The road trip is back and it's better than ever. Here's how to stay safe this summer
If the summer of 2020 is memorable to vacationers, it will likely be as the year of not straying too far from home. But that doesn't mean you need to limit your horizons: The great road trip is enjoying a resurgence.
This year, 46 million Americans say they plan to hit the open road in a recreational vehicle (RV), up from 25 million in 2019, as coronavirus lockdowns force travel lovers to look closer to home for their holiday getaway.
"It is predicted that car travel will be the preferred transportation mode," Dr. Lynn Minnaert, clinical associate professor at New York University's Tisch Center of Hospitality, told CNBC of forthcoming travel trends.
And the open road is already beckoning.
From early April to May, bookings on rental website RVshare surged 1,000%, while reservations on Outdoorsy jumped 1,500% from their low in March. Shares of America's two largest publicly-traded RV companies Winnebago and Thor have jumped 244% and 230%, respectively, from their March lows.
But if the idea of long hours stuck in stuffy traffic jams fill you with dread, think again. Just as the travel industry has evolved over recent years to offer more affordability and tailor-made experiences, it has also paved the way for a host of road trip options.
As some travelers shun hotels in the name of social distancing, vacation homes have become an attractive option for many looking for a home away from home.
Airbnb recorded more nights booked for U.S. listings between May 17 and June 3 than during the same period in 2019, with similar domestic demand occurring in Germany, South Korea and New Zealand. In the U.S., half of those trips were located within 200 miles of the traveler's home location — a journey manageable on one tank of gas — with holiday favorites like Big Bear Lake in California and Port Aransas in Texas dominating the top spots.
Expedia Group's rental site Vrbo and Booking Holdings has seen a similar uptick in domestic vacation rental reservations. "Every place where you see water in there or mountains or national parks, the homes around it are what's starting to get booked up," noted Vrbo's president Jeff Hurst.
Camping and motor homes, meanwhile, remain a whimsical, short-notice getaway option, noted Minnaert. "Camping ... is also expected to become more popular, as well as quieter, less-visited destinations."
Camping reservation site Campspot saw bookings rise 1,000% since May, from the lows in March and April, with RVs accounting for the majority (70%) of bookings, followed by cabins (21%) and tents (6%). And, according to Lisa Simeone, principal at Simeone Deary Design Group, many sites are moving quickly to win holidaymakers' confidence.
"Cleanliness is key, and making sure that guests feel that hygiene is a priority that proprietors are placing an emphasis on, along with outdoor programming, proper social distancing and other safety measures will give travelers the sense of security that is inherent getting back to the joy of travel," said Simeone.
That growing demand also means avenues for high-end road-tripping have opened.
"The field is wide open for hospitality providers to offer some really amazing, really groundbreaking concepts," noted Simeone, who foresees rapid developments in the luxury space, particularly in customizable amenities.
"In-cabin fridges that are stocked ahead of time with only items you selected and pre-ordered from a curated list, and an app that connects you to partnered locals that offer results-driven health and wellness or indulgent spa services, and the perfect transportation services help you get there," will all be par for the course, she suggested.
Black Tomato is one company driving that trend. The luxury travel brand has partnered with Auberge Resorts Collection, allowing travelers everything they need to hit the road in style: Starting with the home delivery of a state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz, complete with pre-programmed route finder, curated playlist and road trip-ready picnic basket.
Tailor-made itineraries spanning New England's coastline and Calfornia's wine country are designed to help U.S. travelers make the most of what their country has to offer, according to Black Tomato's co-founder Tom Marchant.
"We can often find ourselves guilty of looking past incredible experiences that lay conveniently in our backyard," he said. "Thoughtful domestic travel in this moment, and these incredible experiences, feel pointedly special right now and is a huge support of the U.S. economy."
The high-end holiday doesn't come cheap, however. Five-night packages start from $4,995 per person, with add-ons such as private helicopter rides and wild mushroom foraging available as extra. For $12,895, meanwhile, Steppes Travel has a 14-day odyssey across western states, with horse riding and stargazing excursions included.
Regardless of route and accommodation, assuring appropriate health and safety standards will be top priority for all holidaymakers this summer.
That means ensuring you and your travel companions have a clean bill of health before hitting the road, said Oksana Pyzik, senior teaching fellow at University College London's School of Pharmacy. "Continue maintaining your distance from others," she said. "If you or anyone in your family start to feel sick, cancel your travel plans and stay home."
CNBC Global Traveler spoke to the experts to learn their top tips for staying safe on the road.
- Use your own vehicle where possible. When renting, check the company's cleaning and decontamination processes between customers, said Lisa Lee, associate vice president, research and innovation, at Virginia Tech. "Be sure they use CDC or EPA-approved surface disinfectants and ask for a car that was used and cleaned a day or more ago."
- Bring disinfectant wipes to clean high-touch surfaces. Depending on the surface type, the coronavirus can survive outside of the body for between a few hours and up to a few days. Door handles, steering wheels, rearview mirrors and the trunk are particularly at risk.
- Pack hygiene supplies such as masks. These can be handy, not only for yourself but also people you may encounter, such as roadside assistance.
- Plan local so you can return home should travel restrictions change.
- Research campsites and RV parks ahead of time. Most campsites are communicating how they're modifying operations, and it's worth booking spots in advance, noted Campspot's CEO Caleb Hartung. If opting for wild camping, look for rural, less populated spots. Travel apps can help with that.
- If traveling internationally, check quarantine requirements ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
- Try to negotiate contactless check-in. This will help you maintain social distance of 1-2 meters, depending on the local requirements, said Hartung.
- If camping for the first time, consider "glamping" to reduce the need for equipment and setup and clear-up.
- Avoid traveling with multiple households or large groups. Group bookings are unlikely to be permitted in most areas, in order to reduce risk of transmission, said Pyzik.
- Cook your own meals where possible. Most camper van and campsites come equipped with the amenities needed to prepare your own food and maintain social distance.
- Maintain social distance in communal areas. Showers, washblocks and game areas are especially high-touch, so come equipped with disinfectant wipes when visiting them.
- Come prepared with snacks and drinks to reduce stop-offs en route.
Finally, as states and countries continue to open, and international travel restrictions ease, many of those guidelines will change and further travel options will become available.
Still, with case levels continuing to fluctuate and a Covid-19 vaccine still a long way off, it's likely that the shift to localized, self-operated travel could last much further down the road.
"Until a safe and effective vaccine is discovered, our fight against coronavirus continues," noted Pyzik. "And we must not throw away all the hard work and sacrifice made by so many."
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