My first vacation during coronavirus was really weird

I had to get out. My last trip was to Cabo San Lucas in early March. So for the July 4 “holiday weekend,” I met my mom and stepdad in Heber Springs, AR. It’s a cute mountain town ~45 minutes north of Little Rock.

We booked two nights at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Heber Springs. I had plenty of IHG points – and they’re the only pet-friendly place in town for a road trip with the pup.

After being home for 4 months and only leaving to get groceries, I was ready to be anywhere.

my first coronavirus vacation

What a unique name for a sandy beach

I started out by taking photos of the hotel room as if I was going to do a review and trip report like old times. Well that lasted about two seconds before I realized traveling during this pandemic is just a really weird experience.

From what I saw, about half were taking the virus seriously. And the other half were carrying on like nothing was happening. It was a really strange vibe to reconcile in my mind.

Now that I struck out and traveled, I don’t think I can enjoy trips the way I used to. It wasn’t the same. Maybe I’m not ready for the new normal?

Heber Springs, AR: The site of my first coronavirus vacation

I’m not sure what I was expecting and don’t know if I ultimately have a point. I thought this trip would be different.

IHG made sure to let me know that when I booked.

a screenshot of a hotel reservation

So clean.. so clean

They emphasized how clean everything would be and gave me a heads up there probably wasn’t going to be a breakfast. They also emailed their Covid-19 travel advisory policy.

On July 4, I woke up early in Dallas and drove 6 hours to the hotel.

a close up of a car dashboard

Ouchies Mr. Sun

It was like, really hot in my car. Then was pouring down ran as I got into Heber Springs.

I didn’t take any photos of the check-in experience. I didn’t want to touch anything and then handle my phone without wiping or sanitizing first (phones are among the most bacteria-laden places on the planet). Plus I wasn’t sure what to expect anyway.

For one, this particular hotel took the opportunity to remodel their lobby and dining area during the pandemic – good for them. So there were old, wet carpets rolled up in the outside entrance, slabs of wood and countertop and workers milling about everywhere. Not to mention guests coming and going – most of them without masks.

a pile of rolled up carpet on a concrete surface

Make yourself comfortable

I haven’t been out in “the world” since the pandemic started and masks are mandated everywhere in Dallas County lest you risk a fine. So I hadn’t seen anyone maskless in a few months.

Wearing a mask outside has, I guess, become engrained for me. It felt “wrong” somehow being there, breaking quarantine. And I’ve developed this really graphic visualization of particles and droplets flying and spreading everywhere. Has mainstream media gotten to me?

So while processing these thoughts and trying to distance, I looked around and compared this check-in to the entrances of yore when I’d stroll in, photograph the lobby, and not worry about packaged breakfast and droplets and touching surfaces. What a weird new world.

What was different this time

This was one hotel and one experience, but here’s what they had going on and the Holiday Inn Express in rural Arkansas:

  • Plexiglass on the counter with a small slot at the bottom to pass cards, room keys, and papers – used about half the time
  • Desk agent alternating between wearing mask and not (below the nose counts as NOT wearing a mask because duh)
  • No breakfast in the dining room
  • Breakfast was packaged and had to be consumed in your room
  • No coffee in the lobby, but you could ask for K-cups
  • Hand sanitizer mounted to walls throughout the hotel and in elevator area
  • A few signs recommending social distancing

How did that play out in reality?

Breakfast was a choice of a sausage biscuit, Nutrigrain bar, apple, banana, or orange.

If you wanted the biscuit, you had to microwave it in your room. I don’t eat pork, so I asked for the fruit and a Nutrigrain bar (strawberry or raspberry). It was a sad little spread.

The bananas were a little green and sweating from being refrigerated overnight. And the orange – hard as a little rock. The desk agent used gloves to hand me the items, but then went back to touch other things behind the counter.

Other than that, and some lip service to how clean everything was, it was business as usual. So basically: reduced service, a piece of plexiglass, and some hand sanitizer. Cool cool cool.

People were not taking it seriously

I’d say 80% of the people I saw were not wearing a mask nor making an effort to social distance. I watched several people – not family members – pile into an elevator then motion me in saying there was more room. Not one wearing a mask. I was like… nah.

It seemed like Arkansas had some rule to wear a mask and IHG had initiatives or whatever – but no one wanted to bother with them.

a room with a bed and a tv

I guess this is new and improved somehow?

As for the “IHG Way of Clean”? I didn’t notice any updates in the room.

Aside from the service things mentioned above, it was like any other hotel stay. The room was a nice size. My dog was fine. There was a pet area with poop bags and a dumpster. I was on the fourth floor and had to use the elevator to take him up and down. But yeah, it was like nothing was different. Same ol’.

a group of houses with a road and trees in the background

View from my room of the sloping foothills in north central Arkansas

What about outside the hotel?

OK so all that was about IHG and what the hotel was doing. The local businesses required masks upon entry. And the restaurants had tables blocked off. But once inside, it was like old times. No one was social distancing. Most servers didn’t bother with masks.

We went to the beach where I spotted nary a mask the entire time. That said, families did a good job of staying distant.

But I think mostly because everyone wants their own little piece of beach – I don’t think it was done consciously for the sake of others, but rather, selfishly to take up as much space as possible.

coronavirus vacation

Me and mama about to walk into a restaurant

Life was going on as usual. I did what I could, but it’s hard to be the only person who cares among a sea of people who don’t.

a room with tables and chairs


We ate at a cute little Mexican restaurant about a mile from the beach.

a mushroom growing on the ground

Forest floor

And I found mushrooms growing in the woods before we watched the July 4 fireworks. When it started to get dark, all the lightning bugs came out and all the cicadas.

A normal week in Mississippi

After two days in Arkansas, I spent a week at home in Mississippi. We went to the farmers market, drove to Tupelo to see my aunt and played bingo, watched live music, went out to dinner, and grilled out between rounds of cornhole, cigars, and bourbon. It was really fun – and really normal.

Mississippi isn’t really “doing” coronavirus, either. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I was doing was somehow wrong when you see all the sanitizer and occasional masks and distancing signs.

a car driving on a bridge

On the drive back to Dallas – 500 miles of singing in my car

Nothing had changed. Despite the warnings and news coverage, it was all just another day – except with stimulus payments, unemployment, and a near total ban on international travel. What is going on? I don’t want to stay home forever – but I don’t think I’m ready to leave again, either.

Coronavirus vacation bottom line

I’m having a hard time parsing what’s real and what’s hype. Is the news making coronavirus worse than it is? Are local governments suppressing cases to make it seem better than it is?

Are we being effective? Did I just contribute to normalizing the idea of “ignore it and it will go away” by getting out of town for a while? “They” said it would be OK. We could reopen if we just took a few precautions.

From what I saw and heard, coronavirus is not a concern in the Deep South. There are a few mask-wearers here and there, but people are talking and touching and getting on like everything is fine. And of course, politicizing the situation.

In Dallas, there’s a chaotic energy about the whole thing now that we’re a hot spot. I hadn’t been outside my apartment except to go to work and the grocery store for about four months. Upon emerging, it was the same as ever out in the world. I thought it would be… different. And it wasn’t.

I won’t try to take another trip for a while. I don’t want to fly if everything worth seeing and doing is closed. So while I’m glad I got out of Texas for a bit, I’m also ready to stay in for a while longer even though my wanderlust is bursting at the seams.

And I’m writing off 2020 as a lost year. I’m just going to work and save up money to get closer to FIRE while I still have a job. Maybe 2021 will be better and we can travel freely again.

If you’ve taken a trip recently, how’d your experience compare? Did it feel safe to travel where you went?

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Memphis, traveling, and working toward financial independence.

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  1. I went to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for wine tasting over July 4. I’ve researched protocols, safety and whatnot prior to going. I’m from Michigan and we got hit hard in the beginning. Maybe that’s what it takes to be cognizant. I’m not going to subject myself to people who aren’t taking precautions. I’m planning NYC this weekend with safeguards I’m comfortable with. I suggest any travel you take this year to go places where the response matches your safety standards, as well.

    • I live in NYC and for the most part I’ve felt safe. If you’re going to stay in a hotel, I’ve heard homeless shelters have been housing their clients in 20% of NYC hotels so be careful. This is throughout NYC, including Manhattan and Times Sq/Penn Station area. Some neighborhoods like south of Hell’s Kitchen have changed where you can easily see a few mentally unstable folks who seem high just walking around. I’d say most restaurants are placing their tables 6ft apart but there are some restaurants that are cramming every single table/chair outside (I’d avoid those.) Regardless have a great time in NYC.

      • Thanks! We checked it all out, and booked our restaurants in advance so we could research their covid precautions (and make sure to get a table). We are staying at the Kimpton Muse using my IHG Ambassador certificate. It looks to have good reviews. We also got a balcony room so we could enjoy NYC outside on a summer evening with wine and still be socially distant. As mentioned, I am from Michigan, we at one pint were third behind NY and NJ, so I am being cautious and have no issues with masks, etc.

    • If I travel somewhere new, I’m gonna want to see museums, try restaurants, go to bars – but none of that is possible either because those venues aren’t open or it’s not safe to do so. If I go anywhere, it’ll probably be hiking/camping outside alone or with people I trust, but it’s July in Texas so that isn’t happening, either. I’ll likely just stay local for the remainder of 2020.

      Hope you have a great time in VA! Stay safe and enjoy the wines. And def agree we should be finding places that match our safety standards. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I haven’t left NYC since late February and have no plans of doing so in the near future (had to cancel 4 trips thus far.) I’ve come to accept the new norm nowadays and am simply grateful that I still have a job. Fortunately the office has no plans of reopening until after Labor Day at the earliest so I feel safe and comfortable.

    • Ah, that’s awesome! Unfortunately, my office is open and they are requiring us to be there 2X a week. I absolutely hate it. But like you, I’m just happy to have a job right now. I probably won’t travel for a while, either. Just going to focus on saving cash and paying off my credit cards while I can. Hopefully we can get it together and the world will accept us again soon. I’m missing Europe so much.

      Glad you are feeling safe and comfortable! If anything, this pandemic has shown me what’s important and given me time to reflect + plan for the future. This wandering soul needs to travel. Stay safe out there! <3

  3. “I’d say 80% of the people I saw were not wearing a mask nor making an effort to social distance.” Sounds like you went to the circus to see all the clowns.

    • Ugh. *facepalm* I did. Everyone has been pretty on top of it and vigilant here in Dallas. It was very… something… to see so many people not even practicing the bare minimum. :/

  4. We only did 2 weekend trips that involved a stay in the hotel. My husband and I still have our jobs but we’re working remotely. No intentions of flying for trips, mostly visiting my in-laws place, looking after the kid, doing local stuff, hunkering down with a LOT of books, and saving money for our FI date.

    Honestly we don’t want to risk getting ill. After paying for all our medical stuff after I delivered the baby last year, we’re still reeling at how expensive healthcare is, even with insurance, in the US! If it means we’ll have to give up our usual travel life for a few months, then so be it. On the plus side, we’re saving so much more money than we used to! When we travel we tend to eat out daily plus spend on attractions, gas & souvenirs – things we can’t really travel hack as much, so our budget really is lower!

    • So much this! I’m saving like crazy right now too. No dinners out or happy hours to tempt me to overspend, and since I can’t travel, all the extra can go right to the bottom line.

      And you’re right, healthcare here is criminally expensive. I really don’t want to get ill, either. Thank gods for remote jobs and steady paychecks coming in! Hope you and hubby and the little one are all doing great – it’s so good to hear from you! Hopefully we can talk again in-person at a FinCon event sometime this decade lol. 🙂

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