Updated for summer 2021 – Like it or not, travel has changed forever. While we’re all eager to get back to travel that is as close to normal as it can be, we have a responsibility to do that in the safest way possible. My 2020 wasn’t a normal travel year and 2021 just isn’t the same either. I’ve only been on a plane once since the pandemic started. However, I have been able to road trip some and I’ve even driven across the country a few times. Here’s what I’ve observed from my travels and what I learned about how to road trip responsibly in this new travel era.
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Stick Close(r) to Home
There are a lot of people traveling and road ripping now. If that’s you, or if you’re planning to travel or planning a road trip in the near future, then instead of going far, consider staying closer to home or at least, in your own state. Often times, people overlook where they live and what’s nearby. Take this time as an opportunity to get to know your local surroundings better.
Staying close to home makes it easier to get back home if you were to get sick while traveling. This way, you’re not a burden on another community and you won’t use resources meant for locals. Plus, being sick away from home is never fun. It’s that much worse when you can’t climb into your own bed.
Know Before You Go
Before heading out on a road trip, investigate the area to where you are traveling and even driving through. Since most states and cities now have mask mandates again, check those rules before you go. Know what you are getting into, then comply with the regulations the best your can.
You might even check to see how the area you’re headed feels about visitors. Sadly some communities like Moab, Utah, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Lake Tahoe, California have been overrun with tourists. Because these areas are small, they just don’t have the lodging, infrastructure or even healthcare to deal with big crowds. They have been less than thrilled to have so many visitors.
A convenient place to look for up-to-date travel info is on a state or city’s government website. Many state health department websites and tourism board websites, are also sharing pertinent pandemic info.
If you are road tripping to a national park, verify that it’s open. While most parks have reopened, some still closed or at reduced capacity. NPS.gov has all the latest info.
Note: masks are now required on all federal property. So always have a face covering with you when visiting our national parks.
Another tip for national park travelers: consider becoming a Twitter user and follow the park or the area where you are traveling. Many of the national parks and national forests use Twitter to report road closures and other issues there because they can push it out to the public quicker and easier than on a website.
Consider Your Route
To road trip responsibly, you should think about the route you will take. What areas will you be driving through? It’s no secret that small communities and Native American reservations have been hit hard during the pandemic. Many times these communities have little or no medical resources. Or at least not enough for a pandemic like this. If you find yourself in one of those communities, go the extra mile to avoid contact with people.
For example, Navajo Nation, home to popular sites such as Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley, were closed for months. Parks and casinos have started to reopen now, but still have strict mask mandates. If your route takes you through one of these small communities, be considerate and think about the community.
Know Where You’re Going to Sleep
I’m usually all for winging it on a road trip but in this new travel time, it’s smart to have an idea of where you’ll stop to spend the night. To cut down on crowds and make it easier to socially distance, some states and cities still have hotel occupancy limits in place. That means if you are traveling to a busy area, it could be hard to get a hotel room.
Book your rooms in advance and use companies or book property that have good cancellation policies. Booking.com and Expedia.com both offer plenty of choices with free cancellation. For last minute rooms with great prices, use Hotwire.com.
Even many campgrounds have reduced occupancy. We camped in several different places on our responsible road trip in and had reservations for all but one night. Now that people are back to traveling, I strongly recommend making campground reservations so there’s no surprises or sleeping in the car, when you don’t want to. Use apps like The Dyrt to find camping spots, campground reviews and even maps for easier road tripping.
Knowing how to road trip responsibly means keeping it local. When you’re on the road and it comes time to spend money and dine out, spend it where it counts the most. Frequent small and local businesses that need support. Covid has hit the tourism and hospitality industry hard, especially mom and pop type places.
Many restaurants are still struggling. While most places are open, they still may only be offering take out. To make it a bit easier, many places have implemented curbside and easy pick-up for faster service. Choosing to eat local might take a bit longer than fast food but it’s worth it to put money into the community and a local business.
Local merchants are really appreciate the business. Some of the places we stopped, like coffee shops, book stores and local outdoor outfitters went out of their way to say thanks for choosing them over big chains.
Southerner Says: they also appreciate face coverings and good tips!
Find Alternative Places to Go
The United States and the world is huge! Everyone doesn’t have to go to the same places. Knowing how to road trip responsibly means looking for alternative, less crowded spaces.
Even on public lands, you can avoid crowds. You just have to know where to look and do your research. Try lesser know and obscure spots. National forests, BLM property and state parks are good alternatives to bigger name national parks.
Those big parks aren’t going anywhere. And honestly, who wants to experience a national park when it’s not even fully functional or you’re sharing it with thousands of other people?
If you do end up including some of those busier national parks on your road trip, remember a few of them require reservations for services. Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and Acadia National Park all have reservations systems in place this year. Acadia – and other parks – encourage you to have your park entrance pass ahead of time. Consider investing in an America the Beautiful Park Pass to save time – and money. Visit Recreation.gov for info and any permits you might need.
With more people on public lands there’s also an uptick in destructive behavior. Know the rules and what NOT to do on public lands. Report bad behavior to rangers and park personnel. Learn Leave No Trace principles and educate your children early so they also know how to protect our public lands. Most importantly: don’t feed the wildlife. Ever.
If they are open, many businesses, restaurants, grocery stores and even chain stores, have adjusted or reduced hours to accommodate employees and restocking routines. Stores and even gas stations that were open 24 hours previously, haven’t returned to those pre-pandemic hours.
Because info changes quickly, even Google frequently doesn’t have the correct info. If there is some place you especially want to go or see, the best thing to do is to check with that place directly, either by phone or their website. A word of caution: we found many websites were not being updated frequently enough to keep up with changes. Calling is best.
Take What You Need
When it comes to supplies and food that you need on your responsible road trip, my advice is to buy as much as you can in your home city and take it with you. This means hand sanitizer, wipes, Lysol, soap, yes real soap, food and snacks.
It is much easier to find supplies in stores now but that may not be the case where you are traveling. Rural areas and communities with small or just one grocery store, don’t have an abundance. In normal years, I’ve seen locals in touristy areas complain about travelers that come in on the weekend and buy up all the groceries. Can you imagine how much worse it could be during a pandemic, when supplies are low?
It might take a little more organizational vehicle preparation and planning to take supplies with you but this way your doing your part in making sure everyone has access to what they need when they need it.
Throw Away Your Trash
Since people are using supplies like masks and gloves more frequently this year, that means we are producing more trash. More trash in general means more trash on the ground – in parking lots and basically everywhere. No one wants to touch their gloves, so they get thrown down on the ground. At every park – and other places – I’ve been to, I saw masks and gloves everywhere. Don’t be a litter bug.
Keep trash bags with you on your road trip so you have a place to put trash. For one, it keeps the vehicle tidy(which is super important on a road trip) and there’s less chance of trash blowing out of the vehicle and ending up where it shouldn’t be, even by accident.
Then, when it comes time to throw your trash away, use trash cans at stores and gas stations; places you know are emptying them frequently. National parks and many public lands, have less resources and employees due to the pandemic. Don’t leave trash behind or stacked up around the receptacle.
Try to recycle when you can. We are utilizing an enormous amount of plastic in this pandemic. To-go boxes, water bottles and gloves have contributed to that. To offset that, recycle if there’s a receptacle available.
Finding a Bathroom
A concern for many travelers is finding clean bathrooms. This was a major concerns when we traveled in May 2020, as many things were just opening back up. By the time I traveled again in October, there had been a lot of changes. It was easier to find bathrooms.
On both trips, I preferred to stop at rest areas, large truck stops and travel plazas. The bathrooms are generally bigger so it’s easier to physically distance. There’s also more staff to keep the bathrooms cleaner.
In rural areas and on public lands, bathrooms might still be an issue. So it’s best to stop when you see something open and before it’s a have to situation.
Southerner Says: most big name brand travel plaza and truck stops require face coverings. I didn’t really see anyone enforcing in but I will say I saw almost 100% mask use in places that required masks.
Be Patient + Kind
Literally everything takes longer now. The road trip you took before or the way you did it before – it just isn’t the same. Factor this in when you make your plans. Don’t over plan. You might be setting yourself up for disappointment.
As you make your way back out into the world of travel, I can’t stress enough that people are going to try your patience. Part of knowing how to road trip responsibly is anticipating that things may rub you the wrong way. As a country, not only are we dealing with a pandemic, we are dealing with mixed views and in some cases, downright stupidity.
Try to remember, we’ve ALL been through a stressful time. Some people have been affected more than others and some people have handled it better. As travelers we need to set an example. We need to be kind.
When you travel remember you are visiting someone else’s home. Someone lives in that city or town and is impacted by what you do. Learning how to travel and road trip responsibly, is much better for everyone.