Tips For Safe Road Trips During COVID-19 

The pandemic is bad news for us all, but we must concede that for many, the prolonged lockdown and work-from-home situations opened up the opportunity to travel, which is rare for office workers. 2020 and 2021 are the right time to go for that dream road trip that you’ve planned for so long but kept postponing! 

That said, there are various limitations, and we must take precautions at all times during road trips to protect ourselves as well as stopping the spread of COVID-19. Read on to learn the top tips for safe travel during the pandemic. You can totally avoid exposing yourself to the risks, and avoid staying cooped-up and losing your sanity at the same time. 

Traveling During The Pandemic: Safety Tips

Quarantine Before You Travel

In the case that you’re driving long distances to visit your family or friends for the upcoming holidays, it’s recommended that you quarantine for at least two weeks, together with any  traveling companions. Two weeks is the average time it takes for the virus to replicate and subside, regardless of whether you show any symptoms or not. Quarantine before the trip better make sure you’re not carrying the virus along with you on the trip and spread it to your loved ones. 

It should be noted that today, as we’re seeing the rise of the new variant of COVID-19 with potentially longer incubation period, 2-week quarantine might not be adequate. If you’re a high-risk person and feel that you must travel to stay mentally healthy, or if you’re extra serious about your health, it’s recommended by many healthcare professionals to quarantine for longer, say 4 weeks.

Of course, if you have been around someone who contracted the virus during the past 14 days or if you have the symptoms, stay at home and be prepared for the worst case scenario. Don’t travel with someone who is showing symptoms either.

Minimize Unintended Contacts #1: Plan Your Route

The first step of planning for the least risky route and other logistic issues is to pick the less risky destinations. As cases are spiking across the East and the West alike, always stay up to date on the rate of virus transmission in your local area, the neighbouring towns and cities, and at your planned destination. Best stay away from the red-flag areas, especially if you’re going to stay in the more crowded part of town, as the risk of getting infected and spreading the virus to others when you get back from the trip is much higher. 

You can do that with a simple Google search for “live covid 19 cases”, with results filtered by country. For the United States, check the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centerstate or the Covid-Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The New York Times also has live maps for the United States, at state, city and county levels, as well as information on the number of both fully and partly vaccinated persons.

Next is planning the route. This is important now, as you will likely run into some temporary closures. So do your homework and always stay on top of the news, even if you’ve taken the same road trip multiple times before.

It’s a good idea to map out the route you’ll be taking and check the travel restrictions for each state you’ll be passing through to avoid closure and be prepared for any requirements, like proof of vaccination. Your country should be a source that updates travel restrictions by state regularly. But before you enter the state, you should go to each state’s website to double check for potential last-minute coronavirus-related changes.

As for requirements, some states require visitors to show proof of full vaccination, or proof of a negative COVID-19 test right before arrival, or ask you to quarantine, depending on where you’re from. In the United States, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and CNN update travel restrictions by state. The Federal Highway Administration also has the latest information about coronavirus-related rules and changes in each state, as well as a directory of state transportation department websites and links to other state-specific resources that are useful to travelers, including traffic and weather alerts.

After deciding on a route and note down the restrictions or requirements by each state you’ll be passing on the way, sort out your logistics by calling ahead to confirm dining or hotel reservations. More on safe dining and what to do when staying at an accommodation further below.

Try Not To Stop Along The Way

The more stops you make along the way, the more surfaces you touch and the more people you might come into close contact with unintended. If it’s not possible to arrive at your planned destination without stopping for gas, food or bathroom breaks (say if you are traveling with little kids for a 4-hour plus drive), you should at least try to minimize this by planning your route wisely and packing everything you would need. More on what to bring along further below. 

If You Need To Make Stops: Sanitize Anything You Touched

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Take precaution at all time during your trip. Photo credit: NPR Illinois

If you need to stop along the way, wear your masks whenever you step out of the car and always bring with you wet wipes and hand sanitizer.

Bathroom breaks can be tricky at the height of the pandemic. By now, most gas stations, Starbucks and fast-food restaurants have closed their restrooms for sanitary reasons, although some Walmarts and Target are still open. 

This means you’ll be relying heavily on restrooms at highway rest areas, so take extra care to wash your hands thoroughly for a good 20 seconds. And avoid touching anything after washing your hands, including the faucet or door handle, by using a hand towel to open the restroom door. To be on the safe side, after you’ve done all that, rub your hands again with sanitizing gel or wipe down with wet before opening your car door or touching your car keys (together with the interior of your car)

And if along the way, the opportunity to use the toilet presents itself (including finishing your business in the woods), encourage your companions to do so, even if one is not too eager. 

The good news is that highway rest stops’ bathrooms are typically designed to be as touchless as possible, with doorless entry, automatic flushing, and motion-sensing faucets and hand dryer or towel dispensers. 

The hygiene protocol when refilling at a gas station is the same as when using a public toilet: before you touch the gas nozzle handles and payment buttons at the pumps, use sanitizing wipes to wipe them down. Then sanitize your hands immediately after you’re finished, before you touch your car anywhere, both outside and inside.


Download Your Maps For Offline Use

Before any trip, it’s always a good habit to download maps for offline use, in case you pass through remote places with weak or no cell services. This is especially important during COVID-19, since most shops will be closed and there will be less people driving on the road, so you’ll less likely find help in case your car breaks down or other emergencies. 

Avid travelers suggest that if you travel to far-off locations and come across some lonely roads with signs that say ‘no services for the next 100 miles’, be prepared for absolutely no cellphone service ahead.

Minimize Unintended Contacts #2: Service Your Car

Having your car thoroughly inspected and serviced before any long trip is advisable, even more so during the pandemic since you’d want to avoid having to unexpectedly stop by a repair shop along the way. This might mean unintended close contact with others and increasing your infection risk. Therefore, prevention is key. To minimize the chance for unnecessary contact, you must have your car fully serviced inside and out before the trip, or at least inspect breaks, tires, engine oil, fluids, and antifreeze.

Minimize Unintended Contacts #3: Prepare Everything You’d Need

Plenty of water and light healthy snacks are a must to avoid frequent visits to the supermarkets or convenience stores, especially for long trips. Another must is, of course, a good supply of face masks for any companion older than 2. And take care to prepare decent masks. 

A while ago, using bandanas or any creative self-made face coverings were said to be adequate, but not so much now. A recent study found that bandanas and gaiter masks offer little protection against COVID-19, while a few studies have shown that double- or triple-layer cotton masks are much more effective. The rule of thumb is to avoid any material that you can hold up and see through.

And regardless of your destination or how long you travel, you should definitely prepare your own supply of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropyl alcohol, which is required to be able to kill most coronaviruses when you wash your hands thoroughly for a full 20 seconds. Check the ingredients for alcohol levels instead of relying on “99.9%” effective claims. 

If you can still buy them, stock up on disinfecting wipes for the trip. They are harder and harder to come by these days though, so you might just as well make your own. You can make a simple DIY sanitizing gel with aloe vera as well. 

While regular soaps are adequate for disinfecting with thorough washing, you can be extra cautious and check out the FDA list of approved disinfectants, or look for the “Drug Facts” label by the US Food and Drug Administration. And note that according to the FDA, the effectiveness of any sanitizer will start to break down above 105°F, so don’t leave your sanitizer and wet wipes in the car in hot weather.

Emergency Car Kit

For any long trip, whether during the pandemic or not, it’s also wise to bring along a car emergency kit in your trunk to prepare for whatever might come. Such a kit typically includes jumper cables, flares or reflective triangles to warn approaching vehicles of your position, flash light, gloves, a toolkit for simple DIY diagnosis and repairs, an ice scraper and much more. 

It’s also recommended that you pack extra warm clothes or blankets if traveling in cold weather, food and water, several back-up phone chargers, as well as a bag of sand in case you need something for better tire traction.

Emergency Devices For Hardcore Adventurers

It’s perfectly fine if you’re a hardcore adventurers who travel off the beaten path, just make sure you invest in insurance to get yourself out of dire situations in the middle of nowhere. The avid explorers suggest that you either bring along an EPIRB or a PLB, both are advanced and hany emergency devices. 

While they aren’t cheap, they are well worth the price if you’re going on these types of wild adventures often. These devices need to be registered in your home country after purchasing.

The EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, and in the case of an emergency, can alert the nearest search and rescue center via satellite. A coded distress signal is transmitted to a free-to-use multinational network. The EPIRB is designed to be carried by a vessel, specifically your boat, since they are intended strictly for marine use.

Meanwhile, a PLB, which stands for Personal Location Beacon, works the exact same way, but is designed to be a “personal” beacon that you carry on you just about anywhere. 

Minimize Unintended Contacts #4: Plan For Your Meals

Whenever possible, preparing your own meals with the supplies you bring along in your car would always be the best option when trying to minimize the risk of contracting Covid-19, since there’s always certain risks involved with eating out along the way. 

However, during long trips, this is all the more less feasible, so if you need to dine in, it’s always going to be safer with restaurants or cafes that offer outdoor seating. The risk is reduced when the virus can dissipate into the open air. 

If there’s not a strictly outdoor area, but the interior is well ventilated with lots of open windows and doors, that might not be too bad. But be cautious and use your own judgement, since you won’t be wearing your mask while eating, and there’s no point in wearing your masks other times if you choose to dine in in a suicidal fashion. 

Otherwise, getting takeouts would be the better option, although there’s still certain risks, as well as using a drive-through and eating in your car. Do not dine in an enclosed space, even with six-foot spacing and installed partitions in many indoor restaurants. This is not adequate protection, as a few papers have shown that very small droplets called aerosols carrying the virus can float around an enclosed space for hours, causing airborne transmission. 

While Plexiglas partitions can stop large droplets, they are useless against the floating aerosols. And floating aerosols also means that the six feet spacing that we’re advised is not adequate protection by itself alone. 


Minimize Unintended Contacts #5: Regarding Your Accommodation 

If you have to stay at a hotel or Airbnb along the way, it’s best if you can pick one with access from the outdoor corridor, so you just go up the stairs outside to your room, instead of having to go indoors, pass the lobby, into the elevator and through the hallways to get to your room.

Whenever possible, book a room with spacious windows, and as an extra precaution, look for one that’s been vacant for at least 24 hours. The longer the room’s been vacant, the safer it should be, and there’s no rush to have it cleaned and disinfected to accommodate you right after the previous guests. 

As another layer of insurance, or if you’re a skeptical clean freak anyway, feel free to bring your own pillows, pillowcases, a bed sheet and towels. And bring along enough sanitizer and disinfectant wipes just in case. 

As mentioned above, dining out and getting takeout involve certain risks, so while you’re at it, you can look for accommodations with a private kitchen to prepare for your own meals, so you can monitor the risks you’re exposing yourself to. 

And while staying at a hotel, do not use closed common spaces such as public bathrooms, restaurants, or pools to avoid close contact with other guests coming over from who knows where. Another way to minimize unintended human interactions is by checking in and out during off hours.

In addition to avoiding bumping into others, remember to sanitize your hand after touching high-traffic shared surfaces like the check-in counter, pens at the front desk, room keys and key cards, elevator buttons, the door knobs, ATMs, water fountains, and vending machines. Either wash with soap and water for a full 20 seconds right after, or wipe your hands with disinfecting wipes or rub with disinfecting gel, which you should carry with you at all times in your bags.

Despite the cleanliness promises from accommodation providers, including the major chains you’d often find on the highway such as Hilton and Hyatt, the first thing to do when you arrive at your room is to use your own sanitizing supplies to wipe down the frequently touched surfaces, including exterior and interior door knobs and handles, windows, light switches, remote controls, tabletops, bathroom door handles and fixtures.

Many hotel chains are already limiting room cleaning for longer-term guests as a means of minimizing unnecessary contact for both the guests and the staff, as recommended by experts.  That said, take the initiative to check the housekeeping schedule if you’re staying for more than one night. You should tell the front desk that you do not need daily cleaning to control who comes in and out of your room.

An Alternative: Airbnb

Home rentals via platforms like Airbnb and VRBO might make for safe alternatives, since usually you can check yourself in without having to come into contact with any stranger, and many units offer kitchens where you can cook your own meals. However, the same rule for cleaning a hotel room applies, that is the first thing to do when you arrive is wiping down high-touch areas with your own sanitizing supplies.

An Alternative: Camping

Camping is another excellent COVID-safe option, if you’re into this type of traveling, and/or you can’t find a trustworthy accommodation on your route that seems safe enough. The most important thing to remember when planning for a camping trip to more remote areas for longer than a week is to stock up two or three days worth of extra food and water. 

And whenever you’re running low on supplies, stock up the first chance you get when passing through a town. These are realistic cautionary measures, since many things can happen when you’re off the beaten path, which might unexpectedly extend your trip. 

During The Rides: Roll Down Your Windows A Bit

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Roll the window down or crack it a bit for ventilation when you drive. Photo credit: Times-of-India

By now, you should know enough to avoid staying too long in a small, enclosed space. And your car is exactly that. If you and your companions have already quarantined before the trip and no one showed any symptoms, staying in the same car is less of an issue. However, if you’re traveling with people outside of your immediate family or your quarantine bubble, everyone in the car should be masked.

In any case, but especially with the latter scenario, a useful measure is to open the window to get the best ventilation whenever you’re not on the highway and if the weather permits. Otherwise, if it’s raining or chilly, simply cracking the windows a little bit, even just a couple inches would be immensely helpful in allowing airflow to dilute the virus. Studies on airborne transmission inside cars have found that rolling down the windows is effective at reducing the risk of contracting coronavirus.

Another things to remember is if you turn the heater or the air conditioning on, make sure you’re not selecting the recirculation option, which is the symbol of a car with an arrow in the middle. Recirculation means you’re breathing the same air, while to protect yourself and your companions, you would want an instant supply of fresh air outside to replace the cabin air.

Quarantine After You’ve Arrived, and Hang Out Out Outdoors

Ideally, you’ve quarantined for 2 weeks to 4 weeks before the trip and taken utmost precautions at all times during the trip. If you or any of your companions did not quarantine prior to taking the road, then try to quarantine as soon as you arrive.

If that’s not possible, then try to hang out with your family or friends in the open air to reduce the risk of you carrying the virus and spreading it to others, especially those at high risk, including pregnant women, the elderlys of 65 and above, or anyone who suffer from diabetes, obesity, immune issues or kidney, heart, or pulmonary disease.

As you have seen since the dawn of the pandemic, cases tend to spike following the summer breaks and holidays, where people gather in masses. Short term fatigue or mere negligence during the festive seasons can really come back and bite us weeks later, so be responsible for yourself, your loved ones and others in the community. Do not let your guard down at all times.

A Final Note: Despite It All, Leave Some Room For Spontaneity 

As above, you should have a final destination in mind, plan your route ahead as well as your logistics to avoid the unexpected. That said, despite it all, you’re traveling to stay mentally healthy and positive amid a world where nothing is certain for us all. So outline your trip in advance, but do leave some wiggle room for spontaneity or potential scenic detours to fully enjoy your road trip.