Vacation pods. Travel bubbles. COVID clusters.
An RV is parked overlooking the Grand Combin above Verbier, Val de Bagnes, Switzerland.
However you call it, this new approach to group travel in pandemic times involves carefully selecting a small group of family and/or friends—siblings, neighbors, college besties—then ensuring everyone sticks to agreed-upon rules of pre-trip quarantining and testing, masking, and social distancing.
Formally an Irish dive bar, The Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York, reopens May 2021 for the summer season.
In recent weeks, the news of vaccination rollouts and virus mutations have added to considerations of whether or not to travel. But after nearly a year of virtual schooling and working in often close quarters, it’s no wonder many families are banding together to create pods that might help them escape in time for spring break.
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This state park in southeast Utah has drawn comparisons to the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country.
The black volcanic sand beach is a highlight at this state park in Maui, Hawaii, but there’s plenty more to see, including freshwater caves, water tubes, anchialine pools, and a natural stone arch. Wildlife is abundant, and on any given day you might see an incredible seabird colony or watch the park’s tide pools turn crimson with the arrival of thousands of tiny shrimp. (Discover other amazing destinations in Hawaii.)
Boasting South Carolina’s only publicly accessible lighthouse, Hunting Island is a popular stop on the coast. It has five miles of beaches, a saltwater lagoon, and 5,000 acres of marshland and maritime forest, plus one hundred campsites. Local wildlife includes loggerhead turtles, which nest in the summer, alligators, and hundreds of different bird species.
Who knew the East Coast had its own Grand Canyon? Letchworth’s canyon has 600-foot cliff walls and three waterfalls along the Genesee River, including the tallest falls in New York. There are 66 miles of hiking trails, whitewater rafting, and cross-country skiing for year-round fun.
Some of the Oregon coast’s most famous views are contained in this park, which features nine miles of coastline wrapping around Tillamook Head. Stick to the shoreline to explore secluded coves and search for shells, or head inland to hike through peaceful, Sitka spruce forests.
One of America’s largest state parks, Chugach boasts diverse landscapes ranging from rugged coastlines and glaciers, to ice fields and glacial lakes—all a quick jaunt away from Anchorage. It adjoins the Chugach National Forest, creating a massive natural wonderland in south-central Alaska.
Situated along California’s famous Highway 1, this 1,000-acre preserve contains some of the most dramatic scenery in Big Sur. Explore hiking trails through the redwood forests, swim in the Big Sur River, and take in spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. The rustic cottages of Big Sur Lodge are a popular stopping point. (Here are must-see attractions along Highway 1.)
Where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean on Long Beach Peninsula, this 1,882-acre park offers old-growth forests, salt marshes, and freshwater lakes. Two lighthouses are here along with the overgrown ruins of military bunkers and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Clam-digging and whale-watching are among the favored local pursuits.
The majestic, otherworldly landscapes of this park are the result of explosive, volcanic activity that deposited hundreds of feet of ash into the valley millions of years ago. Once home to the Fremont, Anasazi, and Southern Paiutes tribes, the park now offers hiking trails, campsites, and a picnic area.
Situated between the Florida mainland and Key West, this idyllic park is a hotspot for beachcombers and snorkelers. Though it’s still recovering from damage from Hurricane Irma, visitors can access attractions like a scenic trail leading to the top of the old Bahia Honda Bridge. There you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the entire island, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot some rays or sea turtles swimming in the turquoise waters below.
Established in 1885, the country’s oldest state park attracts millions of visitors annually. There are a handful of easygoing trails through the 400-acre park, plus multiple vantage points for gazing at the world-famous Niagara Falls. The park is open to the public 24-hours a day, with an illumination taking place at three different vantage points every evening at dusk.
Located in the Texas panhandle, America’s second largest canyon lies at the heart of this giant park. Clocking in around 120 miles long, the canyon is up to 800 feet deep in some spots, offering a fascinating glimpse into four distinct geologic layers formed over millions of years. With more than 27,000 acres, the park includes rugged trails, campsites, and a visitor center.
While its name, allegedly coined by a land speculator in the 1890s, may sound silly, this park has a serious range of natural and cultural attractions. There are the ruins of a turn-of-the-century stone castle overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks, and then there are natural wonders like giant sinkholes, a natural bridge, and one of Missouri’s largest natural springs.
Named for a dramatic 315-foot spire offering 75-mile views of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Chimney Rock State Park has hiking trails for a range of skill levels and even an elevator to the famous peak.
With more than 500 climbing routes, this park outside of Boulder is a haven for rock-climbers. Open for day-use only, Eldorado also has scenic picnic sites and hiking trails leading to panoramic views over the sandstone cliffs.
Tucked within this beachy state park is a historic military site that served as a key part of the country’s coastal defense during World War II and the Cold War. Visitors can explore a barracks building, fire control tower, and artillery park at Fort Miles Museum and Historical Area, or stick to the maritime forests, salt marshes, and beaches that make up the rest of this 7,000-acre park.
Home to the mighty Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak, along with the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Baxter State Park is a 200,000-acre wilderness with 215 miles of hiking trails. Visitors can fish and paddle in the ponds, climb boulders, and stay at one of hundreds of campsites, cabins, or bunkhouses.
You’ll find thousand-foot-deep canyons, thundering waterfalls, caves, and more at this expansive park on the western edge of Georgia’s Lookout Mountain. A variety of hiking and biking trails offer options for all skill levels, and there’s also a disc golf course, horseback riding trails, and a fishing pond. Overnight guests can camp or reserve a cabin or yurt.
The highlight of Virginia’s newest state park is a 215-foot-tall limestone gorge carved out by a small creek below. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, this parkland includes six miles of hiking trails through old-growth forests. See living history at Monacan Indian Village, which is close to a 30-foot cascade, Lace Falls.
A clean blue lake and 500-foot Quartzite bluffs are highlights of Wisconsin’s biggest state park. Here you’ll find sandy swimming beaches, lakeside picnic areas, ancient Native American burial mounds, and 41 miles of hiking trails through the backcountry.
But doctors say that traveling with anyone other than the people in your household remains risky. And while some of the dangers can be mitigated, it remains a potentially life-threatening gamble.
“You really want to be strict with the rules,” says Nadeen White, a pediatrician and travel blogger in Atlanta. “It just takes one person to show up that was exposed to COVID-19 for it to spread.”
Your best bet: Stick to the people you live with. And even then, travelers over 65 and those with chronic illness should be excluded from your plans. “The risk is too high,” says White.
(How to limit your COVID-19 risk during holiday travel.)
Also consider the hazard that travel poses to the people in the place you’re visiting. “It’s really important that you are prepared to stick to their requirements,” says White.
Here’s what else to consider if you’re planning spring break travel.
Take your safe space on the road
RV travel is rapidly growing in popularity (even in the winter), in part because it allows families to remain safely in their bubble away from home. And with more parents and kids working and schooling online, normally time-crunched families are taking advantage of the opportunity to travel without worrying about vacation days.
(These six lessons from 2020 can help parents better navigate the upcoming virtual semester.)
Monet Hambrick and her family drove from Miami to spend a week in Naples, Florida, in an Airstream trailer, with her two daughters doing online schooling. In between homework assignments, the girls were able to search for seashells, spot wild dolphins, and go on hikes that included wild bunnies and roaming tortoises.
“With technology these days there’s no reason to stay at home if you can get out on the road and explore new destinations safely,” Hambrick says. “It’s been great for us to be able to have the kids do school during the day then explore after school, and not have to rush.”
Paige Bouma, executive vice-president of RV Trader, says that campsites have risen to the pandemic demand with contactless purchasing, sanitation stations, and self-check-in options.
“All of those measures that you’re doing to be safe at home? You can take them on the road,” Bouma says.
Still, White says, a safer RV trip requires that you make some key decisions, including opting for a fully self-contained unit (with bathroom and kitchen on board). Experts also recommend you plot out your route in advance, have a meal plan in place so grocery shopping won’t be necessary once you hit the road (options like Instacart can deliver to your campsite in a pinch), avoid group campground activities, and limit the number of stops you make on your drive.
Finally, don’t rely on destinations to provide your entertainment. Choose your campsite with socially distanced outdoor activities (walking and bicycle trails or open green space) in mind.
Major hotel chains have been making a big deal about their new cleaning protocols. But you might want to go old-school at a motel instead. With direct-access entranceways, parking in front of guest rooms, fewer accommodations overall, and no reason to visit the lobby after check-in, motels and motor courts promise a lower chance of contact with staff or other guests.
Another reason to love them? The newest versions are stunning and luxurious. Spots such as The Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York; the Burrard, in Vancouver, and the Lakeside Motel, in Prince Edward County, Canada; and the Phoenix in San Francisco, California, have bright, modern style.
Skip the après-ski
Schussing down the slopes—or snow tubing or ice-skating—may be great outdoor exercise but congregating by the fireplace afterwards isn’t recommended. Many of the outbreaks of the virus at ski resorts this season have been linked to areas where guests gather. Instead, choose properties that offer ski-in/ski-out accommodations and reserve-your-pod ski times for peace of mind.
Wherever you choose to say, says White, check the accommodations’ site ahead of time for a sense of cleaning protocols and decline housekeeping during your stay. Bringing along your own trusted disinfecting cloths to wipe-down high-touch areas is a good idea too. “It’s more important to clean door handles, remotes, and light switches than to worry about the bed sheets,” says White.
Be prepared for additional expenses
When traveling during a pandemic, it could be easy to blow the vacation budget. Rules and requirements are changing regularly, and unexpected costs could be high.
In some places, testing comes with a fee, as will additional days for quarantining in a hotel if required. You’ll also need schedule flexibility in case your well-planned few days away turns into a longer stay.
Health and travel insurance is highly recommended. Look for “Cancel For Any Reason” plans and inquire to make sure they include COVID-19.
(How travel insurance can—and can’t—help when plans change.)
For international trips, medical evacuation insurance could be worth the investment. Family plans that allow you to return with a minor who falls ill should also be considered.
Stay close to home
The best way to avoid the virus is to stay home. The CDC has strongly advised against anything else and, though that’s disappointing for travel plans, it is also practical.
Differing international lockdown protocols mean that much of what you’d hope to see in a destination is likely closed; border regulations (including new testing requirements for return entry) rule out any international “weekend getaway” jaunts; and the risks of an unintentional transmission to or from you is high.
Instead, focus on outdoor activities away from crowds and close to home, says White. “Try smaller state parks instead of the big national ones,” she suggests, adding that spots that require you to reserve your visit in advance are your best option. For now, the safest place for your bubble is right in your backyard.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.
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