Why I’m Traveling With My Family During the Pandemic Tropical studio | stock.adobe.com

Why I’m Traveling With My Family During the Pandemic

Terry Ward is based in Florida and has worked as a freelance travel writer since 2000, writing for such publications as CNN, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, The Washington Post and Scuba Diving Magazine, among many others. She lives in Tampa with her two young children and husband and has traveled with them to the Arctic, Cuba, Morocco and elsewhere. Her favorite family travel destinations are Norway and Florida. See more of her work at terry-ward.com

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What I’d give to go back to the days when the biggest decision I had to make when traveling with my two young kids—now 3 and 4 years old—was which travel stroller to take along (the UppaBaby MINU always won out) and whether or not to bring our own car seats or rent them in our destination (Cosco Scenera to the rescue for bringing them along).

Now, during a pandemic, the decision to travel (and if I should bring the kids along) weighs heavier than ever.

Is it worth getting on a plane when the little ones are still prone to lick every surface and still can’t be trusted to wear their masks properly? Should you stay in a vacation rental and arrive with a heavy supply of Lysol wipes for an extra cleaning before settling in—or is a hotel room a safe enough option for your family? And what about dining out?

There’s a lot to consider before hitting the road right now, including fears of spreading the virus to other people or catching it, quarantining, or the ethics of travel (including being a potential burden on local health systems should you get sick when traveling away from home).

I haven’t flown with my kids since a trip in February right before we all learned what COVID-19 was. But since June, when my home state of Florida began to open back up, I’ve been busy enjoying weekend road trips around the state with my husband and the kids, staying at hotels in Vero Beach, Indian Shores, the Florida Keys, and other popular vacation spots. You could say we made the most of our backyard for many months. Wherever we went, we wore masks in all the public areas, only ate at restaurants outdoors (easy to do in Florida) and enjoyed lots of fresh air along some of Florida’s most beautiful beaches, which have never been very crowded at all through all this, thankfully.

In early December, we decided it was time to venture out of state for the first time to experience Holly Jolly Jekyll, a holiday extravaganza I’d heard about that takes place on Jekyll Island in Georgia. A barrier island I last visited as a kid myself, Jekyll is 100 percent state park. During the festive season, it gets festooned with half-a-million twinkling lights strung through a historic district lined with homes that once belonged to the Rockefellers and their ilk. 

Jekyll Island seemed like an ideal spot to break up our Florida routine (we’d be swapping grouper sandwiches for fish and grits, I told the kids—and “you guys” for “y’alls”) on our first out-of-state adventure in months.

Our kids are potty-trained now (finally!), which can complicate things on pandemic road trips. In an effort to avoid highway rest stops and gas stations with toddlers, I’ve trained them to be able to relieve themselves, er, on the side of the road, wherever that may be. It might not be every parent’s style, but it’s one less contact point I have to deal with on the road. And I travel with plastic bags for refuse removal and a load of wipes for the task.

In another attempt to minimize roadside stops along heavily trafficked highways like Interstate-4 and Interstate-95, I also pack all of our food. My motto is to be as safe as possible, with a dose of reason. But I also have no problem going through drive-throughs (masked up, of course) when somebody is hungry or needs a coffee.

I arranged our three-night stay in Jekyll Island at the Beachview Club Hotel—a low-rise oceanfront property (no elevators to worry about mixing with others in) with a full kitchen, so we could cook some of our own meals. In these times, I figured, it’s best to have options. That way, if you go out to eat and see mask-wearing isn’t being enforced or feel uncomfortable with how crowded a restaurant is, then you always have the option to cook-in in your hotel room. Come to think of it, I guess this is the same reason RV travel has become so popular now, too. 

I’m not comfortable with indoor dining during the pandemic, but we didn’t have to worry about that on Jekyll. In early December, it was still warm enough for eating outside, and we feasted on shrimp and grits and low country boils thick with crab, corn and potatoes at outdoor tables with lots of buffer space around them from at The Wharf and Zachry’s Riverhouse. And while there aren’t a ton of restaurants to choose from on the island, I was glad to be vacationing somewhere with the option to sit outside at nearly every eatery.

We spent our days cycling along nearly 25 miles of coastal biking pathways that encircle the island (you can rent bikes there, but we brought our own), winding through maritime forests and past swampy backwaters and the famous Driftwood Beach. On a normal weekend home in Tampa, we’d be folding laundry or busying ourselves with other household chores—and likely complaining about the tedium of it. Getting away together felt like a good way to reconnect. And the family time together outdoors in nature was particularly wonderful, especially during a socially distanced Junior Ranger Walk with Ranger Ray Emerson, who let the kids peer through his scope at a massive bald eagle’s nest high in an oak.

We played holiday-themed mini golf (with sanitized balls and sticks!) and visited the Georgia Sea Turtle Center where we found it easy to navigate around other people, even if the gift shop felt a bit crowded at one point (baby sea turtle holiday ornaments are a big draw!). There were some fabulous open-air exhibits to explore there, too, filled with convalescing sea turtles recently arrived from cold Massachusetts waters and newly hatched diamondback terrapins, native to Georgia, to learn about.

The one truly indoor activity we decided to do over the weekend was Breakfast with Santa at the Jekyll Island Convention Center, and I admittedly had some reservations about that, since it was held entirely inside. But eager to please the man who’d flown in all the way from the North Pole to have pancakes with them, our kids donned their masks with precision (more or less)—and even kept them looped snugly on their ears for a socially distanced photo session with Santa (he was behind a full face shield, claiming his mask isn’t easy to wear with such a bushy beard). The setting was a huge conference room with extra-high ceilings, tables were socially distanced and the buffet line required you to point to the item of your choice and be served by masked, gloved elves. I think the kids are used to these weird but required protocols now, as strange as that seems, and they didn’t even seem to register it was any different than last year.

At the end of the day, the decision to travel with your family or not right now is going to come down to making a personal judgment call, and weighing costs of all kinds. Is staying at a hotel worth it if there’s no room service and the pool or gym isn’t open, for example? Will your travel insurance cover you if you get ill abroad? There are so many things to consider.

Am I glad we’re traveling and do I feel that we’re doing it safely? Yes and yes. In times that can feel anything but normal, this is one familiar rhythm we’ve been able to step right back into and enjoy.

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