For the last couple of years, a man from Ava, Mo., has chartered a luxury motorcoach from Mid-American Coaches in Washington to take his extended family on a trip to the beaches of Florida.
This year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, was no exception.
Loyd Bailie, general manager of Mid-American Coaches, was grateful for the business. The travel industry has been hit hard by the recommended social distancing practices resulting from the novel coronavirus.
Vacations that had been planned were canceled, and future trips are being postponed out of an abundance of caution.
But for people itching to get away and explore, travel experts say there are places to go and ways to get there safely.
AAA forecasts that Americans will take 700 million trips this summer, based on economic indicators and state reopenings. That number is down nearly 15 percent compared with last July through September, and is the first decline in summer travel since 2009.
Were it not for the pandemic, AAA would be projecting 857 million trips during the third quarter.
“Americans will get out and explore this summer though they’re taking a ‘wait and see’ approach when it comes to booking and are likely to book more long weekend getaways than extended vacations,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel. “When they do venture out, travelers will take to the road with 683 million car trips to satisfy their wanderlust.”
Denver a Top Destination
Road trips are popular this summer, especially traveling by RV, and top destinations include state and national parks, Nick Chabarria, a AAA Travel spokesperson based in St. Louis, told The Missourian. It helps that gas prices are still low.
AAA expects the national gas price to average near $2.25 a gallon for the third quarter of 2020, down from last summer’s $2.66 average.
Agents at the AAA Travel office in Washington have been busy the last several weeks, he said, but the key word they are using with customers right now is flexible.
“Earlier this year, from late winter into spring, we saw a downturn . . . but now people want to travel; they want to get out. And as states have opened up, and stay-at-home orders have been lifted, people are beginning to think about travel again and trying to get something booked,” Chabarria said. “Whether it’s the trip they originally planned or if it’s been modified or pushed back later, we have been seeing a little of everything.
“We are seeing a lot of folks staying closer to home rather than planning a big trip,” he added. “Although Vegas has been a popular destination for people who want to travel a little farther, beaches as well. But some of the coastal states have been seeing a resurgence in (COVID-19) cases, so that may change.”
And people traveling across state lines should be aware that their state or local government — even employers or their child’s athletic team — may have quarantine requirements for when they return home, especially if they traveled to a COVID19 hotspot.
For travelers looking to make road trips, AAA offers TripTik planners, Chabarria said. The long-running AAA service used to include paper maps marked with gas stations and restaurants where people could stop along the way to their destination, but today all of the information is available online at triptik.aaa.com. The information now includes COVID-19 travel restrictions updates and a map showing the counties where the virus is more prominent so people can plan accordingly.
“No matter where you are traveling this summer, preplanning is going to be your best friend,” Chabarria said.
Beyond mapping your route in advance, booking hotels and planning gas and food stops is important, and travelers should keep in mind that public places, including national parks and other attractions, may have daily capacity limits, so you may want to call ahead or make arrangements for any “must do” activities on your itinerary, Chabarria said.
Top TripTik destination searches between March 15 and June 14 were, in order:
Denver, Colo.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Seattle, Wash.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego, Calif.; and Nashville, Tenn.
Masked Drivers, Disinfectant Foggers
Mid-American Coaches is open for all charter trips, and its tour department has a few destinations still available this month and next:
July 22 — Mine and Dine at the Bonne Terre Mine includes a tour of the mine followed by dinner.
Aug. 11 — Isle of Capri Casino.
Aug. 19 — Missouri State Fair.
Aug. 22-26 — Door County Summer is a trip to Wisconsin to see the lighthouses with a stop for a fish boil.
If Fairmount Park opens to patrons, Mid-American will offer an Aug. 18 trip to watch the races.
More trips are available for the fall and beyond, Bailie said. People can call the office at 636-239-4700 or visit www.mid-americancoaches.com to see the options or get details on charter services.
To help keep customers and staff safe from COVID-19, Mid-American requires its drivers wear masks at all times, and it has employed an extensive cleaning process following every trip to ensure the coaches are fully sanitized.
The process includes a “fogger” or atomizer machine that releases a disinfectant mist for 15 to 20 minutes on all exposed surfaces.
“Once that is finished, the cleaning crew goes back in to wipe everything down from ceiling to floor, every one of the seats, the driver’s compartment, everything is completely sanitized,” Bailie said.
Customers are not required to wear masks, but many are. The two front seats closest to the driver are left open, and travelers are staggered throughout the rest of the coach so everyone is kept at a safe distance.
Daily Military Transports
While there have been fewer pleasure travelers with Mid-American this summer, one steady customer has been the U.S. military. The company is making one to three trips each day to transport new recruits.
“We pick them up from the federal building downtown or their hotels and take them to the airport to board planes for their destination,” Bailie said.
Mid-American, which has a fleet of 19 luxury coaches that seat between 44 and 50 travelers, has been booking charter trips for events and family reunions, but it has lost bookings from schools and colleges to transport their athletic teams to games and tournaments.
There are concerns about the condition of the coaches because many have been sitting idle for so long.
“We are in new territory here,” Bailie said. “When we restart these things up, are some going to start breaking down? We may actually have to start making laps around the building here just to keep things moving.”
The drivers don’t want it to come to that. They would much rather be helping people make memories on special trips, like family vacations to the beaches of Florida.
Tips for Traveling Safely
The travel experts at Mid-American Coaches and AAA Travel, and Dr. Alison Curfman with Mercy offered these tips for traveling in the time of a pandemic:
• Pack plenty of hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes.
• If you stop to get gas, wear gloves when you operate the pump; if you don’t have gloves, a plastic sandwich bag over your hand works well too.
• Wash hands often.
• Carry a mask with you and wear it when you are in public.
• Avoid places that are overcrowded.
• Stop at a park or rest stop to eat outside rather than sit inside a restaurant.
• When you arrive at your destination, use a disinfectant wipe to clean surfaces like light switches, doorknobs and the TV remote control.
• If staying at a hotel, decline the maid service while you are there to limit the number of people in your rooms.
• Be sure to bring all necessary travel documentation, including health insurance cards.
“It’s really just making sure we are still using those healthy, safe habits as you travel,” Nick Chabarria with AAA Travel said. “It’s easy to forget when you get excited about traveling, but it’s important to keep up those practices.”
Loyd Bailie with Mid-American Coaches agreed, and also suggested travelers visit the CDC and state websites for where they will be traveling.