Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2021 may be the Year of the Road Trip. This is how to plan a good one.

From covid safety to scoping out where to stay, these are the new rules of the road

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Road trips were different in 2020. Last year our advice focused on getting where you were going fast and spending as little time as possible in public spaces, like bathrooms to avoid so-called coronavirus toilet plumes (sorry to bring that up again).

Some of those tips will hold over into 2021. As more people are planning trips again and getting vaccines to do so safely, “normal” travel may resume later this year. But travel industry insiders are still predicting road trips to be popular, and not just for their utility. People are looking forward to the Great American Road Trip, even as the masses return to flying.

You’ll still need to keep the pandemic and typical road trip concerns top of mind. You’ve heard not to let your gas tank get past a quarter of a tank; now you need to remember to pack extra face masks, too. These are the new rules for road tripping in 2021.

We could be traveling again by summer. This is what to consider before you plan.

Covid safety should still be on your radar

Of course, until the pandemic is fully over, coronavirus will still be a factor in how you travel.

With states lifting restrictions and mandates, you will still have to pay attention to local guidelines on quarantines, mask ordinances, curfews and dining restrictions. Your best resources are the government websites of wherever you are headed, or you can use AAA’s COVID-19 Travel Restrictions Map.

Your experience will vary depending on the law of the land, so be prepared to encounter the return of unmasked partying in Florida or, on the other side of the spectrum, bring proof of a negative coronavirus test or quarantine for 10 days if you want to go to Maine.

While you don’t have to be hypervigilant about sanitizing every surface you come across, Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project, recommends focusing on maintaining good hand hygiene, opting for contactless check-in and check-out at hotels when possible, wearing a mask and keeping a healthy distance when around others in public, even if you’re vaccinated.

“Right now, not enough people are fully vaccinated for you to do things like take your mask off or not physically distance,” she says.

Malaty Rivera also says travelers should consider getting coronavirus tests if passing through high-risk situations. Keep companies like Curative, which has more than 10,000 testing sites, and Sameday Health (with services in 15 states) in mind for cross-country testing needs. You can also visit a destination’s health department website for regional options.

There are some rules that always stand, such as making sure you have enough gas and water. Jasmin Shah, a photographer who has driven 15,000 miles since August, suggests downloading your maps offline, particularly as you travel through remote parts of the country.

“There are some lonely roads that you really have to pay attention to signs that say ‘no services for the next 150 miles’ because they really mean no services and no cellphone service,” Shah says.

Linda Jelencovich, a Travel Leaders Network advisor with Super Travel of Palm Beach, recommends people get travel insurance for worst-case scenarios, from trip cancellation to health emergencies. “I always recommend that people take travel protection no matter what, because you never know,” she says. “They could get sick, or something happens and they have to get medevaced back.”

A definitive ranking of the 16 best road trip snacks of all time

Have a destination in mind, but leave room for improvising

You can wander with points of interest in mind, relying on your map app of choice, or choose a tried-and-tested route. AAA has guides you can follow for peace of mind.

Road-trip veterans encourage travelers to have an outline of a trip, or a final destination in mind, as they plan the journey. Know where you’ll sleep each night, but avoid planning each day with a rigid schedule to make space for fun or necessary detours.

“Part of what makes getting out on the road fun is that there are some unplanned pieces about it,” says Jon Gray, the chief executive operator of RVshare, an RV rental and listing company. “I think leaving some flexibility in the itinerary makes a lot of sense.”

Throughout the pandemic, travel blogger Sarah Fay has turned to road trips in lieu of international travel. Choosing outdoorsy routes and destinations — with time for detours found on the Roadtrippers app — have been beneficial for her mental health during a year where we were inside more than ever.

“A lot of things can change during covid,” Fay says. “I like the flexibility of having my car to be able to go anywhere and have my own space.”

The dos and don’ts of camping alone

Plan longer stays ASAP

Gray’s advice for having trip flexibility changes if you’re planning on staying in one place for a while. His tip is to book those longer stops ahead of time. As with last year, camping, RV rentals and national park visits are going to be on the minds of cooped-up Americans opting for outdoor-focused trips.

That’s particularly true if you’re planning to stay in trending places this summer, Jelencovich says.

Think major national parks (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon), coveted camping destinations (lock them in at or, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Hamptons, Florida and Cape Cod.

How to pack road trip essentials, according to two overlanding experts

Pack with intention

You’ve decided on your road trip; now you need to pack. Where you’re staying will change your packing situation immensely.

When the pandemic hit, Haley Hamblin, photo editor for By The Way, and her fiance left their D.C. apartment behind and spent the last year road-tripping around the country, logging 27,000 miles on their Subaru. The couple has camped, stayed in Airbnbs, budget hotels, at friends and family’s homes.

Instead of sticking to suitcases, they use plastic bins to keep life organized. Some hold clothes, camping gear, kitchen equipment (like a cast-iron skillet and a pot for camp cooking) and dry goods. Their cooler is another stackable container that stores perishables.

“It’s easier if everything’s rectangular,” Hamblin says. “Then we do have some stuff that nicely squeezes in between.”

Hamblin says if you’re going to be doing a lot of camping or working on the road, essentials like collapsible five-gallon water cubes, good camping chairs and a Jackery portable power station with solar panels to keep electronics charged are all game changers.

Is entirely contactless travel possible? I planned a trip to find out.

Make sure your vehicle is ready for the trip

If you haven’t been making a regular commute, or your car has been sitting around for a while, consider getting it checked out before you take off.

Richard Counihan, CEO of DigniFi, a site that offers personal auto repair loans, says commonly overlooked car parts are batteries, tires, fluids, belts and sensors. All of these items should “be checked before hitting the road, particularly if you’re going on a relatively long road trip,” he says. “Those are the things that wear out of the vehicle and do need to be checked.”

Cars sitting for a month or more can result in flat spots where the tire meets the pavement, which may impact your car’s stability and control at higher speeds, Counihan says.

Also consider outfitting your car with gear for the trip to make your journey more pleasant. Counihan says campers may enjoy extras like car awnings or roof racks to store bikes and extra storage space.

Read more on travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Vaccinations | Spring Break | Vaccine passports | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents | Summer trips |Travel vouchers | Ask us your travel questions

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport risks | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive

Destinations: Hawaii | Private islands | Australia | Mexico | Alaska | Puerto Rico