October 6, 2020

What’s it Like Traveling the U.S. During COVID-19?

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Nomadic Matt sampling beers at a picnic table
Posted: 10/5/20 | October 5th, 2020

In June, full of COVID antibodies that would disappear before the month’s end, I drove to Boston to see my family. My original plan was to stay a week and then slowly make my way back to Austin, stopping at as many national parks as I could.

But when COVID cases surged in the South, plans quickly changed: I stayed in Boston longer, went to Maine, and then dashed back to Austin, stopping in as few places as possible (mostly national parks).

In total, I was away close to three months, putting over 6,000 miles on my car and crossing dozens of states.

So what’s it’s like traveling during COVID?

First, logistically, it’s a pain the butt. Few attractions (parks, museums, etc.) are open and those that are open typically require advance registration, including some national and state parks. As a last-minute traveler, that threw a wrench in my plans. I often changed my itinerary at the last moment and would show up to attractions to find no availability. When I went to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, all their spots were full for the entire following week!

Second, this road trip showed me that not COVID is not going to get under control anytime soon. America’s poor reaction to the pandemic is a result of decaying trust in government, science, the media, and fellow citizens.

Nomadic Matt standing on a ridge taking in the scenic view

In towns across the United States, I met people who thought COVID was a hoax. I met people who refused to wear masks. I met people who thought it’s all overblown and some who thought scientists and doctors were lying so they could make more money.

I found that the level of seriousness with regard to the pandemic not a red state–blue state divide but an urban-rural divide. No matter the state I visited, the further from a major city I got, the fewer people were worried about the virus. From small-town Maine to the suburbs of Tennessee to now even back home in Austin, I’ve encountered enough people who view this as “just another flu” to make me realize that COVID in America is not going away anytime soon.

No matter how good part of the population is at following the rules, enough will flout them to ensure that we’ll never get a handle on COVID. It was just really disheartening to see firsthand just how far behind the curve we are — and will remain — so long as the pandemic (people’s health!) is not taken seriously.

It made me angry, frustrated, and sad all at once. (My next post will go into this more.)

But what I hated most — and what caused me to come home earlier — was the loneliness. While other countries are reemerging from lockdowns and slowly allowing gatherings, COVID’s continued existence here has made many of the ways people used to meet off-limits.

No hostel dorms, walking tours, Couchsurfing events, lively bars, in-person meetups, pub crawls, house parties, etc., etc.

People hiking in a narrow rocky canyon

Travel during the pandemic means a lot of time by yourself.

As an introvert, I can spend hours with myself and be content. Days even.

I am my own best friend.

But eventually, my mouth wants to do that thing it likes to do so much: talk.

Travel, after all, is about people. It’s about learning from locals and other travelers. It’s about sharing experiences, swapping stories, and human connection.

But when anyone could be a coronavirus carrier, people (rightly) limit their interactions with strangers (and sometimes even with friends).

As a result, I found traveling unbearably devoid of sustained human interaction. Without people, my trip felt empty.

I’m not a “hike and camp in the woods alone for a week” kind of person. I get bored and lonely. Despite having an introverted nature, I travel to interact with people. I want to meet locals, drink beers, and learn about their part of the world.

Sure, I did meet some people. I had lovely conversations with folks in Maine, and I met a couple at a beer garden in Kentucky. And while I was fortunate enough to have some friends I could see along the way, for the most part, I was alone.

But when attractions are closed, people are isolating, and the ability to connect with strangers is reduced, what is travel?

And, if you’re worried about contracting COVID, the added stress and anxiety of wondering who might have the virus further saps the fun from travel. When I entered parts of the country I knew hadn’t contained the disease, my anxiety spiked. Everyone I eyed was a potential carrier, and so I kept my distance.

Closers on a ridge overlooking a wide open valley

I’d arrive at a new destination with high hopes and then, seeing everything closed, remember, “Oh yeah, the virus means I can’t travel the way I’d like.”

That’s no way to travel.

So would I recommend traveling around the United States now?

If you want to stay somewhere for a couple of days, don’t mind spending (a lot of) time alone, or just want to go for a hike in a national park, you’ll have a great time. There are plenty of ways to get out of town while ensuring you’re continuing to do your part to reduce the spread.1

There were many highlights to my trip: I got to check off a few new national parks, finally visited Maine, saw some friends, got surprised by the Finger Lakes region of NY, fell in love with Franklin, TN, and found my new favorite Bourbon (HC Clake from Franklin).

But, even with all that, if given the option to do it again, I’m not sure I would. When the majority of options for meeting and interacting with people are gone, so is a lot of the joy of travel.

And, until that comes back, I’m not sure an extended trip – in the United States or elsewhere – is for me.

For now, I’m happier staying at home.

1 – I took a total of three COVID tests throughout my trip to ensure I was not an asymptomatic carrier and didn’t pick up anything on the way.

Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks

Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.

Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years.

My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:

Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!

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