Water parks or national parks? How to take a safe, affordable summer vacation, according to experts


With beaches in multiple states reopening, Carnival Cruise planning to dispatch ships starting August 1, and both Universal Studios and Disney setting reopening schedules for their Orlando theme parks, many Americans are beginning to think about summer travel. 

Roughly 1 in 5 people (19%) say they would travel right now, according to a survey from The Vacationer of 583 Americans. An additional 39% say they would be comfortable traveling within the next 3-6 months.

The survey also indicated that Americans might be looking to save money on this year's summer getaway: Nearly 54% of respondents said that the pandemic has affected their financial ability to travel in the near future. 

Along with budgeting worries, there are obvious safety concerns. There is still no vaccine for Covid-19 and Americans should be careful about resuming travel, says Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, an epidemiologist at the Ohio State University.  

"States opening back up doesn't mean it is safe for people to go back to business as usual," she says. "What you can do and what you should do are two different things." 

Here are answers to frequently asked questions related to summer vacation that can help you plan an affordable vacation that doesn't put you at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, according to epidemiologists. 

1. Are airports safe right now? What about cars?

Debating how to get to your vacation destination? Driving is safer than flying, says Dr. Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at Yale.

"Driving in your car, in itself, is safe, at least as far as the virus is concerned," he says, "versus going to an airport where it's almost impossible to social distance."

A road trip is also economical right now, as the national average gas price is $1.97 per gallon, according to AAA. Last year at this time it was $2.82 per gallon. 

2. Can I stay in a hotel? 

As long as you don't have a lot of people going in and out of your personal room, staying at a hotel is relatively low risk. The same typically holds true for Airbnbs and other private rental properties.

"When it comes to surfaces, we worry about it when we have a lot of people touching things and there's very little time in between," Grubaugh says. "If you're getting a hotel or an Airbnb, all of these things are functionally very low risk." 

The risk increases if you're picking your accommodations for the shared, on-site amenities like a casino, water park, or restaurants. Spending a lot of your time in public areas of the property where many people are interacting with surfaces in a short period of time is less safe. "It's more about how you're spending your time," he says. 

States opening back up doesn't mean it is safe for people to go back to business as usual.
Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson
Epidemiologist at Ohio State University

Sealy-Jefferson agrees that staying in a hotel is probably low risk. Staying in a hotel that is also an attraction, such as the Gaylord Texan or Great Wolf Lodge, may carry higher risk, though, she says.

Still, she urges caution wherever you stay: "If I did [go to a hotel], I would take my own cleaning supplies and clean with bleach." 

With demand so low, hotels will offer more flexible pricing, according to reporting by travel industry site Skift. And it expects room rates could drop 15%-25% from its lowest price.

3. Is going to the beach OK? What about water parks? 

As beaches open back up, you might want to research some less-crowded beach options. "The ones that are too dense are the ones that we would avoid," Grubaugh says. 

Water does not make the virus spread more, he adds: The real concern is high-touch surfaces. So, if you're at a water park, it's the railings and banisters that are problematic, not the highly chlorinated water. And, of course, the masses of people.

"A water park, I hope, is one of those places we can avoid for a while," he says. 

If beaches make your nervous, see what other outdoor less popular attractions are in driving distance. It's easier to stay six feet apart from others while outdoors, and the risk of contracting coronavirus is lower. "Things that are outside are better than things that are inside," says Grubaugh, who does a lot of hiking with his family.  

Research what state or national parks are open in your area on a site like AllTrails.com. Many trails are free to access.

4. What are some other smart, low-risk attractions? 

Kid-friendly institutions are finding ways to provide programming without putting families at risk. For example, drive-thru zoos are sprouting up around the country. The Pittsburgh Zoo, is hosting a "drive-thru zoofari" for $60 per vehicle

Six Flags Great Adventure Park in Jackson, New Jersey, will host a drive-through safari starting May 30 for $17.99 per person, or at no cost if you have a season pass. 

Things that are outside are better than things that are inside.
Nathan Grubuagh
Epidemiologist at Yale University

Drive-in movie theaters are also returning this summer in places like Milwaukee and Dearborn, Michigan

On the risk scale, Sealy-Jefferson says, a drive-through zoo is probably somewhere in the middle between staying at home and going to a regular walk-through zoo where you cannot properly socially distance. An activity where you stay in your car is less risky than one where you have to walk around. 

What not to do this summer

Still, there will be plenty of activities reopening that aren't safe yet. "The virus hasn't gone away," Sealy-Jefferson says. "The fact that states are opening and there is a plan for things to go back to normal doesn't mean that we are safe." 

Try to avoid:

  • Cruises. Carnival Cruise bookings jumped 200% and rates are as low as $28 per night, but experts agree it's not a good idea to cruise right now. "It's hard to pinpoint when cruise ships will be OK, but it's probably not now," Grubaugh says. There is an increased risk of contracting respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases on ships, according to reporting from BBC. "Think about the spread of viruses on cruise ships before this," Sealy-Jefferson says. "It was rampant. There is absolutely no way I would get on a Carnival Cruise ship. In a global pandemic where 100,000 people have died? No." 
  • Crowds. As Grubaugh said, a beach where you can socially distance is OK, but a water park is riskier. A hotel where you stay in your room is likely to be safer than a resort where you are going to the bar and using lots of shared amenities. 

As important as where you go or what you do is who you surround yourself with. Make sure the people around you are being as careful as you are, says Grubaugh: "The more people let down their guard and take risks this summer, the more we're gonna see things go back to the way they were."

Universal Orlando Resort is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

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