside or outside, and will spend a lot of time eating in parks or in our Airbnb for meals.
Typically, we would plan activities that include indoor stops, but for this trip, we're planning to stay in the car or outside as much as possible. Not only will we be in some of the most beautiful parts of this country, but we want to enjoy Fall in the mountains. Both of us love spending time in the mountains and I'm really looking forward to waking up to crisp mornings and having coffee on the porch of our Airbnbs with mountain views. After a summer being cooped up inside with no real break, I'm really looking forward to some time to breathe in the fresh mountain air (assuming the wild fires currently burning in Colorado are less intense by then) and enjoy what I'm looking at.
We have marked several hikes and sightseeing stops on our trip and will likely hit a small mountain town gift shop or two during out trip, but we have no indoor activities planned and will try to avoid spending more than 5 or 10 minutes inside a building with other people at a time.
One socially distanced perk we're looking forward to is using the GyPSy Guide app in the National Parks. Any time we have the opportunity to utilize one of the tours offered by GyPSy Guide, we take full advantage. GyPSy Guide is an in-car audio guide that's tied to GPS coordinates. As you drive through an area, the audio guide gives you information about what you're seeing around you and the history surrounding you. We LOVE this app and the few dollars that you'll have to pay to download it is 100% worth it. We've done GyPSY Guide tours in Rocky Mountain National Park, Vancouver to Whistler (Sea to Sky Highway), Downtown Vancouver, Vancouver to Kamloops, Miami to Key West, Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island, and Maui. We thoroughly enjoyed each tour and recommend it to everyone we know who is traveling to any of the areas where they offer tours.
Some of the stops I'm most looking forward to are:
Loveland/Boulder, CO Area
Grand Tetons & Yellowstone National Parks
Cody, WY Area
Aspen, CO Area
Car Travel vs. Renting an RV
Despite the surge in RV travel since the pandemic started, driving over mountain passes and trying to figure out how to manage the logistics of RV life sounded awful to me. I'm much more comfortable driving a vehicle I know I can control and sleeping in a permanently stationary abode without having to worry about where we can park, how to empty the grey water tanks, and whether or not we'll burn out the brakes coming down the other side of the continental divide.
While the idea of RV life is appealing, and SO many of the travel vloggers we typically watch have shifted to the RV life, we would be much more comfortable with something smaller and neither of our vehicles will accommodate a trailer, so car travel it was!
In addition to wanting to be able to control the transportation element, we knew how early campsites in and around Yellowstone fill up and car travel just seemed like the overall easier option. I'm sure that traveling in Yellowstone with an RV or trailer is amazing, but that will be a trip for another time, most likely post-pandemic.
Things We're Packing
When we were trying to decide how much to take with us, there was much debate. I would like to avoid having to stop to purchase things while on the road, and my husband would rather not pack the car with everything we may or may not need while we're away from home for a week and a half.
Here are a few things we're packing this time that we wouldn't typically pack for a road trip:
Quick-Dry towels (in case we get wet on a hike or we want to be extra safe in an Airbnb)
Our own pillows
Hand sanitizer (for the car and to carry with us)
Hand soap Sheets (in case we end up in a restroom with no soap)
We're intentionally planning to take a couple of not-so-direct routes to some of our destinations. We'll start in Lawrence, Kansas and spend the night in each of the following locations:
After we leave Cody, we will drive north to Montana, to catch the Bear Tooth highway before ending up near the north entrance to Yellowstone. We've heard this is one of the most beautiful drives in the country and we're looking forward to the 2-ish hour detour.
When we finish in the National Parks, we will leave Victor, ID and rather than heading east across Wyoming, we will head back south toward Colorado to stay south of Glenwood Springs, in the middle of nowhere near Carbondale, Colorado. As I write this, there is a pretty significant wild fire burning along I-70, through and around Glenwood Canyon, and we will be just skirting the current line of the fire and heading away from it as we travel south through Glenwood Springs.
From there, we'll be visiting Aspen and Leadville before heading back to I-70 to spend our last night in Colorado, in Evergreen. From Evergreen, we'll head back to Kansas and see Monument Rock and Kansas's newest State Park, Little Jerusalem Badlands, before spending the night in Oakley and heading back to Lawrence.
Where We're Staying
I'm sharing the following Airbnb (use this referral link to save $35 on your first Airbnb booking) links with the caveat that we haven't stayed in any of these yet and I can't give a recommendation for them until that happens, but if you're looking for Airbnb options along the route we'll be taking, these are the locations we chose to rent:
Trip Planning Resources
My favorite ways to plan a trip are to utilize:
Trello for planning daily activities
Google MyMaps for making custom, shareable maps
TripIt for keeping all reservations organized (especially when flying)
Google Maps for route planning
MoreThan10 when you have more than 10 stops on your route
TripAdvisor for activity and sightseeing ideas
Airbnb for lodging
Current CDC Recommendations
Before you travel, I recommend checking the Center's for Disease Control website for their latest travel recommendations.
Above all else, wear a mask, and wash your hands! Happy, and safe travels!