Greetings from San Diego. I took a driving trip the week of July 4, my first trip since Feb 2020. I drove up to Carmel / Big Sur for a change of scenery. I wanted to share my experience and thoughts on traveling during the current pandemic, which has changed everything and is expected to stick around for a while. I will cover 3 key topics:
- How did I choose the destination?
- What did I view as the health risks, and what did I do to minimize them on this trip?
- What was it like on the ground?
Before I get into the details, I want to make my stance clear:
- I take Covid-19 seriously. I’m 100% for following health guidelines to reduce infection including physical distancing and using mask any time you’re near people.
- I also believe it is possible to travel safely. It’s about understanding the risks and making good choices. I expand on this in the rest of the article.
The beautiful destination itself deserves a separate post. This post is about the logistics. Let’s get to it.
Choosing the Destination
With that said, how did I choose Carmel as the destination? For a few reasons:
- I was only interested in driving trips where my car is the only mode of transportation. That means within ~8 hours of home.
- I wanted somewhere familiar to minimize surprises. I’d been to the area before and knew my way around. At the same time, it’s a huge area with many things to do.
- But also, I wanted it to be different enough from home. While San Diego is also on the Pacific coast, it’s very dry. Big Sur is more lush, and the scenery is in another league.
- I needed to avoid crowds but at the same time not be depressed that everything is closed – so it was going to be an uncrowded nature destination.
In terms of crowd likelihood, several major attractions were still closed in Monterey County (where Carmel is), including Monterey Aquarium and Point Lobos. While the latter is one of my favorite places on earth, I’d been there several times, and it demands most of a day to enjoy. I didn’t mind skipping it this time and use the time to explore something else. But also, having these places closed, in addition to the other inconveniences like longer wait times for indoor dining, means less visitors and better physical distancing. And of course, being there during the week helps.
Researching Covid-19 and Managing the Risks
While California reopened in late May and some people went back into “normal life” mode, I never let my guard down. I did extensive research in preparation for this trip to make sure I understood how the disease was spreading and the best ways to de-risk ourselves. Here’s what I gathered from my research:
- The dominant transmission route is sustained person-to-person contact. However, longer distance (>6ft) transmission has also occurred in closed space such as restaurants.
- Surface transmission is thought to be scant. However, there is a published study from China where contaminated surfaces (in addition to closed space) in bathroom and/or elevators likely caused an outbreak.
- Shared ventilation system can also be a risk. During the SARS epidemic, there was a major outbreak at Amoy Gardens in Hong Kong where multiple people from different units of the same building were thought to have been infected by fecal aerosol thru shared, poorly maintained bathroom ventilation (reference). While I didn’t find evidence of this for Covid, I wouldn’t rule it out either.
With that in mind, here were my guiding principles for keeping it safe. I’m not imposing this on anyone – just sharing my mitigation strategy:
- Avoid crowds, and wear a mask any time I’m around people.
- Minimal shared indoor space. No indoor dining, art gallery, souvenir shopping, etc – period.
- Don’t trust hotel cleaning (here’s why). Assume the worst case – that the last guest had Covid and the room wasn’t cleaned.
- Stay in small inns, entire vacation rentals, or Airbnb with host but where I’m the only guest. Avoid large hotels with shared ventilation system whenever possible.
I brought my own disinfectant to disinfect all hotel room surfaces. I open the window as soon as I enter the room. I also brought my own bed sheet, blanket, and pillow. Although surface infection is thought to be rare, a study showed high viral load detected on the pillow cover and bed sheet of pre-symptomatic guests (who developed symptoms later). If the previous occupant of my room from the previous night had Covid, and I sleep on the same pillow for 7 hours on multiple nights (b/c maybe housekeeping failed to change it), it’s not hard to imagine the risk.
The sanitation took 1-2 hours at each hotel, but it’s worth it to me. I also brought some simple food and utensils to eat in the hotel. I packed 3 times more stuff than my typical trip, which wasn’t a problem since I was driving my own car.
As for the shared ventilation concern, 2 of the 3 accommodations I stayed in were small-ish inns with its own A/C unit for the room, so that’s less of a concern. Again, I open the windows to ventilate the room. As a funny side note, it was extremely cold in Morro Bay (by summer standards) and even with my own blanket, I was freezing at night and had to turn on the heat! In July. Interesting experience for sure.
What Was It Like On the Ground?
Pretty much like I expected. Carmel and Morro Bay are more traditional than the big cities in CA, so mask adherence is going to be a mix. I was there mostly during the weekdays, and it never got uncomfortably crowded in town. Because of my safety concerns, I didn’t go into any shops in Carmel – one of the fun things to do there. The town also had a lot of unmasked people walking around. As a result, Carmel town was not enjoyable, and I probably won’t be visiting any cities or towns as a destination until Covid is under control. Nature destinations is the way to go for me.
In terms of food, I originally planned to grab some quick sandwiches, but it turns out I could enjoy nice meals without much hassle. The nice thing about staying in Seaside (15min from Carmel) is that good food is readily available. I would eat something quick for breakfast, spend the day in Big Sur with a protein bar, and come back to town for a nice takeout dinner. After 4 months of home-cooked Chinese food, it was nice to switch it up for a week! The one thing to watch out for is that most restaurants close early now – some by 7pm. Some are also closed on select weekdays, so call before going.
I did a couple of hikes in the mountains of Big Sur and only ran into a few hikers. The hikes were lovely, even though fog and clouds concealed the ocean, but it offered another mood above clouds, and indeed this is the real Big Sur. I’m already planning to come back and explore the area more.
Would I Do Anything Differently?
One mistake I made at my 2nd inn was that I forgot to explicitly request no housekeeping during my stay. Every place I read about online had suspended daily housekeeping, and my first inn on this trip was like that, so I just assumed that was universal. Not so at this little inn, and I was shocked to come home to find the room having been somewhat “housekept”. So don’t forget to make this request explicit.
I’m not terribly concerned about the shared ventilation system given the lack of data tying it to Covid infections, but I would still consider big hotels with shared ventilation system to be less safe than small inns with individual A/C units, entire vacation rentals, or Airbnb with host but where I’m the only guest. This is bad news for those of us who invested time and money in hotel programs. It’s also very bad for hostels which I used quite a bit. I haven’t used Airbnb in years, but hello again.
Other than that, I felt good about the precautions I took.
In a Nutshell
Like my fellow travel junkies, I’m missing our former life (although, it’s worth asking ourselves why we travel, as noted by Nick at Frequent Miler). At the same time, I work in science – my company discovered one of the potential Covid-19 treatments – so I appreciate not only the gravity of the disease but also the effectiveness of the public health recommendations including wearing a mask, physical distancing, and washing/sanitizing your hand. I believe Covid-19 will be around for a while. I am certainly hopeful for the vaccine, but until then, we need to adapt to the new way of life. I believe it’s possible to travel responsibly – by choosing destinations with limited footprint and following those health guidelines. I don’t plan on any international travel until Covid is under control. I live in a state with immense natural beauty that I’ve only scratched the surface of. As disruptive as this pandemic is, I’m looking forward to getting off the miles and points hamster wheel for a bit and explore closer to home.
I’d love to hear about your experience or questions during the pandemic.