Top 10 COVID-Era Family Travel Tips (+ Bonus Disneyland Tips!)

Back in PC (Pre-COVID) days, our family did quite a bit of traveling. By the time our middle son was 6 months old he had already traveled to 5 different states and 3 international countries. We were always on the move, and I loved it.

But then 2020 hit and, like everything else in our lives, our travels paused. We were actually scheduled to take a grand European tour in April 2020 which, for obvious reasons, has now been relegated to the category of “Some day in the future…”. For the last two years I’ve traveled through the exciting mediums of books and movies and living vicariously through the adventures my friends and family have posted on social media. I never stopped dreaming of the day we could travel again in real life and, I’m happy to report, it finally happened!

This week we returned from a 2-week road trip through California, starting in Anaheim and ending in San Francisco. It was…amazing. To be in the (Sunny. Warm. Beautiful.) places and see the people that are dear to our hearts was a soul-enhancing super-elixir. But it almost didn’t happen.

Right before we were scheduled to leave for our grand California adventure, Omicron disrupted life (again) and we nearly cancelled the whole thing. I was anxious about getting sick during travel. What would we do if one of us had to quarantine…in a hotel room? What would we do if we tested positive and couldn’t fly home? Would I need to check an extra bag full of N95’s and rapid tests? There were so many unknowns and questions and worries.

To address all of these questions and concerns I came up with a few plans ahead of time–and picked up some tips along the way–that helped make our travel smooth, healthy, and happy. Here are my top 10 tips for family travel success in the COVID-Era:

*Note* Everything COVID-related seems to change constantly, so by the time this post is published it may already be out of date–I’ll do the best I can to keep it relevant!

1. Make Reservations
Most of the attractions we visited required advance reservations. This included everything from Disneyland to the zoo to a monument run by the National Park Service. Do your research ahead of time to see what the reservation rules are for the places you plan on visiting. If advance reservations are required, make the reservations as early as possible–you can always cancel your reservation for free if your plans change, but if you wait too long you may not get a spot at all (This is especially true with attractions that have capacity limits or that are very popular during different seasons.).

Some airports will even allow you to reserve a time to go through the TSA security line–think of it as a FastPass to the least exciting/most stressful ride of your life! If you’ll be traveling through SeaTac airport in Seattle, you can reserve your spot with the Spot Saver app or website from 5AM-1PM (and you can actually enter the line up to 1 hour before or after your designated arrival window).

2. Confirm Reservations
I didn’t really think this one was necessary, but I sure am glad that I did it! The week before we left for our trip (Travel with kids = trip. Travel without kids = vacation.) I called/emailed/app-confirmed each of our reservations. Which was a LOT of calling/emailing/and app-confirming. When I got to our very last hotel reservation, I called the hotel and was greeted with a voice recording that said something along the lines of, “Thank you for calling the Hyatt San Francisco Downtown. Due to COVID difficulties we are closed until next spring, or maybe next year, or just whenever COVID stops being such a nincompoop that ruins everything. We couldn’t be bothered to call or email you to let you know we’re closed, even though you made your reservation here several months ago. Have a nice day. *click*”

So we rescheduled the hotel with an AirBnB (That was actually a much better choice for our family in the scheme of things) and life went on. But can you imagine driving for 5 hours, showing up at a downtown hotel with tired, hungry kids and then realizing the hotel was closed? No thank you, ma’am.

3. Use Apps
2022 is the apps’ year to shine! Apps have been waiting for this moment–the moment where everyone uses and relies on them–and I can safely say that The Apps have arrived. There is literally an app for everything travel-related these days, and many attractions utilize apps as the primary means for containing and displaying tickets, maps, audio tours, even games to pass the time while you wait in line. If you plan on visiting an attraction, download their app before you travel and you’ll already be one step ahead.

In addition to apps, I also saved screenshots of all of our online tickets into a dedicated album on my phone’s camera roll. This made it really easy to pull up tickets without needing to search for them in my inbox or rely on an internet connection to find them.

4. Pack A COVID Safety Kit
Our family is what you might call extremely “COVID-Cautious”. We’re the ones who still make our kids eat their school lunches outdoors. In February. In Washington. We’re the ones wearing N95’s inside grocery stores. I know it’s not everyone’s take at this point in the COVID game, but COVID safety was a top priority for our family while traveling.

I packed a full COVID safety kit for our family because I didn’t want to risk not having access to the safety tools we’ve already tested and like using. Our COVID safety kit included: 3 N95/KF94 masks for each family member to wear in airports and airplanes (1 for the trip down, 1 for the trip home + 1 extra if it should be needed…like if your kid gets a major bloody nose right after take-off…*True story. This happened.*); Enough comfortable KF94 masks for each family member to have 1 mask per day, plus a few extras; a few 3-ply masks per person; travel size hand sanitizers; travel size Lysol wipe packs; travel size hand wipes; a refillable water bottle for each person; and a partridge in a pear tree.

It may have been overkill, but none of us got sick. We felt assured knowing that we were doing all that we could to participate safely in our outings.

5. Look For Off-Peak Travel Opportunities
We chose to take time off school and work so we could travel during the off-peak when crowds would be less and travel would be more affordable. I loved the added flexibility we had because of our off-peak travel (For example, our plans changed one day and we decided last minute to visit a zoo. I didn’t even think to make a reservation ahead of time, but after driving an hour and a half we arrived at the zoo and were greeted at the ticket counter with “RESERVATIONS REQUIRED”. Since we were there on an epically un-busy Monday, they allowed us to purchase our tickets at the zoo…with a gentle reminder to please remember to make our reservations next time.)

6. Bring Vaccination/Testing Paperwork
There are several places we visited that required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to enter. Before we left for our trip I saved all of our vaccination records in 3 places: the state health records app on my phone, screenshots in a dedicated “Vacation Necessities” photo album on my phone, and screenshots on Jon’s phone. I also made a photocopy of all of our vaccine cards that I kept folded up in my wallet.

7. Look For Destinations With COVID-Safe Activities
We chose California for our grand adventure because of three factors:
1. We missed our friends and family there and reeeeeeeally wanted to see them!
2. We were very familiar with the area and knew it would be easy to pivot or change plans should the need arise.
3. We knew we could be outside and in uncrowded areas for the majority of the trip.

When choosing a travel destination, consider your COVID-safety comfort level and how you might feel in certain environments. For our family, large crowds made us feel anxious, and we were only comfortable with indoor activities that we knew were following strict safety guidelines. We made one exception to our COVID-safety comfort level by spending a day at Disneyland–our kids all said it was the best day of their lives and I’m glad we made one “go big or go home” exception, but it certainly wasn’t the same relaxed, carefree experience I would have had pre-COVID (Are “relaxed” or “carefree” even words you can use in the same sentence as “Disneyland”…regardless of worldwide pandemics?).

8. Remain Flexible
Even with all of the planning and fretting I did leading up to our trip, I knew that our plans would need to remain flexible. The First Law of COVID is “Things are constantly changing”, so I held our plans in an open hand rather than a closed fist. For the most part we were able to do and see everything we set out to do, but there were a couple of last-minute pivots we had to make (Like when our dear friends got COVID and we had to reschedule the days we would have spent with them. *Insert heavy sobs of self pity*).

9. Prepare Kids Ahead of Time
We spent a lot of time in the weeks leading up to our trip talking through our travel plans, safety expectations, and reiterating the need to remain flexible. This trip was very different from the travel we used to do pre-COVID, and we wanted to make sure our kids knew going into it what to expect. A lot of our conversations began with “Our plan is…but if we need to change, then…”. Overall, our kids did a great job following our expectations and rolling with the punches when they happened!

10. Think Through Contingency Plans
Going into this trip–in the middle of the largest COVID case surge to date–I knew that there was the very real possibility we’d need to change course completely. Before we left on our trip I took some time to think through some of the likely scenarios and how we might handle them.

For instance, if one of us got COVID early in the trip, we could have stayed in southern California to recuperate where we had family close by to possibly help. If Disneyland was overly crowded and mask usage wasn’t being enforced on rides, there were certain rides and areas of the park we had already mapped out to avoid (and we told the kids as much before we went). If we got COVID near the end of the trip and couldn’t fly home, we had the option of extending our rental car dates so we could drive home and return it in Seattle. If one of us needed to isolate, we had rental houses with multiple bedrooms that could be closed off. All of our reservations for attractions and lodging were fully refundable should we need to cancel.

Not exactly the kinds of things you want to think about going into a vacation, but I felt a lot better knowing we could handle whatever happened.

***

In the end, everything went incredibly well and I am so very grateful we had this opportunity to travel as a family again. Once we were in California everything felt so…normal!…and we made precious memories that will last a lifetime. If you’re on the fence about traveling, I’d encourage you to (plan ahead) and jump off that fence–the world is waiting!

And now, a few bonus Disneyland tips!

-Download the free Disneyland app. You can use the app for everything from storing your tickets to ordering food to playing games while waiting in line. I even uploaded a Disney gift card onto the app and used it throughout the day to buy souvenirs and treats, right from my phone.

-Like COVID restrictions, Disneyland is constantly changing how things work. Fast Passes are now a thing of the past, and instead there are new services like Genie + and Lightening Passes to help you navigate the park and get through the park more quickly…for a price. We didn’t take advantage of these new services (Starting at $20 per person per ride!), but I actually kind of wish that we had. Since we only spent one day at the park, every minute counted. There were a couple of rides that our kids wanted to ride over and over again, but with lines ranging from 20-90 minutes each, there’s only so much we could do. If I had it to do over, I would have just bit the bullet and bought lightening passes for a couple of those “repeat rides” so we could have done them multiple times in a day. After all, $20 per person is still less than adding on another whole day at Disneyland!

-Plan your visit for a “less crowded” time (Every day at Disneyland is crowded. Just some days are unbearably crowded, and other days are simply uncomfortably crowded.). There are several Disneyland crowd calendars you can view online, but I like the one from IsItPacked.com the best.

Make reservations and buy your tickets in advance (You must do BOTH, or they won’t let you in.)

-Disneyland opens their gates about 30 minutes before “rope drop” when the park officially opens. Arrive early and you can take your time wandering up Main Street before your first mad dash to the lines when the rides open.

-Rides break. A lot. When we were there several rides were out of commission for all or part of the day (It took us 5 tries to get to the end of the new Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride without it breaking. On one of those attempts, it actually broke with us on it.). If you are dead-set on riding a specific ride, try to get to it early in the day…and keep checking in (in person or on the app) if you want to catch it while it’s open. Persistence and perseverance, folks!

-The Disneyland app has estimated line wait times, but they’re not very accurate. I watched several times how they calculated the line times, and I figure the information in the app is about an hour off of what is actually happening in that moment. So, if the app says Pirates of the Caribbean has a 10 minute wait but you see the line going up the hill to the Haunted Mansion, chances are you’re going to be there (a lot) longer than the 10 minutes displayed on the app.

-When we went to Disneyland in late January 2022, masks were required indoors (including rides and lines that were inside), and they were recommended outdoors. I’d say about 90% of the guests I saw complied with the “masks required indoors” rule, and there were Disney employees at most indoor locations reminding guests to keep their masks on. That being said, even “outdoor” lines can have you standing within the CDC guidelines for close exposure (While we were in line for the Jungle Cruise ride, I think we were closer than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes…to about 432 people). Use your own judgment based on your comfort level…and maybe pack a few spare masks if you think you’ll need them.

-You are allowed to bring in your own snacks and bottled water. Do yourself a favor (And save yourself a few hundred $$) and bring in a few things to help get you through the day. There are also plenty of water bottle filling stations and drinking fountains available throughout the park.

-If you bring a stroller, do something to make your stroller stand out (Like tying a balloon onto the handle). Disneyland “helpers” will conveniently move strollers while you’re away in line, so having a distinguishing marker that you can easily see from a distance will help you locate everything post-ride.

-For more Disneyland-specific tips, check out my post from a few years ago about navigating the park with young children.

-And last but not least, enjoy the magic! In the end, this is what your kids will remember.


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