How to Stay Safe on a Road Trip During the Coronavirus Outbreak
If a long drive is necessary, good planning and sanitizing can help lower your risk
En español | Fewer Americans say they will be traveling for the holidays, according to a recent Travelocity survey, and of those who are making plans, 80 percent say they will drive.
If you are among them, consider these expert tips for staying safe and lowering your risk of COVID-19 infection both on and off the road.
Now more than ever, preparation is key. “Even if you’ve done this trip multiple times, you need to take the research a step further,” says AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano. “You may run into some temporary closures.”
AAA also recommends calling ahead to confirm hotel or other reservations, as well as opening hours and other logistics, to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
Even more important: Check your destination’s most current coronavirus-related restrictions. Some states require visitors (depending on where they’re from) to either have proof of a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine. AARP maintains an updated list of state rules for travelers.
The Federal Highway Administration has a directory of state transportation department websites, which also should have the latest information about state-specific coronavirus-related changes, along with links to other state resources such as traffic and weather alerts.
And make sure your car is in good shape; consider having it serviced or inspected if you’re concerned.
Packing and sanitizing
After planning, get your supplies in order. This includes products for keeping hands and surfaces clean and sanitized. Geriatrician June McKoy, associate professor of medicine at Northwestern Medicine, recommends packing hand sanitizer, disinfecting wet wipes, disposable gloves, sealable disposable plastic bags and tissues.
And you’ll want to wear a mask in all indoor public places, or outdoor spaces where you can’t maintain a 6-foot distance from others, so bring plenty of extras. Also bring a nice stash of water and snacks, allowing you to limit the number of times you need to stop for refreshments.
Good hygiene on the road is much like that at home (for instance, washing hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating and after using the restroom) but requires extra vigilance when it comes to high-traffic roadside stops, McKoy says. She suggests that drivers wear disposable gloves while pumping gas, rather than worrying about wiping down the nozzle itself (after you’re done, discard the gloves outside your car or seal them in a plastic bag for disposal later if a trash can isn’t available).
Another tip: Pay for gas with cards, not cash. This eliminates the face-to-face interaction necessary for a cash transaction, and cards — unlike cash — can always be cleaned with a disinfectant wipe after use.
Some public restrooms are closed due to the pandemic; places such as Starbucks or other fast-food establishments may prevent customers from using their bathrooms for sanitary reasons. That means you’ll be relying heavily on restrooms at highway rest areas or gas stations, so be especially vigilant with sanitizing. Be careful not to touch fixtures like the faucet or door handle after washing your hands, which McKoy says “defeats the purpose” of handwashing (instead, use a piece of tissue or paper towel to shield your hands after washing). And, of course, wear a mask.
The good news about breaking at highway rest stops is that many of their bathrooms are designed to be as touchless as possible, with doorless entry, automatic flushing, and motion-sensing faucets and towel dispensers. (For more, see our story on using public bathrooms during the pandemic.)
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Many restaurants are open for dine-in service — but expect changes like limits on the number of guests allowed inside and extra space between tables. While it can be harder to find sit-down meals in some areas, takeout service is typically available instead, as are drive-through options at major chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks. Many restaurants are also moving tables outdoors, which is thought to lower the risk of virus transmission.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, the lowest-risk way to dine out is through “drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up.” Seated dining is more risky, even with tables spaced 6 feet apart.
Before you go
When considering travel during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests asking:
• Whether COVID-19 is spreading in your community or the area you’re visiting. If so, you may have a higher chance of becoming infected or infecting others.
• If you or a loved one has an underlying condition that might increase the risk for complications from the disease.
• Whether the destination requires that visitors quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival, or has any other relevant restrictions.
The CDC also notes that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
Again, if you bring your own water and snacks — even lunches and more substantial fare — you can avoid some of these interactions.
And note that some hotels are no longer offering their usual complimentary buffet breakfasts, replacing them with grab-and-go options.
If you need to stay in a hotel overnight, call ahead to confirm your reservation, though most hotels are open for business — especially those from major chains that you’ll find along highways, such as Hilton, Hyatt and Best Western.
All are touting their enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols, while encouraging social distancing in their lobbies and other public areas (posting reminder signs and moving seating apart, for instance), and mask-wearing.
A long list of “Safe Stay” guidelines from the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), an industry group, includes stringent cleaning procedures for everything from elevator buttons to exercise equipment, making hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol available, and, when guests are staying for multiple days, not cleaning their room daily unless requested (to limit contact). And more hotels are implementing contactless check-in and check-out, keyless entry (where you can use your smartphone to unlock your room), and moving lobby seating to keep guests apart.
The big chains are all advertising their new procedures. Hilton’s CleanStay program, developed with input from the Mayo Clinic and the makers of Lysol and Dettol industrial cleaners, for instance, includes removing pens and paper that other guests may have touched, sanitizing things like light switches and the TV remote, and sealing the door of each room with a Hilton CleanStay sticker to indicate that housekeeping has finished and no one else has entered.
Despite such cleanliness promises, McKoy still recommends using your own sanitizing supplies on “high-touch” surfaces in your room. This includes wiping down exterior and interior doorknobs and handles; the TV remote and bathroom fixtures; and any surfaces on which you’ll rest your belongings, like tabletops or the area around the bathroom sink.
For stays of more than one night, find out what the housekeeping schedule is; if the hotel is not already limiting room cleaning for longer-term guests (as the AHLA recommends), McKoy suggests contacting the front desk and asking to forgo daily cleaning, allowing you to control sanitization and limit the number of people who come in and out of your room.
Home rentals are an increasingly popular option, since they require no contact with anyone outside your travel group and they have kitchens where you can prepare your own meals. Airbnb, VRBO and other home rental companies have cleaning and disinfection guidelines for owners, but you might treat the space in the same way you would a hotel room — wiping down high-touch areas with your own sanitizing supplies.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 20, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.