What to pack and how to prepare before planning a road trip — 9 medical and hospitality experts weigh in with advice and tips

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  • As COVID-19 changes the landscape for travel, road trips of all stripes are becoming popular with many Americans.
  • The goal of a road trip, even during COVID-19, should be to enjoy yourself and come home as safe and healthy as you left — just a bit more relaxed.
  • We interviewed experts including an epidemiologist, immunologist, eye and dental surgeons, and hospitality sanitation professional for advice on how to prepare, pack, and interact with others on the road.
  • Read more: Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19
  • Tips on choosing your destination and lodging
  • What to pack
  • How to prepare your vehicle for the drive 
  • How to protect yourself in your accommodations
  • Everything else you need to know about booking safe vacations during COVID-19

The days when organizing a road trip simply meant scouting for top snacks and making a killer playlist might be over — at least temporarily.

The impact of the novel coronavirus has turned travel into a cautionary tale, from those who write about it to those who do it only a couple of times per year.

But there are many ways to take a trip this summer safely and come home just as healthy as when you left. From precautions to products, we asked experts including an epidemiologist, an immunologist, eye and dental surgeons, and a hospitality sanitation professional to weigh in on how to prepare for a road trip, what to pack, and what to know once you hit the open road.

Some of the advice may seem overly cautionary; just thinking about packing many of these items feels tiresome. But as states reopen and cases rebound, the situation is proving especially fluid. Remember, there is no vaccine for the novel coronavirus, so even for travelers taking every precaution, there's no guarantee of safety. It's crucial to follow guidelines and advice from organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing. Additionally, consider your own level of risk, and whether you're traveling from or to a hotspot, so as not to increase the rate of infection.

In short, expect to make adjustments, be flexible, and consider overpacking. It's better to have brought too much than be brought up short. And remember, the beauty of driving is, unlike flying, you've got autonomy. If anything happens that you don't like or makes you feel unsafe, you can get in the car and drive.

Tips on choosing your destination and lodging

Choosing where to go and stay go don't always go hand-in-hand. But in this case, first decide where you want to go, and what kind of lodging makes you comfortable. 

Because the virus is primarily transmitted via respiratory droplets between people, the fewer encounters you experience, the more you are able to protect your safety.

For that reason, doctors and experts regard renting private homes as a low-risk proposition for disease transmission, especially when compared to hotels. Given their very nature, hotels are places where hundreds of people gather in enclosed spaces. By booking an entire home, you're protected from interaction with others.

So, if you want to limit your exposure, choose a house or cabin, such as those found on Airbnb or Vrbo. Airbnb, in particular, also announced stringent new cleaning policies you may identify and consider before booking a home.

If you don't want to clean up after yourself and prefer the amenities of a hotel, look for boutique, standalone bungalows or cottages. Avoid high rise hotels with inevitably packed elevators in favor of properties that are well-suited to public distancing with plenty of open outdoor space like beaches, lakefronts, and hiking trails. Or, consider hotels built in a way that will minimize time spent in enclosed spaces, such as hallways or lobbies.

Find the latter with hotels such as those owned by Red Lion Hotels Corporation, a North American hotel franchisor encompassing value-conscious brands. Red Lion Hotels Interim CEO John Russell says, "We know avoiding crowds is a major reassurance to road-tripping. Many economy-level properties have exterior corridors, which helps minimize communal touchpoints and limits close physical interactions with other guests and employees in smaller indoor areas, lessening risk, further limiting exposure, and hopefully creating a sense of comfort."

Finally, travelers will also find middle ground with serviced apartments, like those operated by Domio, a crossover service that rents furnished apartments with hotel-like amenities. These accommodations provide the privacy of a home with the perks of a hotel, such as housekeeping, concierge, and luggage storage. 

No matter your choice, check for specific new COVID cleaning and sanitization policies, especially if you opt for a more public hotel choice.

For instance, for all of its 18 brands, Hilton partnered with the makers of Lysol® & Dettol® to deliver an even cleaner stay for guests with the creation of the Hilton CleanStay program.

Similarly, Hyatt Hotels announced a Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment that focuses on the safety and well-being of staff and guests and builds on existing rigorous safety and cleanliness protocols.

Others, like Marriott Bonvoy, are using hospital-grade disinfectants, masks and gloves, plexiglass barriers, and ultraviolet light to disinfect key cards and shared devices. The brand also established the Marriott Cleanliness Council,  to establish new procedures. 

Wherever you ultimately go, read up on the policy of the location before you leave, and plan accordingly. Some out-of-staters will be required by law to quarantine or present negative test results first, and could be barred from entering their lodging if they don't comply. 

What to pack

Be sure to pack cloth and disposable masks for both adults and children, disposable gloves, and antibacterial wipes to spot-disinfect high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, railings, and elevator buttons, even if your lodging promises wide-ranging policies. It never hurts to clean twice. 

If antibacterial wipes are hard to come by, there are different types of products to consider.

Taylor Smith, the founder of CJS Global, a sanitation company for the hospitality industry, says, "If you're able to secure a disinfecting spray that kills norovirus — Bioesque Disinfectant Solution (available via Amazon) is a good example — it would also be very helpful to spray it on surfaces." 

Look for sprays that say they kill flu and norovirus germs and here's a pro tip: buy the larger gallon size for home use and re-package it yourself in small spray bottles from Amazon, Walgreens, or another store to make it travel friendly.

If you're traveling with younger children, consider adding a nose sanitizer to your grab-and-go bag. Jeff Bullard, MD, who serves on the executive board of the Academy of Allergy and Asthma in Primary Care (AAAPC), says that since kids "often explore through touch, contaminated surfaces are of particular concern." 

They can then transfer any number of those germs directly to vulnerable spots on their heads, which any parent knows are hard to keep attached to a hat, let alone a mask. "As a parent, try to see the world through your child's exploring eyes," Dr. Bullard says. "If your child is old enough, teach them the importance of keeping their hands off items in public areas."

Products for adults are also available, like Nozin® Nasal Sanitizer® antiseptic, available from Amazon, NanoBio Protect, or Swype Shield, are non-prescription, compact, and kills nearly 99.9 percent of germs, according to their product descriptions.

And don't forget sunscreen. Prior to applying, make sure to wash your hands with water, not hand sanitizer. Derek Jouppi, a nanotechnology engineer in the sun care space who co-founded SPOTMYUV, an organization that invented UV detection stickers that measure your risk and exposure, says that alcohol-based "hand sanitizer removes sunscreen." 

Sunglasses, too, can help against exposure, says Dr. Kevin Lee, an eye physician and surgeon from the Golden Gate Eye Associates within the Pacific Vision Eye Institute in San Francisco. "If someone who has the coronavirus sneezes, the droplets can actually enter through one's eyes. I recommend wearing glasses, or in this case, sunglasses for those sunny drives as an extra protective barrier or shield from little respiratory droplets."

In addition, dental surgeon Dr. Mike Golpa says countertops are contaminated places for a toothbrush and suggests packing yours carefully. "Transport it in a protective case, separated from other cosmetics. If stored incorrectly, it becomes susceptible to virus transmission." Once you arrive, keep your toothbrush upright in a glass to dry after use, without allowing the bristles to touch anything.

UV-C light sanitizers, such as Homedics UV-Clean Phone Sanitizer and the Steri Wand Sanitizing Light, are also an option. Multipurpose, they can disinfect remote controls, phones, chargers, keys, cards, and other high-touch devices and surfaces that you might encounter in hotels or Airbnbs. 

And while you maybe haven't packed a pillow from home since you were a kid, it might be a tradition worth bringing back. The novel coronavirus "can be transmitted by the use of shared face towels and pillow covers," Dr. Lee warns. "If you're staying in a hotel, avoid using bathroom hand towels on your face. This is also true for shared pillow covers in common spaces, the family living room, etc."

Finally, pack a thermometer and Tylenol along with whatever other medications and vitamins you'd normally take. There's always the possibility that someone in your party could develop symptoms along the way, in which case, you may want to consider returning home or seeking medical attention, if appropriate. 

How to prepare your vehicle for the drive 

Chances are you haven't been spending quite as much time in your car as before the pandemic. But you're likely still using it for trips to grocery stores and other essential businesses.

Edmund Russell, director of product development and technical support for Ziebart, a 60-year-old car care provider with 400 locations and 1,200 service centers across the world, says consumers are waking up to the fact that their vehicles may carry more than the family's meat and potatoes. 

"Now that many municipalities are beginning to gradually re-open previously non-essential businesses, consumers are driving more places. Their cars can be a connector of germs between public places and their homes," he says. "We are receiving more requests and inquiries on how to disinfect their vehicles and kill coronavirus."

To do that, he suggests that you "carry anti-bacterial wipes to disinfect high-touch areas inside and outside your vehicle, such as the steering wheels, door handles (interior and exterior), door latches, lock buttons, radio and climate control buttons, and seat belts."

But he cautions against using bleach or hydrogen peroxide. "Never spray any liquid chemicals on electronic devices in the car. This can severely damage them and lead to a high cost to repair," he says. Instead, "use an alcohol swab to clean touch screen radios/GPS systems in the car."

Dr. Chris Xu, an immunologist and CEO of ThermoGenesis, a company that has created a rapid COVID-19 test kit for hospitals, endorses keeping a grab bag of Clorox wipes, Lysol spray, a box of disposable gloves, and masks in the car at all times. Just be sure to dispose of any gloves worn outside the car before getting back in. "Forgetting to take off gloves upon entering the car brings the very germs you were safe-guarding yourself against into your vehicle." 

And while it's tempting to break up a long trip with visits to roadside attractions or amusement parks, every time you leave the car increases your potential exposure. 

Epidemiologist and public health expert at ParentingPod.com Robert Gomez says that risk increases when you're "making frequent stops to go inside enclosed public spaces such as stores, restaurants, and public bathrooms during the trip."

He suggests always wearing a mask to leave the car, as you never know who you might brush against and to "travel with people who live in the same household." This is especially important if you're a high-risk individual or traveling with a high-risk individual.

How to protect yourself in your accommodations

Once you arrive and check-in, don't linger. Dr. Jeannie Kenkare, Chief Medical Officer and co-founder at PhysicianOne Urgent Care, a physician-founded urgent care center, says, "Remember that keeping your distance from others is most important since we believe that the main way that COVID-19 spreads is person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets. So, anyplace that other hotel guests are gathered are the highest risk places, such as the check-in desk, hotel bar, or at the pool. Room service is probably safer than eating in the hotel restaurant since you have contact with less individuals."

And while you should consider your room a haven, you still need to protect yourself inside it. Remember to use all the cleaning and sanitization tools you packed, because in the age of coronavirus, old truisms are more apt than ever before: Better safe than sorry.

Everything else you need to know about booking safe vacations during COVID-19

  • Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19
  • Is flying safe right now? Experts break down the risks associated with boarding a flight during COVID-19.
  • Is it safe to stay in a hotel right now? An infectious disease doctor, a cleaning expert, and hotel reps all share what you should know before you check-in.
  • Are Airbnbs safe? We spoke to experts, a company representative, and an Airbnb host to share everything you should know before booking someone's home.
  • Which is safer: Airbnb or hotels? Here's what doctors say
  • Are rental cars safe to drive right now? We talked to 3 leading experts to find out.
  • Is it safe to travel by train during a pandemic? Doctors and cleaning experts weigh in, plus details on new protocols from Amtrak to minimize risks.
  • Here are new safety and cleaning plans and precautions being implemented by every major hotel brand
  • How to safely travel to college campuses for move-in day, according to an infectious disease expert
  • 6 safer, expert-backed ways to take a vacation during the pandemic, from road trips to private vacation homes and remote campsites
  • Everything to know about vacation rentals, including the best booking platforms, safety info, and the best places to go in the US
  • 4 safer summer travel ideas based on expert advice
  • 6 of the top road trips in the US and where to stay along the way

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