How much do you daydream about your next vacation? Given everything that's going on right now, probably more than ever.
The days are getting longer and warmer, school’s out, and cities are finally reopening after months of being shut down amid concerns surrounding COVID-19. Most cities now allow outdoor seating at restaurants, and parks and beaches are opening up with social distancing protocols in place. The urge to travel is very real, but it’s still not totally advisable.
“Travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19,” says Dr. Allison Taylor Walker, a senior epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she leads the Travelers’ Health Surveillance and Epidemiology Team. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.”
No cure or vaccine exists for the coronavirus, and spikes in the states that were quick to reopen indicate we’re not ready for normalcy just yet. But travel isn't out the realm of possibility, if you're safe about it.
Getting from Point A to Point B
The CDC continues to recommend the rules it’s been emphasizing since March: wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay six feet away from anyone you’re not quarantining with. This makes traditional travel particularly tricky.
“If you decide to travel, plan ahead and protect yourself and others during your trip,” says Dr. Walker.
That means packing in a way that helps you comply with the CDC’s rules. Before you venture out, gather these items to keep in an easily accessible bag:
- A cloth face covering
- Plenty of hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
- Enough over-the-counter medicine and first-aid kit materials to last you the entire trip, so you can avoid going to the pharmacy
- Plenty of bottled water and prepared food (ideally some non-perishable items)
- Some items to clean and disinfect if you’re staying overnight (disposable gloves and diluted household bleach solutions)
In terms of transportation, the CDC doesn’t favor one form over another — you can be exposed to COVID-19 at airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops alike. But flying does present a unique set of challenges.
“Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces,” says Dr. Walker. It's also just plain difficult to social distance on a crowded flight.
It’s worth noting that most viruses and germs don’t spread easily on flights because of the way that air is filtered and circulated on planes. But the danger in flying is the potential exposure to crowds at the airports. And the longer your exposure, the higher the likelihood of transmission — if you happen to sit next to someone who has the coronavirus, a six-hour flight will be more dangerous than a three-hour flight.
If you do decide to fly, Dr. Walker suggests finding a flight that’s scheduled at a time when travelers are sparse, like early in the morning or late at night. It should also be booked through an airline that has implemented safety measures: staggered seating so you’re not sitting next to anyone, and a requirement that passengers and staff wear face coverings at all times. Finally, avoid the aisle seat, since people will be passing you frequently and the chances of being in proximity to someone with COVID-19 are higher.
Driving, meanwhile, allows you far more control over the public places you step into and who you come in contact with. You’ll avoid airports and transit stations and — by packing and planning accordingly — you can limit the number of rest stops and gas stations. Just keep your trusty toolkit nearby, ideally with some extra snacks from your local grocery store.
If you run out of food, the CDC recommends drive-thrus or curbside pickup. Of course, the cardinal rules apply any time you step out of your vehicle, so wear a mask, keep six feet of distance, and sanitize your hands before and after.
So what are some ways you can travel — and travel safely — in 2020? You have a few options.
What to Look for in a New Quarantine Spot
This is a great one for anyone with a month to spare and a flexible work situation.
At this point, you're probably used to quarantine to some degree, depending on which part of the country you live in. And after a day or two of travel, you’d be doing right by local residents to keep a low profile for the first 14 days, by making sure your schedule revolves around outdoor activities and ordering in; it's a precautionary measure that allows for an extra layer of safety.
To find out which restaurants are open and offering COVID-19-friendly services like delivery, search the restaurant on Yelp. All business pages now include a section called "COVID-19 Updates," where owners can share a personalized message, updates on service options, and any health and safety measures the restaurant is taking (e.g. the staff is wearing masks).
Because of the nature of such a trip, the ideal place is one that enjoys good weather, has plenty of outdoor activities within a few hours’ drive, offers restaurant delivery — and is super affordable.
For example, Sacramento, Calif. checks all these boxes, according to data collected by Money earlier this year. The city enjoys 265 clear days a year, and is central to some of the best outdoor activities Northern California has to offer: three hours from Yosemite National Park, an hour from Tahoe, and plenty of hiking opportunities just outside and within the city’s limits.
After two weeks of hiking and taking in scenic views, you can take advantage of the city’s growing beer scene and its food, which isn’t just good — it’s a point of agricultural pride. An hour away, you’ll find Wine Country, where wineries and distilleries have been given the go ahead to open, with certain safety protocols in place. Just check the website ahead of time, since many wineries now require you to make a reservation ahead of time, in order to help them stick to those protocols.
You can find a similar experience in Denver, Co. which has now entered a reopening phase that it refers to as, “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors.” Located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Denver has easy access to some of the country’s best hiking, rafting, and skiing, with about 245 clear days a year. And with nearly 4,700 restaurants, Denver has more eateries than 90% of the cities Money analyzed earlier this year.
Down south, Amelia Island, Fla. is a Civil War-era island that once served as a vacation destination for families like the Vanderbilts. You can get history, water, and charm at a relatively inexpensive price — a three-course meal for two, for example, would be about $45. And the island vibe is enough to make you feel like you’re on an extravagant vacation.
“We've started to see some people who had international vacations planned,” says Amy Boek of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We still offer beautiful beaches that you might see in places like the Caribbean and the Bahamas, but you also still have that historic charm that you might see in a European city.”
Fill your days with walks down streets lined with Victorian homes, or visit one of the state parks, like the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier State Park for $2. Once your two weeks are up, you can also check out Fernandina Beach — the city’s quaint downtown area, where you’ll find quirky spots and live music.
Keep in mind that some states, like Florida, will actually require you to self-quarantine by law if you’re coming in from virus hotspots. That means hotels will be checking in on you to make sure you’re following the law. And short term rentals might only allow you to book for a minimum of two weeks.
In choosing a hotel, Dr. Walker suggests finding one that offers online reservations and check-in, a mobile room key, and contactless payment. Call ahead to ask if the staff will be wearing face masks and if they’ve updated cleaning policies on frequently used items (e.g. remote controls and doorknobs).
Once you’re there, you can use the products you brought in your toolkit to follow the CDC’s guidance on how to clean and disinfect. Avoid using items provided as much as you can and consider taking the stairs to avoid elevators and those oft-used buttons.
A home rental may be a good alternative, since it ensures you don’t have to share items with other guests on a daily basis like you would at a hotel.
“You can also talk to the rental company in advance about cleaning procedures for the rental property,” suggests Dr. Walker. However, not all cities have started allowing short-term rentals just yet.
If you have a destination in mind, check the state and city websites for rules and restrictions about (1.) Which travelers have to self-quarantine and to what extent and (2.) Whether short term rentals and hotels are allowed to take guests right now.
Say a month isn’t realistic for you. If you need a change of scenery and all you have is a weekend to spare, your best bet would be to find a place in-state, where the main attraction is in the great outdoors.
For example, anyone in the New England area might consider Provincetown, Mass. It’s a seaside town at the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, where you can find 40 miles of beach to be used with caution and with the safety rules in mind.
“You can walk on the beaches, you can walk through the dunes, people are riding on the bike trails with masks on...” says Rob Anderson, co-owner of popular restaurant, The Canteen. “The town is picturesque and beautiful [and] there are a lot of restaurants open for take out and delivery.”
The Canteen currently offers outdoor dining on its oceanfront patio and spaced-out indoor dining. But if you're only going for a couple of days, it's best to stick to curbside pick up or delivery and then request that the food be left at your door — again, you can check Yelp to find out which restaurants now offer these types of services.
If sitting still and relaxing with sun, sand, and food isn’t your thing right now, you could also try a lake or a mountainous destination.
Bryson City, N.C., outside of Asheville, is well known for its almost endless outdoor offerings, and even offers 20 campgrounds.
A tiny mountain town at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, Bryson City is also a gateway to the Appalachian Trail, where you'll find stunning views — like a 25-foot waterfall just outside of the city. And it’s not unusual to see people white water rafting, boating, and kayaking along the Tuckasegee River that flows through the city. For a more mild excursion still packed with beautiful scenery, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train departs from the downtown area, and just reopened after being closed due to COVID-19.
In Glen Arbor, Mich., you’re surrounded by Glen Lakes, Lake Michigan, and Crystal River. A multitude of seasonal activities like snowshoeing in the winter and kayaking in the summer are incredibly popular. But there are also year-round activities like Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, which takes visitors through a variety of the peninsula’s 27 wineries and vineyards.
It’s going to be tempting to make your weekend a big group getaway. But remember the rules about social distancing and make sure you’re only going with people you’ve been around for the last few months (or who you’ve agreed to quarantine with for two weeks).
“It’s safest to defer any travel with family or friends that don’t live in the household or you haven’t been in contact with,” says Dr. Walker.
This is especially important if you or someone you’re with is at higher risk, or plans on coming in close contact with someone who’s at higher risk. That includes anyone older than the age of 65, or younger than 65 with underlying medical conditions, which the CDC outlines here.
Finally, don’t underestimate the satisfaction of a day trip right now — the bar for adventure is pretty low after being confined to your home for a few months.
Instead of doing the drive to arrive on a Friday and leave on a Sunday, make it a Saturday vacation. You’ll avoid the added risk and frustration of staying somewhere overnight and save money on accommodations.
Just stick to activities that give you the best chance at staying safe: Hiking, biking, and picnicking are all good options for a quick outdoor excursion. And for something longer, you might consider a trip to a winery, playing golf, visiting a national park, going to the zoo, or skiing (when the weather permits, of course).
In all of these situations, keep the CDC rules in mind and avoid using the actual facilities. Many golf venues, for example, won’t even allow you to enter the clubhouse just yet. So if you live in New York City and you’re trying to use one of the 230 golf courses within a 10-mile radius, you’ll want to invest in a set of clubs.
And for everyone’s sake, BYO mask and hand sanitizer, please!
All city-specific data was initially collected for Money’s 2020 Best in Travel list — an annual roundup of the most enticing destinations for your dollar, which didn't publish this year. A total of 20,670 data points were used to evaluate more than 320 domestic cities, based on information from 2018 and 2019. We referenced some of these data points in our story about traveling safely: WitLytic provided the number of restaurants; number of campsites; number of golf courses; miles of beach; and number of clear days or partly cloudy days, using its own content and data sourced from 60 places. Numbeo, a free internet database for cost of living and property prices, provided the cost of a three-course meal for two.
More from Money: