I took a socially distant vacation with my family – here are 6 things we learned

Jun 14, 2020

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We were supposed to be in Canada on a three-generation trip to Banff, exploring the beautiful landscapes, reveling in the cool weather and, OK, also checking out a few Fairmont properties and probably ordering room service at least once or twice.

But when it became clear COVID-19 wasn’t going to allow for us to fly north in June for our Canadian adventure (the U.S. border remains closed), we made other plans that were more in line with the realities of 2020.

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While I’ve been planning trips for several decades, this was the first time I planned a socially distanced vacation. Heck, until a few months ago, most of us probably had no clue what social distancing meant. But for this particular trip, there would be no flights, no hotels, no visiting busy attractions, no room service, no eating at restaurants and no border crossings or passport stamps.

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Could a road trip far from other people, with no frills or fuss that isn’t all that far from home compete with our points-fueled trips to the likes of Bora Bora, Hawaii, Europe and the Caribbean?

Yes, it could.

In several ways, it may have been one of our best trips yet. Here’s how to create your own socially distanced vacation.

Related: You only get 18 summers with your kids, and this one matters more than most

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Decide how far from home you’re willing to go

In your quest for socially distanced relaxation, determine how you want to get there.

Assuming that’s by car, decide how much of a road trip you’re comfortable taking. For some, the only limit may be where the ocean meets the road. But for other travelers who want to start smaller, the comfort radius seems to be how far they can go — round trip — on a tank of gas. Not coincidentally, that may also coincide with how far you can comfortably get without a bathroom stop coming or going. Also, factor in which destinations are still closed to travelers from other states.

Related: TPG’s guide to state-by-state reopenings

For my family, that meant destinations within a four-hour drive each direction, which narrowed the search results to trips within Texas. Consider this a “nearcation” if you will. 

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Look for a natural attraction

Once you’ve determined how far from home you’re willing to wander, see what falls within that radius. Some of the best socially distanced trips are those that have a natural, outdoor attraction nearby. Popular destinations this summer include places where travelers can easily maintain their distance from others and enjoy the great outdoors. Think: beaches, lakes, rivers, mountains and national or state parks.

Related: TPG study reveals where travelers are headed this summer

But since those are popular choices, they may also be busier than you’d hoped. Try to avoid the crowds by starting your adventures early in the day, or target less busy weekdays for your activities.

You can also get creative. Look for lodging with private access to an outdoor area, which may be the ticket to even more space in the great outdoors.

In our case, the reality is that by June, Texas is really, really hot — which is why we’d originally planned to escape the heat in the Canadian Rockies. But to offset the nearly 100-degree temperatures during our “nearcation,” we sought water. And we knew others would have the same idea, so we had to be crafty to keep our distance from others.

The solution was a cabin rental on a private half-mile mile stretch of river at a resort called Waters Point in Central Texas. We only had to share that coveted outdoor river space with the other half dozen cabins on the property, which gave us plenty of room to spread out.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Related: 7 of our favorite secret swimming holes

Search for home rentals

When I started to rebook our summer trips with closer-to-home destinations and socially distant activities in mind, I was watching home and cabin rentals disappear right before my eyes. As far back as April and early May, other would-be travelers were making similar travel plans.

While travel, in general, is still quite depressed, home rentals near major cities and adjacent to outdoor activities are in pretty hot demand. So, prepare yourself and be ready to book immediately if you find something you like.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

We wanted a house with a real kitchen, so we could minimize our time spent eating out, and a dedicated space for relaxing — we knew we’d likely be hanging out at the house more than on previous trips, where lodging is mainly for sleeping.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

You may wish to reduce your options to rentals that commit to specific cleaning standards or keep the home vacant for 72 hours between rentals. But, frankly, in my search that resulted in too narrow of a selection pool to be viable in this area.

Related: How to book the perfect Airbnb

Pack a cooler — and cleaning supplies

To prevent extra stops and limit our contact at the destination, we packed a cooler full of groceries we had delivered to our home. This meant we were fully prepared to cook most of our meals and didn’t need to do any shopping once we arrived. Not only did this help with social distancing, but it also helped keep costs in check.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Another set of essentials we packed? Cleaning supplies. We didn’t want to rely only on the cleaning done by the owners, so we set to work with disinfectant wipes as soon as we arrived to clean high-touch areas such as light switches, remotes, door handle and faucets. We also opened the doors for fresh air on arrival.

In addition to bringing your own cleaning supplies, I recommend packing paper towels, paper plates and single-use utensils. If nothing else, you’ll free yourself of dishwashing during your vacation.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Make reservations for all your activities

Gone are the days you can just spontaneously pop over to a pool for the afternoon — even a natural one. To control crowding, this is the summer of scheduled fun in many ways. Whether you want to go into Rocky Mountain National Park, take a hike or jump into the cool waters of the 120-foot Jacob’s Well in Central Texas (as we did), you must make a reservation in advance.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Reservations are required even for activities that have never before required advanced planning, so do some research ahead of your trip to see if you need to make reservations. If you skip this step, you’re likely to be left on the outside looking in as many popular activities are filling up weeks in advance.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Even dining out on your trip may require more research, as restaurants have limited seating capacity in most states, so reservations are in short supply. As for us, we ordered two meals for carry-out, which were left under a tent when they were ready with no direct human interaction required. (Take advantage of newly added credit card dining credits to cover the cost if you can.)

Related: 7 ways Universal Studios has changed after coronavirus

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Remember, it’s all about the little things

If you take a socially distanced vacation, odds are high that time will slow down while you’re away. And now, more than ever, it’s the little things that really count.

Sure, you may have reservations to swim, hike or maybe hit a round of golf, but you also probably have more downtime than ever before. You may get to take a long afternoon nap, build a campfire, play cards, finally read that book, bake that dessert, dangle your feet in the water and just hang out. Cliché as it sounds, this time the small things are the big things and the journey is part of the destination.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

There may not be room service, there almost certainly won’t be a club lounge and you probably have to make your own bed. But for us, that just made the trip feel even more like more a part of life — and not an escape from it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll enjoy the heck out of room service coffee again one day. For now, though, brewing our own pot to enjoy while sitting on a screened-in porch overlooking a herd of deer in our home state was just the change of scenery we needed.

Related: How coronavirus changed the travel industry

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

While there’s always some element of risk in everything we do — and don’t do — it’s absolutely possible to take a fun, memorable, socially distanced vacation this summer. It may require getting out a map, completely restarting your planning process from scratch and shifting your priorities, but it can be done.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

We just took our first-ever socially distanced vacation, and while it was very different from what we’d originally planned to do this summer in almost every single way, we absolutely loved it. In fact, my 10-year-old asked if that old pioneer cabin on the river in Wimberley, Texas, where you can see more deer than people, can become “our place” that we return to over and over again even once things return to a new state of normal.

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