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How to plan a summer road trip in 2021: 'Being flexible' is key this year

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Who's ready for a summer road trip? If you said "everyone," you're half right.

A new national survey from Erie Insurance suggests Americans plan to take at least one road trip this year. And about the same number of adults say they feel safe renting a car, according to Morning Consult, which tracks travel sentiment. That figure has steadily increased from earlier this year.

"Road trips to domestic destinations continue to be the preferred way for many to travel," says Julie Hall, a spokeswoman for AAA. "But these trips require planning – and preparation."

Tell me about it. I've been awake for the past three days, stressing out about my itinerary. It's the mother of all road trips: an epic cross-country trip from Arizona to the East Coast and back. I packed three kids into an SUV and I'm spending the next six months driving around the country. (My secret to keeping everyone in the car happy: unlimited snacks and Wi-Fi.) 

But seriously, how do you plan a summer road trip? What should you be thinking about as you plan your vacation? What kind of car should you drive? And what should you avoid when you're out on the road? In normal times, those would be easy questions to answer. 

These are not normal times.

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This summer, it's safety first

Road trippers are more concerned than ever about safety. After a year of COVID-19, that's not surprising. But how do you stay safe on your road trip?

"That's a hard question," says John Niser, director of the school of hospitality and tourism management at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "There will be a rush for outdoor-friendly destinations within driving distance of large metro areas. I'm afraid that this is a question of personal appreciation of safety."

That means you have to decide what's safe for you. And that's not easy. 

Niser says careful research is essential. Find a place where people with interests similar to yours may be traveling this summer. "Think of what kind of activities you might be doing and who might be doing them in the same space as you are," he says. Those may be safer if they're taking the same precautions as you. 

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What to drive for your summer road trip

What kind of vehicle should you drive on your summer road trip? This summer is all about space – and safety.

Emma Musto, a small business owner from Miami, used to rough it in an SUV, and she slept on an inflatable mattress in the back of the car. Not that comfortable. This year, she upgraded to a converted Ford Transit van. "My husband and I plan to drive from our home in Miami to the West Coast and up towards Yellowstone and Glacier National Park," she says.

Bigger is better when it comes to wheels. And that trend extends to larger recreational vehicles. "Road tripping in an RV is going to be extremely popular this summer," predicts Maddi Bourgerie, a spokeswoman for, an RV sharing platform. She has the numbers to prove it. RVshare has seen a 50% increase in rentals heading into summer compared to last year. Booking early is a good idea for this summer, especially if you want to go camping on a weekend.

And then there's safety. A recent study by Volvo Car USA found that safety was a key concern for motorists. Two-thirds of those under 40 years old (Gen Z and millennials) either have bought or are considering buying a car because of the pandemic. The top reason to buy a new set of wheels? Safety, it said.

Don't over plan, don't under plan

Speaking of safety, there are a lot of traps you can avoid this summer, both when you're planning and when you're driving. First, don't over plan, say experts.

"Being flexible and not being stuck on a rigid, fixed schedule is the way to go this summer," says Marcia Simon, a travel adviser with Friendly Group Travel. She's planning a one-month road trip in a Subaru Outback with her son this summer. They'll be traveling "out West" with no fixed schedule.

Simon, who plans other people's trips for a living, says flexibility is important given the pandemic's unpredictable nature. Another surge in COVID-19 cases could happen, which could foil a more rigid itinerary.

Don't under plan your summer road trip, either. One of the most common mistakes is driving too long, which is an easy mistake in a big country like the United States. Schedule plenty of rest stops, and don't push yourself.

“Never drive when you’re sleepy," says Stewart Guss, a Houston attorney who specializes in injury and accident cases. "Fatigued driving can increase your risk of a crash by over 300%. It can be more dangerous than drunk driving."

Also, avoid driving at night. You're more likely to encounter erratic drivers and animals on the road after dark. 

But let's be honest: You can have the perfect car and the ideal schedule, and you can take every precaution for your summer trip. And still, you might feel a little anxiety, like I do. If it's any consolation, it's something almost every summer traveler is feeling right now. We're in this together.

Tips for having a better summer road trip

Get informed. Some states are welcoming summer road trippers with open arms. For example, the Arizona Office of Tourism is running a yearlong program for visitors called Year of the Road Trip. It has posted helpful information about open attractions on its website. California also has a section on its tourism site with recommended road trips.

Just say "no." Darin Detwiler, an expert on food safety at Northeastern University, has compiled a shortlist of things to avoid this summer. "Buffets, hotel lobby breakfasts, large public gatherings, crowded fairs and festivals, places and activities that do not have and enforce plans to protect public health," he says.

Take extra precautions. The pandemic isn't over yet. Don't plan your road trip as if it is, says Sharon Nachman, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. "Bring extra masks with you," she advises. That's especially important if you're planning to do any strenuous activity, like exercising. "Exercising will lead to wet masks and thus shorter time that they are effective when worn," she says. And if your location looks iffy, Nachman recommends listening to your inner voice. "Go for plan B and pick another place to stay," she says.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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