Now that the weather is warming up and Covid-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders are lifting across the country, many people are antsy to get out there and travel after a brutal cooped-up spring. And while hitting the road may be a good idea for both the economy and the country’s collective mental health, it’s not risk free in terms of the pandemic. So it’s more important than ever to keep safety in mind every step of the way.
CNBC Make It asked the experts for their recommendations on how to travel this summer without putting yourself and your community at even greater risk.
First things first: Both experts agree that the best thing to do right now is to have a strategy.
“Before you go anywhere, think about exactly where you’re planning to go, exactly how you’re planning to get there, and what exactly you will do once you arrive,” advises Carl Fichtenbaum, an epidemiologist with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Infectious Diseases.
Because all 50 states are reopening at different rates, be sure to factor that information into your choices. (This constantly-updated reopening map from The New York Times is a good resource.)
After you figure out your potential destination, keep track of what’s currently happening there, right up until the day you leave. There are a number of sites that detail Covid-19 outbreaks, Fichtenbaum points out, though he says that the hot spot maps published by the CDC and Johns Hopkins University of Medicine are arguably the most reliable.
An RV may be your safest bet
To decide where you’re going to go, think Mother Nature — and close to home.
“The outdoor vacation within driving distance of your home is your best option, as the virus doesn’t have as many opportunities to spread when you’re outside,” Fichtenbaum explains.
That can include anything from camping to renting a house in the woods or by the beach to renting an RV and driving around, though some of those options are safer than others.
“Ultimately, you want to do the best you can to lower your risk with every area of travel that you can control — and by that logic, renting an RV is your safest option,” explains Georgine Nanos, a family physician who specializes in epidemiology.
“With an RV, you have the most control, because you can clean it once you rent it and then it’s yours,” she explains.
What to watch for when camping
Camping is a solid option, too, but backcountry camping is better if you can rough it in nature.
“With car camping, you just have to be careful of the common restrooms, because it can be hard to clean up public surfaces before and after use,” explains Fichtenbaum.
The safest way to camp if you’re staying at a public campground, he says, is to do it the old-fashioned way and bring a bucket shower.
“Those public campground bathrooms can get quite risky, with so many people coming in and out, so anything you can do to avoid them is better.”
Renting a house is probably safer than a hotel
Another option is to stay in a house somewhere in nature, which both experts agree is better than staying in a hotel.
“Renting a house is a good option because you can clean it when you arrive and then you have full control,” Nanos explains.
Some rental companies like Airbnb have rolled out stricter cleaning protocols to ensure the safety of both guests and hosts — so be sure to read up on your rental company of choice’s policy. (Airbnb’s new “Cleaning Protocol,” for example, lists guidelines for authority-approved cleaning supplies and requires a 24-hour waiting period between guests to minimize potential airborne particles. Their “Booking Buffer” feature requires 72 hours between guests, but does not require the use of authority-approved cleaning supplies, instead relying on time to let the germs die more naturally.)
But what about hotels?
Luxury hotels are probably fine, too, since they have the money to pay for the highest cleaning arrangements, but you still never fully know with hotels, Nanos points out.
“There are so many surfaces and elevator buttons and people coming in and out of your room for turndown services and general housekeeping that you lose a little bit of that control,” she says.
If you do stay in a hotel — if you’re driving a long distance, for example, and need a rest stop — tell the staff that you are going to pass on housekeeping and turndown service and keep your room clean yourself, Nanos says. Also: Wash your hands constantly if elevators are involved, and try to avoid the indoor hotel bar and restaurant too (though outdoor hotel bars and restaurants are safer).
Stay with fewer people
Staying with family or friends can be okay, too, as long as you keep your numbers low and you know your hosts are healthy and have been practicing safe social distancing.
“It’s hard to give an exact number of people that is okay to stay with, because there isn’t one. But the fact is that the larger the group, the higher the risk, so anything you can do to keep your numbers low is always better,” Fichtenbaum says.
You should also try to spend as little time as possible actually inside.
Driving versus flying
As for driving versus flying, the safest answer is driving, hands down.
“Traveling by airplane is much higher risk than traveling by car with your family,” Fichtenbaum says.
“Even though they recirculate the air in the plane, you’re still in close proximity to strangers in an enclosed space. I don’t think you can rely on the middle seat always being unoccupied because we have seen examples where that’s not the case,” he emphasizes.
That means that international travel is much riskier this summer than domestic travel (even though some countries like Greece are opening up to American travelers).
“International travel should be really limited in the next couple of months,” Fichtenbaum advises. “If you’re traveling to another country, it generally means a longer flight depending on where you’re flying from, and the longer you’re in the air, the more your risk increases.”
That said, flying isn’t totally off the table if you are healthy and you must, though again, it’s definitely the riskiest behavior.
“If you already have pre-existing conditions that would predispose you, air travel is something you want to reconsider. But for younger, healthier people, it’s not entirely out of the question — you just have to be willing to accept personal risk,” explains Nanos.
Her advice: Wear your mask, bring your own food and drinks, wear gloves in the bathroom, avoid sitting close to someone, wash or sanitize your hands as much as you can and be mindful of your entire environment. “Keeping everything in your own possession is your best bet,” she advises.
Have fun, safely
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that travel is supposed to be fun. And the best way to keep it fun without stressing yourself out is to plan the safest trip possible.
“If you engage in riskier behavior, not only are you putting yourself and your community more at risk, you’ll also likely be feeling nervous and checking your phone the whole time for updates, which will take the fun away anyway,” Nanos points out.
So “the best way to take a trip this summer would be to go someplace mostly outside, travel by car, limit the numbers of people you’ll come into contact with and have some communication with those folks when you go so you know that everyone is generally healthy when you arrive,” Fichtenbaum says.
“Whatever you can do to make that happen is your best option,” Nanos says.
Of course this will get tougher as more bars and restaurants start to open, even with limited seating — especially because we all want to support our favorite businesses. But the safest option is still to get food and drinks to go and eat outside.
“Places that you might visit that are indoors are at much higher risk,” emphasizes Fichtenbaum.
“Maybe this can be your DIY vacation, where you do most of the cooking yourself and less going out,” he suggests.
Remember: Travel is a state of mind too, and if you approach your trip with a positive (and safe) spirit, you could end up having a much better time than you think.