Drive or fly? Airbnb or tent? Tips for safe summer traveling during COVID-19

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After months of stay-at-home orders and a world less traveled, people are itching for some kind of summer vacation. Airline and hotel deals that are filling inboxes may be tough to ignore. 

Many California residents want to avoid crossing state lines, and instead stick to what their Golden State home has to offer. If you need to get away, what are your options? How can you travel safely and responsibly?

KCRW gets tips from Catharine Hamm, former travel editor at the LA Times. She’s now a contributor to the paper.

KCRW: What’s the best way to get to your destination, wherever that may be? Driving?

Catharine Hamm: “Everybody is choosing driving as a safe and self-contained way to get somewhere because you're breathing only your germs with your carmates. You're not sitting next to people you don't know. You're not going through big terminals full of people.

… I've read as many as 85% of people plan a car trip. And that's actually not unusual. A lot of our travel is by car anyway. This is just a little bit higher than what we've been seeing in the past.” 

Is flying safe?

“You can't socially distance on an aircraft, middle seat or no middle seat. Although middle seats do put you a little bit closer to people you may  or may not want to be in contact with.

It's hard to say whether flying is safe. I don't think we've had any cases reported of people who have contracted COVID on a flight. But by the same token, I'm not sure that they're checking that either.

The good news about air travel is that the circulation systems in aircrafts are really of high quality.

The bad news, of course, is that you have to wear a mask. Most airlines are requiring that, but not everybody is complying, and enforcement can be spotty. So it really is a roll of the dice. It's certainly quicker than driving to Newark, but it's not necessarily safer than driving to Newark.”

There's a big surge in RV rentals and camping this summer. But not everyone is going to feel comfortable “roughing it” in the outdoors. So is it safer to book a hotel or pitch a tent somewhere? 

“Pitching a tent and making sure that it's your own tent definitely keeps you within your own germ system. 

However, I have seen numerous cleaning protocols from hotel chains across the country. And of course, it is to their advantage to be sure that customers feel comfortable. A dead customer is not a good customer. …  Many of them [have] bent over backwards to create an atmosphere and to create the reality that these are safe places — down to cleaning a room and closing it and sealing it with a seal that you break when you open the door; by not having people in and out of your room; by making sure that they disinfect those high touch points in a room like the TV remote, like switch plates, and so forth. 

So they're really, really doubling down on cleaning protocols and trying to create not only a clean environment, but an environment that makes people feel comfortable. And I think that's about 65% of the battle.”

What about Airbnbs? 

“Airbnb also has a specific set of cleaning protocols. And it asks, for example, that if you cannot do all the points of its super cleaning protocol, that you leave … the space empty for a certain period of time so that germs dissipate. 

If you are uncomfortable, make sure that you look on Airbnb for those properties that are sort of the super cleaner properties that do follow these protocols. 

There's nobody there enforcing it, except again, it is not to Airbnb’s advantage to have any location that gets a customer sick.”

How can travelers know how clean their rooms really are? 

“They can't. They've never been able to. I mean, that's usually not the first thing that you look at when you go in. 

But if you are concerned about that, there are a couple of things that you should always do, whether it's COVID times or whether it's regular times. And that is first of all, if you go into a room, before doing anything, check in the corners to see if the vacuum has been there. You can usually tell.

Better yet, stay in a place that does not have carpet. … If you are in a room that has carpeted surfaces, one of my colleagues used to employ what he called ‘the white athletic sock test.’ And he would take off his shoes, put on his athletic socks, scooch his feet across the floor, and then look at the bottoms of his socks to see if there was any grime on them. And if there was, he would not stay. And that was before COVID.”

What about hiking etiquette?

A man hikes an empty trail in John Muir Woods in Northern California. You should practice social distancing and wear a mask while hiking, says Catharine Hamm. Photo by Amy Ta. 

“The hiking edit etiquette is the same as walking etiquette. … Practice social distancing. Wear a mask. I know it's not always easy. I've been huffing and puffing up hills. … But I wear a mask. And you do that, not just because you want to keep yourself safe, but also because you want to keep others safe. And that's as important as well. It's a courteous thing to do. 

If you're on a crowded trail, and people are coming, and they're not practicing safe social distancing, move off the trail. Don't engage.

… There are a lot of places that are crowded. Seek the ones that are not. My fantasy is to go to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota because I'm figuring there's nobody there. I haven't checked to see whether it's open. 

… The places that are going to be crowded are the places that are always crowded. Even though national parks, for instance, are doing a good job of controlling crowds. 

But the Grand Canyon, Yosemite — find a different place. 

There are state parks that are open and not as crowded. You have to check before you go, however, because there is no consistency in what is open and what is closed.”

What if you live in a dense place like LA and want to travel to a rural, sparsely populated place, but don't want to make locals feel unsafe? 

“It's a double edged sword because first of all, these are areas that rely heavily on tourism, and they are hurting. … Their business is hospitality, to make people feel welcome. 

… If you don't feel comfortable going in simply because you think you represent a threat to other people, pay attention. You don't want to spend your entire time away worrying about whether you're inflicting yourself on other people. It's just not worth it.”

California’s stay-at-home orders were implemented in March, and they’ve never been explicitly lifted. Any travel must be essential. Going on vacation is not essential. What are the mixed messages from state/local officials?

“There are some mixed messages. And we are to avoid nonessential travel. That is a real dilemma for a whole lot of people, including those (and I'm one of them) who believe that travel is good for the soul. And right now, our souls do need a little replenishing. So it's okay, I think, to wander around your own backyard. … I mean within Southern California, there

so many places that are looking for you to come back, and hope you will spend your dollars there. 

I think it is good for your mental wellbeing. I think that it is good for your physical wellbeing. As long as you remember to practice social distancing and other rules of the new road.” 

Is someone going to pull you over and ask, “Is your travel essential?”

“I don't think so. I think we have other things that we need to enforce. I think we'll see that probably about the same time we see the mask police, which I think will be never. … Let your conscience be your guide.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal