If you're like me and millions of others, you've pretty much stayed close to home these last few months. But summer travel has ramped up. Airlines are reporting more flights booked, RVs are going fast and many families and close friends have an urge to escape the travails of 2020 more than ever these days.
I just met up with three buddies for a long weekend of golf. It was originally supposed to be a much larger group and planned well in advance, but that whole idea was bagged in early spring as the country went into COVID-19 lockdown. Being a buddies trip captain is challenging enough in the most certain circumstances. Instead, I was part of a small, nimble foursome for three rounds of golf, followed by retiring back to our rented house for barbecue, yard games and Curb your Enthusiasm reruns. No fancy meals, no late nights in bars or sporting events to attend or even watch.
The flying experience was certainly different since my last flight in March, but frankly, there was a lot to like. Crowds were sparse. Airports were clean. Parking was heavily discounted. Passengers seemed quieter and more respectful to each other and agents. There were no crowds huddled around the gate. Every middle seat on my Southwest Airlines flight was open.
Face masks were mandatory, some airport dining closed and onboard drinks service was limited. So what?
While a weekend golf trip with buddies is still pretty much the same as it ever was, save for no bro-hugs, there were a few new wrinkles when it came to planning, logistics and overall sensitivity.
Here are some tips to consider if you're thinking about getting the crew together for a golf trip in 2020 (and possibly beyond).
Is the destination allowing outside visitors (or is my state on the quarantine list)?
This is the first question you should ask, because some states still don't want outside visitors and require quarantine. The most notable example is Hawaii. This tourist hotbed literally doesn't want you to come unless you agree to a 14-day self-quarantine, and it's being strictly enforced. U.S. virus hotspots are changing, so the part of the country you are traveling to or from may be in a very different place at the time the trip begins relative to when you booked.
Traveling internationally at this time is a low-percentage play. UK and Ireland have banned non-essential travel and the US-Canada border also remains closed to non-essential travel. In Mexico, Cabo just reopened its golf courses, but the U.S. is still recommending a 14-day self-quarantine.
Domestically, a prime example to look out for is Florida, which is requiring visitors from the New York Tri-State area to self-quarantine for 14 days. Governors from the Tri-State area also just banned travel from eight outbreak states, including Florida and Texas.
What is everyone in my group's comfort level?
Businesses across the U.S. are largely reopening but that doesn't mean everyone in your group will be willing to go to a busy bar or other small confined spaces. There's an old saying in buddies trip planning that you should set your budget around the person with the least amount of money. In the COVID-19 era, prior to the trip, the organizer should feel out every person's comfort level with public areas. You may not know what sort of underlying conditions your golf buddies or their families have that puts them at greater risk.
Determine ahead of time what places are on and off-limits, confirm mask and any touching policies and commit to it so there's no awkwardness or feelings of being careless.
Should we shrink our group size?
If you're a buddy trip captain used to hosting big groups - 12, 16 or 24 golfers, this may be the year to throttle that number down. The larger the group, the greater chance someone backs out and tee times and pairings get tossed out. But also, a larger group is bound to be more difficult to keep socially distanced, and proper accommodations may be trickier. There may be some hurt feelings from going smaller but everyone will understand.
What are the (new) refund policies?
You're going to want to double-check each reservation's refund policy. That goes for the lodging, tee times and travel arrangements. Most airlines and resorts have adjusted their policies to provide very flexible refund policies. But they're all a little bit different from one another, which can be confusing. If you're used to getting travel insurance, you may not need it this year.
The tee times themselves may be the most rigid. One course had a 48-hour cancellation policy, while another was 24 hours and another 20 hours. For hotels and airlines, however, cancellation policies are about as flexible as I've ever seen them.
Is there still room on the tee sheet?
This is not the summer to save your tee time reservations for the last minute. In many parts of the world, golf is enjoying record demand right now. That's great for golf courses, but not so great if you're used to booking a day or two before you want to play. Dynamic pricing goes both ways. Trip organizers have been trained in many oversupplied markets to save tee times for last, but now, tee sheets are filling up longer in advance at higher rates, kind of like the days well before the online marketplace.
How will we pay?
Golf facilities are really trying to streamline payments and prevent unnecessary trips into the pro shop to pay. Consider designating a person in your group to pay for all the tee times rather than having your whole group pay one-by-one. Cash is also discouraged but still seems to be okay for tip jars.
How should we plan our meals?
If you're a group with a foodie itch on these trips, prepare to be a little more flexible. In recent years, many golf properties have trended towards accommodations with full kitchens. With restaurants in peril that is only going to accelerate. Even if dining out is one of your favorite parts of the trip, you may want accommodations with a full kitchen or at least a kitchenette so that you don't have to go out for all your meals.
Some restaurants and microbreweries have mandatory reservations in place and occupancy rates of 50% or less. It's best to always have a backup plan and ideally a fridge with food to cook in a pinch.
Certainly, consuming too much alcohol is bound to make you less careful about germs. Consider accommodations with a spacious patio or outdoor fire pits where you can imbibe in open air and keep mingling to a minimum.
How should my group and I get around?
Spending a lot of time in a car or van with buddies in recirculated air could be a way to potentially spread the virus. Not all of your buddies may be okay with that. As you set up the trip, talk about transportation and discuss if anyone should take separate cars, or if staying somewhere where no car is needed is a better option.
What are the cart, cup and clubhouse policies at each course?
State-mandated orders on golf operations are slowly expiring and in most cases the policies are being dictated by the golf courses themselves. If you're planning to go to many different unaffiliated courses, it is likely that each operation is a little different. On my trip I found that one course's cups were far more unforgiving than the other two. Cup liners may be elevated at one, at another the bathrooms may not be in use. Beverage carts on the course aren't a given. Neither is the clubhouse restaurant being open (many are just doing takeout or patio dining only).
The bag attendants may not be as full-service as year's past. Many have been instructed not to handle bags or clean clubs.
Where can I stay hydrated?
Hydration is always key and overlooked during travel, and now it could be more so as on-course drinking fountains and water coolers are removed. On my recent trip, outside non-alcoholic beverages were allowed at every course but staff would inspect coolers. It's always a good idea to plan ahead for your water intake.
If you've traveled for a golf trip in 2020 I'd love to hear how it was different and how your group managed the trip. Let me know in the comments below.