Illustration of a view from inside a car, through a windshield. The driver wears a face mask and the landscape is desolate.
Illustration by Derek Abella

How to Take a Safe-ish Vacation Once It Gets Cold Outside

The best way to travel this fall and winter is to combine meticulous trip planning with in-the-moment flexibility.
September 21, 2020, 10:30am
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2020 was the year of canceled vacations. As spring welcomed itself into our lives, so did a series of stay-at-home orders that had no conceivable end, leading us to postpone our summer trips and save our PTO in desperate hope that a better time to vacation would eventually present itself. And while some people camped, socially distanced at the beach, or made the most of a staycation, there are still many of us who have been sitting tight since March, with an ever-growing vacation itch waiting scratched.


Maria Sundaram, an infectious disease epidemiologist at health research institute ICES, told VICE that the best way to travel safely right now is to combine meticulous trip planning with in-the-moment flexibility. By this, she means taking extra care when deciding exactly where and how you travel, while preparing yourself for the need to change some plans along the way—whether that means skipping a rest stop that’s unexpectedly filled with people, or canceling at the last minute if case numbers start increasing at your destination. Here’s exactly how to make smart vacation choices before you leave home, and during your trip.

Opt for driving instead of taking public transport or flying.

“Driving your own car is the safest way of getting around. All forms of public transportation including trains, planes, and buses require prolonged exposure to others. If the high-touch surfaces of a rental car are properly sanitized, they can be safe as well,” Manisha Juthani, an infectious disease specialist and an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine, told VICE.

If you’ve chosen to drive to your destination, it’s smart to continue using that same car throughout your trip, rather than jumping in an Uber or on the train. “As much as possible, try to limit the spaces that you occupy,” said Sundaram. Since you’ve occupied your car en route to your vacation spot, continuing to use that same car throughout your trip won’t increase your risk, as long as you’re washing or sanitizing your hands regularly when going from a public place to the car and avoiding touching your face.


If you’re considering taking a bus or train, check what company policies are in place before you book. “Sometimes a train company’s website will let you see how many other people have already booked a seat. If the train car’s really full, you might want to avoid being in that car,” said Sundaram. It’s also worth considering if, or how often, you will have the opportunity to switch seats or cars if someone is, say, coughing non-stop or wearing their mask around their chin. “We don’t know exactly how much time you need to spend with someone, or how close you need to be, to become infected yet. But the closer you are and the longer you spend with them in an enclosed space, the more likely you are to get COVID-19 if that person does have it,” Sundaram told VICE.

Research community infection rates, your driving route, and social distancing guidelines before deciding where to travel.

Choosing a vacation destination is usually the first—and often most exciting—part of planning a trip. Deciding where to travel doesn’t have to be any less exciting mid-pandemic, but there are a lot of new factors to take into consideration.

If you live in an area with high COVID-19 rates—for example, positive test rates over 3–5 percent—it’s best to stay within your state, Juthani told VICE. “If you live in a state with low rates, check which states will require you quarantine in your home upon your return, as many states are asking people to quarantine when returning from states with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents or higher than a 10 percent test positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average.”


Details on positive test rates can be found on each state’s Department of Health website and, according to Sundaram, it’s smart to check these stats before planning your trip, and again every day in the week leading up to your vacation, being mindful that you may need to reconsider your plans if transmission rates begin to spike. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable traveling somewhere where people aren’t wearing masks, look into state and local social distancing guidelines, too.

It’s also important to consider how many stops between your home and final destination you’ll need to make. If you’re traveling a distance where it would be dangerous to drive without taking a break, it’s wise to consider the kinds of rest areas that will be available. “If you go to a rest stop and find that it's full of people, it’s best to just go on to the next one, rather than go inside,” said Sundaram. For this reason, planning a route that includes a variety of rest stops, including outdoor picnic areas—where you can rest and snack on pre-packed food—if possible, will give you the flexibility to make good decisions in the moment without, you know, peeing yourself.

As camping season comes to a close, go for a self-contained rental home over a hotel.

While it might be feasible for people in some states to continue camping through fall—and winter, if they’re particularly adventurous—the whole sleeping outside thing will be less appealing as it begins to get cooler. So, what’s the next best thing? According to both Sundaram and Juthani, it’s private home rentals, especially those that offer contactless check-in, followed by hotels that are implementing strict COVID-19 policies.


“Home rentals in remote locations are the safest. However, hotels in urban environments have been working hard to sanitize, and limit occupancy in elevators and rooms, thereby making them safer too,” Juthani said. If booking a rental isn’t a viable option for you, take the time to call a number of hotels and ask what they’re doing to protect their visitors against COVID. Things like limiting occupancy, leaving rooms empty for a set number of days between visitors, enforcing social distancing and mask rules in common areas, and enhanced cleaning procedures are all worth taking into consideration before making your decision.

Don’t leave home if you’re showing any COVID-19 symptoms—even if you’ve tested negative.

To be a conscious traveler, it’s important to remember that you might be one posing a risk to others. For this reason, you might want to get tested for COVID before and after your time away. Juthani recommends being tested as close as possible to your departure date, while still leaving time for your results to come back (up to 3–5 days, but do some research on what’s common in your county). According to MIT, you’re considerably less likely to get a false-negative test result five days after exposure—so, after traveling, wait a few days before being tested.

“You can be a lot more certain that you don’t have an asymptomatic infection if you haven’t actually been anywhere,” Sundaram told VICE. “I encourage people to think about what I call an ‘exposure budget’, which means considering the amount of exposure you’re usually comfortable with, then limiting it in the lead up to your trip, as if you’re ‘saving up’ for an end goal, which is your vacation.”


Even if your state or the state you’re traveling from doesn’t require quarantining on arrival or after travel, it’s still worth considering, especially if you or someone in your immediate circle is going to interact with other people indoors, unmasked, etc.

Travel with people in your household, or friends and family who are willing to quarantine before your trip.

If you’ve been stuck in the same house or apartment as your family, partner, or roommates for most of the year, it makes sense that you might want to expand your social circle for a trip. According to Sundaram, traveling with a small group—or, as she likes to call it, a quarananteam—can be safe, provided you trust each other and set expectations before your vacation.

“A quaranteam is a really nice way to continue our human need for social interaction without exposing each other to something that’s potentially deadly. It also relies on a mutual trust that everyone is adhering to the set sules,” Sundaram said. For the time leading up to your vacation, you should only socialize with people in your quaranteam and consider other ways of limiting infection, like ordering groceries online instead of shopping in-store, and postponing any non-essential appointments. “You should all agree, OK we're just going to socialize at each other's houses or each other's backyards, and limit contact with everyone else as much as possible.”


Take as many travel supplies with you as possible, then shop strategically.

If you’re traveling somewhere locally for a short amount of time, it’s a good idea to pack your own grocery staples, purchased from wherever you normally shop. However, this won’t always be possible, which is when options like curb-side pickup and grocery delivery upon arrival make a lot of sense. (Just do some research in advance; Amazon Fresh won’t necessarily be an option at your cute cabin in the woods.) If you’re traveling from a large city to a smaller town, going straight to a local grocery store to buy supplies increases the chances of you and your group putting locals at risk of exposure, so avoid that at all costs.

If you’re looking to support small local businesses on your trip—like a cute independent bookstore, for example—check their websites to see if they offer curb-side pickup. If this isn’t an option, it’s best to shop during quieter hours that make social distancing possible, or to elect a designated shopper. “If you’re on a roadtrip with your quaranteam and see this really cute souvenir shop, having one person go inside and shop for the group is a great way to reduce the amount of exposure for everyone,” said Sundaram. And while indoor dining remains a high-risk activity, ordering takeout from local restaurants is an easy way to support the local economy while keeping yourself safe and fed.


The CDC recommends washing cloth face masks regularly (after each wear) so be sure to pack enough masks to last the duration of your trip if you’re staying somewhere without easy and safe access to a washing machine. Changing your mask will be especially important as you interact with more people than usual, so grabbing a box of disposable surgical masks to pack, along with your cloth mask collection, might be a good idea.

Accept that you may need to cancel or change plans at the last minute.

Traveling with COVID symptoms (or a positive test result) is not negotiable—you just can’t do it. To soften the blow that would come from canceling a vacation, begin to prepare for this outcome emotionally and financially before you start booking. Financially, this may mean booking semi-refundable accommodations, researching the cancellation policy on your rental car, or booking using a credit card that offers some kind of trip insurance. If you’re traveling with friends, broach the subject of canceling the trip if anyone starts to feel unwell before it actually happens—having a plan (including an agreement about how you’ll handle any fees or remaining costs) will save you a lot of emotional stress should the worst outcome present itself.

And before you leave for your vacation, prepare for your return home.

Just as you should limit your exposure to others before your trip, you should do the same afterward, as you monitor for any symptoms. This is particularly important if you’ve traveled to an area with higher rates of community transition than your own, but is a good idea regardless of where you travel because… you know. To make your transition from vacation to home quarantine as smooth as possible, stock your home with groceries or any other essentials you’ll need for that first week or two back at home.

While planning a vacation in These Times may feel overwhelming, and even a little scary, with the right amount of care and flexibility it’s very possible to pull off a trip that keeps risks to a minimum while still feeling vaguely normal and, most important, totally worth the fuss.

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