“I didn’t look at our drive as a vacation or a trip,” says Christy Frank, who drove 10 hours with her three children from Copake, New York, to her hometown of Tiffin, Ohio. “We were just trying to get across the state to do exactly what we were doing at home, but at my parents’ house.”
After months of sticking close to home, US travelers plan on making more than 680 million car trips this summer, according to AAA. But like Frank, a growing number of families are forgoing roadside attractions, tourist destinations and the idea of a traditional vacation altogether.
Instead, they’re making as few stops as possible and driving for long stretches all in the name of seeing family.
Although car travel from one city or state to another poses risks, a safe road trip home to see family is possible with careful planning, explains Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
Blumberg’s wife, Mary Beth Steinfeld, recently drove eight hours to visit her 96-year-old mother in Southern California. Before Steinfeld left, Blumberg took over grocery shopping. The family was extra careful at home, and they limited exposure to people outside their household for 14 days (to mirror the virus’ incubation period).
“My wife got tested to be on the safe side — to make sure she wasn’t asymptomatic. But even if you’re asymptomatic, when you limit exposure for 14 days, the chances of having the virus are low,” he says.
Karen Berry Elbert and her husband, Charlie, recently returned from a 12-hour road trip from their home in St. Louis to Houston, where they met their 5-week-old granddaughter.
Earlier in the year, the Elberts had promised to help their son and daughter-in-law in the weeks after the birth, but by the time they were due to travel to Houston, the city was recording the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country.
“We were driving into the belly of the beast. Our timing couldn’t have been worse,” says Berry Elbert, whose packing list included toilet paper, gloves, sanitizing wipes, N95 masks, hand sanitizer and face shields.
“I had everything you could possibly imagine to keep us safe, and it was still nerve wracking,” she says.
(Once the Elberts arrived in Houston, they didn’t leave their son’s house except to walk the family dog.)
Be aware of foreign objects
After sheltering in place in New York City for several months, Matt Renskers and his boyfriend, Nico Ramirez, got tested for Covid-19.
When their results came back negative, they decided to make the drive from NYC to Carmel, Indiana, where Renskers grew up.
“The thing I’ve wanted ever since this started was to sit in a backyard and relax,” says Renskers, who rented a car for the journey.
According to Blumberg, the risk of contracting coronavirus from a rental car is low, since the vast majority of infection occurs through inhaling respiratory droplets. Plus, major car rental companies have instituted new Covid-era standards for cleaning and disinfecting their fleets.
Still, Renskers says he and Ramirez disinfected the interior themselves before driving off.
Blumberg supports this extra step and recommends car renters disinfect frequently touched surfaces (the steering wheel, door handles, buttons, and knobs) even though the company has hopefully done this as well.
When nature calls
Of all her road trip concerns, Berry Elbert was most anxious about bathroom breaks, and for good reason: Blumberg says that crowded public restrooms are the riskiest stops for travelers.
Most bathrooms have limited airflow, which increases the risk of droplet transmission, especially if spaces are crowded and mask policies are lax. If you can, find a single stall restroom or a large restroom with only a few occupants.
Blumberg says that the risk of aerosol transmission is low.
“Transmission via feces is theoretical. You can drive yourself crazy with theoretical risks, so focus on what’s proven. Wear a mask: it protects you. We have science now that says if you wear a mask, you have two-thirds decreased risk of getting infected.”
And if you’re really nervous, consider the alternatives.
Berry Elbert bought a Tinkle Belle female urination device for the trip (she also sent Tinkle Belles to girlfriends who planned on visiting their grandkids, too), and Renskers packed empty water bottles just in case there were no safe stops. But in the end, neither reported using their respective bathroom aids.
Renskers packed iced coffee, water, granola bars, Oreos and potato chips for his drive west, and his mom sent him back home with sandwiches, fruit and more iced coffee – “because, duh, she’s a mom,” he says.
Frank and Berry Elbert also brought along food and drinks for their trips, which is by far the safest way to eat on the road, according to Blumberg, who recommends eating in your car or outside and at least 6 feet away from the nearest person.
Rest stop picnic tables work just fine. Just wash or sanitize your hands before you eat, and “don’t eat indoors even if you can socially distance,” he advises.
Drive-thrus and other types of low-contact ordering are the next best choices. But it’s worth researching states’ and restaurants’ mask-wearing policies before you decide where to stop, especially if you’re travelling through Covid hot spots.
Going the distance
“We joke that if six weeks have gone by, they get itchy, itchy to see the grandkids,” Frank says of her parents’ (Sue and Bill Bleyle) frequent visits to New York pre-Covid.
Typically, the New York to Ohio trip and vice versa is broken up with an overnight at a hotel, but Frank didn’t feel comfortable stopping this time and forged ahead.
Ten hours in the car with limited restroom stops may be too long for some drivers and passengers, however, and Blumberg doesn’t advise against a hotel stay, though he says Airbnb rentals may have a slight safety advantage because there are no other guests, and you can prepare your own meals.
Major hotel brands will soon require all staff and guests to wear masks in public places; just call ahead to make sure the property where you’re staying has implemented the rule. When you arrive, if the check-in counter is crowded with other guests, hang back until it’s safe.
Regardless of where you choose to stay, Blumberg recommends disinfecting high-contact surfaces such as door knobs, faucet handles, refrigerator doors, etc. TV remotes are tricky to sanitize, so if you need to use one, here’s a trick: place it in a plastic bag before operating.
Arriving at your destination
“Once you’ve done everything you could, you can hug, share meals and have new interactions,” Blumberg says. “To be so close, why deprive yourself of that?”
Frank spent time in her hometown taking long walks, grocery shopping for her parents and playing lots of card and board games with her children. “Railroad rummy is a game that’s been shared from generation to generation, and I discovered that my kids are just as competitive as I was,” says Frank.
Before his road trip, Renskers had been hunkered down in a one-bedroom apartment with no outdoor space. In Carmel, he was met with margaritas and rosé and “perfect Indiana summer weather.”
“We helped my parents move into a new house and unpack. We went to Costco. We cooked for them, and they cooked for us. It was so nice,” he says.