Key West and The Florida Keys Vacation Guide

If you are still searching for moments of excitement and discovery but in socially distant destinations much closer to home, plan a vacation in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are an archipelago of 1700 tropical islands stretching about 120 miles off the southern tip of mainland Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

With warm temperatures and sunny skies, the Florida Keys are great to visit any time of the year. Given that Miami is a big and crowded city, it is better to fly directly into Key West International Airport. However, Ft. Lauderdale/ Miami is often cheaper to fly into, and it allows you to drive through the famous Overseas Highway and explore the northern Keys by road.

Sucheta Rawal in Key West
Make sure to check out the murals and street art around Key West

More Than Just Beaches…

It is true that most people come to the Florida Keys for the beaches and resorts, while that is not all that the Florida Keys offer. In fact, there are no beaches in Key West so you may want to stay in the other Keys or Miami area. The history, architecture and food are bigger highlights here.

There is a Bohemian vibe to the city of Key West, with colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, orange colored Framboyant trees, Cuban cafes and rooster running around the crosswalks. Whenever possible, stay away from the crowded bars and enjoy a socially distant vacation in the Florida Keys at these places…

Oceans edge Key West marina
Water sports are included with your stay at Oceans Edge Key West

Oceans Edge Key West

First, check in to a spacious resort away from the hustle and bustle of Old Town Key West. Suites with separate living rooms and private oceanfront balconies overlook a contemporary marina at Oceans Edge Key West in Stock Island. The property is gated, has free parking, and a free shuttle for whenever you want to pop over the narrow Cow Key Channel into town for dining or sightseeing.

Also, there are a number of activities included in your stay at Oceans Edge Key West so you could easily spend a day here swimming, paddle boarding, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, or take a fishing charter into the sea.

Hemingway house cats
Resident polydactyl cats at the Hemingway House gift shop

Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

If you are a fan of literature and cats, the Hemingway House in Key West is a must stop. The home of Ernest Hemingway is a walk-in museum where guides lead you though his life’s important events, while about 60 polydactyl cats roam free through his bedroom, pool and gift shop! Due to COVID-19, the number of people allowed indoors is restricted and masks are mandatory.

Ernest Hemingway books
The Old Man and the Sea is is one of Ernest Hemingway most famous works. It tells the story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.
Key West butterfly garden
Watch butterfly up close at the conservatory in Key West

Key West Butterfly Garden and Nature Conservancy

Next, the small butterfly conservatory in Old Town Key West is one of the most beautiful place for nature lovers. Picture being surrounded by 50-60 species of colorful butterflies frolicking on tropical plants and pink flamingos, some even settling on your clothes! A walk through the glass enclosed butterfly garden takes only a few minutes, but if you are in awe like me, you would want to relax and admire these little creatures for a few hours.

Key west food tour
Take a socially distant walking food tour in Key West

Key West Food Tour

When you want to know where to find the best local seafood or world’s best key lime pie, follow a resident food expert. Seafood Lover’s Food Tour led by Key West Food Tours is a perfect way to sample sangria, royal red shrimp, spiny lobster and conch, while learning about the history and culture of the place, and getting some exercise along the way! Set aside 3-4 hours for the tour and plan to walk along the famous Duval and Petronia streets. The woman-founded food tour company specializes in showcasing mom and pop restaurants you may otherwise not hear about.

Florida Key lime pie mystery novel
Here’s a good mystery novel to inspire your travel and tastebuds in Florida.
Up the keys ecotour in Florida Keys
Key deer are native to the Florida Keys

Up The Keys Eco Tour

In general, visitors tend to stay in the Key West area and take a day trip to explore the other Florida Keys. If you want to check out some of the hidden gems along the way and stay away from the tourist traps, book a private eco tour with Kim Stamps from Up The Keys. Kim knows exactly where the local wildlife (look for key deer, turtles and cormorants) hang out. Wildlife refuges, lighthouses, historic neighborhoods and mangroves are a few spots you will stop at along the Keys, while also learning about the railroad and trading history of the Conch Republic.

Florida Keys have manmade white sandy beaches
Enjoy the white sand beaches at Isla Bella Beach Resort

Isla Bella Beach Resort

End your Florida Keys vacation relaxing at the white sand beaches of Isla Bella, a 24-acre lush Mediterranean style resort located in the middle keys in Marathon, Florida. The five star destination resort boasts 5 swimming pools, spa and fitness center, on-site water sports, fishing pier, marina and stunning Atlantic Ocean views from all 199 one to five-bedroom rooms and suites. Sit under the cool shade of coconut trees, resting your feet in sand, while watching the evening sunset.

If you do feel like venturing out of the property, visit the nearby Turtle Hospital in Marathon where you can learn about rescue and restoration.

Historic streets of Key West are great for walking
Look around the historic homes in Key West

Play It Safe

Finally, the Florida Keys and Key West reopened to visitors June 1, 2020 with county ordinance requiring that facial coverings must be worn by visitors and residents while in business establishments and other public settings where there is a roof overhead. Keys officials’ messaging also encourages visitors to take personal health responsibility and embrace protective measures such as social distancing and frequent handwashing.

Key West is the southernmost point in the continental USA
Beat the crowds and go early in the morning to the southernmost point landmark.

Isla Bella Beach Resort and Oceans Edge Key West adapted a new “Safeguarding Our Guests” strategy meticulously crafted to adapt and implement precautionary hygiene protocols directed by the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) “Safe Stay” initiatives, along with State, Federal and local guidelines to ensure that a clean, safe and healthy environment is provided for guests and staff. The Keys visitor website at fla-keys.com offers comprehensive COVID-19 guidelines for visitors planning a vacation.

Road Trip Through Charming Towns in The Outer Banks

Outer Banks, North Carolina is a road trip enthusiast’s dream. This iconic chain of barrier islands linked by coastal highway NC 12 is home to some of the largest tracts of undeveloped beaches on the East Coast. There are endless undeveloped coastlines, preserved wildlife, great fishing and historic landmarks.

outer banks
Though I did see many dolphins around OBX, this picture is courtesy of outerbanks.org

Known collectively as the “OBX,” the four islands are home to six towns and 12 coastal villages – all with very different personalities ranging from quintessential beach towns to traditional fishing villages. If you are unfamiliar with OBX, it can be hard to decide where to start your journey and what all to explore! You can spend as little as 4 days if you want to just get a feel for the OBX, or stay for a week in each of the four islands and get a taste for the local life.

However, if you are planning a quick summer road trip to the Outer Banks, here’s what you must include in your itinerary…

outer banks
Sanderling is one of the best luxury resorts in OBX.

Relax at a Resort in Duck

Check into Sanderling Resort in Duck, a relatively quieter part of OBX, occupied by large beachfront holiday homes. Sanderling is an upscale hotel with a North Carolina bungalow charm that spreads across a large area, so families can enjoy private time. Here you can walk along secluded beaches, dip in one of the swimming pools, relax at the spa, or simply watch dolphins playing in the Atlantic right from your balcony.

outer banks
Lifesaving Station Restaurant is a historical landmark!

Dine at Delicious Restaurants

The Lifesaving Station at Sanderling is not just one of the best restaurants in Duck, it is also one of the original rescue stations from 1870s. You can see the many pictures and memorabilia of wayward passengers and crew aboard shipwrecked vessels along the Atlantic shores, while dining on Carolina delicacies – blue crab and corn chowder for dinner or crab Benedict for breakfast.

outer banks
These warm cake donuts are to die for!

For breakfast, bike or walk along the tree shaded sidewalks to Downtown Duck to eat some of the best cake donuts in the world! This is the birthplace of the famous donut chain – Duck Donuts. Made to order, hot and fresh, you can create any kind of decadent concoction you want, or choose from some of their fan favorites. My personal favorites include Hynoduck, Pina Colada, and Blueberry Pancake, but the expression on little kids faces digging into their boxes, is priceless!

Grab dinner, watch the sunset or shop at the boutiques in the Town of Duck.

Spend the afternoon exploring the Town of Duck which features 11 acres of trails through the maritime forest and willow swamp, and shops and restaurants located on the Duck Boardwalk. This is also a good place to watch the sunset over the Bay while dining outdoors at The Blue Point. The restaurant prides itself on featuring local farmers, fisherman and independent suppliers on its menu. 

Commemorate the first flight in the world!

Take a Lesson in Aviation History at Kill Devil Hills

This is where you want to come for a history lesson in aviation. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is the most famous landmark in Kill Devil Hills. There, Wright brothers achieved the world’s first heavier than air, powered, controlled flight in 1903.

Stop for drinks and lunch at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, the oldest wind powered brewery in the US! Take a tour of the brewery and watch how wind energy is harvested to make beer.

Walk or jump over the natural sand dunes in the Eastern US!

Stop for an Adventure in Nags Head

Continue your Outer Banks road trip to the adjacent town – Nags Head, known for the towering sand dunes, salt marshes and quiet beaches. Being the entertainment hotspot, this OBX town is dotted with souvenir shops, fast food restaurants, mini golf courses and fishing charters.

You would never know how fun it is to hang glide over sand dunes until you try it for yourself!

For a unique experience that can be enjoyed by adventurers of all ages, try Hang Gliding at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It’s a 426-acre park with the tallest and largest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. The Kitty Hawk Hang Gliding school offers a chance to safely experience flying over soft sand dunes with the assistance of two instructors. You get 5 attempts to perfect your landing and you don’t even have to worry about falling. This sport is super fun and easy!

For other Outer Banks thrills, try jet skiing, kayaking or parasailing. Kitty Hawk is the largest adventure company with locations all over the OBX, offering a wide range of bike and paddle rentals, surf and kite flying lessons, to scenic bi plane and full moon kayak tours.

Bodie Island Lighthouse has been moved from its original location due to the southward migration of the inlet.

Dreamy lighthouses make for picture perfect backdrops and climbing up the towers offer great vistas. Note: Some lighthouses are currently closed due to Covid-19, but you can still visit them from outside with social distance and face covering. At the tip of Nags Head, visit the 156-foot tall horizontally-striped Bodie Island Lighthouse. It is not the tallest in the area, but the marsh walk around it makes for good wildlife viewing as well.

Soak in Nature’s Beauty in Hatteras

The drive from Duck to the end of Hatteras Island is 83 miles. However, it is highly recommended. Along the way, you can stop at the islands mentioned above, or just spend an entire day exploring the rugged natural beauty of Hatteras Island. Most people who live in these rustic villages of Hatteras have fishing boats. You can charter a sport fishing boat here or watch one of the professional fishermen and women bringing in their fresh catch each afternoon to the Hatteras Harbour. Needless to say, this is also a great place for seafood lovers! Also, all the restaurants you will find in Hatteras offer daily caught shrimp, crab, tuna, grouper and mahi mahi on their menus.

Most seafood in OBX is locally sourced and sustainable.

Enjoy the Surround Wildlife

Pack your walking shoes and a hat and prepare to spend a couple of hours at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (around mile marker 31). The Refuge is a great spot to spot 365 species of local wildlife, including birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. In addition, explore on your own walking along one of the trails, or join refuge staff for programs on topics ranging from sea turtles to life in the sound, to bird adaptations.  

Learn how to volunteer at Pea Island

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick beacon in the world!

Continue on to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (also known as America’s Lighthouse), because it is the tallest brick beacon in the world, standing at 210 feet, and originally constructed in 1870.

outer banks
Horseback ride through the forests and beaches in the southern tip of Hatteras.

Another unique way to explore the southern end of Hatteras Island is on horseback. You will find families of all ages, coming for generations for Equine Adventures Horseback Tour. The guided trail ride goes through the thick maritime forest of Frisco, crossing deep water pools (especially after a good rain), and the beaches of the Carolina coast. You have a chance to gallop your horse on the wide-open beaches, or leisurely stroll with your experienced guide. You’ll have a memorable adventure while getting wet!

Catch a sunset cruise behind The Tranquil House at Manteo Waterfront.

Slow Down The Pace in Manteo

The town of Manteo located on Roanoke Island is a charming North Carolina coastal town, where you can enjoy history, shopping, dining and a quieter pace. Stroll around the downtown near Manteo waterfront to soak in its unique architecture, local boutiques, and coffee shops. Learn about the first English colonies on North American soil at Roanoke Island Festival Park, or watch the seasonal blooms at The Elizabethan Gardens.

Because sunsets in the coastal barrier islands of North Carolina are spectacular on most days, book yourself a private sunset sail on a 41-foot Gulfstar. Captain Dan will sail you from downtown Manteo Waterfront into the Roanoke and Albemarle Sounds. There, you’ll also spot dolphins and birds, and listen to a lot of interesting stories. For dinner, head over to BlueWater Grill for the best tuna tartare and crab cakes in Manteo!

outer banks
Respect the guidelines when you travel.

Travel Sustainability in OBX

There are not many fast foods or big retailers in Dare County. Most businesses have signs at the door stating which local charities they donate a portion of their proceeds too. In the Outer Banks, you are likely to only see locally caught seafood at restaurants, which is generally fresh, tasty and a lot more sustainable.

outer banks
Businesses in Dare county give back to the community.

Due to COVID-19, businesses are mandating keeping social distance indoors and at public parks and beaches. Individuals must wear a mask indoors, especially when entering restaurants and retailers. Many of the hotels have reduced capacities. A large majority of the accommodations found in the OBX are also holiday rentals.

To get to OBX, start your road trip in Raleigh, NC or Norfolk, VA if you want to save a few hours.

B&B Getaway in Blue Ridge Mountains

Are you dreaming of a quick escape to a place within driving distance where you can have a change of scenery and still keep social distance? Do you want to breathe cool fresh air, stare at rolling hills from your balcony, or cool down in a waterfall?

Located only 1.5 hours from the city of Atlanta, are the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the 550 miles long Appalachian Mountain range. There are lots of hiking areas, waterfalls, wineries, and produce farms in the area, which has also recently been nicknamed as the “New Napa Valley.” There are over 40 boutique wineries in the area, and a charming downtown Blue Ridge, with restaurants, shops, art galleries, and even a scenic train. To take advantage of all that North Georgia has to offer, plan to stay a couple of nights in the area.

Where to Stay

blue ridge b&b
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway takes people to Toccoa River and into the Chattahoochee National Forest

There are many chain motels in the countryside, but if you want to have a memorable weekend getaway, stay at family-run Overlook Inn at Chatsworth.

blue ridge b&b
Private suite at The Overlook Inn

Unlike most inns around, The Overlook Inn is an actual home that is built with 6 independent suites, each equipped with a fireplace, as well as a hot tub or jacuzzi. Every suite is named after a hiking trail in the area, and has a distinct character. There is a Council Room (great room) that serves as a family/ dining room where you can chat with the innkeepers, meet other guests, or simply cozy up in a corner with a good book. The log cabin style decor is accented by modern touches, an upright piano, and a collection of books from around the world.

Feel at Home

Innkeepers Bill & Nicole call themselves the “yin and yang” team

Innkeepers – Nicole and Bill purchased the property in January 2020. The couple took a break from their corporate work to start something of their own. Bill had lived in the UK and had fond memories of English style B&B’s, while Nicole enjoyed gardening, decorating, and meeting people. She had always dreamt of owning a B&B someday. Since they started their new lives, the pandemic hit the travel industry, but they saw this as an opportunity to ease into the business. Now, they feel they work harder than ever, but it doesn’t feel like it as they are doing something they are passionate about.

Nicole and Bill have added their own touches to the guest experience at The Overlook Inn. Rooms are deeply cleaned and an amenity basket with bathrobes, soaps and fresh baked cookies make for an inviting welcome. Bill, who doubles as a handyman, chef and receptionist, presents a personalized breakfast menu to accommodate special diets and prepare fresh meals with a lot of love. Three-course breakfast options may include Bill’s decadent french toast with local berries and whipped cream, Nicole’s famous spinach quiche, or new menu items that change every week.

Food to Enjoy

blue ridge b&b
Nicole serves wine and cheese to individual guests

There’s also a daily wine and cheese happy hour from 5-6pm, where guests can enjoy a glass of wine and locally sourced cheeses, while lounging in the Council Room. This is a wonderful opportunity to just chill and enjoy the mountain views from the large windows, and you may even spot some bears or a wild turkey! Walk over across the street to The Overlook point, a popular spot to watch the sunset.

Once the sun is down, you can continue to stay in and have an intimate dinner at the Inn. The Fireside for Two 3-course dinner accompanied by a bottle of wine is only $79 and well worth the ambiance, service and food! Start off with toasted rosemary bread and North Georgia Mountain caviar (vegetarian). Then have grilled chicken, BBQ burger, or a pecan wood smoked trout for entree, with a few homemade sides. Dessert changes daily, but if you’re lucky, you may get to try the decadent deep dish chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream!

Other Activities to Do

Lookout deck at Fort Mountain State Park

The Overlook Inn is located halfway between Ellijay and Chatsworth, 2 miles from Fort Mountain State Park, a historic area that was once home to Cherokee Indians, with a manmade beach, lake, campground, and walking trails. Make sure to hike up to see the stone tower and lookout deck. Situated in the Chattahoochee National Forest, Fort Mountain State Park offers many outdoor activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

Row after row of endless greenery at Chateau Meichtry

On your way back, hike up the Amicalola Falls, stop by for a glass of wine and live music at Chateau Meichtry, and stock up on farm fresh fruits and vegetables from Nature’s Creek Farm. Depending on the season, you can also find apple orchards, sunflower farms or blueberry farms that are open.

To keep guests safe, Bill and Nicole wear masks when cooking and serving food, have tables spaced out and take reservations for breakfast and dinner, to allow for social distancing. A trip to The Overlook Inn is a quiet escape to a slower pace, far removed from the bustle of city life, but convenient for weekend getaways from Atlanta or Chattanooga. With the breath-taking views of the Blue Ridge, you will come as guests and leave as friends!

How To Spend a Weekend in Chattanooga

Are you ready to travel again? Even as international travel still remains restricted, you can still explore destinations in your own backyard. If you want to get away for a weekend or even a day trip, Chattanooga, TN offers a perfect blend of nature, history, food, and culture. Conveniently located less than 2 hours drive from Atlanta, there are several attractions for families and travelers of all ages in Chattanooga. Businesses around the city are taking several measures to ensure the safety and health of travelers, that you can read about below. Here’s where to go on your summer getaway for a weekend in Chattanooga…

Exterior of RiverView Inn in Chattanooga
RiverView Inn offers proximity to attractions and views of the river

Stay at a Charming Inn

Lookout Mountain, the highest point in Chattanooga, has a number of family-run B&Bs, many of which are historic homes. Though the mountain is part of Georgia and part in Tennessee, you have to drive through the city of Chattanooga to get to the boutique RiverView Inn. This cozy inn is well-spaced out, with clean suites, and balconies offering stunning views of the city and the river. Due to current COVID Hotel Standards, they offer a to-go breakfast bag and coffee only, while the heated and salted swimming pool is open to guests.

Rock City Walking Path in Chattanooga
Pristine walking paths in Rock City

Stroll Through Historic Gardens

One of the biggest attractions on Lookout Mountain is Rock City – a geological garden with waterfalls, wildflowers and art. Here you can walk through quiet woodland gardens, ancient rock formations, and a suspended bridge; breathe in fresh cool mountain air, and get a view of 7 states. There’s a cafe and restaurant onsite where you can enjoy a lunch break, before you make your way underground to a colorful displays of classic childhood fairy tales at Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village.

Fairyland Caverns of Rock City
Storybooks of your childhood come alive at Fairyland Caverns

Explore the Sites, Safely

You need to make reservations online to visit Rock City, as only a limited number of people are allowed in at any given time (pets are allowed too). This actually makes it a great time to visit Rock City, as you can avoid crowds and take amazing photos! There are hand sanitizing stations throughout the garden as well as reminders for visiting gnomes to maintain social distance.

Covid Safety Gnomes
Be safe and healthy while visiting Rock City

Near Rock City, also checkout the famous Ruby Falls, Point Park, and Incline Railway.

Views of Rock City Chattanooga Tennessee
Waterfalls and Lovers Leap at Rock City

Explore the Urban Areas

Chattanooga has a cool urban vibe, while being close to nature. The downtown area is pedestrian and bike friendly. You can walk or bike on Walnut Street Bridge, or along the waterfront, where you will see families, street artists, musicians and food trucks. Kayak or rent a boat on the Tennessee river and check out the scene from the water.

Parks of Chattanooga
Stroll through the waterfront trails, parks and bridges around Chattanooga

Stroll around the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel area (access to interior is currently closed), which comes alive on weeknights and weekends. Here you can see several bars offering outdoor seating, live music and lots of people watching.

Songbirds Restaurant Exterior
Grab a drink and listen to music in downtown

Get a Taste of the South

During your weekend in Chattanooga there are several good restaurants that are open for dine-in, with spaced out tables, masked employees, and advance reservations. On weekends, grab a pitcher of mimosa for only $10, and sit outside overlooking Main St at STIR. Latin-inspired State of Confusion has some of the best Peruvian ceviche and traditional margaritas, paired with excellent service.

For dessert, get a scoop of some of the creamiest salted caramel and  coffee toffee at Clumpies Ice Cream. If you’re there on Sunday, check out the Chattanooga Market at First Horizon Pavilion, to purchase goods from local farmers and artisans.


A Complete Road Trip Guide During COVID-19

Due to the Coronavirus, the closing of numerous states and countries have put a pause in many people’s travel plans. Though it may be a while before the tourism industry takes full flight again, the United States is beginning to ease its quarantine restrictions as states make plans to reopen. That being said, family-friendly, affordable and fun summer getaways can still be enjoyed, while abiding by CDC’s health guidelines. Now is the best time to start planning for practical road trips you and your loved ones can experience, and here are a few tips to keep in mind when preparing for your upcoming road trip.

Heath and safety reminders at Rock City Gardens

Pack An Essentials Bag

An emergency bag is important for every road trip you take, especially during this time. When preparing your kit, remember to gather any over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, Pepto Bismol and Benadryl, so you’re ready to combat any health symptoms you may experience and avoid an impromptu trip to the store. To save money and avoid too many stops, pack granola bars and energy drinks along with other non-perishable foods. 

Your main essentials to pack to help you practice good hygiene and ensure your safety include –  sanitary items such as gloves, wet wipes, at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and face masks. Use disposable gloves when pumping gas or entering rest areas. Wear a face mask whenever you leave your car to protect yourself and those around you. Be sure to regularly wipe down surfaces before and after touching them, and you’re ready to go!

The Ultimate PPE Care Package includes all the essentials you need for travel

Get 10% off Ultimate PPE CarePackage with code: GOEATGIVE10. The ready-to-go travel box comes complete with reusable and disposable face masks (including KN95 Face Masks), hand sanitizer, flushable wipes, safety glasses and several pairs of gloves.

The Riverview Inn is tucked away in the historic Lookout Mountain

Stay In Places Where Social Distancing Is Easier

With new regulations in place, several hotels, Like Extended Stay America and Hyatt, have also implemented new policies on how they will maintain social distancing and sanitize their facility. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines provided by the American Hotel & Lodging Association

Before booking a room, call the hotel or visit the website to see what COVID-19 protocols are in place. When checking into your hotel, also ask to decline housekeeping to reduce the number of people entering your room. Try to avoid densely populated locations that are popular “tourist areas,” such as Las Vegas or New York. Also, now may be a good time to stay at a short-term vacation rental, condo, or AirBnB that will limit frequent contact with others. 

Set ground rules for traveling together

Travel With People You Are Quarantined With

Some say that the best part of a road trip is the company they bring along. When planning for your destination, consider who to travel with. It is best to choose people you’ve been in constant contact with or have been self-quarantining with. Such individuals can be family members in the same house, roommates and significant others. 

Try out this fun game that anyone can enjoy while on the road!

Establish social distancing rules that everyone follows before, during and after the road trip. Make sure everyone is on the same page with protecting themselves and potentially exposing others. It’s important to pick people who can earnestly self-quarantine themselves and can guarantee they will not come into contact with others after the trip.

Wash hands after visiting and touching public areas

Disinfect Frequently During The Road Trip

The CDC released a disinfection guide for everyone to follow good hygiene practices for any situation. When making stops for food, gas and resting, bacteria is easily transferred from outside surfaces and to those around you. With your road trip kit packed and ready to go, make it a habit to wipe down the inside of your car and surfaces that you may touch often – such as gas pumps, car door, restroom fixtures, handles, and your phone. Wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face. It’s also a good idea to disinfect your room when checking into your hotel.

Plan ahead and be a smart traveler

Preplan Your Locations and Activities

With several businesses and attractions being closed, there’s a good chance that your typical summer activities are on hold. However, The National Governors Association created a terrific resource to show which states are under stay-at-home orders. For your road trip, prepare for closed theme parks, boardwalks, beaches and parks. Map how many rest stops you may take, and be on the lookout for any toll collection sites that require either cash or card. Also, know which restaurants allow on delivery/carry out, have limited dine-in services, or are reservations only by checking online and calling. It’ll save you the hassle once you hit the road!

~By Virtual Marketing & Communications Intern, Laura Vo. Laura’s a Public Relations Major at Kennesaw State University and has a passion for supporting great causes like Go Eat Give.

Read This Before You Rent a Car in Europe

Securing a vehicle for ground transportation at my destination is something I have done numerous times. I research the rental companies as well as third party offers through Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, and other online agencies. Careful consideration is given to selecting the appropriate pick-up location, the dates the car is needed, best amenities, and best price; and then, finally, I book a car. Very soon the confirmation is delivered to my inbox.

Now, most people would put a check mark by “rental car” on their to-do-list. I put a check with another date, because a few days before the trip, I will call the rental agency to make sure everything is in order. Oh, I do not expect any problems, but I just like to make sure. With that said, I had obviously never tried to rent a car internationally, until preparing for my recent trip to Europe. Renting a car for my stay in Italy proved to be time consuming, nerve wracking, and an oddly rewarding learning experience. Here are 6 important things I learned.

Italian Car Rental

1. Choose stick or automatic: The first and most formidable obstacle was the scarcity of rentals with automatic transmissions. Availability and the best prices await travelers who can drive a stick. Manual transmission vehicles rent at a significantly lower rate than their automatic counterparts.

2. Begin your search early: If you are like me and a stick is out of the question, I would strongly encourage you to begin looking for a rental car at least two months in advance. What I have learned is that only in the United States, Canada, and Australia do automatic transmissions reign supreme. Not to worry though, a limited number of rentals with automatic transmissions are in stock for us Americans, but when they’re gone, they are gone. The ambience of casually touring the Italian Riviera will not be the same from the backseat of a taxi or from a tour bus.

3. Understand insurance coverage and options: The next lesson I would learn was the difference in the rental insurance requirements and mandates. In Italy, Collision Damage Waiver Insurance is mandatory. It is almost always included in the rental price quote. If this insurance is not a part of the car insurance quote, it will be added before payment is made. It cannot be declined.

Excess Insurance is an optional insurance to cover payment of “excess damage assessments” should dings, dents, scratches, or any other type of damage be found outside of what is included in the Collision Damage Waiver Insurance. This is the insurance we never really think we will need, but we are afraid not to get. For this trip the optional insurance was purchased, but not through the car rental company. It’s worth looking at what different insurance companies have to offer, for example Costco car insurance quotes at Truly Insurance may differ in cover and price compared to another insurance company.

4. Shop around for optional coverage: Many car rental companies will try and convince buyers that they will not accept third party excess damage insurance. Do not fall prey to this tactic. Third party companies such as iCarhireinsurance.com sell this optional insurance at a much cheaper rate. Frequent road warriors may purchase it annually and their coverage is available globally.

After much back and forth deliberation, I booked an automatic transmission vehicle, which was covered by the mandatory CDW and the optional Excess Insurance through the third party company, rentalcars.com. Finally, I breathe a sigh of relief, feeling empowered with the accomplishment of navigating an international car rental. I could just picture us cruising along the Italian Riviera.

5. Check for holidays that may affect your visit: A few days before leaving the United States, I contacted rentalcars.com to verify the booking. Everything was confirmed, the reservation had been booked with Thrifty and I was told there was no cause for worry. Despite this assurance, I felt very uneasy, I tried but I could not shake the feeling that something might go wrong. Not having a car in the US is one thing, but to be without a car, or without one with an automatic transmission on a foreign continent would be a disaster. Perhaps my tension was further fueled by something I have not mentioned. The day we were to pick-up the car was a national holiday and most major rental outlets and other businesses across the entire country would be closed.

6. Confirm your reservation with the pick-up location: I needed relief from the awful feeling within me, so I called Thrifty and to my dismay the representative informed me that there was nothing in their system for me. After countless hours on hold, more than four representatives, and several transfers, not one representative could find my booking. Panic set in, but I quickly called rentalcars.com and explained the situation. To my relief, a very knowledgeable agent told me exactly why there was no need for all my anxieties.

To get the best prices, rentalcars.com collaborates directly with the car pick-up location. Therefore the confirmation number was specific only to the Thrifty location in Florence, Italy, where I would receive the vehicle. In my final attempt to be assured that we would not be on foot during this vacation, I loaded $10 onto my Skype account and called the Thrifty pick-up site in Florence, Italy. When I asked about a reservation for Kaylah Burks, I heard the sweet sound of, “Si, Signora Burks, we have your car rental reservation in our system.”

Those looking to travel to Crete should consider hiring their rental car through Mietwagen Kreta. They offer a wide range of vehicles and you can even decide where to pick up the car; it can be handed over at the airport or delivered to your hotel!

For more information on international car rentals, check back for my next article featuring great tips on must have gps options, the pick-up process and pumping gas.

~ By Kaylah Burks, an athlete, who enjoys traveling the world while staying health conscious. Follow her on Instagram @jadenlie

Driving Into Mexico, by Accident!

The beautiful city of San Diego, California is located only a few miles north of the Mexico border. In fact, I was driving on Interstate 5 and noticed highway signs that read “Mexico exit is coming up.” My plan was to drive to the end of the US border, park my car at San Ysidro and walk over to Mexico. It is much faster and convenient to go this way especially if you are doing a day trip. There is a pedestrian bridge that one can take into Tijuana, the first town, an important financial and industrial center of Mexico, and the largest city on the Baja California Peninsula. After arrival, buses and taxis are available that take you into the center of town which is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, the exit on I-5 that I was suppose to take had no sign stating that “this is where you need to get off to park your car if you are going to Mexico” so, I accidently drove into the border. If you’ve ever driven to Mexico or you’re planning on visiting, click here to learn about driving in Mexico. I could’ve done with that guide whilst I was stuck there!!

I thought there must be a place to park at the border crossing, or at least I can turn around somewhere. But no, an unmanned check post said “Welcome to Mexico!” and there I was. Nobody checked for identification or stamped my passport but I’m sure there were cameras all around.

crossing US border into Mexico

The moment I crossed international borders, my GPS went out of service and cell phone switched to roaming. I didn’t bother to print any maps of Tijuana beforehand since I wasn’t planning to arrive there by car. I had not notified my car rental company that I was going to take it to Mexico. Neither did I have a phone number to call in case of an emergency.

Here I was in Tijuana, supposedly one of the most dangerous places in North America. People later warned me that its famous for kidnappings, gangs and drugs.

There were well maintained highways and people seemed to be following some laws. Exit names were nicely labelled, although very confusing and inconsistent. I wasn’t sure where I was suppose to go even though I wanted to see the city. So I just kept on driving wherever the roads took me, which in this case was to Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.

Rosarito, located only 30 minutes south of Tijuana, seemed like a quiet beach town with lots of newly developed homes. There were margarita and taco shacks dotted all along the ocean which was waiting to alive once the sun went down. A few tacky souvenir shops sold shot-glasses, sombreros and t-shirts. It didn’t take very long to drive through the stretch of the main street, which was also heavily guarded by Mexican police.

Rosarito beach Baja California

I stopped at a gas station to pick up a map, only to realize I didn’t have any Mexican Pesos. The lady at the cash register accepted my US Dollars but returned the change back in Pesos. There was no prior understanding of the prevailing currency exchange rate as I got the “take it or leave it” look from her.

Thankfully, I was able to find my way back into the city (mostly through trial and error) and see the main attractions of Tijuana. By this time, I gained enough confidence to park my car and step out. I visited Tijuana Cultural Center, Avenida Revolucion, Amigos del Artes, churches, food markets, shops and plazas. Downtown area was overwhelming with lots of cars, pedestrians, street hawkers and everyone trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel unsafe, although someone who is not use to traveling in third world countries may perceive otherwise. In any case, Tijuana was not the sort of place I would like to spend more than a couple of hours at.

Amigos del Artes Tijuana

After paying the parking attendant with the rest of the Pesos I had, I made my way back north towards USA. The 6-lans drive-through immigration was perhaps the most chaotic border patrol I have ever seen. Separate lines for US citizens, permanent residents and visitors were non existent. There were no signs for wait times, documentation or anything whatsoever. The lanes kept shrinking, so we had to merge every few minutes. Then there were street hawkers who set up shop in the middle of the highway, making it a marketplace. It was easy to do so since we were virtually in a “parking lot” situation for many hours.

Mexico immigration crossing

The Mexican vendors walked around selling everything from souvenirs, furnishings, cold drinks, fast food to puppies and medicines. There were men wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as “pharmacy” who sold antibiotics without prescriptions, ladies taking orders for fresh tacos and burritos, handicapped citizens begging for money, young men washing cars without permission hoping for tips, and kids running around collecting anything American tourists would give them. It was a grave sight while I waited 2.5 hours in line to cross the border.

puppies sold at Mexico immigration crossing

 

medication sold at Mexico immigration crossing

Once I reached the immigration counter, the office asked me what I went to Mexico for, and I explained the whole situation of “driving there by accident.” He didn’t seem amused, as if this happens all the time. Truly, next time I will be careful not to blink while driving, or end up in Tijuana. The officer looked at my passport, inspected my car, asked a few questions and allowed me to re-enter California.

Spring break staycation

Spring break is around the corner and you may be thinking of what to do for fun with your family. A lot of people are also tight on budgets this year, which is why before we put any plans in place, we decided to compare motorhome quotes first, as the idea of staying indoors sounded really good to all of us. There’s nothing wrong in switching things up a bit, especially if you can’t afford to take your family abroad this year. The economy is improving slowly, but not everyone has extra cash to go on a trip. Here’s an idea – Why not have a staycation? The term didn’t exist until 2009 so let me first explain to you what it means.

Wikipedia says – A staycation (also spelled stay-cation, stacation, or staykation; known in the United Kingdom as a stoliday or holistay) is a neologism for a period of time in which an individual or family stays and relaxes at home, or vacations in their own country, possibly taking day trips to area attractions. Staycations achieved popularity in the US during the financial crisis of 2007–2010. Staycations also became a popular phenomenon in the UK in 2009 as a weak pound made overseas holidays significantly more expensive.

While the usual activities during a staycation may include backyard camping, pool parties, visit to local festivals, I am urging you to think outside the box.

Be a tourist in your own city without breaking the budget – Go out and see those attractions that you don’t get to when caught in the everyday life. You can buy a city pass and cover the highlights without having to rent a hotel or car. Read reviews about your own city online (on sites such as TripAdvisor, Frommers, etc.) and find out where the tourists go to dine and view. A lot of museums offer discounts (or free) passed if you enter during the weekdays. You can also arrange for group discounts if you take a group of neighbors or friends. Now may also be the time to check out those nearby waterfalls you have been meaning to see someday.

Create a resort at your own home – Who says you need to spend thousands of dollars and fly a few hours to relax? You can create a resort-like environment in the comfort of your own home too! Pack the kids, the cooler, the beach ball and head out to the pool (river, lake or ocean) if you have one nearby. Put on your “vacation-only” bathing suit, an umbrella in your drink and the sun tan on.

A cruise on land – A cruising vacation involves non-stop fun all day long. But you can get the same experience on land if you plan it out in advance. Fill up the day with activities for the whole family. Go to a local Caribbean restaurant for lunch. Book a dance lesson or a cooking class, a massage at your local spa for the adults and a few hours at the game arcade or bowling alley for the kids. End the day with a family poker night where you have your very own casino.

Some rules of staycation are:

  • Plan ahead
  • Make a schedule
  • Avoid routine
  • Have fun!

Do you have any rules for your family staycation that you would like to share?