“So… you’re like, homeless?”
That’s just one of the reactions I’ve received lately when telling people about how I’m handling travel during COVID-19, and I figured a blog post around what I’m up to was long overdue (somehow, updating this travel blog during shelter-in-place restrictions felt pointless).
I always say never say never – and while I never thought I’d be a “digital nomad” given the demands of my career, the coronavirus made it happen. Yes, I guess I’m technically without a permanent home, but it’s been a fantastic decision so far to escape the monotony of being in my apartment.
How COVID-19 Turned Me Into a Digital Nomad
The COVID-19 pandemic quickly disrupted my spring travel plans to Florida, Guatemala, Hawaii, and Maryland, and put on pause other trips that were in the works. When I had to cancel my trip to Florida, I was devastated. By the time Hawaii rolled around, I’d long assumed that travel was a no go for the foreseeable future. I decided to seize the opportunity of having nothing better to do and graduate from my MBA program early in August, instead of December. But after four months cooped up in our one-bedroom Berkeley apartment, when shelter-in-place orders were lifting, Nick and I decided it was time for a change of scenery. The Bay Area was simply too crowded everywhere we went – even outdoors.
Since we were iffy on plane travel during COVID-19, we decided to take a month-long break from our apartment, as the cost of renting a house for a month was about the same as a typical international 10-day vacation, which didn’t seem to be in the cards for 2020.
There are a lot of opinions out there around whether travel during COVID-19 is “safe” and a lot of pressure from people on the internet to shut down any and all activity, completely. However, while it’s impossible to minimize ALL risk, for us, living in a building where we shared a lobby and elevator with a zillion random people wasn’t risk-free either. While everyone is comfortable with different risk levels, we decided we would feel safe traveling if we weren’t participating in any risky activities beyond what we would at home (e.g. getting groceries).
Our criteria for a COVID-19 Airbnb included:
- Enough rooms that each of us could have our own “office,” since Nick and are on work calls all day
- A private outdoor space for spending time at home without being stuck inside
- A well-equipped kitchen
- Easy access to the outdoors
- A standalone home that didn’t share a common area with anyone else and offered self check-in
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We ended up booking a month-long trip to Kelseyville, a town in Northern California on the shores of Clear Lake. Nick is really into bass fishing, so he bought a fishing kayak and I followed along in my less-fancy $200 inflatable kayak. We woke up every day at 5 a.m. to get out on the lake for fishing (Nick) and exercise (me) before work. I spent my workday gazing from the computer to the gorgeous mountain and lake views outside my window, and evenings sipping local wine on our deck watching the sunset. We were surprised that even in this rural area, we were able to order Instacart grocery delivery, so we didn’t have to go to the store in-person. After doing the whole 14-day quarantine thing, we even ventured out to an outdoor winery for a tasting.
It was clear that we were never going back to sheltering in our tiny, expensive, dark apartment that overlooked… another apartment.
A Decision Was Made
Once we decided we were done with the Bay Area (at least, for the duration of COVID-19), plans quickly fell into place. Our lease, which we’d extended from June when things were still uncertain, expired on August 18. We rented a storage unit and put all of our furniture, extra clothes, and the kayaks inside. We signed up for a virtual mailbox (which scans your mail and emails it or forwards it to you – perfect for those who don’t have a permanent address!), ordered foldable, travel-friendly “desks” and packed the car. We were ready to hit the road.
The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start, as we spent the first two weeks in Reno, Nevada. There was a heat wave, and the air was thick with smoke from the California wildfires, so we were basically trapped inside another city apartment (we’d initially hoped to be able to hike around the Reno-Tahoe area). The Airbnb wasn’t the best I’ve stayed in, and the hosts had random people coming in to do repairs with very short notice, despite our expressed desire to avoid contact with others. After a few days, I started to cough and feel unwell – I assumed due to the smoke, but in today’s world, COVID-19 couldn’t be ruled out (especially since our Airbnb was inviting strangers into the place at all times). Luckily, the testing situation in Nevada seemed to be in better shape than California so I was easily able to get a test before we left town and fortunately, tested negative. As the smoke cleared up, my symptoms also went away. Whew!
Our next destination, where we are now, was Georgetown, Colorado. While we were initially worried that we would have a hard time getting to Colorado due to a different set of wildfires (viruses aren’t the only challenges of travel during COVID-19!), the route we had planned on I-70 luckily opened a couple days before we left and the mountains saw rain that cleared the air of smoke.
The drive was about 15 hours and since we were leaving after work on Friday, we had to plan a stop along the way. To avoid too much contact with people, we decided to camp in Nevada near the edge of the border of Utah and the entrance to Great Basin National Park. In Nevada, you can camp anywhere on public lands unless posted otherwise, so we set up in the middle of nowhere off a dirt road. How’s that for social distancing?!
The next day, we made it the final 10 hours to Georgetown. Our Airbnb in Georgetown is *night and day* from that of Reno. The host went out of her way to ensure the house was thoroughly sanitized and aired out before our arrival, which was very reassuring, and so far no random contractors have shown up! There are plenty of outdoor activities to keep us busy, and the town has a few outdoor breweries and restaurants that we can walk to, where everyone is very compliant with COVID-19 safety protocols (masks, hand sanitizer everywhere, tables are distanced).
So, what’s next?
After Colorado, our plans consist of:
- A week in Utah (halfway back to California)
- Another month in Clear Lake (October is the best bass fishing month, apparently, and we’ll need to stop by our storage unit in CA to swap out winter clothes + gear)
- Three weeks in Idaho/Montana
- Then, we will most likely go “home” for the holidays to Nick’s parents’ place in Michigan for a few weeks and then to Massachusetts, where my parents live. Massachusetts currently has a 14-day quarantine in place for travelers, so we might be there for a while unless testing is easy to get (we’re not counting on anything this far out).
After the holidays, we have no plans. We figured we shouldn’t book anything more than 3-4 months out at this point, given that the country’s situation is subject to change rapidly.
If you’re looking to travel safely within the US during COVID-19, these are my personal guidelines.
I highly recommend consulting the CDC guidelines, of course, since I’m not a doctor or official provider of medical advice! But this is how I feel comfortable continuing to travel, despite the state of the country.
- Book an entire house. Strive to book an Airbnb or vacation house where you won’t be in contact with others. Filters you can select include “entire place” and “self-check-in.” So far, everywhere we’ve stayed had check-in via a keypad, so we haven’t had to meet our hosts IRL. With a hotel, while they might be allowing contactless check-in, you’re sharing space with strangers inevitably every time you walk to and from your room. (Plus, who wants to hang out in a hotel room all day?).
- Your space matters. Pick a house that looks like a nice place to hang out in, so you’ll feel comfortable spending a lot of time there. Colorado and Nevada are both a lot more open than California (e.g. indoor dining is available) but I’m choosing, for now, to avoid spending time indoors with strangers for non-essential reasons.
- Bring your own hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. Use them when you need to get gas, run into a store, etc.
- Bring an emergency food and toilet paper supply in case you get sick. If we contract COVID-19 somehow, despite the precautions we’re taking, we have a couple days-worth of food with us so that we could figure out a way to get more without having to go out into the community (e.g. if we are somewhere without grocery delivery and would need to have it shipped).
- Wear masks, obviously. Even if sitting outside at a restaurant I try to put mine on whenever the server comes to our table as a courtesy.
- Drive, and use camping if you need to make an overnight stop. While everything I’ve read points to plane travel begin relatively safe, why risk it if you don’t have to? If you’re fortunate enough to be working remotely, you can plan a longer drive and stay somewhere for weeks or months to make it worth the trip. While I’ve seen some people gripe about road trippers using gas stations and bathrooms, a lot of the more recent evidence around COVID-19 transmission points to airborne as the main source. An outdoor gas pump is unlikely to be COVID-ridden, but you can always wipe it down and/or sanitize your hands after touching it. Same with bathrooms – as long as you’re in and out as quickly as possible, wash your hands, and avoid touching surfaces after sanitizing, the risk seems minimal.
- Open the windows. When you get to a new rental, open the windows to air the place out while you unpack. Based on what I’ve read, the coronavirus particles don’t do too well in fresh air and sunlight. While some hosts say they already do this, it can’t hurt to do it yourself upon arrival given you can’t be totally confident they didn’t enter the house in the past 72 hours.
- Bring the luxuries of home. OK, this isn’t a COVID safety tip but more of a mindset trick to help you feel like you’re on vacation, even when you might not be going out on tours or eating at local restaurants. Bring some things that make your stay extra comfy and special – some examples we have include a large ice cube tray for making bar-level cocktails, our bidet (we’ll never run out of toilet paper again!) that easily hooks into almost any toilet, silk pillowcases, a massage gun, and re-usable straws for at-home iced coffees. We also bring our desk chairs and monitors, because an ergonomic work set up trumps all else in terms of importance!
- Don’t be an asshole. You’re coming into someone else’s community, potentially carrying a dangerous virus. Be aware of this, and avoid things like crowded, indoor bars or stores — even if they are legally open. Wear a mask when you patronize local businesses. Above all, be courteous and err on the side of caution in every situation.
I’m sharing our adventures on Instagram and will be posting some COVID-safe travel guides here on the blog soon. Let me know if you have any questions about how we’re juggling working on the road + adventuring!