Seven tips for safe traveling during the pandemic

Planning a getaway during COVID-19? Pair your wanderlust with this thoughtful advice

"Off the beaten path" does not mean ignore posted warning signs and beating your own path. No sense avoiding COVID just to fall off a cliff in California, right? I learned this the hard way.

Story and photos by Carly Schorman

Fair warning: This article comes doused in the privilege of having a job during a time when so many people are out of work. It comes from a person of an age and place that is able to sock away money in a travel budget. But, it also comes in the hope that as people who can and do have the luxury of traveling start making those plans again, they chose to support the small businesses that need that support in place of the larger conglomerates that have failed to sustain their employees during these difficult times.

Well, folx, we’ve almost survived the year, but it looks like the pandemic will continue its tirade into 2021 so we all need to take a deep breath and consider what that means for us, as individuals and members of a larger community. It might be time to start thinking about moving forward, safely, and responsibly, to achieve a new normal that doesn’t threaten the lives of our loved ones and neighbors.

The Venice Beach Canals, built in 1905, offer visitors a picturesque and uncrowded stroll.

It’s already starting to happen all around us. Social gatherings are shifting from group settings to more intimate masked arrangements in outdoor areas. Although, I suggest we start to think of it as a private Carnivale and dress accordingly. Masked, but distant and dramatically attired. At the same time, businesses are changing the way they engage with customers and clients to reduce risk to all involved. And it might be time for us to do the same.

But the burning question for a woman with relentless wanderlust is, when will it be safe to travel? Now, the answer to that question could unleash a political maelstrom, the likes of which you would have never expected from your neighbor Jim, who always seemed so nice before today. So maybe we would be better served by asking, “How do I travel safer?”

As an immunocompromised individual, I have been on lockdown since word of the coronavirus hit the States, but my partner and I bonded over our love of road trips and music listened to on road trips. We’ve been to the Bisbee barmaid bed races and looked for the ghost that appeared to John Wayne at the Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff. Phoenix is an idyllic spot for road trippers within our state borders and beyond. So how to travel safely in a time of pandemic was the question I set out to answer.

Step 1: Be Safe

Seriously, don’t be a jerk. You might feel “strong, like bull,” but you can pose a risk to yourself and others. Act like it. You have to follow the same rules when traveling that you would on your own turf. Maybe even act extra polite because you’re a guest. Wear your mask. Avoid crowds. Wash your hands. That might put a little crunch on your vacay lifestyle, but we’re trying to learn how to regain some good things without causing bad things here.

Step 2: Decide Your Comfort Level

Many people have decidedly different views on the topic of public safety during the pandemic, but for the sake of this article I’m going to assume everyone is sane and knows that masks impede transmission. The data supports this claim. I’m sorry if you have trouble breathing in it. It’s a good thing you didn’t become a doctor, but pick-up or delivery is now available through most retail outlets.

Anyway, as I was saying, everyone has to determine a measure of comfort when engaging with the world. Some people operate in a “social bubble” which includes a few family members or friends in a closed circle, usually under ten people in total. Others opted for total isolation, either alone or with their partner &/or household.

Another set of decisions await you when it comes to making travel plans: plane, train, or automobile. I opted to drive because that lowered my risk of exposure to other people even if it reduced the places I can visit and increased my travel time.

How you will travel, where you will eat, whether or not you are around other people, and what activities you plan will all be shaped around this crucial point. Deciding your comfort level upfront will help you make decisions about your trip as you plan, and it is also important to discuss this comfort level with your travel partner(s) to make sure clear boundaries are set forth ahead of the trip. You don’t want to end eight months of isolation with a panic attack in a karaoke bar because someone didn’t tell Kevin there were rules. 

Venice Beach street art by Jules Muck. [julesmuck.com/]

Step 3: Do Your Research

First you need to know where you’re going and how you’ll get there. For example, Hawaii established some pretty strident rules for visitors. If you do not have the appropriate testing done at an approved facility, you will be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Additionally, to reach Hawaii, you must travel by airplane and that presents its own contagion concerns.

But let’s say you’re driving somewhere, they don’t have restrictions, and you know the lay of the land, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass on the homework part of COVID travel planning. No, my dears, that just means you have extra legwork ahead of you if you want to steer safely through your trip.

Where are you going to stay? What are you going to eat? Recently, I took a trip across the border to California with my husband to help determine if we could safely travel despite my “extra risk” ranking on the coronavirus scale. That meant a lot of extra research.

For the first night of our trip, we stayed in an Airbnb near Venice Beach. The risk level for that area at present is in the double-plus bad sector so finding a detached space that was slightly off the beaten path seemed like the wisest course. Hosts through Airbnb can offer enhanced cleaning and oftentimes will list what additional steps they are taking to protect their visitors at this time. The next two nights were spent at a resort in a secluded area of Torrey Pines that also offered enhanced cleaning services, including replacing all the bedding from comforters to pillows. As a backup, I brought along our bedding in the car just because I’m like that.

I also looked into where we would be dining. For Venice, curbside pickup seemed like the best bet for a busy weekend night. One night, we chose to dine out while staying in Torrey Pines. Frightening, I know, but the restaurant offered limited seating on an open-air deck. A (short) list of rules was emailed to me along with confirmation of the reservation. The reservation needed to be made ten days in advance to secure the last available slot for the nights we would be in town so start your research early!

Step 4: Plan Activities

When we first arrived at our Airbnb, we opened the windows, disinfected the linens and surfaces, and then set out on a long walk to check out the area. It was a nice way to stretch out after the long drive from Phoenix and it gave us time to air our room out. Of course, walking through a busy part of the Los Angeles area presents its own challenges. We cruised near the boardwalk, the Venice Beach tourist classic, but the throngs of people deterred us from getting too close.

Thankfully, I spent a lot of time on Step 3, so a backup plan was already in place. We took to side streets and alleyways in search of street art before ending up at the Venice Canals. No, not the one that you see in the movie Chinatown that the city uses for runoff water, but the ones that were built in 1905 to replicate those found in Old World Venice. This hidden gem of the city doesn’t get nearly the foot traffic of other tourist hotspots but possesses a unique Instagram-worthy beauty all its own.

Our activities focused on maintaining appropriate distance from others and, as a result, usually took place outdoors. Long walks and nature hikes were the focus, but we found time to climb down to a secluded beach for a swim in uncrowded waters.

Step 5: Be prepared for anything

This rule just seems like one we should all adopt for everyday living in these trying times. You always want to have extra masks with you. Hand sanitizer should always be on your person and in your car. However, you might want to take some extra-extra measures to make sure you’re covered just in case your safety standards aren’t being met when you’re away from home.

For me, that meant bringing my own pillows and bedding along. Once again, this was just in case. We’ve all probably heard the stories about what happens when you take a blacklight to a hotel room bedspread. I don’t know how cautious is too cautious, but I knew I wanted a fallback plan if the comforter looked like it had been passed along from one guest to the next.

The extra mask came in handy when I crashed into the ground with my face climbing up a cliff and a little bleach spray goes a lot way to decrease contamination concerns when you’re eyeballing sink handles or door handles or television remotes in a rented room.

Classic oceanside sunset.

Step 6: Remain Flexible

Maybe the most important rule when traveling during the reign of COVID-19 is to remain flexible. Maybe that restaurant you love is operating with restricted hours or maybe a store you wanted to stop by is appointment-only. Or maybe you just end up someplace with too many people by accident and you break your comfort zone rules so you need to leave quickly and unexpectedly.

Also, if you or a member of your party start to suddenly feel not quite up to snuff, you have a responsibility to put your activities on hold to limit exposure. And, if need be, travel plans can and should be adjusted. That is a risk you have to assume if you choose to travel right now. Ignoring the risk and then putting others at risk would definitely kill people immediately from COVID if the virus killed karmically and not through a myriad of factors like pre-existing health conditions, systematic racism, economic disparity, and sheer happenstance. 

Step 7: Be Smart

If we want to find a new normal, we need to first learn how to operate safely in a pandemic world. Putting others at risk so we can scratch that travel itch is more than selfish. At the same time, I would also argue that learning how to navigate the world again, prudently, and cautiously, is not only possible but monumentally important for individuals and for the world to continue functioning in a way that best serves the people living in it. Establishing safe practices when traveling can open up the roadways again to cure your wanderlust, but a disregard for social distancing or local and regional mandates on public safety only serves to prolong this nightmare longer for everyone. Be responsible when leaving your home bubble. Don’t ruin this for everyone.