Real People Share Their Mid-Pandemic Road Trip Experiences

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With fewer commercial flights taking off per day, bans on traveling abroad, and general fear over contracting and spreading coronavirus through air travel, getting on a plane is out of the question for many at this time. That doesn't mean, however, that vacations are entirely on hold.
A recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey of 973 adults showed that only 44% of Americans are planning overnight vacations in 2020, but of those, 72% are planning to travel by car for their overnight vacation in the next five months. 75% of those planning car trips expect to drive at least two hours to their vacation destination. Additionally, the American Automobile Associate (AAA) predicts that 97% of summer 2020 travel in the U.S. will be done by car because of COVID-19. That comes out to an estimated 683 million road trips between July and September.
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Though the great American road trip has long been a popular vacation option, driving long distances during a pandemic comes with unique challenges. With so many travelers taking to the road to make summer vacations happen this year, we wanted to hear what it's really been like. Ahead, real travelers talk mid-pandemic road trip costs, tips, and highlights.
Refinery29 in no way encourages unsafe behavior. Check CDC guidelines and local restrictions/rules before making travel decisions.
Name: Aspen
Starting point: Los Angeles, CA
Destination: Las Vegas, NV
Total drive time: 8 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
My friend wanted to take an impromptu trip to somewhere and Vegas has rooms for $10 a night during the week.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
I went with my friend, but I drove the whole way.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
I already had a full tank of gas prior to going and didn't stop along the way. On the way back, we got gas in Vegas before leaving. I had gloves and hand sanitizer in the car so I could throw the gloves away after pumping gas and sanitize once I got back in the car. We stopped at a rest stop once that had a Wendy's so we could get something to drink and have a bathroom break. We had our masks on the whole time, washed our hands in the sink, and still used hand sanitizer once we got back in the car in case we touched anything.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?

Trying not to touch surfaces like escalator handles and not crowding elevators at the hotel/casino.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
The view of nature on the way from L.A. to Vegas. It was really beautiful even though it was 112 degrees.

How did you stay entertained?
We talked and listened to music through Spotify.

How much money did you spend on the road trip
$60 on gas because I have a car that's great on gas. It cost about $30 to fill up my tank. We spent probably $100 on food on the trip going there and the trip back between the two of us. We ate mostly fast food.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Definitely! I like having my car for trips to Vegas so I can go to things off the Strip.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Keep gloves and sanitizer for when you need to stop for gas and snacks. Keep your masks ready to have on when you step out of the car and just try to social distance.
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Name: Wendy
Starting point: Miami, FL
Destination: Savanah, GA
Total drive time: 16 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
I was attending a friend's wedding.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
I drove with three other girls. I drove six hours, someone else drove the last two hours.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
We made two gas stops. We used masks and sprayed ourselves before getting back into the car.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Seeing so many people without a mask when making a stop at a gas station. The stress!!!

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
The open road and getting to have fun with friends in the car.

How did you stay entertained?
Music, sleeping, and snacking.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
Around $75 for snacks and gas (roundtrip).

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Yes, I prefer driving.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Wear your mask!!! We also brought our own hand soap bottle and medical-grade wipes to clean our hotel room.
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Name: Natalie
Starting point: Colorado
Destination: Las Vegas, NV
Total drive time: 24 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
To surprise my husband's father for Father's Day.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
It was me, my husband, and our two dogs. On the way there, my husband drove the first half (NV & UT) and I drove the second half (CO). On the way home, we drove the southern route (NM & AZ), and I drove the whole way — about 12 hours.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?

We each got tested before we left and made sure to wear masks whenever we needed to gas up or use the restroom. We also used an insane amount of hand sanitizer!

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Our chihuahua's anxiety! We'd never taken a long road trip with the dogs and one of them panted the whole time unless she was in my husband's lap (hence me driving the whole way home!)

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
The scenery! What a beautiful part of the country we were able to drive through!

How did you stay entertained?
Podcasts!! 48 Hours the whole way there and Crime Junkies the whole way home.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
Gas was about $150. We had a cooler with drinks and snacks, so we spent less than $30 on stopping for food.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Yes! It was so nice to have our dogs with us, and with remote working being the thing these days, we were able to visit with family for over a week instead of just a long weekend. I only wish we lived closer to my parents! (They are in Connecticut. I'm not quite adventurous enough for that drive yet...)

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Pre-plan your gas stops! That way you won't find yourself empty in the middle of nowhere! Also, my husband and I had a pact to both stay awake as passengers — yes, a lot of caffeine was consumed, but the support made it a lot easier.
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Name: Olivia
Starting point: Brooklyn, NY
Destination: Washington, D.C. then Chattanooga, TN
Total drive time: 26 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
I wanted to visit my family. I usually try to go home to see my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew a couple of times a year, and I hadn't been able to yet in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
I drove by myself from where I live in Brooklyn to my brother's place in Washington, D.C. The next day, he, his partner, and I drove from D.C. to Chattanooga. I split the driving into two days on the way back as well. My brother doesn't have a valid driver's licenses because he uses public transportation or walks everywhere in D.C. His partner has a license but because he grew up in NYC, he isn't a very confident driver. Because I really didn't mind, I did most of the driving. I think I did 12 of the 18 hours to and from D.C. so I drove a total of 20 hours.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?

We took as few stops as possible — two on the way to Chattanooga and two on the way back to D.C. for gas, food, and bathroom breaks. I didn't make any stops on the drives between Brooklyn and D.C. We wore our masks at every stop and packed sanitizing wipes for gas pumps and hand sanitizer to use before getting back in the car after each stop. I also quarantined for a week before leaving and quarantined for two weeks after I got back, in accordance with New York's travel restrictions.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
We had to rent a car for the drive down and finding one actually proved very difficult. The rental places said that demand was very high because so many more people were taking road trips. I had to call a bunch of places to find an available car. I also got a speeding ticket in Virginia on our way back. I was super annoyed because I was only going ten miles per hour over the speed limit and the police officer that pulled me over wasn't wearing a mask when he talked to me through the window.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Spending time with my brother and his partner. We had a lot of fun talking, listening to podcasts, singing along to music, and laughing. Since we live in different cities, we don't get to spend a lot of time together so it was really amazing to have 18 uninterrupted hours of hang time. Also, the Shenandoah Valley is gorgeous so I always enjoy driving through it.

How did you stay entertained?
We listened to all six-ish hours of Las Culturista's Top 200 Moments in Culture History, and it was incredible. I highly recommend it to all pop culture lovers. We also listened to Who? Weekly, more Las Culturista, and Leah Remini's audiobook Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology. As far as music, I would like to highlight Lady Gaga's Chromatic and Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia for getting us through. Honorable mention to "Domino Dancing" by Pet Shop Boys and "Catch My Disease" by Ben Lee for being the standout throwbacks of the trip.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
We split the cost of renting a car for the drive there and it was $1,139 total. I spent $20 on the audiobook, $10 on wipes and hand sanitizer, $20 for parking overnight in D.C., $22 in tolls, $18 on fast food, $50 on gas, and $131 on the speeding ticket — the fine itself was only $60 but there were over $70 in fees to pay the damn thing. Also, I am very privileged to have been given the car my parents originally bought for me when I was in college for the drive back and to now have in New York. I had to pay around $300 for six months of insurance and $200 a month for parking here so those expenses play into the road trip somewhat.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Now that I have a car, I'm definitely going to make that drive again. My brother and I are already talking about it for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don't think I will be comfortable flying before there's a coronavirus vaccine and honestly flying out of New York is always such a pain — especially during the holiday season. Driving is a lot less stressful even though it takes more time, and now that I have a car — again, I recognize this is a huge privilege — it will be less expensive than flying. I'd also like to take some shorter road trips around the east coast soon.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Definitely wear your mask at every stop, even in drive-throughs — we want to protect everyone! Keep an eye out for sanitizing wipes for a few weeks before you make the trip because they're hard to find. If you're renting a car, don't wait until the last minute to book the reservation because demand is high right now. Finally, listen to Las Culturista's Top 200 Moments in Culture History. It's so many hours of entertainment. Listening to those three episodes was honestly one of the highlights of my entire vacation.
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Name: Amber
Starting point: Nashville, TN
Destination: Fayetteville, NC
Total drive time: 18 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
To see my parents.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
My boyfriend and our two dogs, my brother came back with us.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
We only had to fill up once and mainly stopped at rest stops. We took the same precautions we took anywhere else — wear a mask, wash your hands.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Traveling with two 90+ pound dogs and three adults.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Driving through the mountains.

How did you stay entertained?
I played Animal Crossing.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
$300. My parents paid for most of our food, and we stayed with them so lodging was free.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Yes. We prefer to drive, and it is cheaper.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
If you're going to take a trip, stay with family or friends. Coming from someone who lives in a tourist town (Nashville, TN), things change weekly here, and we still enjoyed our trip even though a lot of things were closed. You don't want to get caught in a city and spend a lot of money to stay somewhere and not be able to fully experience the place you are visiting.
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Name: Rana
Starting point: Denver, CO
Destination: Clinton, MA
Total drive time: 51 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
To see family.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
I drove with my puppy (he did not drive!).

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
I took a number of precautions. I stopped every three hours for my puppy to play in dog parks or to walk him. I also got gas every time I stopped for the dog. I packed a cooler for food but did occasionally use drive-thru food options. Any time I left my car, I wore a mask and sunglasses to prevent touching my face. I doused my hands, phone, and steering wheel in hand sanitizer as soon as I got back into the car and also brought extra water and hand soap in case I ever ran out of sanitizer. I chose not to stop for any site-seeing and did not stop to see friends along the drive, save for one friend in Syracuse on the drive back. I brought Lysol spray and Lysol wipes, which I used in the hotel rooms I stayed in. As soon as I got into the room, I sprayed the door handles, bed, and surfaces, then let it air out a bit while I walked my dog. When I got to Massachusetts, I only saw people outside, from more than six feet away, and wore a mask when within six feet or if inside (walking inside to use the bathroom, in a car to get to the grocery store, etc).

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Not seeing friends along the way and not stopping for good food. Because I wanted to stick to drive-thru options, that limited me to mostly fast food (and, thankfully, one drive-thru Chipotle).

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Seeing my puppy play with dogs around the country and introducing him to my family back East.

How did you stay entertained?
I listened to two audiobooks (not fully): This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin and Starless by Jacqueline Carey. I also listened to podcasts: Code Switch by NPR, Revisionist History by Pushkin, Stuff You Should Know, and The Native Seed Pod.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
Car rental was paid with my mom's credit card rewards, though I did pay $101.99 for cleaning fees because of my puppy's fur (I used a seat cover and vacuumed three times, but it didn't matter). Gas was about $106 on the way out, and $157 on the way back. Food was about $70 for the whole drive, though I spent another $50 on snacks, coffees, and kombuchas for the drive. Hotels were $204 getting there and $238 on the drive back. Tolls were about $30 each way. That's a total of $561.99 for the drive out and a round trip total of $1,106.99

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?

Absolutely. Driving means I can bring my dog, though it is a bit more expensive than flying. I will definitely take a road trip like this again at some point.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Build in breaks! I had a spreadsheet with dog parks, walking areas, and hotels (plus contact info) every 50 miles, and would stop at them every three to four hours. Sometimes I would text my mom to ask her to look up a food option on the way, but for the most part, it was easy to be able to just click a hotel number to see if they had availability. I wish I could have stopped to see sites, but with COVID it seemed irresponsible.
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Name: Delaney
Starting point: San Jose, CA
Destination: Santa Barbara, CA
Total drive time: 12 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
To celebrate my birthday.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
My boyfriend drove the whole way.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
We had our dog with us, so stops were necessary. We took the coastal highway down so we could stop at lookout points and let our dog run around a little. Everywhere we stopped, we would look to see if it was crowded and if other people were wearing masks. If we weren't comfortable, we would just wait until the next stop. Luckily, we were driving a hybrid van and got most of the way there on battery, but when stopping for gas, we just masked up and made sure to wash our hands well.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Not knowing how different parts of the state are handling mask mandates or social distancing. We've become comfortable with how our area is doing in terms of the regulations, but certain parts of the state feel like they're still in February in terms of precautions or care towards other people.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Seeing things around us that were unfamiliar. I'm very much a creature of habit, but staring at the same things for four months had taken more of a toll on me than I realized. Even just driving on a part of the road that we hadn't seen before was novel and exciting.

How did you stay entertained?
I made an eight-hour playlist that we got through most of. When we lost signal, we just talked.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
Gas: $50, Food: $120, Lodging in Santa Barbara: $500 for two nights.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
YES!

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Make sure you're prepared ahead of time. We forgot a few things at home and had to run to a CVS, which was way more anxiety-inducing than it needed to be. Also, have your stops/restaurants planned out ahead of time so you can research what they're doing for social distancing, or if they are take-out only.
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Name: Anna
Starting point: Suburbs of Chicago, IL
Destination: Temecula, CA
Total drive time: 32 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
My wedding! I had a large wedding planned in Chicago for July, but it was pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic. My fiancé and I still wanted to get married, so we rented a house in Temecula, CA and had just 10 of our closest family and friends attend. We live in Los Angeles full-time, but I took a train to Chicago a week prior to the drive so I could spend some time with my family before the wedding and have one last family road trip.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
My family rented an RV, so the four of us all drove in that. My dad and brother drove the entire trip.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
We rented an RV specifically to avoid needing restaurants or public restrooms. My mom is diabetic, and at high-risk for COVID-19, so we took extreme precautions. When we did have to stop for gas, only my dad got out and wore a mask, gloves, and sanitized/washed his hands before and after. We made sure to limit exposure a lot and really only got out of the RV when we got to the campsites we had booked every night. Even then, we requested spots out of the way from other people so we would feel more comfortable.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Working. I didn't take PTO for the first few days we were on the road and trying to stay motivated and navigate using a hotspot for WiFi was challenging.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Being together as a family. We never took road trips for family vacations when I was a kid, so this was new for all of us, but we actually really enjoyed it. We got to see the country in a way we never had and being able to experience it together on our way to my wedding was really special.

How did you stay entertained?
So many podcasts — I listen to This American Life, How I Built This, and Radiolab religiously, so we mainly had those playing in the background all day. When we got to campsites, we would always play games (Quirkle and Scrabble mainly) or stream something on Netflix.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
I would imagine all in, it was around $3,000. The RV rental wasn't cheap, and we stopped for gas around two times a day. We paid for all of our food and campgrounds in advance as well. My family justified the cost as paying mainly for peace of mind since flying was something none of us felt comfortable doing, even if it was more convenient.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Definitely. It was really nice having our own space and being able to make our own agendas, and if it weren't a pandemic, we would have built in a lot more sightseeing so if we can do that in the future, I'm sure I would like it.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Mainly just understand that road trips are long days, and people cope with that differently, so patience is key. Be compassionate if someone is feeling stir-crazy after a while and work as a team to make it as enjoyable as possible for everyone.
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Name: Amber
Starting point: Minneapolis, MN
Destination: Glacier National Park, MT
Total drive time: 48 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
After all of our vacation plans had been canceled from COVID, we needed a break.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
I did all of the driving with my boyfriend as my co-pilot.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
Masks on and copious amounts of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for picnic tables.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Keeping food cooled and not eating fast food/ gas station food.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Driving the scenic roads through all of the national forests and parks on the way.

How did you stay entertained?
Podcasts: Son of a Hitman and Wind of Change. There was a CIA theme... unbeknownst to us at the time of download.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
Under $600 per person, including cabin, campsites, food, and gas.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Absolutely.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
Pack a cooler, but stop twice a day for ice, stock up on wipes, and get to the national parks as they open if there is something you really want to do.
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Name: Elizaveta
Starting point: New York, NY
Destination: Newport, RI
Total drive time: 8 hours

Why did you decide to take this road trip?
Being cooped up in a small, unbelievably noisy NYC apartment with my mom since late March has taken a toll on both of us. Unfortunately, my mom has been on furlough since April due to the pandemic, and we desperately wanted a change of scenery. Both of us fantasized about escaping to a cute, clean, quiet town where we would forget about COVID-19, police brutality against Black people, and my mom's joblessness for just a few days. Newport, Rhode Island was the perfect place to do just that. The day we arrived my boyfriend called me and said he could join us because his work plans fell through so he drove in the next day.

Did you drive by yourself or with others?
My boyfriend was the chauffeur for this road trip, which my mom and I are grateful for.

How did you handle stops? Did you take special precautions due to COVID-19?
The three of us washed and sanitized our hands frequently and wore masks, plus I carried around sanitizing wipes so I could clean the tables and chairs we sat in.

What was the most challenging part of the road trip?
Budgeting is challenging during a road trip because everyone wants to stay at a nice hotel and eat at cute local places, but times are hard financially so you have to make the right choice and save whenever possible because there's a lot of uncertainty.

What was the most enjoyable part of the road trip?
Taking a tour of the famous mansions in Rhode Island called the Breakers and the Elms. The story behind the mansion owners are designers are fascinating.

How did you stay entertained?
The three of us listened to podcasts and music and planned our trip during the drive. It was challenging finding content that a 49-year-old woman and two 22-year-olds both like, but we managed it well.

How much money did you spend on the road trip?
We spent $220 on Marriott hotels for four nights, which was lovely. My boyfriend paid for gas thankfully. The goal was to save on food so we spent $40 a day on meals and alcohol for three people, which didn't feel restrictive. We still enjoyed ourselves. For entertainment, we visited the famous Rhode Island mansions, which cost approximately $60 for two tours.

Would you consider taking a similar road trip again even when flying becomes safer post-pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic, I was lucky because I would go outside the country at least twice a year to explore and visit family. Now, after taking multiple road trips, I've realized that there are many hidden gems in the U.S. and I intend to travel within the country a lot more even after the health crisis.

Based on your experience, what's the best tip you could share with others who want to take a road trip?
My biggest recommendation is taking frequent stops along the way in parks and areas where social distancing is possible. Stretch your legs and see how people live in other towns and cities.

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