A good driving trip can teach you something important for your mental health: The world is huge and most of it thrives without the slightest concern for human headlines.
As lockdown orders end, people will be getting out of their heads by getting in their cars. As isolation recommendations ease, the number of travelers on the roads is only going to increase.
The big rental car companies are offering good deals to get their fleets rolling again. But can you get behind the wheel? Are road trips safe? Yes—as long as you take steps to protect both yourself and others.
Road trips in 2020 are not like the road trips that came before. This year requires a bit more planning and patience, not just for your own health but to protect other people as well. If you're taking a road trip these days—even one that only lasts a few hours—you'll need to observe a few simple rules. Don't worry. The scenery is the same.
1. Bring hand sanitizer.
It's not possible to have a road trip during which you touch nothing. You'll be handling gas pumps, money at drive-throughs, the doorknobs of gas station washrooms, and lots of other unexpected things.
Carry a big bottle of sanitizer in your vehicle—and keep it out of sight, because amazingly, there have been cases of muggings and burglary in which hand sanitizer was the target. So hide the stuff as if it were money. For that matter, you might also consider bringing some toilet paper in case some lout ahead of you stole what the gas station had.
2. Drive carefully.
This sounds like standard advice, but these aren't standard times. People are not driving normally right now. Traffic-free conditions bring out the worst in drivers who think they don't have to observe all the rules anymore. Some locales have even adjusted the timings on stoplights to enforce traffic calming on overenthusiastic drivers.
Other drivers are going slowly or more erratically because they're stressed or they haven't been behind the wheel much in a while. Even solid drivers are feeling taut as drums because they're afraid of getting in an accident that will send them to the belly of the beast—i.e., the ER.
To preserve your sanity and to keep ambulances working on more important jobs, drive the speed limit and put lots of distance between you and the other cars on the road. And store proof of health insurance somewhere that's easy to locate so that if you get in an accident, emergency workers can find proof of your coverage.
It's also wise to have a AAA membership. If something goes wrong, like a dead battery or a dashboard malfunction, AAA responders are trained in social distancing and can come to your rescue without compromising your health.
3. Plan lodging ahead of time.
Don't assume you can find last-minute hotels as you go. It's feasible, but not as easy as it used to be. Hotels are operating in a different way these days (here's our advice all about that). Two new wrinkles affect road trips in particular: Not all properties are open right now, and not all of them are accepting reservations from non-emergency personnel.
That means that even if you find a place to stay, it may not be accepting guests who aren't essential workers. So plan your route and nail down your hotels ahead of time—and take a minute to call each place to double-check that you'll be welcome.
4. Download apps from the big food chains and gas stations.
Technology has given us new ways to avoid handling money. Lots of major filling station brands now allow you to pay using your phone. Many major fast food restaurants—the ones that operate drive-through service—also enable you to order and pay for meals via their official apps using a credit card.
Once you order, you're given a code that you say to the staff operating the drive-through windows. Then you're handed your prepaid meal and off you go, having touched no money and no other people. Brands that are now offering this service include Starbucks, McDonald's, Chipotle, Burger King, Wendy's, Panera Bread, Domino's, Shake Shack, and Taco Bell.
We know—those aren't all the healthiest options. (Aren't you glad you brought that extra toilet paper now?) You can always pack a cooler with your own, more nutritious meals from home.
5. Bring a tent.
If you book your hotels and motels ahead of time, this won't be needed. But emergency shelter is nice to have just in case hotels close unexpectedly or you run out of gas and wind up farther from civilization than planned. Most national parks and many state parks are not accepting campground reservations right now, so you may not be able to rent a plot there, but tents can be used just about anywhere in a pitch—er, pinch.
6. Maintain social distance.
Your car is your domain. You don't need to worry much about new pathogens appearing in there. But whenever you step outside, Pandemic Rules go back in effect. Keep your distance from everyone.
That might mean you will need to be patient. You might have to wait a few minutes for a scenic viewpoint to clear out. You might have to skip tight hiking trails that don't provide enough space. But you will find alternatives—a parking spot that's a little farther down the road, a vantage point that no other tourists seem to have discovered, and so on.
We still may not have a cure-all for what's troubling our bodies, but getting out of the house and traveling has always been a panacea for troubled minds.