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The year 2020 may go down in history as the year of the road trip.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Americans off the runways and onto the roads, with AAA predicting some 683 million U.S. road trips between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2020 — a significant uptick from previous years. Families comprise a large chunk of these roadsters, as low fuel prices and international travel restrictions make these domestic jaunts especially appealing to clients craving time outside after months of lockdown.
But planning a safe road trip in the current travel landscape is not as easy as firing up the GPS and putting the pedal to the metal. Rather, it takes several factors into consideration, including a range of vehicle and accommodation options, as well as children’s ages (and temperaments). New this year, too, is increased consideration of health and safety, as well as local mandates regarding the pandemic.
Most clients will view this as a logistical nightmare. For travel advisors, however, it can be a golden opportunity to get behind the wheel and help families create safe — yet meaningful — experiences.
Hitching a Ride ...During the pandemic, most U.S. travelers feel safest in their own personal vehicles, according to the sixth wave of MMGY’s monthly Travel Intelligence survey, where 67% of respondents say they intend to travel by car in the next six months, and one-third expect to venture 300 miles or more.
Although there are definite benefits to traveling in privately owned vehicles (built-in social distancing and no required cleaning or late-return fees, for starters), families may find themselves wanting extra space or enhanced tech and safety features.
Additionally, renting a car is one alternative for those looking to avoid wear and tear on their own vehicles, according to Rob Connors, vice president of corporate business development for Enterprise Holdings (which includes Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent a Car).
Connors notes that Enterprise is beginning to experience a week-over-week uptick in reservations after initially facing business challenges due to the pandemic.
“In our neighborhood locations, our commercial business is seeing more and longer trips via road trips that might have otherwise been via air,” he said. “We anticipate those locations to be the first to recover, as customers start slowly traveling domestically again by car for both leisure and business. Not surprisingly, we anticipate airport and international locations to be slower to recover.”
The company also recently introduced its Complete Clean Pledge. In addition to retraining staff on enhanced health and safety measures, including practicing social distancing, wearing face masks and learning about branch location sanitation, the pledge includes a modified rental process with curbside pickup and delivery.
All rental vehicles will also be washed, vacuumed, wiped down and sanitized, with an added focus on more than 20 high-touch points.
For groups that need a little more elbow room, however, a Recreational Vehicle (RV) may be just the ticket.Philip Sherlock, president of All Aboard International Co. and member of Avoya Travel, took his wife and two sons on an RV road trip through the Southeast, which he booked through Cruise America.
“An RV gave us the opportunity to be in a self-contained unit for two weeks, and we were able to keep contact with others to a minimum,” Sherlock said.
Cruise America, which gives 10% commission to advisors, offers an enticing flexible booking and cancellation policy, Sherlock says, noting that “with any vendor, it’s is important they have a COVID-19 policy in place.”
One way to vet RV suppliers, RV models and more than 16,000 campgrounds throughout the U.S. is through GoRVing.com. It’s a one-stop resource for both consumers and travel advisors looking to educate themselves about the basics of RV travel, according to Karen Redfern, vice president of brand marketing and communications for the nonprofit.
“RVing has seen a huge surge this summer because it really is the ultimate social distancing vacation,” she said. “You can bring all your comforts from home, including your pets; control the cleanliness of your environment; make all your own meals; and, as an added bonus, manage your travel schedule with stops along the way.”
Redfern says that families new to RVing most commonly rent a Class C Motorhome, which offers a living and dining area, a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate bedroom, along with an over-the-cab sleeping area.
There’s no special license or permit to rent an RV, but Redfern recommends that first-timers give themselves an extra day for an orientation from the renter, along with time to practice driving, turning and backing up in an empty parking lot.
... And Hatching a PlanWhile extended periods of time together can strengthen familial bonds, the amount of advance preparation could make or break a vacation (think: the Griswolds’ infamous cross-country adventure in the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation).
On a recent weekend road trip from West Chester, Penn., to Chicago with her 7- and 11-year-old children, Jamie Jones, president of WhirlAway Travel and a member of Signature Travel Network, found herself in a bit of a predicament.
At the time, several of the Chicago’s parks were closed or partially closed; museums were shuttered; and dining establishments were operating at about 50% capacity.
“Everybody wants to do drivable trips right now, but it’s really about finding out what’s going to be open,” Jones said. “For example, if you wanted to do Niagara Falls, you can’t go over to the Canadian side. Is it really wise to do a trip there right now, when the best side is on the Canadian side?”
Indeed, pre-trip research is imperative as rules and restrictions continue to change daily, according to Jenny Wespiser, a Travel Leaders advisor at Whimsical Vacations, who penned a blog post on the topic titled “Roadtripping During COVID … Here Is What I Learned.”
There, Wespiser describes a recent nine day road trip she took from Minnesota to Montana, which revealed the state-by-state differences in COVID-19 response.
“If an area, an attraction or a restaurant is too crowded or doesn’t feel quite right, be ready to move on,” she wrote. “We typically book many of our plans online without ever speaking to someone. This time we called every hotel and every tour company. We could ask questions about their health and safety procedures, group sizes, cleaning protocols, etc. It is extremely important, since many online booking tools are allowing travelers to book hotels that are not even open. Do your due diligence.”
Many online booking tools are allowing travelers to book hotels that are not even open. Do your due diligence.
Marla Schaffer, president and CEO of Leaders in Travel, says her office created a handy “COVID-19 Hotel Checklist” to track employees’ conversations with hotels; it also lists any rules and regulations.
But Jessica Griscavage, director of marketing at McCabe World Travel, cautions against promising low hotel rates.
“I think clients might have a perception that hotels need us, and the rates are at a bargain,” she said. “It’s the opposite; they are completely sold out, and they are running at lower occupancies. They have to put their money back into retraining their employees and getting back those furloughed staff, and more money is going into housekeeping. If someone thinks they’re getting a deal, it’s not going to happen.”
But the responsibility to keep up with ever-changing rules shouldn’t fall solely on the advisor. Griscavage recommends that clients educate themselves on the destinations in question, too.
“We need to make our clients engaged in the trip and in the know,” she said. “A rule could change any day.”
Keeping clients informed about best practices while traveling during a pandemic is also key, Schaffer says.She advises placing money on the counter rather than handing it to a vendor; using gloves when pumping gas; touching direct surfaces — such as a sink handle — with a paper towel or a wipe; and using sanitizer before touching the car handle.
“Reconfirm what rest stops are along the way, and that they are open and allowing travelers in,” she said. “There are many locations that have not fully reopened, are not selling food and won’t allow use of public bathrooms. You don’t want [clients] to have a situation where they are desperate for a stop or gas but don’t have an option.”
Qualifying the KidsFamily members’ ages — and endurance — should also be considered.
“When I’m with clients, I do a thorough consultation to figure out how long they feel comfortable being in a car, and how long their kids will be able to handle it,” WhirlAway Travel’s Jones said. “I also ask how much they want to move around versus staying in one place. With kids, packing and unpacking can ruin a vacation.”
Although older children may be able to spend long stretches of time in the car entertaining themselves, parents should engage with younger children, Schaffer adds.
This could take the form of encouraging them to follow the family’s route on a map, naming the number of different state license plates they see on the road or reading more about the destinations they will visit.
As for the endless refrain of “Are we there yet?” — well, clients may be on their own.
On Choice of Accommodations“Something families should keep in mind is that roadside hotels are often locally owned by franchise owners. They may handle things differently. If clients stop at a roadside motel, they may not have the same protocols as other brands.” — Jessica Griscavage, McCabe World Travel
On Roadside Safety“Make sure your vehicle has been serviced and ready for a road trip, including checking the spare tire a nd having your roadside assistance handy and current. Don’t let your gas go below half a tank.” — Marla Schaffer, Leaders in Travel
On Driving Long Distances“We tried to limit driving to about 4½ hours on the days we were moving, where possible, and we spent more time in fewer places. Also, we avoided driving late in the day when we were tired, and we broke up long drives with an activity or lunch.” — Philip Sherlock, All Aboard International Co.
On Earning Commission“A lot of activities in the U.S. are not commissionable, so we have a per-day planning fee that we charge. We also partnered with a local RV company, Carefree Coach Rentals, that handles the logistics of renting an RV. We offer our travel-plan ning services as an add-on.” — Jamie Jones, WhirlAway Travel