Jul 28, 2020

Putting joy into the journey on a COVID-19 driving trip

Front desk at the Phoenix Inn in Eugene, Oregon 

Advice for "staying safe" on road trips seems to be in the news these days as Americans eschew air travel, and remain unwelcome outside the U.S. due the spread of COVID-19.

I've never liked use of the word "safe" to describe ways to travel responsibly. I hate it when someone bids me "safe travels." Telling someone to "stay safe" implies there's something to fear. Up until now that meant a terrorist attack, a protest, or  simply encountering something or someone "foreign." Now it's COVID-19.

My husband and I recently took a driving trip from our home in Seattle. The main purpose was to to visit my mother in Ashland, Oregon, 450 miles away. We planned thoughtfully for what turned out to be a successful and enjoyable four-day venture bookended with stops in Eugene and Bend to visit friends. A bonus was traveling through Crater Lake National Park between Ashland and Bend. Visitors were few, and the views spectacular. 

"Must have been scary," an acquaintance remarked when he heard about our trip. He wondered where we stayed, how we went to the bathroom and how we ate. I can't offer tips that will keep you "safe," but I can offer some insight into how you can do limited local travel that minimizes health risks while putting joy into the journey. 

Responsibility comes first

Most areas of the country are not encouraging anything beyond limited non-essential travel, so  have a good reason to leave your state, keep the trip short, and consider your impact on the destination. In our case, Washington and Oregon are neighboring states that generally adhere to similar health and safety protocols.

Washington has more COVID cases than Oregon, but the numbers vary widely, depending on the region and the county. Cases were few in the three Oregon counties we visited. We've also had very few cases in our own zip code here in Seattle.

Tom and I don't gather in groups, go to parties, or go inside people's homes. We do go to the grocery every two weeks, and get together with friends two at a time for picnics, a walk, or a socially-distanced happy hour on our deck. While we didn't self-isolate before we left, we did limit these activities the week before. 

On the road

We intentionally broke up the drive into 3-6-hour segments, minimizing the need for stops. Packed snacks and water kept going after breakfast until we got to our next destination. Tom used roadside rest stops for bathroom breaks (nicer in Oregon than Washington), while I lobbied for McDonald's where the restrooms appeared to be cleaned often. 

Where to stay

I see no reason for sleeping in your car, or camping to "stay safe," unless, of course, you enjoy camping. If so, be aware that campgrounds and RV parks are attracting many visitors. Your chances of contact with others is probably less at a hotel or Airbnb. 

We love bed and breakfasts, but for now the best strategy for reducing COVID risk seems to be to limit contact with groups of people, especially in shared indoor spaces. This is why we opted for two Airbnb stays, both in self-contained, mother-in-law type units where we were the only guests.

Both units - In Ashland, a converted two-story garage with an upper deck for socially-distanced visiting, and in Bend, a farmhouse cottage - offered self-check in. Under different circumstances, it would have been nice to meet the owners, but communication through text and e-mail went smoothly.

Our Airbnb in Ashland, Oregon 

Hotels make a fuss about how and how often they clean their rooms, but given the low risks associated with touching surfaces, I'm more concerned about how many people I might run into in the lobby, elevators, at check-in etc. Unable to find a suitable Airbnb in Eugene, we opted for a room at the Phoenix Inn Suites, part of an Oregon chain that had closed during the beginning of the pandemic, and reopened July 1.

This hotel could be a model for COVID-19 planning. They day before we left, I received an e-mail for online check-in. I was asked to take a picture of my driver's license and download it onto a secure site along with my credit card information. A desk clerk, wearing a face shield, greeted us with a key card, and offered free face masks along with a menu for a grab-and-go breakfast. The room itself seemed no different than before, with the exception of paper coffee cups in place of ceramic ones, and a "clean" TV remote coated in plastic. For now, the Phoenix leaves rooms unoccupied for 24 hours between guests. 

Where to eat

We're avoiding eating inside at restaurants for now, but do take advantage of the nice weather to occasionally eat outdoors. I researched restaurants with decks and patios before we left, and came up with a list of possibilities in all three cities. We made a pact. If they were crowded, or seemed risky, we'd leave and look elsewhere. 

Our most relaxing meal was probably an early-morning breakfast at SweetWaters on the River in Eugene. No crowds and lots of shade at 7:30 a.m. on the deck overlooking the Willamette River bike trail. A close second was the patio at the McCay Cottage in Bend. It was surprisingly busy around that same time (a Saturday vs. our Wednesday breakfast in Eugene). Normally we would have taken one of the tables inside the 916 bungalow with its kitschy antique furnishings. Instead we waited patiently for a table outside.

Having a kitchen in our Ashland Airbnb meant we could pop into town and bring a bakery breakfast back to our deck. For dinner one evening, we brought picnic food and wine  to a table in my mother's backyard. In Eugene and Bend, we ate dinner on the patios of our friends' homes. 

The watchword for all of our meals was "outside." While this is doable in most places this time of year, it won't be as we move into fall and winter. Or maybe it will. These times remind me of a visit to China a few years ago where we stayed with a family who ran a small bed and breakfast. They ate all their meals outdoors year-round. When it was cold, they came to the table in coats and hats. 

Taking in the view of Crater Lake on the drive from Ashland to Bend 


  1. Hi, Carol:
    I enjoy reading about your travels, both at home and abroad, but I was wondering if you might consider including the date of the post, instead of only the time of day?

    1. if you place your cursor over the time, the entire datestamp appears in a popup box; date is before the "T".

      Posted by Carol Pucci at 2:31 PM
      Labels: Coronavirus, COVID-19, Northwest

  2. I enjoyed reading of your road trip. We've traveled and stayed in hotels since the country reopened just because they are cleaned and sanitized to the letter of the law here in Greece and social distancing (at least inside hotels and restaurants is being strictly enforced). I know a lot of folks say they feel better staying at an Air BnB but I think I would be a bit concerned at who had stayed there before me and what standards of cleaning and sanitizing are being used by the owners. Sounds like you had some good stays though so as Rick Steves always says, keep on traveling!

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  4. I think sending a picture of a driver's license is a bit over the top. They should be able to check id, but looking at it as you hold it up on the other side of the plexiglas, they certainly should not be keeping digital copies of it. I enjoyed reading the article, but am not impressed by the driver's license and credit card issue. They can pre-authorize a tokenized "tap" credit card transaction. About time hotels updated their 1980's systems anyway.