5 lessons learned from taking a road trip in the age of coronavirus

Aug 1, 2020

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Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

Believe it or not, my wife and I went on our first international trip together just 19 days after our first date. We still laugh about how quickly things moved but, hey, we knew what we wanted.

We also knew that we’d find great adventures outside of the comfy confines of New York City.

So, what the heck, right? Just 19 days in, were found ourselves cruising down Av. La Floresta en route to our Mexican resort in San Jose Del Cabo and we haven’t looked back.

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The happy couple making the best of close-to-home road trips in 2020. (Photo by Moke Hamilton)
The happy couple making the best of close-to-home road trips in 2020. (Photo by Moke Hamilton)

In our first three years together, we traveled to 17 different countries and have already made memories that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives. It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to make as many travel memories in 2020. It’s safe to say that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted us in a very personal way.

It’s OK to replace international vacations with road trips

Earlier this month as Fourth of July weekend approached, the Mrs. made a polite request to spend the holiday anywhere other than at home. We hadn’t left the country in eight months and hadn’t spent a weekend away since March, so I felt compelled to oblige. Deciding where we would go, though, would be the challenge.

Make a plan that works with your risk tolerance

Like many others, we hadn’t yet arrived at a point where we felt comfortable flying, so we opted for a road trip. And since neither of us are fans of lengthy car rides, we decided that we’d select a location that was within a five-hour drive.

Lots of TPG readers are doing the same thing these days. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out these road trip ideas from Baltimore, Charlotte, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Back in March, we had success under similar circumstances.

We’d booked a long trip to Asia that included stops in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand, but as the trip approached and our concerns over COVID-19 grew, we proactively canceled and were, fortunately, able to do so without penalty.

We opted to use the opportunity to instead visit Geneva, New York, and spend a few days in the Finger Lakes Wine Region. Although not as exciting as checking out the massive skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur or the sandy shores of Phuket, we had a great time there and realized that had it not been for the global pandemic, we probably wouldn’t have made time to plan what ended up being an incredible experience in our backyard.

For us, it was a valuable lesson.

Take the time to see what’s in your backyard

Generally, as people, we tend to take the things in our backyard for granted. Among my friends, I have many travel enthusiasts. The majority of them have seen Big Ben and strolled down the Champs-Elysees, but far fewer have visited the Rocky Mountains, or the Grand Canyon, or Lake Tahoe or Mount Rushmore, or… You get the picture.

What my wife realized was that even though our lives were much different than they were before COVID-19, many of us — especially essential workers — are facing work conditions that may be more trying than they were before. Aside from completing the day-to-day tasks that our occupations require, many of us are also caring for children, assisting them with remote learning and sharing spaces with our spouses. For many of us, the current reality is that personal space and quiet reflection is a luxury that has become quite scarce.

Through that lens, a simple change of scenery — even if only for a weekend — can be quite reinvigorating.

So away we went.

Flexibility is the key to success

After deciding to head to Lititz, Pennsylvania, we made an 11th-hour change that saw us instead head north to Syracuse, New York.

Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County (of which Lititz is a part) had the second-highest number of cases per capita in the state. Because we knew we would be interacting with the public and eating out, we rethought the decision and sought out another locale that would provide what appealed to us about Lititz in the first place: pleasant scenery, nice accommodations and a sparsely-populated locale.

Syracuse checked those boxes.

As Hilton loyalists, we opted to stay at the Hotel Skyler Syracuse, one of Hilton’s growing collection of Tapestry properties. Steps outside of Syracuse University’s campus, the property afforded us the opportunity to explore one of the East Coast’s more renowned universities, its architecture and landscape. We also planned to visit one of the area’s many waterfalls at Chittenango Falls State Park, and the fact that the nearby town of Lafayette hosted one of the state’s only fireworks displays was the icing on the cake.

Decision made.

Get ready to plan things you normally wouldn’t

Soon thereafter, though, we realized first-hand that traveling during the coronavirus pandemic requires one to be more proactive than usual. Many bars and restaurants remained closed despite the Onondaga County being well into Phase III of its reopening.

The hotel property itself and all other Hilton properties nearby had yet to resume on-site food operations. So planning meals and making reservations was imperative. For us, it’s a departure from the norm since we tend to explore and decide on where to eat when we get hungry.

It works for us generally, but in these times, a necessary adjustment had to be made.

My advice: If you wish to take a road trip soon — and you can safely do so with preparation and a bit of forethought — alter your expectations if your idea of a good time involves carelessly meandering, large crowds and indoor activities. Instead, embrace nature, isolation, the great outdoors and an opportunity to read a book in the shade or watch a movie or two in your hotel room.

Truth be told, every area has a settlement history. Each municipality has its own local cuisine in which it takes pride and universities provide excellent backdrops for relaxing weekends.

If nothing else, taking a road trip to a nearby city provides the opportunity to learn more about one’s local area and to stop and smell the roses. These are things that international and long-distance domestic travel don’t typically facilitate. To pull it off, you just need to be proactive and imaginative about your plans and make plenty of phone calls to ensure that what you’re interested in seeing and doing will be opened as planned.

Related: 7 mistakes every road tripper makes at least once

Here’s how our trip went

We arrived at the Hotel Skyler Syracuse on July 3 and immediately noticed that the property seemed empty. (Nights can be booked with 32,000 to 60,000 Hilton Honors points per night, depending on the date.) I eventually confirmed with a staff member that over the past few weeks, it had become commonplace for the boutique hotel to have less than 10 rooms booked per night — about 15 percent of its capacity.

Upon entering the hotel, there were a few comforting sights: signs and placards announcing the precautions the property was taking to keep its guests safe and healthy, hand sanitizer in common areas including elevators and a personal assurance that each room was being “deep cleaned” after the departure of each party.

It had become Hilton’s policy, we were told, to stagger its room assignments in such a way as to allow each to remain vacant for at least a few days following a party’s check-out. Once sanitized, however, the property would seal the door of each room to ensure that the next entrant would be a party checking in. Any anxiety we had about cleaning protocols were gone.

Hilton's "clean room" seal. (Photo courtesy of Moke Hamilton)
Hilton’s “clean room” seal. (Photo courtesy of Moke Hamilton)

As we began exploring the city, we were surprised by its emptiness. Obviously, a significant portion of the city’s population revolved around the activities of Syracuse University, and since it wasn’t holding in-person classes, there were fewer people around. Still, though, the lack of life on most of the streets downtown was surprising.

That was, however, what we were seeking.

Unsurprisingly, Destiny USA — one of the region’s more renowned shopping and entertainment complexes — was closed, so instead of finding ways to spend money at our favorite department stores, we settled for a quiet stroll at nearby Onondaga Lake Park. The serenity and beauty of the lake was incredible considering it was once nothing but 4.6 square miles of polluted nuisance. We spent the remainder of our first evening exploring Syracuse University’s campus, having a picnic consisting of local takeout and marveling at our beautiful surroundings.

After the long drive and getting the lay of the land, we charted our course for the holiday.

Wanting to seize the Fourth of July, we got an early start and got some excellent cappuccinos from Recess Coffee.

Recess Coffee (Photo courtesy of Moke Hamilton)
Recess Coffee (Photo courtesy of Moke Hamilton)

We each got a traditional (and huge) breakfast from nearby Mom’s Diner and enjoyed another picnic at nearby Thornden Park. Upon finishing, we took our planned 25-minute drive to Chittenango Falls State Park where we took in the falls, explored the surroundings and dipped our feet in the natural pools of fresh, rushing water.

Chittenango Falls State Park Syracuse, New York
Chittenango Falls State Park (Photo by OGphoto/Getty Images)

After a brief stop for ice cream, we returned to the hotel where we freshened up before heading to the original location of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Being that it was the Fourth of July, we thought there no better place to go for dinner — the 25-minute wait we had to endure before being seated outside confirmed we weren’t the only ones with that idea, though.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (Photo courtesy of Moke Hamilton)
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (Photo courtesy of Moke Hamilton)

On Day 2, it was much more apparent that there was life in Syracuse, after all.

We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and friendly exchanges with members of the staff before embarking on our final adventure of the day: the only firework show in the region.

In nearby Lafayette — a hilly municipality located about 10 miles south of Syracuse — Onondaga County would host its fireworks show. Normally a spectacle enjoyed by thousands of residents, this year, the organizers of the show decided to allow only 500 cars onto the grounds where the show would be held. That amounted to a third of the capacity.

Attendees were instructed to remain in or on their vehicles and enjoy the show while maintaining physical distance from those not within their traveling parties.

By the time we’d arrived around 8:30 p.m., only about 300 cars had entered so we had a great vantage point for the fantastic show. Best of all, we’d enjoyed a day completely outdoors, yet didn’t feel isolated, lonely or bored.

As we headed back to our hotel, we’d realized we’d learned a lot about how to successfully spend time away, even as we deal with a national health crisis.

Before hitting the road to head back home on Sunday, we had breakfast outside at Rise N’ Shine Diner. If you ever go, be sure to try the Strawberries N Cream pancakes. And if you do decide to go, don’t make the same mistake we made when we were turned away on Saturday — call ahead for a reservation, because the establishment gets packed. And for good reason.

Bottom line

Without question, we’re living in trying times. In all likelihood, my wife and I won’t get to travel to our 18th country together this year, but, as we found out Fourth of July Weekend, that’s OK.

A change of scenery, no matter where, is refreshing. Just because, in our case, we can’t leave the country and aren’t willing to get on a plane doesn’t mean that new adventures and memories have to wait until COVID-19 has been eradicated.

As we’ve learned first-hand over the past six months, life goes on.

So, then, should your travels.

Featured image by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

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