While there’s still risk, road tripping might be your safest option if you want to venture away from home. Here’s how to do it safely.

By Karen Asp
June 18, 2020
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With COVID-19 still spreading rapidly in certain areas of the country, everything about “normal” life has been upended, travel included. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still recommending that people not engage in leisure travel and stay home to stop the spread, especially because the virus has hit all 50 states—and continues to spread at a growing rate in many of them.

Still, the reality is that the human brain seeks novel experiences, and travel is one avenue for that. Plus, vacations offer numerous health benefits, including lowering stress, increasing happiness, and reducing the risk of certain diseases, says Evan Jordan, PhD, assistant professor of health and wellness design at the Indiana University School of Public Health in Bloomington and The Trip Doctor, with a blog and podcast.

Feel like venturing out to gain a sense of normalcy in life or just escape virus fatigue? Experts say the safest thing to do is take a road trip. That doesn’t mean it’s risk free. “Anywhere you go where you have interactions with those outside your normal home environment is going to increase your risk of COVID-19 infection,” Jordan says.

Still, if you are desperate to travel, road tripping (in a RV rental or otherwise) is a less risky situation than flying, especially given that the latest research indicates that the main way COVID-19 is transmitted is through droplets in the air. “That means being close to many people in an enclosed space (like on an airplane) is likely riskier than being outdoors with fewer people,” Jordan says.

Summer may also offer a sweet spot to travel.

“Early data surrounding COVID-19 suggest that it behaves similarly to other coronaviruses, meaning that with higher temperatures and lower humidity, it may not be as hearty and transmissible,” says Priya Soni, MD, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

No matter the time of year, you’ll still encounter numerous germy hot spots during your trip, including public bathrooms, restaurants, gas stations, and lodging. With some simple strategies and road trip tips, though, you can minimize your risk.

Check local, state, and regional regulations: While some states have no restrictions on activities, others haven’t fully opened yet, so check about travel and guidelines in cities and states you’ll be driving through and staying in, Jordan says. And don’t be surprised if things change during your trip. “These restrictions are fluid, so if the number of infections increases in certain areas, new restrictions could quickly go into effect, which could limit your movement,” he says.

Pack a virus kit: Don’t leave home without germ-fighting products, which should include disinfecting wipes, gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks or face coverings. “Recent studies show that widespread use of masks greatly reduces infection risks,” Jordan says.

Stock your car with food: Anything you can do to minimize close interaction with other people will reduce your risk of getting sick. One strategy? Pack drinks, road trip snacks, and meals if possible before you leave so you can limit your stops along the way to quick bathroom breaks, Jordan says.

Follow recommended hygiene practices: Whenever you have close proximity to other people, especially if you or they aren’t wearing masks, you’re going to be at higher risk, Jordan says. Yet you can greatly reduce that risk by wearing a mask when you’re in public, maintaining physical distance between you and people outside your group whenever possible (the CDC recommends at least six feet), and washing your hands often, preferably with soap and water. However, in situations where you can’t wash your hands, sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol, per the CDC) is effective, he says.

Take extra steps when pumping gas: Those handles for pumping gas have been touched by so many people that it’s little wonder they can harbor high amounts of germs, COVID-19 included. To protect yourself, wear gloves while pumping gas (just don’t touch your cell phone or face when wearing the gloves) and throw them into a trash can immediately after, Dr. Soni says. And instead of going inside to pay, choose the pay-at-the-pump option.

RELATED: Gas Stations (and Your Car) Are Germ City—Here's How to Stay Safe and Clean on the Road

Double down on sanitizing accommodations: While many accommodations have implemented strict policies for sanitizing between guests—they’re also usually willing to share them, so do ask, Jordan says—it can’t hurt to use your own sanitizing wipes. Focus on cleaning high-touch, high-traffic areas like light switches, door handles, and bathroom sinks. Don’t forget to clean those hands any time you’ve touched public surfaces like elevator buttons (one reason to use the stairs if possible), door handles, and gym equipment. Also, handle your own luggage and opt out of daily housekeeping, if that’s still an option.

Be a cautious diner: Before going out to eat, check that the restaurant is set up to allow physical distance between guests and that restaurant employees are wearing masks. Most restaurants are happy to share their virus-related policies and procedures, so call or check their website or social media. And whenever possible, request an outside table.

“Outdoor seating is preferable to eating indoors, as airflow and dispersion outside can help limit exposure to droplets from other diners,” Jordan says. Also, try to wear your mask whenever you’re not sitting at your table, Dr. Soni says. If dining in doesn’t seem worth the risk, eliminate as much contact as possible and order takeout or go through the drive-through and then find a fun spot to eat outdoors.

RELATED: The Safety Precautions You Should Take When Returning to Restaurants, According to Medical Professionals

Look for attractions that minimize risks: When planning activities, look for outdoor attractions or places that require employees and visitors to wear masks.

Decontaminate your stuff: As soon as you get home, limit risk of viral particles being on your skin and surfaces by removing clothes and shoes, placing them in a designated area where they can be cleaned, and hopping in the shower before interacting with other family members, Dr. Soni says. Then throw all of your clothes immediately into the laundry and disinfect everything you brought with you, including your purse, suitcase, and cooler. “These items are high-touch surfaces, and because you use them daily, they’re at higher risk of harboring germs in general, so it’s important to sanitize them,” Dr. Soni says.

RELATED: How to Deep Clean and Disinfect Your Luggage

Lay low for a few days: While it’s advisable to avoid other people for 14 days in case you have picked up the virus during your road trip, especially if you’ve traveled to or through an area where infection rates are high, that may be impossible, particularly if you have to go to work or share a house with other people. Instead, stay indoors for a few days after returning and avoid contact with other people as much as possible, Dr. Soni says. Monitor how you’re feeling and acquaint yourself with common symptoms of COVID-19, including an overwhelming sense of fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, fever, and diarrhea.

Of course, all of these tips for taking a road trip during coronavirus begs an obvious question: Would these two public health experts take to the road?

“I would feel safe road tripping with the appropriate precautions,” Dr. Soni says, adding that she recently escaped for a one-night road trip to a nearby city.

Meanwhile, Jordan and his family have decided not to travel and are strictly limiting interaction with other people. “I have immunocompromised parents whom I want to be able to visit,” he says.

That’s good guidance: Your decision to travel should be based on a variety of factors, including the risk to yourself and others. Err on the side of caution, and if you do travel, at least follow guidelines by maintaining physical distance and wearing a mask whenever possible.

“These two activities are likely the two most important things you can do to limit the risk of infection to yourself and others,” Jordan says. Just remember that you might be taking a vacation, but the virus certainly isn’t.