Ways to Have a Safer Family Trip During COVID-19

Your family may be excited to travel now that pandemic-era restrictions are lifting, but COVID-19 has not gone away and precautions remain necessary. Here's how to go big and stay safe on vacation.

If you've been longing to take a big vacation and feel like you're finally ready to step off the pandemic hamster wheel you've been on the past few years, we get it. Vaccines have opened up the world again and a different landscape is unbelievably tempting. Plus, visiting new places together can boost your family's mental health. But what kind of travel suits now?

What the CDC Says About Travel

The days of "essential travel only" are effectively over, but there are still considerations for families hoping to catch a plane to their vacation destination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that Americans delay travel until they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines but gives the green light to all travelers regardless of vaccination status with certain safety precautions, such as checking the local COVID-19 threat level for your planned destination and testing for the virus three days before traveling to avoid infecting others.

In April 2022, a court order effectively struck down the CDC's mask mandate on public transport and at transportation hubs. Even with no mask mandate in effect, the CDC still strongly recommends the use of masks in airports and airplanes.

With those considerations in mind (and assuming your medical status allows), you are cleared for takeoff and landing. But with so many choices out there, how do you pick a place that's worthy of a splurge yet still safe? We've consulted travel pros and medical experts to find super-fun domestic options and unusual family-friendly destinations that will delight kids and parents alike.

An image of a suitcase with a mask, sunglasses, and hat on it.
Getty Images.

Tips for Safe and Smart Family Travel

Thanks to the availability of vaccines, more people are protected from serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, but breakthrough cases do happen and viral variants are still emerging, so it's best to continue to take precautions at home and while traveling. Here are some tips for safer travel:

  • Make sure all family members over age 5 are fully vaccinated and boosted before leaving home.
  • Individuals aged 2 and over should wear masks inside when visiting a high-risk area (and should also consider wearing them in areas classified as "moderate" risk if they are unvaccinated).
  • Driving remains the safest way to travel; masks are still recommended (but not required) in airports and on planes and other public transportation.
  • People who are immunocompromised should consult a health care professional before traveling.
  • Consider bringing groceries with you or doing a grocery run when you arrive so that you can enjoy more in-room meals and outdoor picnics.
  • Camp, hike, and spend time outside in areas where it is easy to maintain social distancing.
  • Try to avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces where viral transmission is more likely.
  • Follow CDC guidelines on distancing, masking, and hand-washing, even if you're vaccinated.
  • Pack proof-of-vaccination records just in case local ordinances require that you show them.
  • Stash extra masks in your luggage and tote COVID-19 self-tests on longer trips.

Disease researcher William Li, M.D., advises everyone to get tested for COVID-19 before they travel, and it's a good idea: Not only will it give you peace of mind that you aren't infected, but if you do contract the virus, it will provide a baseline so you can pinpoint when and where it might have happened. You can get tested for free at drugstores, clinics, and drive-throughs; some destinations (like New York City) offer tests on the street. Do not travel if you experience symptoms of COVID-19.

With those guidelines in mind, here are a few ideas for taking a great, safe vacation with your family.

Have an Island Experience Without Leaving the U.S.

You can thank the pandemic for the concept of "toe dip trips," a term coined by experts at the online travel agency Travelocity to refer to the brief vacations people take as concerns about COVID-19 start to wane. Now you may be feeling bold enough to go farther afield, getting back into true travel mode by exploring distant locales. The following fun, beachy options make staying safe easy.

Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

Located just off the coast of South Carolina, Daufuskie Island is known as "the island with no bridge" as it's accessible only by boat. That watery location means you won't find big crowds like at nearby Hilton Head, and the slow pace of this family-friendly retreat is perfect for a socially distanced, unplugged getaway.

With more than 3 miles of waterfront, it's pretty much like having access to your own private ocean. The area known as Haig Point has a number of houses to rent and boasts a renowned golf course and sprawling 3-acre equestrian center that rents out horses to ride on the beach. But what Daufuskie is best known for is its relaxed way of life, which encourages playing in the sand, fishing for dinner, shucking oysters at a roasting pit, and riding a bike around town to look at local art.

Marathon, Florida

Families that are yearning for a tropical getaway should check out the Florida Keys, a string of 44 islands that tempt visitors with their warm weather, natural beauty, and eccentric hotspots. The 113-mile drive from Key Largo to Key West crosses 42 bridges, and kids will ooh and aah over the blue waters below.

There are tons of great options in this southern strip, but we especially like Marathon, which is closer to the mainland. The stunning Marlin Bay Resort & Marina features luxurious three- and four-bedroom vacation homes that combine casual design with lavish amenities. Fishing fans can easily arrange boating excursions; the resort will recommend places to cook your catch.

Port St. Lucie, Florida

Parents who love all-inclusive resorts will enjoy bringing their brood to Club Med Sandpiper Bay, less than two hours from Orlando and Miami. This spacious retreat is spread across 50 acres of land along the St. Lucie River, giving families plenty of room to roam and offering a variety of outdoor sports that include kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing, and the flying trapeze.

Children will dig the resort's unlimited food and beverage options, 26 included activities, and kids' club; their parents will appreciate its on-demand babysitting and adults-only pool. After a challenging few years, it's a perfect place to unwind.

Go Off the Beaten Path

Not into the sand and the surf? Consider visiting a place that provides the kids with experiences they can't find back home. Trying new things bonds families together and actually makes memories more indelible (it's even been proven by science). "The most important thing is that your choices match your family's health needs and concerns," says Lonely Planet editorial director Laura Motta. Check out these destinations for an unforgettable time.

Sedalia, Colorado

Why not take the family to a dude ranch for your next getaway? Lost Valley Ranch is a sprawling resort located down a winding mountain path and deep inside Pike National Forest in Colorado. Not only is it all-inclusive, but it also offers plenty of awesome activities, including archery, horseback riding, line dancing, fly-fishing, rodeos, and ice cream socials, plus a children's playground.

Guests can stay in one of 23 secluded cabins in the pines, all of which feature cozy interiors and fireplaces but intentionally lack WiFi. The ranch's scrumptious meals can be eaten in its dining room or enjoyed in a nearby meadow.

Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

Tennessee consistently ranks among the country's top family-friendly destinations, and it's easy to see why. The gorgeous Smoky Mountains allow families to safely enjoy the outdoors, participate in a wide array of nature activities, and possibly stop in at Dollywood for a rollercoaster ride (or any of 50 others) when they're in the area.

The apartment-style suites at Club Wyndham Smoky Mountains are a top option for families, offering scenic views and easy access to hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, and horseback riding excursions, not to mention resort favorites such as miniature golf.

Bowling Green, Kentucky

The city of Bowling Green has been a major road trip destination throughout the pandemic, drawing visitors south in search of its hidden treasures. Adventurous types tend to head underground to the Lost River Cave to take a boat tour through its eerie caverns, which were once a hideout for the outlaw Jesse James. They also gravitate to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world's longest known cave system, which is thousands of years old. Above ground, families have a blast zip-lining, looking for wildflowers on hiking trails, and checking out the pretty rides at the National Corvette Museum.

Santa Barbara, California

One of the biggest trends of the pandemic was RV travel, which skyrocketed as families forged their own paths across the country. Try it yourself while journeying to Rancho Oso, a western-themed RV and camping resort in the mountains of Santa Barbara, which dates back to 1845.

Bordered by Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Ynez River, the ranch stretches across 310 acres and provides guests with endless opportunities to take photos, go horseback riding, swim, hike, and play volleyball, basketball, and pickleball. Kids will flock to the playground and country store at the resort's center.

Norfolk, Virginia

Just 18 miles west of Virginia Beach, Norfolk appeals to sun-seekers looking for a coastal vacation without the crowds. At the maritime science museum Nauticus, children can learn about the power of tsunamis, stand in a hurricane simulator, look for horseshoe crabs in a tidepool, and tour the legendary Battleship Wisconsin.

If they want to hit the water themselves, they can try sailing lessons with Sail Nauticus or SailTime or visit the beach at Ocean View pier for fishing and crabbing. Evenings are perfect for a harbor cruise on the Spirit of Norfolk, which serves up delicious dinners with breathtaking views. For a quiet nature retreat, bring the family to the Virginia Zoo or the Norfolk Botanical Garden.

Hit the Ski Slopes

Outdoor fun isn't just limited to warm weather and the summer months. If cold weather sports are more your family's speed, consider family-friendly ski destinations for your next getaway. Getting outside is great for mental and physical health, and it's also a safer way to play compared to crowded indoor spaces in the time of COVID-19.

Huntsville, Utah

Snowbasin is one of the best ski resorts for families, with designated slow-skiing terrain on Utah's Mount Ogden and a tubing hill for post-skiing fun. It's also affordable since children 6 and under can ski for free (during the summer, they'll enjoy the $1 fresh baked cookies at Earl's Lodge, best eaten after a hike or your yoga lessons on the patio).

Keeping COVID-19 safety in mind, Snowbasin has opened ski- and walk-up restaurants, complete with adjoining picnic tables. Gondola rides can also cart you to the top of the mountain for a warm-your-bones meal at Needles Lodge (8,700 feet up).

Reno Tahoe, Nevada & California

The territory colloquially known as "Reno Tahoe" encompasses both the popular destinations in its name and other lesser-known parts of northern Nevada and California. It also boasts the largest group of ski resorts in North America.

Families like the luxurious Northstar property in North Lake Tahoe, which has 100 trails, nine terrain parks, and the world's only Burton Snowboard Academy—a big hit with teenagers. In Reno, check out public street art, scale one of the world's tallest climbing walls (164 feet!), and get a made-to-order dessert at Noble Pie Parlor, featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

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