5 Helpful Hints for your US Road Trip while waiting to go to Europe

Oh, my word. I want to travel to Europe so much. But we just have to keep waiting, for now.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed international travel dramatically in 2020.  Most European countries are restricting entry for Americans. Those that do allow Americans to enter, often require a 14-day quarantine and/or coronavirus testing before it is possible to move about the country. 

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Canadians are allowed to visit many EU countries, but upon return to Canada, they nearly always need to quarantine for 14 days.

Some travelers to Iceland were recently surprised to find they had to undergo a coronavirus test when they arrived in the country and then quarantine for 5 days in a hotel prepared for this, while waiting for the test results.

These regulations are constantly changing, so anyone interested in traveling to Europe from North America needs to understand the risks and regulations related to the specific country they are coming from and going to.

That is all to say, most of us have to wait before we can go to Europe. It’s worth the wait! But we have to wait, nonetheless.

So, what can we do in the meantime? We CAN take a road trip in the country where we are! But even this is not without its risks, as we are still in the middle of a pandemic.

Setting out on a US Road Trip

ETC at Yellowstone National Park

ETC at Yellowstone National Park

Greg and I have literally been couch surfing since we returned from Italy in March. We have been bouncing from generous family to welcoming friends in order to have a roof above our head. I was pretty apprehensive when we started out on a road trip at the end of May. We were coming out of “safer at home orders” in Wisconsin (where we stayed with our daughter, Chelsea, and her husband), and I was pretty tentative about traveling in this new environment.

Since that time, we have visited friends and family in Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, and Montana. We also visited Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands. We had a great time! And we have learned a thing or two about staying safe while taking a road trip around the US. Staying healthy is key to having fun on this kind of adventure. So far, we’ve been successful! 

These are some helpful hints for your road trip while waiting to travel to Europe, or any other international destination. They are based on our experience in the US, but of course, they will work in Canada too! 

1)    Plan Ahead for your Road Trip – But Not Too Far Ahead

I am a planner. I love to do lots and lots for research before setting out on a trip. Learning about where we’ll go, what we’ll see, and places that are important in the area, makes the trip even more meaningful. I also love to research hotels, restaurants and activities so we can maximize our time while we are visiting new places!

That said, I usually have all my ducks in a row before we set out on a trip. Traveling in today’s environment is different, though. We are living in a state of flux. Coronavirus hotspots can crop up quickly, and rules and regulations are different in every state, and can change from one day to the next. 

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

This makes it a challenge to plan a trip! But it’s far from impossible. My recommendation is to outline where you think you want to go, and then pay attention to the news. Keep an open mind and if things become sketchy where you planned to travel, change your plans. It’s not like you have a plane to catch…. you’re on a road trip! 

So, book hotels with the right to cancel, and then change plans if you have to. Or, wait to book your lodging until a few days before you will arrive, when you have up to date information. You may not get your first choice this way, but you might land on a place that is fun, and different than you would have chosen in other circumstances, and that’s OK!

There are lots of places to go – decide on a great Plan B or even a Plan C, and then go have fun! Just be ready for anything, and stay safe while you travel. Things keep changing from state to state and province to province – stay up on it as you go, and make decisions accordingly.

One thing that can help you do this is a National Park Pass. We purchased an America the Beautiful Pass for $80 and it’s good for a year. With our pass, we can visit all the national parks and stay as long as we want – or just stay for a little while, and we don’t feel like we paid too much. It’s a great way to go!

2)    Select Activities that Will Keep You and Your Family Safe and Healthy

The wildlife is amazing, but don’t get too close!

The wildlife is amazing, but don’t get too close!

There are so many things that you can do that are fun and safe, even during a pandemic. Stay outside as much as you can, and when you do choose an indoor activity, make sure you are able to follow all the best recommendations – or don’t go. 

We absolutely love to hike, so we did a lot of hiking on our road trip. We took some amazing hikes in Arkansas, Colorado, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. 

In Colorado, it was easy to stay away from crowds. There were not many people on most of the trails, so social distancing was easy. Sometimes hikers we passed would be wearing masks, or pull a bandana over their face when passing us, but for the most part, we could hike freely and easily – except for the huffing and puffing because of the incline and altitude!

When we got to the National Parks we asked about trails that were not heavily trafficked. They gave us terrific advice and we spent entire days only seeing a few people along the way. It’s easy to socially distance in that scenario.

Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton

Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton

We took a fantastic trail in Grand Teton National Park through Cascade Canyon. We learned from a photographer we met on a prior hike that we could bypass the most visited portion of the hike by entering the trail from another direction. It was great! It worked like a charm. We’ll go back and visit Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point another time, but found plenty of beauty and wildlife the way we went.

Even though we bypassed the busiest places, there were more people on this trail than any other that we took. We just put on our masks when we passed, and they did the same, and it seemed to work just fine.

Kayaking on the Arkansas River

Kayaking on the Arkansas River

Another fantastic outdoor activity we participated in was kayaking down the Arkansas River. We chose to use Dvorak Expeditions who rented us 3 Duckies, which are 2-person blow up kayaks. They delivered the Duckies to our meeting point on the river for us, and then we put in upstream. We kayaked for hours and got out where we had strategically left our second car. The kayaks were then loaded on top of the car and we returned them to Dvorak Expeditions, and then returned to pick up the first car at the original put in. This was an absolutely amazing activity for us and I would totally do it again. We absolutely loved it!

We even visited Crystal Bridges Museum when we were in Arkansas. We were so impressed with this museum, and grateful to Alice Walton (daughter of Sam Walton of Walmart fame) for providing it, free of charge, to its visitors.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

We were equally impressed with the care they gave to everyone there, to ensure our health and safety. Masks are required, but if you don’t have one, a mask is provided for you. Hand sanitizer is available at the door and multiple entryways throughout the museum. Reservations based on timed entry are required in order to limit the number of people inside the museum.

This was our first museum visit in many, many months and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I felt safe and well protected and was so lost in the art that I did not even notice that I was wearing a mask. If you are ever in Bentonville Arkansas, don’t miss the chance to visit this world class museum focusing on American Art. 

We loved Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. There were parts of these parks where it was easy to stay away from crowds, but other things we wanted to see involved being there with the masses. The national parks we visited were really busy. But we were able to stay away from most of the people, just by hanging back and by finding new ways to see the busiest, most iconic sights.

At Old Faithful, we felt no need to gather around on the benches in the hot sun with the crowds to wait for the geyser to explode. We watched from a distance and had a glorious view!

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park

After we spent an entire day enjoying Yellowstone’s geothermal features, the next day we decided to go for a hike into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It’s a fantastic 10-mile round trip hike – 5 miles to descend and then another 5 miles back up. That said, before you start hiking down toward the river, you walk along the rim for about 2 ½ miles, with spectacular views across the chasm.

We have found that on hikes that are a little more challenging, there aren’t as many people, and that was definitely true for this one. We only saw a few other hikers enjoying this incredible trek through the forest and down the canyon to the Yellowstone River. It was perfect for social distancing. And we only saw one 20-something couple who managed the hike in about 3 hours instead of the 6 it took us to go out and back. Ah, to be young and fit. Oh well, at least we did it and we had an amazing time!

At Mount Rushmore, we sat in the amphitheater on a bench close to the front and far away from others. We ate our picnic dinner there, as we were avoiding restaurants in this state that did not require masks (more about that later). We walked to the back of the crowds before the mountain was lit up so that we could enjoy this truly remarkable sight all by ourselves.

3)    Make sure you and the people you are visiting are all on the same page

We have been very careful with social distancing and masking, but are well aware that travel during a pandemic is not risk free. As we drove over 4000 miles on our road trip, and bounced from family to friends, we wanted to be extraordinarily careful NOT to bring the virus into anyone else’s home. 

Before arriving at each destination, we did our best to communicate what we’ve been doing to stay safe, and asked our kind and generous hosts to let us know their expectations. Then, we followed them. We generally avoided hugging, although after staying in a place for a period of time and remaining healthy, we did feel like we could hug those in our “bubble.” Sometimes we masked up inside the house, sometimes we masked up in the car – we just wanted to be very respectful of following our hosts’ expectations and wanted them to be comfortable with us in their homes, even though we had been traveling. 

Masking up at Mount Rushmore!

Masking up at Mount Rushmore!

It’s just important to communicate with each other and be clear about how we can all stay safe in this very uncertain environment. It’s worth it to make sure that you and the people you are visiting are all on the same page in relation to social distancing and masking.

4)    Choose Restaurants and Hotels that Follow COVID Recommendations

It’s fairly easy to see right away if a restaurant is following COVID protocols before you set foot inside. When we were visiting Yellowstone, we stayed in West Yellowstone. Normally, we would have planned our trip months in advance and done our best to stay inside the park, but the cost at the last minute just wasn’t worth it to us in these circumstances, and West Yellowstone, Montana was our best choice. 

Jackson Lake at Grand Teton National Park

Jackson Lake at Grand Teton National Park

Our hotel was great as far as following the rules. Montana has strong masking rules inside buildings, and the Yellowstone West Gate Hotel followed them to the letter. Breakfast was grab and go, there was a Plexiglas guard between the front desk host and guests, they did not clean or enter your room unless asked, and everyone masked up in the halls.

Restaurants were different. I said the national parks were busy. Well, West Yellowstone was even busier. People could not spread out like they can inside the park. The town was packed. Because there was limited seating inside restaurants, people lined up outside, very close together. The masking rules only applied inside, so lots of people were not masked. It just didn’t feel comfortable standing in those lines at this point in time.

We just chose not to deal with the masses. Usually, we seek out fantastic dining opportunities wherever we go. Staying safe was more of a priority on this trip, so we just picked up food to carry out. In the 3 nights we were there, we had tacos, BBQ sandwiches and pizza and ate dinner in our room. It was kind of fun!

Best seats in the house!

Best seats in the house!

Inside the Parks during the day, we picnicked from our cooler in the car. One day, we even enjoyed apertivo all by ourselves in a secluded spot by a river. It was divine.

South Dakota had different rules than Montana, and we were made particularly aware of them right away. When we went to Mount Rushmore, we stayed in Hill City. When we drove into town to find a place to eat, we first looked for restaurants recommended by our host at our hotel. We quickly learned that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally started that day, and many attendees overflowed into Hill City. The downtown was completely blocked off from traffic, and people were crowded in town everywhere, most without masks.

It just didn’t feel smart to go into these crowded restaurants, so we went to the grocery store, picked up a few items, and drove to Mount Rushmore to listen to a lecture in the outdoor amphitheater, and see the president’s faces lit up at night. We picnicked on the amphitheater seats, apart from everyone, and had a really special evening!

5)    Be Smart and Follow the Guidelines Even if they aren’t Required

I know the recommendations continue to change as we learn more about the coronavirus. But some things have not changed. Since almost the beginning of this crisis, we have been told to do the following:

a)    Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, often/use hand sanitizer

b)    Socially distance yourself from others – stay at least 6 feet apart

c)     Wear a mask

d)    If you are feeling ill, stay home

The guidelines sometimes change from state to state and county to county. That said, if you do these things consistently, intentionally stay away from crowds, and choose activities, restaurants, and lodging that appear to also be following these recommendations, your chances of traveling, remaining healthy, and having a great time, go way up. To us, it’s totally worth it. We had an amazing trip, and enjoyed parts of this beautiful country that we had never visited before. Bonus: we got to catch up with some of our very favorite people along the way.

Hiking Phantom Terrace in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado

Hiking Phantom Terrace in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado

Dreaming of travel to Europe when things open up again? We can help with that! We are here for your custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, the UK and all of Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. We also book European cruises! Feel free to reach out via email — We’re always available to talk about travel!

We can also help with trips in the US while we wait for Europe to open up. We’ve traveled extensively throughout the US and visited many of our National Parks as well as wine regions, major cities, and tourist destinations. We just love to help people travel!

betsy-headshot-1.jpg

Betsy Ball – Betsy is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group trips to Europe. She is a passionate and culturally curious traveler who thoroughly enjoys sharing her love for exploring Europe with ETC clients. Prior to founding ETC, Betsy taught International Business at Tarleton State University in Texas (part of the A & M System) where she led study abroad trips to multiple European countries and other worldwide destinations. She retired from teaching two and a half years ago and now travels 9 months of the year in Europe. She has a degree in hotel, restaurant management from Michigan State University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She also holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

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