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On a bus tour of South Dakota and Wyoming during the coronavirus pandemic

Taking in the Badlands National Park scenery at an overlook on the  America's Cowboy Country bus tour. Taking in the Badlands National Park scenery at an overlook on the America's Cowboy Country bus tour.

What does a guided tour look like during this time of pandemic precautions?

In September, AAA employee Doug Shupe packed his Stetson and his face mask and joined a AAA Member Choice Vacations tour of America’s Cowboy Country. Doug and 18 fellow passengers experienced the Wild West as it once was—all while observing COVID-19 safety rules. Doug, a communications and programs manager, moseyed down the streets of historic Deadwood, South Dakota; visited the Wyoming cowboy towns of Jackson Hole and Cody; and spotted buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Here’s his report:

How did the pandemic change this tour?

Before we left, tour guide Mark Godin sent participants a letter outlining all the pandemic safety protocols in place. He had us fill out a mandatory personal health questionnaire.

When it came to food, instead of eating at buffets, we were served meals individually. Households sat at separate tables in hotel restaurants. 

Cleaning the bus.

Cleaning the bus.

What other steps did they take to ensure the safety of travelers?

Our state-of-the-art tour bus could hold 52 passengers but was limited to 50 percent of capacity. 

It was cleaned daily. While aboard, we had to wear face masks and leave at least a row of space between households. In addition, the bus had hand-sanitizer dispensers to use when you entered or left. They also did a mid-trip temperature check.

We stayed in a variety of hotels that had different safety protocols. Some sealed the rooms after cleaning to ensure nobody else had been in your room. They removed a lot of the things that are commonly shared in rooms, such as hotel stationery and the ice bucket; you had to ask the front desk for ice.

Did the safety protocols hinder your enjoyment of the tour?

Not a bit. This trip created a lot of great memories. When I look back in 10 years, I probably won’t even remember the safety stuff we did.

Tour participants pose for a group photo,

Posing for a group photo.

What did your fellow travelers think of the protocols?

Everybody was appreciative of being able to tour the country safely. Cathy Bennion, a AAA member from New York, told me she had a great experience and felt safe the whole time. So did Renee Weer, a AAA member from Delaware, who said it was wonderful traveling with a smaller-size group despite having to wear masks and socially distance.

Wild bison are among the wildlife sightings on the Cowboy Country bus tour.

Touring where the wild bison roam.

What were your favorite sights?

I really enjoyed seeing the wildlife, from bison to prairie dogs to bald eagles. We got to see lots of animals at fairly close range and take great photos.

Covered wagons carrying tour-goers ready to roll out.

Heading out for dinner in covered wagons.

Our tour got off to a great start. We rode in covered wagons to a welcome dinner featuring chuck wagon food, cowboy singers, and fiddle music.

We started in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and went to Rapid City, South Dakota, with stops at national and state parks—including Yellowstone National Park, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore—and museums along the way.

I’d never been to this area of the country before, so I was surprised at how beautiful the landscape was. Badlands National Park in South Dakota was spectacular—like being on a different planet.

Doug Shupe holds up his wallet, which fell into the Snake River on a float trip.

Doug Shupe holds up his wallet, which fell into the Snake River on a float trip.

What did you like best about the tour?

You got to know people from various parts of the country and enjoy a shared experience. By the time it was over, we had a good sense of camaraderie.

One example came on our first full day in Jackson Hole. On a Snake River float trip, I dropped my wallet overboard. Our raft guide quickly retrieved it, but it became a running joke for the rest of the tour. Those shared moments of laughter were great.

Feeding burros during a stop.

Feeding burros during a stop.

Why take a group tour? Couldn’t you have arranged this trip on your own?

Had I done this myself, I never would have seen and learned as much as I did. Our tour guide explained the background of each place we visited. The tour company did all the planning. We didn’t have to worry about where to go next; we could just enjoy the comfortable bus ride and the beautiful views.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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