As an avid traveler and working professional in the hospitality industry, I’ve been psychologically impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic about as much as anyone, effectively mourning the devastation to an industry I am so passionate about. Compounding this feeling, my wife works in healthcare and we’ve watched this crises unfold from the front-lines, dramatically upending life as we know it. While our lives are still greatly blessed and we are grateful for our good health, we’ve certainly felt the impact of this crises on many levels. From a purely selfish (and relatively trivial) standpoint, the most acute side effect I’m feeling is the inability to partake in my favorite hobby: traveling and planning trips.
Not ones to be discouraged, we’d been scheming about what form our next trip would take when it was ‘safe’ to do so. After finally coming to the conclusion that ‘safe’ is a relative term and this crises would not end until we have a vaccine (at least 1 year away, at best), we decided we must adapt to the ‘new normal’ and live our lives in a new way, taking calculated risks we felt were worth it (e.g. some travel) and cutting out other risks we felt were not (e.g. gym membership). Travel is such a central part of my life that I felt a need to plan a lower-risk trip, giving ourselves a much-needed break, but also playing it safe to keep ourselves (and visiting loved ones) healthy. I felt we learned enough from our first post-pandemic adventure that it was worth sharing our experience for others considering making their first journey.
Planning the Itinerary
While we’ve been spending many weekends exploring local state parks near our home base of Atlanta, we opted for our first overnight journey to be a road trip to Florida, where we could both visit loved ones and get some much-needed beach time.
To our surprise, planning the trip led to several awkward conversations. What family and friends would be comfortable visiting with us? What would the rules be? Do we wear masks? Do we hug? There is no rulebook for this, and it truly was a case-by-case basis depending upon the family member we were visiting. In the end, we respected everyone’s comfort level and managed to have a wonderful vacation and catch up with loved ones. After lining up the family visits, we landed on the following itinerary that would mix both beach leisure time with family catch-up time:
Amelia Island (Hotel) – 2 Nights
Naples (Family Condo) – 3 Nights
Central Florida (Family Stay) – 4 Nights
Expect the Unexpected
To oversimplify things, there is so much happening in the world right now. A global pandemic. The worst recession in a generation. Civil unrest. The list goes on. All of these things impacted our trip in one way or another, but with an open mind and ability to adapt, you can make any situation work and find enjoyment. For example, in Naples we found out that once we arrived at the beach, we couldn’t park there: it was only open to local residents with a beach permit. Although I had called before our departure to confirm guest parking procedures at public beaches, I was apparently not fully informed as there was a technicality to this: we could use guest parking at county beaches, but NOT city beaches. Our perennial favorite in Naples is Lowdermilk Park, however, with no guest parking we were forced to get creative. As we were driving around, we passed the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, where we learned we could park and visit our choice beach for $20, which actually would be waived if we spent money on-property. This ended up working out in our favor, as we had access to beach chairs and umbrellas (for a fee), and a wonderful bar/restaurant for refreshments throughout the day. This came in especially handy on our final beach day when my daughter was stung by jellyfish; the hotel staff quickly provided vinegar to alleviate the sting, essentially saving our day!
Our beach obstacle was emblematic of several other smaller obstacles we would have to overcome along the way due to changes related to the current climate. For example, stores close earlier, so I ended up having to do our grocery shopping at a Walgreens that was open until 10 PM (fortunately, we had packed a lot of food with us too, per our tip #3 below). One evening after we bought gelato on Naples 5th avenue, lined with exclusive shops, we found ourselves in the middle of a protest that suddenly surrounded us. While alarmed at first, we observed how peaceful the protest was, with both protesters and police members acting in a very calm and respectful manor towards each other. This actually became a great teaching moment for our girls, as many of the protests we’d seen on the news were suddenly right in front of us. All to say, with everything happening in the world right now, it’s helpful to keep a flexible mindset and adapt to new circumstances as they arise, making the most of every opportunity.
Our Hotel Experiences
While I work in the hotel industry and am acutely aware of all the measures many of the large hoteliers are putting into place (e.g. IHG Clean Promise), I have not stayed in a hotel since February and was curious to see what the new guest experience would feel like. Between our experiences in Amelia Island and Naples, I’ve come to the conclusion that likely each hotel/chain will approach things a bit differently. As such, I suggest reading post-COVID reviews ahead of time (unfortunately, we didn’t have many to see since we traveled early after the reopening).
In Amelia Island we chose to stay at the Omni Amelia Island Resort, as we were desperately seeking beach and pool time. While the grounds and facilities of this property are very nice, I was disappointed by the lack of service and shocked by the lack of efforts to mitigate risk for a post-COVID world. While the front desk had plexi-glass screens and hand sanitizer bottles, any COVID-related measures seemed to stop there. There were no hand sanitizer stations throughout the property. Worst of all, our room was not even very clean. We conclude this based on the visible dust and the dirt we wiped away with the Clorox wipes we brought (the hotel did not provide any). Even worse, the in-room Keurig maker had grease smudges on it and looked like nobody had attempted to even clean it (ironically, there was a sticker on the coffee maker with a ‘last cleaned by’ date that was left blank). We were staying at the property 3 weeks after it had reopened, but the staff presence was minimal throughout the property. It almost had a Lord of the Flies feel, as guests competed against each other to lay claim to pool-side cabanas. We even had to haul our own beach chairs, working around the locking mechanism that was set up (there were no staff around to unlock them). All to say, this hotel stay was not ideal. In the morning, there were no coffee or refreshments in the lobby, and we had to walk 7 minutes to the one open food location to get anything. The silver lining to this is that we were able to jockey and secure free beachside and poolside cabanas, which are normally very expensive.
Conversely, our experience at the aforementioned Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club in Naples, FL, was a world of difference. Although we weren’t overnight guests and only used the facilities for our beach experience, there were ample sanitation stations throughout the property, and plentiful masked staff members to assist with any request. This was such a striking difference from our Amelia Island experience, even though only days apart. I expect many travelers will see wide variations of precautions based upon the hotel’s own policies. As such, it’s best to bring your own sanitation equipment to feel comfortable adapting to any situation you find yourself in (see tip #2).
In Naples, we actually didn’t stay in any hotel as we fortunately have a family-owned condo located about a 20 minute drive from the beach we could use. The benefit of staying in a condo is that we were able to spread out and have access to a kitchen, which allowed us to minimize meals out. We also didn’t have to interact with other guests in an enclosed environment, so we felt generally safer. As such, we will likely look for similar arrangements on future family trips, which explains the surge in demand for Airbnb rentals. I’m currently in the midst of planning another family road trip at West, and looking for similar arrangements.
Dining Out While Traveling
Florida restaurants are starting to reopen with widely varying degrees of safety measures. We dined out several times on this trip, and tried to select places without door or patio dining, like The Dock at Crayton Cove. However, in South Florida the weather can be unpredictable so ultimately ended up eating inside during our 2nd dinner out at Campiello Ristorante & Bar despite reserving the patio. Fortunately, the restaurant is cavernous with several rooms, giving each table plenty of space to feel comfortable.
In general, we felt safe eating in the restaurants. The staff were all wearing masks, and the tables were spaced widely apart. While hand sanitizer appeared at the entrance, it was often not very close to the table, so I highly recommend bringing your own bottle to use a few times throughout the meal given the number of plates/utensils you touch. I did observe that most dining guests (ourselves included) are not wearing masks when seated, so that may impact your comfort level. Again, we primarily aimed to dine in well-ventilated areas (e.g. patios, decks) where this wasn’t as much a concern, and I highly recommend doing the same.
Nine Tips for Traveling During COVID-19 Pandemic
Based on our first family adventure in this new world, we concluded there are several pieces of advice worth sharing with anyone else planning to travel during this time. The 9 tips below will be helpful in planning a journey that allows you to have an enjoyable experience, but also minimize the risks of getting infected.
- Do Your Destination Homework
While this sounds like common sense, it’s imperative that you research the locations you’re planning to travel to as much as possible before you visit. You’ll need to know what’s open and what’s still closed (e.g. certain beaches, parks, etc). Also, visit local news sites regularly before visiting to follow the local COVID count as well as anything else that could impact your trip. I checked the Naples Daily News website regularly before our trip so we could arrive as informed as possible and level our expectations.
- Travel in the Early and Middle Parts of the Week, If Possible
Since the majority of travel happening right now is leisure travel, it tends to fall on the weekends. This means hotel occupancy will be higher on weekends vs. middle of the week. We noticed that the beaches, hotels, and restaurants tended to be less crowded in the early and middle of the week. However, some resorts/hotels will offer even more limited service during these low-occupancy days, so call ahead of time to know what to expect.
- Always Carry Your Own Sanitation Kit
This may seem obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out that you cannot assume every place you visit has been as thoroughly cleaned as promoted. If you’re staying at a hotel, bring your own Clorox wipes and clean everything. At a restaurant, do the same with any communal table items that are used for multiple guests (e.g. salt and pepper shakers, condiments, etc). Always keep your mask within arms reach if you need to use it. And always, ALWAYS, carry hand sanitizer. This holds true even if you’re going to the beach or pool, as you will ultimately touch many things and need to ensure you’re keeping your hands germ-free.
- B.Y.O. Food
We were surprised to run into various difficulties procuring meals (e.g. a McDonald’s we stopped at on the way down only had half the items, making us wish we packed our own lunches before leaving). Many stores close earlier than normal, so consider doing your grocery shopping at home and hauling along a cooler. The more prepared you are in advance and bring your own items from home, the better you’ll be set up for success. This is why a shared rental (e.g. Airbnb or VRBO) might be best so you can avoid eating most meals out in restaurants, minimizing exposure.
- Look for Restaurants That Have Outdoor Seating
A quick online search or phone call will help you find restaurants offering outdoor seating. In the current environment, many restaurants have increased their capacity for outdoor seating. Even when doing fast food stops on the road, we would find an outdoor table to enjoy a break from the car.
- Don’t Assume You’ll Get the Same Level of Service as Before the Pandemic
Many newly opened businesses may be short staffed, so don’t expect the same level of service as pre-COVID. Do not assume that hotel rooms will be cleaned to your standards and refrigerators will be stocked. Plan to clean down the desktops with Clorox wipes and consider bringing extra amenities (shampoo / conditioner from home), as hotels may not be as fully stocked as they were pre-pandemic time.
- Wear Your Mask Properly
Although many people feel claustrophobic while wearing a mask for hours at a time, covering the nose and mouth during high risk COVID exposures (such as in a store) can help prevent transmission. Remember that the COVID-19 virus enters the body through the nose, so when possible, try to cover your nose with a mask. If the mask falls below the nose, the protection is lost. After wearing the mask in public (in a store, gas station, etc) plan to place the mask in a bag (brown paper bag or Ziplock) where it should be stored until the next use. Would recommend hand sanitizer after placing the mask in the bag, assuming the outside of mask has become dirty.
- Skip the Gloves
Per my wife, a physician, “gloves do not prevent transmission of the virus and may offer a false sense of security.” Gloves can transmit the virus just like hands, so many physicians would recommend frequent hand-washing and hand sanitizer use as a better alternative.
- When In Doubt, Get Tested
Have a low threshold to get COVID-19 testing if symptoms develop (fever, cough, diarrhea, sore throat) or exposed to someone with COVID-19. Remember, symptoms likely develop 5 days following exposure to COVID-19, so testing on the day of exposure is too early. Many cities offer rapid testing results that even be done from the safety of your own car.
Follow these tips for ultimate piece of mind on your next adventure as we adapt to this ‘new normal’. Also, it’s important not to feel discouraged. I’m taking these tips into consideration as I plan my next adventure: a road trip through Colorado!