Though vaccines have lowered the risks of travel for the vaccinated, the CDC is still advising caution when it come to moving about the country. So as you face another spring and summer of pandemic-era travel, it’s important to remember one important fact: road trips are still a thing.
CNBC reported that 80% of vacations in 2020 were planned road trips, with good reason: Traveling the open road makes staying it much easier to stay socially distanced from anyone not in your immediate family or pod. Most stops along the route will have reopened by now, and options for take-out or outdoor dining make it possible to keep your distance and enjoy sightseeing or other excursions. Depending on what kind of trip you want, you can plan to drive through a specific type of landscape and mark your sightseeing stops along the way. Here are some tips and tools for planning your pandemic road trip, vaccinated or not.
How to choose a trip
Your choice of road trip should be based on a few components, from the distance you are willing to travel, to your budget, to the scenery you want to explore along the way. The site Road Trip USA provides detailed routes, including local attractions that will help you make the most of your trip.
Different routes result in very different road trip experiences. A trip down the Pacific Coast will expose you to everything from lush forests to barren deserts. You’ll get a chance to jump on a buggy riding the largest dunes in the world in “Dune Country” Oregon. Drive through magnificent redwood forests and hit the beautiful beaches in San Diego.
You can enjoy iconic U.S. sites on the Oregon Trail. Where you’d be traveling from coast to coast starting at the beaches of Cape Cod, then driving across the northern states to Portland, Oregon. Along the way, you’ll see Niagara Falls, the Field of Dreams, Yellowstone Park, and Mt. Rushmore.
Or you could choose a historic trip traversing across the famous Route 66. The well known road travels from Chicago to Los Angeles stopping at Cadillac Ranch, Tinkertown, and the Grand Canyon before reaching your final destination in Hollywood.
Or, explore one of the other eight cross-country routes on Road Trip USA. Each offers its own unique sightseeing destinations, but if you are trying to complete the trip in a reasonable amount of time, you won’t be able to hit everything. Make a list of the must-see destinations and plan your stops and stays accordingly.
Planning a cross-country road trip requires a lot more preparation than your average day-long drive. You’ll need to calculate the distance, find hotels or local stays along the way where you can rest and recharge, and restaurants to keep you fed for long stretches of time.
Think about what length of trip you want. Driving from coast to coast on the Oregon trail or on the “Loneliest road” that crosses middle America can take 45 hours—or six days (based on an eight-hour day of driving). If heading across the country seems like too much of a commitment, try down country travel. For example, traveling from Vermont to Florida takes under 22 hours, or just under three days. The site Travel Math helps you calculate travel times based on your trip location and mode of transportation.
Plan bathroom breaks and stays
Once you’ve chosen the perfect route, be strategic about your stops. Find areas where bathroom breaks and filling up the tank won’t be a hassle. You can’t always assume stops will be plentiful—once, on a trip from Arizona to Las Vegas, I found myself on a long stretch of road with no gas stations or rest stops, which made for a stressful journey. Apps like USA rest stop locator can help you find rest stops along your route so you can plan your breaks based on what your trip allows. Of course, you can’t plan every bathroom break (when you gotta go you gotta go) but at least you will know if you need stop before that long stretch of nothing.
Depending on the length of your trip and how you are traveling, you’ll need to plan overnight stops as well. The travel site Roadnow helps you find hotels along your route. If you are an extra detailed planner, you can reserve airbnbs in specific locations to have a more lived-in type of stay wherever you go.
Before getting on the road, make sure you are rested and leave at a decent hour, to give you the stamina to last the whole day. Nationwide suggests stopping every 100 miles or every two hours to keep your energy up, and they talked to sleep doctor Dr. Michael Breus, who advised, “[t]ry to avoid driving between 1 and 3 p.m., when the body’s temperature is lower and people are naturally drowsy.”
Stick to your budget
Decide if you will rent a car or use your own. Keep in mind long road trips can pack on a lot of mileage, and you’d be adding wear and tear to your personal vehicle. If you rent a car, make sure it includes unlimited mileage so you are not hit with ridiculous fees if you exceed the company’s mileage limits. Use the site GasBuddy or AAA to calculate the cost of gas along the route. These sites’ trip calculators use gas price information based on the states you will be driving through and the make and model of the car you are using to give the most accurate fuel cost for your trip.
Think about whether you will be driving the whole way. On my road trip from Massachusetts to Florida, the trip there was energizing, but realizing we had to make that drive back was exhausting. One option is to rent a car and return it to a different location, and plan an alternate route back home, whether that means taking a train or a plane. This option could come with extra fees, so make sure you budget that in advance.
Make sure to keep in mind any entrance or parking fees at national parks, and the cost of excursions and sightseeing on the trip. If you are planning each stop, this should be the easiest part of the budgeting process.
And don’t forget to plan for the cost of any unforeseen expenses. From unexpected detours and tolls, to car trouble, to unplanned overnight stops, you’ll want to be prepared for anything.