What Does Coronavirus Mean for Your Summer Vacation? A Smart Traveler’s Guide

May 30, 2020

Most of us have never needed a holiday more. But with travel restrictions still all over the map, planning a getaway can boggle the mind. Here, a few suggestions to—cautiously—salvage the season.

By Christian L. Wright

Updated May 30, 2020 11:22 am ET

AS STAY-AT-HOME orders continue to relax around the country, and after months of Covid-19-induced hibernation, Americans are starting to poke their noses out to get a whiff of what summer travel might be possible this year. The novelty of #WFH, wandering museum galleries virtually and knocking back Negronis with friends on FaceTime has long since worn off. By now we’re all climbing the walls, but where do we go from here? It’s hard to know what’s safe, what’s allowed and what’s even feasible. “I’ve had the Bananarama song from the 1980s, ‘Cruel Summer,’ playing in my head as I see our family summer plans fade away and get more complicated,” said Rebecca W. Acosta, a registered nurse, MPH and executive director of Traveler’s Medical Service of New York.

Many beaches have reopened, but with restrictions (50% capacity, masks required). Some states—including Hawaii, Maine and Vermont—require a 14-day quarantine upon entry, which blows the average summer holiday to smithereens. With hotels and motels only starting to slowly reopen, even a simple road trip is fraught with tribulation and hard to plan, unless you aim to stay with low-risk relatives a few hours away. The ability to achieve a nice, self-contained change of scenery seems limited to turtles who can pop out, pick up their shells, scurry over land and plop themselves down.

A third of leisure travelers who’ve not camped before expressed an interest in camping.

The rarefied few are taking over entire hotels in the Hamptons or private Caribbean islands (or dropping anchor to luxuriate on superyachts offshore). Some have even chartered jets to fly direct to billionaire bunkers in Germany or 16th-century castles in Switzerland. But that doesn’t mean those with shallower pockets can’t find scenic, closer-to-home options that satisfy wanderlust. For her part, Ms. Acosta insists now is not the time to travel far afield. “Regardless of travelers’ budgets and desires, the one thing that has more importance than ever is being a responsible traveler,” she said, highlighting the danger of unknowingly taking the virus to your destination, or bringing it back home on your return.

The Cliffside Camp at Paws Up ranch in MontanaPHOTO: THE RESORT AT PAWS UP

In March, Hilary Mark, a 45-year-old teacher in the Bay Area, had to cancel a trip to Paris with her 10-year-old daughter and settle into California’s state-ordered lockdown with her entire family—husband, two kids, two dogs—in an 800- square-foot house. “We live here, work here and play here,” she said, “and we’re feeling cooped up.” Unwilling to fly, she booked a week in June in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom Airbnb that’s two hours away by car. It’s on 2½ acres in the middle of a redwood forest, with a big deck. “The idea of a house in the middle of nowhere, that’s what’s keeping me going,” said Ms. Mark.

All 50 states have now eased many of the restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and many travel advisers and tour operators report a pent-up demand for getting outside. OARS, a white-water rafting and adventure travel company, currently has 3,200 guests booked on trips in the western U.S. this summer (more than perhaps expected, but down 70% compared with this time last year). And according to a Kampgrounds of America (KOA) survey conducted in late April, 32% of leisure travelers who have not camped before expressed an interest in camping. The appeal: spending time outdoors with less strain to maintain social distancing.

Yet, there is still a lot of collective anxiety about where to go, how to get there and if it’s even safe to leave home. In the mental health field, it’s called fear hierarchy. “Start small till you go big,” said Vinita Mehta, a clinical psychologist in Washington, DC. “Stay within driving distance. There are benefits of just camping in your yard, if you’re afraid of venturing farther than that. Then take a drive, then a drive with a stop to get out of the car, then build upon that till you’re comfortable.”

In layman’s term, baby steps. “Travel for leisure should be pursued in a way that minimizes the risk of infection,” said Joshua M. Sharfstein, professor of the practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “A drive with people you are living with to a remote area to stay in a cabin will be a relatively low-risk vacation. However, an airplane flight with two connections to a taxi ride to a resort to meet a large group of friends from across the country will be relatively higher risk. The key point is that the virus does not take a vacation.” Some possibilities for those ready to venture forth:

An Under Canvas tented camp outside Great Smoky Mountains National ParkPHOTO: PAUL JOYNER
Consider a Vacation Rental

Ah, to escape to the beach, breathe in the sea air, and…use someone else’s can opener in the age of threatening cooties? To try to win back travelers nervous about Covid-19, many vacation rental companies have refined their practices. In May, Vrbo announced new guidelines for homeowners and property managers for disinfecting surfaces, building in time between bookings to avoid back-to-back stays, and stocking all manner of antibacterial cleansers for guests. (The company also added a feature to its app to help renters find properties within driving distance of their coordinates.)

Since the lockdown in California, a 31-year-old investment banker in San Francisco, who declined to be identified, has been getting away for a weekend once a month with his girlfriend and her parents at a modernist house perched on a secluded hill in San Simeon, about a 240-mile drive south. “I’m vigilant about stuff during the week—with a mask and gloves,” he said. “We take everything we need for a really controlled weekend. I see 30 times more people at the Safeway.” State or even county regulations require varying lengths of stay in vacation rentals: Connecticut, for instance, demands a minimum 31-night stay, throwing a wrench into the plans of many getaway hopefuls. Then there’s the matter of state quarantines (check state tourism sites for the latest restrictions). But for a week or so in the back of beyond, there are still options, such as an 1873 lighthouse on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina ($425 per person a night for two, haigpoint.com) or a furnished tent or private house on Montana’s 37,000-acre Paws Up ranch (from about $2,000 a night, pawsup.com).

1873 Lighthouse at Haig Point, on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina. PHOTO: MIKE RITTERBECK
Tap Into Your Inner Camper

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discourages camping for a few reasons: the risk of community spread among people in close contact when they use shared facilities and amble along unregulated trails; and the lack of access to medical care in remote areas. But responsible citizens can take good hygiene, common sense and a reliable mask anywhere, especially to destinations that enforce mitigation rules. As they continue to reopen, some state and national parks are limiting daytime use and keeping facilities—like bathrooms—closed. KOA, which represents 500 campgrounds in North America (from Texas lakesides to Virginia Beach, most of which are currently open), has responded by leaving more space between RV parking spaces and spots to pitch tents, and staggering cabin rentals. The “glamping” company Under Canvas will open its national park safari-style tent camps on a rolling schedule. Among them: the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee this week and Glacier National Park on July 1. They’re stocking hand sanitizer throughout properties.

Try a Guided Outdoor Excursion

All together now: “Give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above. Don’t fence me in!” The old Gene Autry song could be the new rallying cry for all of us shut-ins. “No one wants to put anyone in harm’s way, but people need this type of trip now—away from home and away from the news, no connectivity and no distractions,” said Steve Markle, vice president of sales and marketing at OARS. Earlier this spring, a client on the East Coast emailed, hellbent on making a five-day trip on the Yampa River in Colorado at the end of June with 12 friends. The company requires a health screening, but the East Coaster offered to take even more precautions. To reassure the guides and his friends, he offered to quarantine before departure, drive 2,000 miles to Colorado and take Covid tests before launch. (As of now, the trip is confirmed.) Like a lot of independent businesses, adventure travel companies and the guiding community have been clobbered by the pandemic, but many are trying to regroup to salvage the season. Wilderness Travel, which specializes in hiking and wildlife expeditions, almost entirely abroad (from Italy to the Galapagos), is now developing domestic trips in Alaska, Idaho, Utah and Oregon. Health screenings, temperature checks and face coverings will just be part of the scenery.