Video above: RV rentals up as people look to vacation during COVID-19
Not long ago, Lori Morell did something radical: She flew. On an airplane. All the way from her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Reno, Nevada. It was time for her annual family vacation at the Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort in north Lake Tahoe, and she wasn't going to miss it.
"I'm going to live my life and nothing's going to stop it unless it's mandated," says Morell, 42, who works within the Department of Justice and has been spending summers in Lake Tahoe since she was a toddler.
Morell is not alone in her insistence on taking previously planned trips — or spontaneously deciding to hit the road — pandemic be damned.
"Travel is part of the fabric of who we are," says Lori Pennington-Gray, director of the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the Eric Freidheim Tourism Institute at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. "There's this innate desire to travel and explore, and when we're asked to stay home and not engage in that part of our life it becomes more evident how important it is to us."
Different people are traveling in different ways. Some are driving. Others are renting RVs. Still others, like Morell, are hopping on planes.
And the question remains: why? Why are some people forging ahead with planned trips, despite the fact that the coronavirus is raging across the country?
No one reason
The answers vary. A survey commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that 44% of Americans are planning overnight vacation or leisure travel in 2020. Of these, 55% are traveling for some kind of family event, such as a wedding, birthday, anniversary, or family reunion.
That's why Scott Gorenstein didn't cancel his family vacation to Lincolnville Center, Maine, where he's summered for more than 50 years.
"It is collectively our favorite thing to do and place to go," says Gorenstein, a media and talent executive with Sony Pictures Television, in New York. "It would be very disheartening to cancel and a blow to our psyche."
What's more, his 80-year-old mother, who lives in Philadelphia, hasn't gone anywhere since March. "She needs something to look forward to, and our annual trip is at the top of that list," he said.
For others, traveling is about ticking items off a bucket list, and they want to continue to do so. Alisha Brown, 46, and her husband, James, booked a two-week trip to Egypt with Osiris Tours for late October. "Our goal is to hit every continent," says Brown, an accountant in Houston.
It's not that she doesn't worry about getting sick. She does. But she's been social distancing, wearing a mask and washing her hands diligently for the last few months.
"We've been doing everything we needed to be safe," she says. "But at some point we're like, 'we're going to have to live with this.' I have Purell wipes in my bag. I can wipe down things I feel uncomfortable with, like elevator buttons."
Since the only way to get to Egypt is by plane, Brown booked two seats on Emirates with extra legroom. She's also planned private tours on the ground. "The only place where we're with a number of people is on the four-day Nile cruise, but we have someone who meets us on the dock and takes us on our own tour," she says.
The family vacations
Some families are continuing with their trips because they don't want to disappoint their kids, which is how Michelle and Tom Wild of Buffalo, New York, feel. Four years ago, the couple bought a 31-foot RV so they and their two sons could explore the country.
"My husband makes a big PowerPoint presentation before we go. We look online and at books and on apps to find the coolest things to visit in every state," says Wild, 38, assistant director of nursing at a hospital in Buffalo. "My kids live for this trip, more than anything else — even Disney! I didn't want to take that away for them."
This year the family spent 13 days driving 3,734 miles down south and then back up the east coast, hitting eight states in the process. Many of them were COVID-19 hot spots, so they had to make a few adjustments, like vetoing Atlantic City because it didn't seem safe. The bulk of their activities were outdoors, including a swamp boat tour in Louisiana and a visit to Wiener Works, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
They saw some friends and family, but slept in the RV, which has a kitchen and bunk beds. "I wasn't nervous," says Wild.
Like the Wilds, most travelers prefer outdoor activities in somewhat remote locations. ToursByLocals, a tour marketplace that connects travelers with private tour guides, has seen a 128% increase from Americans looking to travel within the U.S. from May to June. Bookings in Yellowstone National Park are up 88% compared to the same period last year.
Travelers are also choosing standalone units or retreats with little staff interaction. The Mohicans Treehouse Resort in Glenmont, Ohio, halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, is a private property on 77 acres with four ground cabins and nine treehouses. They've been booked three to four months out.
"The self-isolation really started to get to people, they were getting severe cabin fever (pun intended) in their own homes and started craving a change of scenery," says spokesperson Miguel DeJesus in an email. "We represent the next best and safest option: close to home, private and somewhat remote, no common areas, no interaction with staff, away from crowds, immersing in nature and the outdoors."
The great outdoors
The adventure travel company Backroads has also been filling up, with popular hiking and cycling trips to Oregon's Colombia River Gorge and Crater Lake, and Maine and Alaska.
Sue Scaffidi, 50 and her husband, Matt, of Buffalo, returned from a June hiking trip with Backroads to the Blue Ridge Mountains, in North Carolina and the Great Smokey Mountains, in Tennessee. It was their fifth trip with the outfitter.
"This is our anniversary gift to each other," says Scaffidi, 50, who works in healthcare. "We'd been talking about where we want to go since November and booked the trip in early January. Then Covid hit and we were like, let's see what happens.'"
Although they had originally planned to fly, the couple decided to do the ten-and-a-half hour drive by car. Once they arrived at their hotel, she felt safe. Guides did temperature checks in the mornings, guests wore masks in the vans, and breakfast, lunch and snacks were laid out in advance, limiting physical contact.
"You're very self-contained, no one else is walking down your hallway and dinner is outside," she says.
As for Morell, she, too, made sure she was going to be as safe as possible. She flew Delta, which is capping passengers and blocking middle seats through Sept. 30. They hand out sanitizer; all customers and crew members are required to wear face coverings
She also spoke in advance with the owner of the resort, Alex Mourelatos, who told her about the safety precautions in place, which includes leaving a "rest" day between room cleanings; not having housekeeping during guest's stay to limit person-to-person interaction; and leaving extra disinfectant in the rooms. While guests don't have to wear masks on property, they are asked to socially distance.
"I'm not worried," she says. "I pray that I don't get it, but I'm not going to live in fear. I'm not in a high-risk category and I'm going to social distance and wear my mask, but I'm also going to paddleboard. How much more socially distant can you get?"