Family vacations can be taxing on even the best of us. Airline delays, aggravated travelers, hotel accommodations not exactly as you saw in the pictures, activity arrangements not what you expected. These are just a few of the “wrenches” that can get thrown into what would otherwise be a smooth-running vacation engine. Traveling during COVID is even harder, because of the extra-stringent regulations and everyone’s stress levels being higher.
Acknowledging Reality – Dealing with Pandemic Ups and Downs
Like many families during COVID , we’ve dealt with isolation, lockdowns, mask mandates, remote school, being nervous about the person who just coughed. Those feelings of loneliness and pensiveness have left many of us raw and maybe a bit cagey (or a good bit more in cases that make the news).
Our family has limited our travel to no more than a few hours traveling by car, mostly day trips and only to see family members until now. We, like many families have had our share (and what feels like maybe more than) of highs and lows during these tumultuous times.
My father turned 80 this year, one of my younger sisters passed away, my youngest sister had her first child, and close family and friends have gotten sick. Some, but not all, recovered. In my family, we have a saying, “it is what it is”. It’s simply meant to acknowledge that sometimes the only way OUT of something is through it. COVID has proven itself to be the kind of problem that will simply not allow us to “go around it”.
So, if we have to go through this, why can’t we find a way to do so safely? My family recently did so, and I want to share that experience with you here.
The Adventure STARTS!
We’re Floridians, right now in the Sunshine State (summer 2021), COVID is blowing up! So, a vacation outside of Florida looked like a pretty good move. My wife, an avid birder, had planned a trip last year to see puffins in Maine last summer, a once in a lifetime type of trip for many birders. Then COVID hit, no puffins in 2020.
We all understood, but that didn’t stop the disappointment. We resolved THIS year would be different. I like birds well enough, but out two teenaged daughters were less than enthused at the prospect of a birding vacation. We decided to give everyone a little something on this trip. We compromised on puffins for my wife, and New York City for my girls! I get to drive…See how that works? Something for everyone! (wink).
With all this in mind, let’s jump into our trip and starting exploring my Top 10 Rules for Traveling During COVID to hopefully help you enjoy your trip safely.
1. What’s your plan?
Don’t tell me you don’t have a plan, no one is that carefree during COVID. Our plan was to fly to Vermont, drive through the state on our way to Maine and a wonderful boat trip to a solitary island where puffins are known to be nesting in the summer months, followed by a leisurely drive through New Hampshire and Connecticut on our way to the Big Apple and the final few days of our trip before returning to Florida.
We felt this approach allowed us to minimize our exposure, or at least would allow us to control how much and when we were exposed. Our goal to limit our exposure was to use masks, sanitizer and watch our social distancing, but we wanted to visit Times Square, take pictures from the top of Rockefeller Center, and take a half day boat trip to see puffins. We knew there could be exposure, but we felt comfortable with our plan.
Plans are great, put them in place. Once you do get ready for what comes next, because plans don’t usually come off without issues cropping up, and our vacation was no different.
2. Know the rules and abide by them
I’m not going to debate vaccines and masks. We all have opinions on that. My point is that you need to know the rules for your trip location, so you can prepare your whole family for what they are going to need to do.
Will you need to quarantine when you arrive? Provide proof of vaccination or negative tests? Do you the type of mask they want you to use? Understand mask wearing/removal rules for eating/drinking, etc. In short, just follow the rules where you are, because YOU are the visitor!
Don’t go to Vermont and run around screaming about anti-vaccinations and no mask mandates, the good people of VT don’t want to hear it from you. Vermont, a highly vaccinated state (currently over 75% of residents) was generally very lax on these types of rules. But while we were in NYC, they announced a return to mask mandates for indoor activities, so knowing the rules ahead of time is very important.
3. Be kind to others AND yourself
Airline travel during the time of COVID can be quite a treat. We put a man on the moon and still haven’t figured out how to make boarding a plane easier. It’s our fault of course. Not ALL of us but you know the type…those crowding the gate before their boarding group is called, screaming kids (been there, I feel for you), screaming parents (…the bar is over there…), it can get testy. In truth, most folks are trying to abide by the rules, give each other time and space and hopefully avoid being on one of those flights where you make the evening news for all the wrong reasons!
I’m a big guy, 6’3”, 250 pounds. You see me walking down the aisle on your plane trip, you start praying out loud that I’m not your middle seat. I wasn’t. When air travel started back up last year, there were socially distance seating arrangements, lots of space. Those days are gone. We’re back to packing them in like sardines now, which can be very stressful for families, especially if you’re not able to sit together.
A side note on plane travel today!
Quick side note on seatbacks and tray tables – if you REALLY need to put your seatback, then do it, ok, but if you can live without it, then do so. Why? Because we all want to try and be as comfortable as possible in a situation where there is no way to socially distance yourself or your loved ones and you’re sitting in a tube of re-circulating air for 2-3 hours as you fly to a crowded airport, all while being expected to wear a mask!
Comfort is a strange beast, if you’re an arm rest, elbow hog, try, just try and sit a little more narrowly. If the flight attendant asks you to put your seat up, do it, if she doesn’t ask you to and the pilot announced it, DO IT! My wife will thank you!
4. A light heart and a good sense of humor are REQUIRED
My youngest, at 14, has been on two flights in her life so she spent more time freaking out about takeoffs than air quality. Her sister and I were not terribly helpful with comments like, “what is that metal thing hanging off the wing” or “is it supposed to make that noise?”
I get it…we can be bad! But those comments actually help her, because she knows we’re saying it to make her laugh and trying to put her at ease. The one thing we have in abundance in our family is humor. We used it readily to get through hectic situations.
Whether it’s making sure we stopped in Waterbury, VT to visit the Ben & Jerry’s Graveyard (had to get a pic with SNL favorite flavor, Schweddy Balls) or my daughter losing her crocs after swimming at the Mad River and resorting to wearing my size 14 sneakers to climb around the hills near Sugarbrush Farm, we find humor a staple to get us through difficult times.
Just use what you have to get yourselves SAFELY through your trip.
5. When the wheels come off…Improvise
Earlier, I mentioned my wife is a birder, so the WHOLE point of this trip was to see puffins in Maine. I had said before the trip, “as long as we see puffins, everything else is gravy”…are you one of those people that should NEVER say something like that aloud? Like me…
We were halfway through Vermont on Wednesday heading to New Hampshire when my wife got the note that our puffin trip *may* be canceled on Friday. The weather report was not promising, but if we could make it to Maine tomorrow morning, we could go. That wasn’t an option, so our whole trip was thrown into a holding pattern.
Sitting in Concord, New Hampshire, on the steps of the State House, we wondered whether we should drive any further north if we were not going to get puffins at all?
Dinner at the Barley House, recommended by the folks at Centennial Hotel, didn’t seem to help our trip appetites, as we were scrambling to find a reason to bother to go to Maine at all now. Susan was upset, I was mad, the girls were not much concerned either way. After getting some eats (and a few drinks) is us, we resolved that the best course of action was to go to Maine anyways.
6. Don’t miss out even when you do
We figured 1) give the weather a chance to clear and perhaps the captain goes ahead, but more importantly, 2) we were within spitting distance of a number of other great opportunities to visit in Maine, so why not take advantage?
Lemons to lemonade and all that, we decided to switch up and drive to Augusta, ME the next day, stopping to see lighthouses along the way. The boat captain, to his credit, let us know early the next day that the trip would be cancelled. That turned a trip up the coast to Machiasport into a leisurely drive down the coastal highway to experience Maine as best we could. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip!
Driving through Camden, on the day of the Camden Cup, stopping at numerous little hamlets along the way to see the local landscapes turned an otherwise miserable miss into a salvageable day. But my wife was not going to give up that easily. She managed to find a place in Boothbay Harbor called Cap’n Fish’s, who had a boat trip that would take us out near an island, not land on it, but at least SEE these little bird beauties. Only down side, it was 1.5 hour driving in the wrong direction. So, what do you do? You drive an 1.5 hour and do it happily because sometimes the best plans are the ones that get messed up on the way to a better time!
7. Setting expectations
On our first morning in NYC, I had committed the cardinal sin of family travel: failing to set expectations for the day with everyone the night before. I assumed everyone would want to bolt out of bed and get busy in NYC, not so much with my girls. Traveling always has expectations and the more family members you have the more divergent those expectations can become.
After a rocky start, we re-grouped, made our way to the MET, dealt with child blisters (bring a first-aid kit, believe me you do not want to have to buy bandaids in NYC). Made it to the Fashion Institute of Technology for my oldest to visit, Rockefeller Center for my youngest and Times Square for everyone!
All in all, NYC is still there and coming back, but everyone said the crowds were not back yet. Personally, I’ll take this version of NYC! I could drive in the city, we took the subway (first time for everyone), and we enjoyed lively conversations with everyone we encountered.
Bottom line, set those expectations, so you and your family know what to expect. If you want to get an early start, be sure everyone in your party knows what to expect. If you are a morning shower person then give yourself extra time to get up and get going.
8. On the way to where you’re going, take a break
You just got done with a multi-stop flight in the age of COVID. Take a break. Imbibe as needed but remain responsible. The word of the day for rule 5 is “decompress”. Stress occurs these days when we are just sitting somewhere minding out own business. Even if you’re vaccinated, none of these shots are 100% effective so we know the underlying stress of infection and so on weighs. Decompressing is not an option; it’s a requirement.
Most of the spots we hit were weather-friendly, and even the light rain in VT was enjoyable! Because being outside in Vermont is better than no vacation at all! You can react positively or negatively to stimuli, just remember, decompressing isn’t just for the adults, because the kids need a break too!
Vermont is famous for its covered bridges. We visited a few, and in between those stops, we dipped our feet in the Mad River, saw a Farmer’s Market in the middle of Woodstock, and took a tour of the maple and cheese farm called Sugarbush Farm. We also saw glassblowing in Simon Pierce’s shop and took pictures of the Quechee Gorge. All in all, a very relaxing 8 hours in the van! Stopping as we wanted to and enjoying ourselves the whole way!
9. Go slow
We are not ALL back to 100%, yet. Restaurants, bars, stores all are dealing with lack of employees, COVID changing environments in their stores, disagreeable customers. We are all trying to get through this. So, give the other person a break. Let them know you appreciate their efforts. A kind word does a soul good. Yours and theirs. We found on this trip especially, that most vendors are happy to have folks visiting again and are thrilled to share their own experiences and insights.
The one thing I found throughout this trip is that people WANT (and NEED) to re-engage with each other. There were so many examples of complete strangers striking up conversations, participating with one another where we maybe didn’t before COVID. Humans obviously have a deep desire to interact, and as we re-emerge from our COVID cocoons, you can see it on the faces of those we speak with. The casual conversations that last a bit longer because, Lord, how we miss that connection with one another.
Just remember, everyone is moving at their pace, which may not be YOUR pace, but on this trip, no matter where we were, the feeling was uniform and deep! We got this!
10. You get more with honey than vinegar
We covered 1374 miles in that rental van across 6 states in 8 days. Our wait staff, cab drivers, ticket takers, vendors or other visitors were all wonderful. Not because we were just fortunate, but rather I found that it was because we struck up conversations with them, asked them how they were doing, it was like being with family and friends rather than strangers. We’ve all been dealing with COVID, now we want to get beyond it. For some, being able to just talk to someone is food for their souls!
Yours too, perhaps!!
Throughout this trip, we made sure to engage with each and every caregiver we encountered and maybe that’s why we enjoyed our time together. I call them all caregivers because right now, in this moment, that’s what we ALL are. Whether we give good or bad care, depends greatly on our approach.
Just remember…Breathe…We (and that includes you too) got this!
A few personal notes
Kiron at Le Soleil, our hotel in NYC, you are the man! If you want to enjoy your time in NYC a good concierge is the key. The hotel was quiet (even for NYC), family-friendly and Kiron, I seriously don’t know how he did it, perhaps he has a twin, because no one could be in that many places at once!
To the wonderful staff at Cap’n Fish’s, you made my wife’s dream of puffins happen. I salute you!
To the great folks at Han Bat on 35th St, Kamsahamnida! The food was phenomenal!