Ask a Points Nerd: How Can I Travel This Summer?

Our travel expert shares learnings about traveling during the pandemic from his trip up the West Coast.
Jun 8, 2020

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After walking our dog around the same three-block radius of Los Angeles for months, my partner and I were ready for a change of scenery. We decided to travel to my home state of Montana for the summer. The only question was: How should we get there?

If you, like me, are considering traveling this summer, you may be wondering how, where and whether to do it. If you’ve decided to go, you’re likely stuck with two options: flying or driving.

Flying can get you across the country in a few hours, but it involves sitting dangerously close to fellow passengers. Airlines have introduced a host of health policies lately, but none of them ensure social distancing throughout the trip.

Driving can take far longer but involve less time in proximity to strangers. I have the good fortune of owning (slash living in) a converted camper van, but for most travelers, road trips also require staying in hotels or campsites along the way.

In the end, we chose to drive rather than fly for both practical and recreational purposes. Here’s why we did it, what we experienced and what you can consider when deciding for yourself.

When in doubt, road trip

While making the decision whether to drive or fly up the West Coast, I had the good fortune of speaking with Molly Hyde, a board-certified infection control practitioner, for an article about travel safety. I asked her point-blank about our travel conundrum, and she gave a straightforward answer: “I would recommend driving over flying until we start seeing a very sharp reduction in cases across the entire U.S.”

Her rationale was simple: Infection risk lies in proximity to strangers. You can control this risk while driving, but not while flying. Truck stops might be less sanitary overall than airplanes, but they allow for proper social distancing. This factor trumps others when it comes to managing infection exposure.

That said, my experience on the road proved more complex. Some stores and gas stations enforced social distancing and face coverings while others did not. Still, I think I felt more in control of our surroundings on the road than I would have in an airplane.

Skip civilization

Our route passed through many once-vibrant towns and cities, including San Luis Obispo and Mount Shasta in California, and Bend, Oregon. My instinct on a road trip is to stop in these towns, grab a bite to eat and get a sense of the local culture.

Unfortunately, vibrancy and quaintness are no match for a global pandemic. Although many restaurants had begun to open in these towns, there remained an uneasy pall over the locales themselves. If you’re concerned about exposure risk, grabbing a slice of pizza can feel like a bizarre, post-apocalyptic ordeal rather than a fun treat.

Experiencing the grand natural environment of the West Coast, on the other hand, remained as enjoyable and refreshing as ever (maybe even more so after months cooped inside). An early morning drive through the Big Sur coastline of California was by far the highlight of the trip, and it reinforced what I already suspected: Nature is where it’s at this summer.

My advice? Instead of planning your road trip around civilization, plan how to avoid it.

Don’t bother getting frustrated

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political — but whether you think people should wear masks indoors or not, on a road trip, you will encounter groups of people who think and act differently. In other words, there is the potential to get frustrated with people you come across.

My take: Don’t bother. If you’re in a situation where you think people are acting inappropriately, hit the road.

Plan ahead, but be flexible

Looking back, my biggest regret is how many pit stops we had to make because of poor planning. After the first day, we realized we hadn’t packed enough water, so we ran into a grocery store to buy a couple gallons. Then we realized we needed more food, so I had to run back in.

Again: Dealing with civilization will likely be the least enjoyable part of any trip right now — so the more you can plan ahead and stock up, the better. A few sandwiches in a cooler can make a big difference.

That said, the theme of 2020 seems to be “Don’t plan anything.” So be as prepared as possible, but also don’t expect things to work out exactly as you planned. Attractions, restaurants, campgrounds and hotels were closed or open seemingly haphazardly throughout our drive, making it impossible to depend on anything other than uncertainty. Which brings us to our last point ...

Let go

After months of disruption to every aspect of our lives, it’s natural to seek normalcy. Packing the kids into the car and visiting a national park might sound like an opportunity to return to pre-COVID reality, but the truth is that even road trips can still feel somewhat alien.

I’ve written in the past about how to use mindfulness to make travel less stressful, and such practices can certainly help alleviate the stresses of COVID. One of the nicest moments of the trip came when we pulled off the highway on a mountain pass and took a few deep breaths of the ponderosa pine woods.

Because there’s so little to “do” out there, it’s more important than ever to take a few moments to “be.” If you do decide to travel this summer, expect it to feel weird — but try to enjoy the little moments of normalcy.

Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected]

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