5 New COVID-19 Road Trip Rules

a windy road for a road trip with a moody sky
(Photo: @dpc_photography via Twenty20)

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped family road trips—not as severely as it has affected airlines and cruise lines, but still enough to change the rules. Yes, the old rules still apply—the ones about preparing your vehicle, packing the right medications, and bringing other essentials—but you’ve known and followed them for years. Here are the new rules of road trips, focused on road trip safety and staying healthy while on a driving vacation.

New Road Trip Rule 1: The Don’t-Leave-Home-Without-It List

When it comes to road trips in the COVID-19 era, there’s a new “don’t leave home without it” list. At a minimum, you need enough masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes to cover your trip. You’d be hard-pressed to find a destination that doesn’t at least nominally require masks in public. And although it’s getting easier to buy this stuff than it was a month ago, you can still encounter places where key items like masks and hand sanitizer are either not available or are only available at inflated prices.

New Road Trip Rule 2: You Aren’t Welcome Everywhere

Don’t expect to be able to move among all states without legal restrictions. Some groupings of states require visitors from other groupings of states to quarantine for 14 days after arrival. Quite a few states require quarantining for anyone coming from a state with a high rate of infection. In many cases you can avoid quarantine by passing a COVID-19 test, either before you leave home or when you arrive. The lists of state and city restrictions is a moving target. Several sources post current state-by state restrictions; Conde Nast Traveler maintains one of the best. Oddly, AAA’s interactive map is less useful than it should be.

New Road Trip Rule 3: The Territory Is Smaller

Large swaths of the country are not open to easy road trips. Alaska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont, for example, require anyone from out of state to quarantine for 14 days (or meet testing requirements). Canada, meanwhile, is off-limits to most visitors from the U.S. That means that if you’re planning a road trip, you’d be wise to save the cross-country adventure for another time and instead restrict your drive to a single state or region.

New Road Trip Rule 4: Plan for More Closed Signs

Even if you can get to a destination, you’re unlikely to have a typical experience because many visitor attractions are still closed. Before you go, check key target attractions to see if they’re open. Even if they are open, look to see whether any schedule limitations apply: You don’t what to head for Disneyland, for instance, if it isn’t open. Many of the attractions that are open again have limited attendance and impose strict requirements for advance reservations. Some National Parks remain open; others are closed. Check the National Parks Service website for the current status of any park you’d like to visit. And many popular restaurants are closed.

New Road Trip Rule 5: Advance Reservations Are Key

Many have concluded that an outdoor-oriented road trip is their best travel option this summer, and many popular campgrounds are full. If you want to camp, try your best to reserve a campsite in advance, especially if you want to bring a pet. Travelers report than in some areas, campgrounds are extra full because people who can’t afford rent are camping out more or less indefinitely. In camping areas with maximum stay limits, they just switch from one campsite to another. Vacation rentals, especially those in remote areas, are also in high demand, so you’ll need advance reservations for house rentals as well.

Enforcement of these new rules varies. State borders are generally not controlled, and much of the quarantining is voluntary. But officials can catch you, and disobeying these rules designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission carries a substantial risk. But take heart, if you plan carefully and scale expectations, you can still find ways to take modest road trips. Unless you live in a very small state, chances are you can find an attractive in-state road trip no matter where you live.

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Ed Perkins
Ed Perkins is a longtime consumer advocate and reporter. He spent 25 years in travel research and consulting and was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. His travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's Good Morning America, The CBS Evening News, CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.