After a year off from travel, newly vaccinated and better attuned to what's safe, we are ready to resume travel. This summer, we won't be leaving the country, or even flying, but taking a long road trip west to visit the National Parks.
In a car.
With four young kids. One we've nicknamed Easy Queasy.
COVID-19 has really changed our travel plans and goals. But we still aim to travel on a budget. As we prepare for the summer, I'd like to share ten tips to help you plan a safe, fun, and affordable trip. These are based on 'lessons learned' from adventures at our local national parks in Michigan, Virginia, and Maryland.
1. Secure a place that makes you feel comfortable and safe
Following the year of COVID-19, cleanliness tops the list. A safe, clean room was imperative when we left the house for our first trip last July. I wanted to do something special with my two older girls so we settled on two nights near Assateague, or horse-island as we call it. To find lodging, I input our dates to Hotels.com (via ebates.com to get another 1% back), searching by star rating. I only considered places ranked 9 or higher. Pre-pandemic, I’d look at a 7 or 8. Maybe a 6. But three months into the pandemic, 9 was the floor. I read the latest reviews, looking for some reference to "clean,” “safe,” or over-the-top synonym like "immaculate." Every review for the Hampton Inn Chincoteague mentioned distancing or cleaning procedures, along with the strict rules for the pool and gym. I was sold.
That said, I still brought my own supplies for that first trip. At the time, I was working on a COVID-19 task force, so not only were we living it, it was on my mind at work too. I brought disinfectant spray to wipe down the doors.
My family has relaxed a bit (no more plastic bag to pump gas like our trip to Michigan), but it's important to cover the essentials. Supplies can include:
- PPE (masks, gloves, sanitizer, disinfectant spray or wipes)
- Portable baby toilet for your kids to have in emergency—or when you don't feel safe taking them to the rest area.
- Towels, paper towels (especially if you have your own Easy Queasy)
Plus, get your shot if you haven't yet!
2. Know your limits
This is important for any trip. Just as you should set your budget and plan your trip accordingly, determine what you feel comfortable with. Do you want a state with a mask mandate or are you looking for "open for business?" Where and what do you want to eat? Cooking for yourself at an Airbnb or eating at a restaurant? Outdoors or in? Carryout? Then, find a place that fits your needs. When I shared our travel plans with a close friend, she shared that South Dakota had no restrictions. We had different feelings on that. For us, that meant we would be driving through and waving to Mount Rushmore as we drove past. Do what makes you feel comfortable. You will not enjoy your vacation if you're worried about people not wearing their masks (trust me, I learned that when on a cave tour with three kids). That's why I suggest #3.
3. Visit the National Parks
Is there anything easier or more American? With over 400 national parks, heritage areas, trails, and waterways, there is something for everyone. Plus, if you have a 4th grader like us, you get in for free! Or, bring Grandma and her $80 Senior Pass! Face masks are required on NPS-administered lands where physical distancing cannot be maintained and in all NPS buildings and facilities. The risk of transmission is extremely low while outdoors, wearing a mask, and keeping distanced. In addition, the parks are BEAUTIFUL! Last summer, we visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore in Northern Michigan. As a kid, I visited Lake Michigan every summer. Now, I love sharing it with my own. I've traveled to Australia and Europe, Asia and Africa. The Great Lakes are one of the best destinations in the world. No sharks, no salt, just Petoskey stones and fun. (In August! The swimming season is extremely short.) This year, we are hoping to visit 10 parks—Teddy Roosevelt (ND); Yellowstone and Grand Teton (WY); Zion (UT); Death Valley, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite (CA); Cuyahoga Valley (OH); and Mount Rushmore (SD), along with many National Forests.
Of course, if you want to do that, you'll need to plan ahead
4. Book early if you can That's important always (though I'm guilty of planning just a month or two out), but especially now. Park campsites are booked up for the summer. Good hotels are hard to find. There's absolutely capacity since people haven't returned 100% to travel, but National Parks have limited lodging options. Plus, you usually get a better rate.
5. Find activities that your kids will enjoy This is simple but easy. Get the kids involved in the planning. Mix up activities you want to do with ones they'll enjoy. Making and keeping kids happy makes everyone happy. Think playground, pool, and ice cream to balance your hikes or scenic drives.
6. Remember the basics We hadn't traveled in a while so I forgot the importance of making the kids wear bug spray, even if I don't see any mosquitos. My girls and I walked, then jogged, and finally sprinted to our car in “mosquito land.” If you have a car sick kid, bring a plastic bag and towels for the car. Pack lots of snacks. Books and games for the car. Electronics. Room darkeners and sound machines if you use them at home. I always recommend bringing swimsuits and an extra pair of shoes since they always find water.
7. Start small It doesn't have to be far to be fun. It can be as easy as a long day or as hard as a month-long trip out west. Here are some easy ideas to get you started:
- Camp in the backyard.
- Book a hotel room in your state that has a fun pool.
- Visit the National Park in your state.
- Make a long day trip to hike a further trail, go kayaking, or find a fun, unique playground.
8. Don't be afraid to go virtual
Maybe you're not ready to stay at a hotel or you've got social anxiety from not being near people after a year off (or is that just me?). Doing a virtual vacation goes beyond watching videos of the aquarium. (How many of us adored Fiona the Hippo last Spring?) Our family took a virtual trip to Disney last May. The kids begged to get out, and I wanted to use all of our Disney...stuff. We created a magical, make-believe adventure in our house, using push cars for rides and stuffed animals for characters. It took an abundance of imagination, but created an amazing lifelong memory (for much cheaper than the real thing!).
9. Set expectations with the kids
When you return to travel after a year or two off, things will look different. Alert your kids that it's not yet a return to normalcy. For our trip to Chincoteague, I made my kids walk up three flights of stairs since I wasn't ready to share an elevator. The hotel didn't offer their standard free cookies. Continental breakfasts were not as expansive as they were pre-COVID. Since we haven't yet eaten inside a restaurant, we let the kids know we'll be eating a lot of fast food while traveling. Sharing this info upfront helps them know what's going on and makes for happier kids. (Also, the promise of ice cream helps a lot.)
10. Enjoy yourself My girls bonded on our trip—with me and with each other. We stayed up late watching the sunset (okay, nine is very late in our home). We had the pool to ourselves. We ate the best, cleanest, and tastiest continental breakfast, served by the hotel owner. We walked along the pier and spotted jellyfish. The girls played in the sea water and built castles in the sand. We kayaked and saw turtles, herons, and yes, wild horses. And not to worry, we took the whole family back this month.
Get out and explore a new place this summer. Find a place that feels clean and safe and make time for your family.
Since anything can happen with four little ones, I will be sharing our adventures via Instagram (@kaitlyn.jain). I appreciate the follow or join my mailing list for more tips and tricks.