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6 Great Ideas for Vacations Away From Crowds

These options allow for social distancing during the pandemic

Woman packing suitcase luggage including face mask and sanitizer to protect coronavirus

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En español | The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising against non-essential travel, as the pandemic continues to spread. If you’re still planning a trip in the next several months, it’s important to follow the CDC’s safe travel guidelines on the road and at your destination, including maintaining distance from people not in your household. These vacation ideas will allow you to do just that.

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Rent a mountain cabin

With their mix of comfy isolation and soothing woodsy views, cabins are a popular pandemic travel option. “People are craving cozy cabins,” says travel expert Melanie Fish with VRBO, which reports a 25 percent increase in rentals over last year. Areas near lakes and rivers are particularly popular, VRBO has found, including towns such as Emory, Texas (close to Lake Fork and Lake Tawakoni) and Slade, Kentucky (near the Red River Gorge). To protect guests from COVID infections, VRBO and companies such as Getaway — which rents tiny cabins — have developed strict cleaning and disinfecting guidelines, and Airbnb has instituted mandatory safety measures for hosts and guests (including a mask requirement for anyone in common areas or shared spaces).

Before renting a cabin online, read the reviews and consider rentals managed by a property management company, which is more likely to provide assistance if something goes wrong, suggests Lauren Cardinale, a travel adviser with Travel Design Co. in New Orleans. Also confirm that online pics of the cabin are current. Cardinale mentions a couple who recently booked a home that looked nothing like the online photos: “They said it looked like an animal cemetery — there were mounted animals in every room, which were not in the pictures or the description. And they were not OK with it.”

Dune with beach grass in the foreground

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Hit the beach

Cheaper prices are a big incentive for taking an off-season beach trip. “You'll probably save about 30-40 percent off of summer pricing,” says Cardinale, who booked a Gulf Coast beach house that included two free nights during Thanksgiving week. But because of COVID, Cardinale expects higher-than-usual demand for off-season beach properties. And be prepared to cook your own meals: Even in normal years, many restaurants and businesses shut down for the off-season, and the pandemic could increase the number of closures.

Wondering where to go? A November VRBO report ranked the Outer Banks, North Carolina, as a top five location among clients. With more than 10,000 vacation rentals compared to about 2,000 hotel rooms, the Outer Banks offers plentiful opportunities for beach house isolation. On the West Coast, Dana Storr, a California-based travel designer for Luxami Travel (an affiliate of TravelStore), says her clients are most interested in Hawaii: Visitors can now avoid the state's 14-day quarantine by presenting a negative COVID test and completing a health questionnaire.

Couple relaxing near campfire with an RV in the background

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Rent an RV

The pandemic has fueled a boom in RV sales and rentals: 46 million Americans plan to take an RV trip in the coming months, according to the RV Industry Association. Cruise America, El Monte and Road Bear are the best-known options for renting motor homes, but peer-to-peer rentals from companies such as Outdoorsy and RV Share — which are like Airbnb for RVs — surged in popularity during the summer. With peer-to-peer, you rent from an individual RV owner, which allows you to choose from a wide range of vehicles and prices. With a traditional rental company, you'll pay at least $200 a night (not including fees) for a motor home, but with peer-to-peer, prices could range from $75 a night for a small towable unit to $400 a night or more for a huge RV that's loaded with perks (such as an outdoor entertainment center).

Before you rent, ask what's included — from camping gear to linens — and make sure you receive basic training on tasks such as managing the waste and water tanks. “They should provide a walk-through about how to operate the rig — I'd stay away from anybody that's not providing that basic education,” says Jeremy Puglisi, coauthor of See You at the Campground: A Guide to Discovering Community, Connection, and a Happier Family in the Great Outdoors. If you choose a peer-to-peer company, read the reviews before renting. “Personally, I would not rent from somebody that didn't have at least several reviews,” Puglisi says. “You want a track record of people being happy and having good communication and saying that the rental was clean."

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View of beds in hotel room at tourist resort

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Relax at a hotel

Lounging in a hotel bathrobe while ordering room service is not a bad way to spend your vacation time. Hotels are unlikely to be packed with people — U.S. hotels had a 48 percent occupancy rate in October, according to industry analyst STR — and most have implemented COVID measures that go far beyond disinfecting surfaces. Some hotels are sealing rooms for 24-48 hours between guest stays and discontinuing housekeeping service to limit exposure to rooms. “I feel more comfortable in hotels than I do in the grocery store,” Cardinale says.

Consumer site NerdWallet recently rated hotels using a variety of safety measures, with Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott earning top scores. “Hyatt stands out in particular thanks to its procedure for health screening employees and assigning a trained safety expert in each property,” says travel expert Sam Kemmis, who conducted the ratings. But some hotels are not enforcing their own policies — Kemmis learned this after staying at hotels owned by the same brand in different states. “At the property in Seattle, nearly everyone was wearing masks in the common areas, but at the property in Idaho, almost nobody was, including staff,” he says. Kemmis’ advice: Avoid areas where guests may congregate. “Time spent in proximity to other guests — in elevators, lobbies, dining areas — carries the highest risk,” he says. Look for hotels that offer contactless check-in and checkout, which lets you access your room with your phone, Kemmis suggests.

Photographer takes photos from the Mount McKinley, Reflection Pond

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Visit a state or national park

It can be surprisingly beautiful to visit America’s parks during the cooler months. You’ll not only find fewer cars and crowds, but your experience of a park will be different than in summer, whether you’re admiring a dusting of February snow at Arches National Park or enjoying a bug-free, low-humidity walk in the Everglades.

If you visit a park in a colder part of the country, make sure that campgrounds, lodges, hotels, roads and entrances remain open for winter (and ask about fun cold-weather amenities such as fire pits). Heading south? Cardinale is seeing big interest in areas such as Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, near Smoky Mountain National Park. As for state parks, consider South Carolina. Puglisi calls its state park system “world class — among the best in the country.” His favorites include Myrtle Beach, Huntington Beach and Hunting Island state parks. “They're all beautiful and they're directly on the beach,” he says.

woman reading a book on a couch

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Take a staycation (it's cheap!)

If you aren't able or inclined to travel, you can still take time off: Pack away your laptop and make your house your home base for fun day trips, or just for not working. Dive into a good book, take walks — whatever gives you pleasure.

Or plan an overnight or two somewhere nearby. Many of Cardinale's clients, for example, are booking short hotel stays close to home. “After being cooped up for so long, people want to order room service and not deal with grocery shopping and washing dishes,” she says.

Puglisi and his wife live at the Jersey Shore, and they've camped frequently during the pandemic at a county park about 20 minutes from their home. “I've spent the last 10 years traveling all over the country,” he says. “This year, we spent a lot of time at Island Beach State Park and discovered how beautiful the Jersey Shore is. There's always things to discover in your own backyard."

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. (See our story on state quarantine rules for travelers.)

The CDC also notes that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19."

Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 23, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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