Planning a Holiday Road Trip? Here’s How to Do it Safely

If you’re driving to see friends or family, follow these tips to help minimize your risk for COVID-19.

family in car

Medically reviewed in November 2020

Updated on November 12, 2020

The holiday season is here. Normally, it’s a time when millions of Americans travel to see friends and family. This year will be different.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the United States and other parts of the world, many Americans are choosing to remain home for the winter holidays, according to an October 2020 survey conducted by the online travel agency, Travelocity. The survey found that nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults report they will avoid travel this holiday season and focus on a personal getaway later in 2021 instead.

That still leaves many people who will choose to travel over the holidays. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns, however, that this could increase the likelihood of either getting COVID-19 or spreading it to others, particularly among family members.

In many states, the upsurge in the virus is being fueled by small gatherings, especially among family members, according to William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s better not to travel at all while COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the country. But if you must, a road trip may be safer than flying because it’s easier to control, says Dr. Schaffner.

Why car travel may be the safer bet
When you fly, you may be forced to linger in lines and airport terminals. The air on planes is filtered and circulates, which helps limit the spread of viruses and other germs. But it may be difficult to keep your distance from others on a long, crowded flight and you’ll be exposed to many commonly touched surfaces, the CDC cautions. 

Travel by car gives you the most control over your environment, advises William Greenough, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate medical director and clinical chief of the ventilator rehabilitation unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Your risk will never be zero. But there are several steps you can take before and during your trip to help protect your health and reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Before you get in the car
Ideally, your entire party should get a COVID-19 test about two days before you go on trip, Dr. Greenough advises, but he admits that’s still easier said than done in many places. Of course, if you test positive, you’ll have to cancel your trip.

Likewise, if you’ll see friends or loved ones during your road trip or once you arrive at your destination, it’s important to know if they currently have any COVID-19 symptoms, if they’ve been exposed to someone with the disease or if they’ve recently tested positive. If so, skip the gathering for now.

If you’re in the clear and still planning to hit the road, here are some other important safety precautions to follow:

Do some thinking. It’s wise to consider how much risk you are willing to tolerate by venturing out on the road. For example, if you’re already at higher risk for severe COVID-19 and related complications, you may be less willing to travel for non-essential purposes. Greenough suggests asking yourself the following questions before you leave:

  • Are you traveling to a COVID-19 “hotspot”? Will you have to quarantine for two weeks once you get home? If so, can you even do that?
  • Are you currently living in a hotspot and will you have to quarantine once you get to your destination?
  • Are you, or is someone in your traveling party, at high risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19?

Pack a pandemic safety kit. Stock up on masks, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and disposable gloves. Keep them handy in the car, but out of sight. There have been reports of thefts of hand sanitizer out of cars. 

Get a tune-up. Getting stranded on the side of the road is the last thing you want, especially now. Make sure your car is healthy enough to make the trip, too. The American Automobile Association advises that you or a trusted car mechanic check the following:

  • Fluids. Transmission, power steering and other fluids like engine oil should be topped off according to your car maker’s instructions. Check the owner’s manual.
  • Tires. Check tires for bulges, cuts or gashes. Put a quarter upside down into grooves to check the tread: You need new tires if you see the top of George Washington’s head.
  • Battery. Cables should be secure. Ask your mechanic to check on the battery’s life.
  • Belts and windshield wipers should also be in good working order. Make sure you have a well-stocked emergency kit including battery jumper cables, a flashlight and a road-side flare.

While on the road
There are some inescapable things you’ll have to do during your car trip: buy gas, use the restroom, eat and possibly take a break somewhere along the way for an overnight stay. Here are some tips to help you manage these once-routine pit stops:

Fueling up. The gas pump can be a hotbed of germs. Greenough suggests picking up the nozzle with a disinfecting wipe. Alternatively, you could wear disposable gloves. But if you do, be sure to remove them correctly. Peel them off from the top—closest to your elbow—and turn them inside out over your fingers and throw them away one at a time. Use hand sanitizer afterwards.

You should also pay at the pump using a credit card or a cashless app to avoid contact with a cashier.

Taking bathroom breaks. Even before the pandemic, public restrooms had a certain “ick” factor about them. Now, the concerns are even more valid. You can reduce your risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and some other infectious germs by doing the following:

  • Mask up. Even if the rest area or public facility looks empty, it could get busy quickly and unexpectedly. It's important to wear a mask to protect yourself and those around you.
  • Keep your distance. Be sure to practice social distancing and keep at least 6 feet of space between you and other people. If there’s a crowd, wait until the restroom clears out before you enter.
  • Be mindful of surfaces. Use disinfectant wipes or clean tissues or paper towels to open and close doors to the restroom, the stall and the flusher. Wash your hands (front and back) for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. Shut off the faucet with a paper towel.
  • Sanitize your hands. Use your hand sanitizer once you get back in the car—especially if you had to touch something on your way out of the facility.

Don’t wait until you or someone in your party is on the verge of a bathroom emergency. You’ll be at the mercy of the first place you find, which may not be the ideal choice. 

Managing meals. At some point along your planned route, someone will get hungry. Here are some safe ways to quiet growling tummies: 

  • Pack a cooler. Before you leave home, pack sandwiches, bottled water and healthy snacks like apple slices, carrot sticks and pretzels, with ice. Plan a socially distanced picnic at a park or scenic overlook during your drive. If you use a public picnic table, disinfect all the surfaces before everyone sits down.
  • Use the drive-through. Many national fast-food restaurants are clustered at major exits on interstate highways and are using new pandemic protocols. Some dining rooms are open, some aren’t. You can limit your contact by using drive-through lanes. Put on your mask before you get to the window and use a credit card to pay. Ask if you can swipe or insert your chip card into the reader yourself. Find out if some of your favorite restaurants offer free apps that allow you to order and pay in advance through your smartphone.

Finding a place to stay. If you’re on a long road trip, you may have to book a motel or hotel room. If possible, stick to national chains. Many of these larger companies have implemented new cleaning regimens and routines to keep guests as safe as possible. Call ahead or check out websites to see exactly what precautions different hotels are using. It’s wise to book a room ahead of time, if possible. Here’s what else you can do:

  • Use contactless check-in, if it’s offered.
  • If you must use an elevator, wait until there’s an empty car available. Use your elbow to touch the buttons. Wash your hands as soon as you get to the room.
  • Bring your own cleaning supplies into the room. Wipe down high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, TV remote controls and light switches.
  • If the kids—or adults—in your group are clamoring to use the hotel pool after a long drive, it’s okay to take a dip. There’s no evidence the virus is spread through water, especially in chlorine-treated pools, Greenough says. But it’s still important to keep at least 6 feet away from other swimmers in the pool and on lounge chairs.

When you’re not in the water, you should continue to wear a face mask when you’re out in public and around other people and sanitize your hands regularly. It’s also important to avoid sharing items—such as food, equipment, toys and supplies—with people who don’t live with you.

Article sources open article sources

Travelocity. “Travelocity 2020 Holiday Travel Outlook: Most families aren’t going home this holiday, but they aren’t staying home either.” Oct 8, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Oct 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Know Your Travel Risk.” Oct 21, 2020.
American Automobile Association. “Prepare Your Car for Summer Travel.”
Consumer Reports. “How to Prepare for a Road Trip During the Pandemic.” May 22, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Personal and Social Activities.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Visiting Beaches and Pools.”

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