Out There! One agent’s trip to the Painted Canyons of the West

Guest Written by Kelly Bohaker, AAA Travel Advisor in Massachusetts

While the world has been impacted by COVID-19, the travel industry has searched for ways to keep people’s wanderlust fed. Although I am a AAA Travel Advisor, I am a traveler first. Even I was wondering what destinations I could find to feed my need to travel. When AAA Member Choice Vacations® released the Painted Canyons of the West tour, I knew I had found my opportunity to explore.

This tour is a trek across the Southwest, the sienna-colored canyons, towering spires, and desert landscapes found in Utah’s five national parks. This vacation highlights classic American beauty.  I am excited to share my experience, beginning with this wonderful video that captures my tour and the beauty of this American adventure.


Packing for this tour was a fun challenge! The daytime high temperatures in both Colorado and Utah hovered around 85-91 degrees but I packed layers as the mornings tended to be in the high 40s. I chose to pack individual packing cubes, built to have everything I would need for each day in an organized and easy-to-access packet. Because of COVID, the availability of snacks and meals across airports has changed. I decided to have some prepackaged treats with me, in the event I was unable to find a bite to eat.


Sedan service, along with transfers, is included when booking flights with AAA Member Choice Vacations. What a fantastic experience, and my driver William did not disappoint. I was greeted with a spotless vehicle, and William was in mask and gloves. He also gave me a courtesy call prior to arriving at my doorstep.


I flew to Denver via Detroit on Delta Airlines. My colleague, Ray Hourani had just taken a tour of Logan and shared his experiences with us so I knew what to expect. Delta has pledged to block all middle seats until the end of the year, and their boarding process was so smooth! We boarded from the rear, and social distancing was in full effect. What was so impressive was the deplaning at each airport as everyone was asked to stay seated until it was their row, again staying 6ft apart. Masks were always required and worn, keeping with best practice guidelines from the CDC. The aircraft looked like it just rolled off the assembly line. Flight attendants passed out pre-bagged snacks, waters, and sanitizers on each leg of the flight.


I was greeted at the baggage claim area by our tour manager, Wendy. I was escorted outside to board a luxurious motor coach that would deliver us to the Sheraton in downtown Denver.  Glen, our driver, was so attentive and made sure the interior was wiped down daily with disinfecting wipes. My itinerary allowed for ample time to explore downtown Denver prior to meeting the rest of my group. It was a spectacular bonus. The hotel was located right on the 16th Street Mall which has a free shuttle running a mile along a pedestrian promenade showcasing restaurants, brewpubs, and stores that were open. During the evening, our group held a socially distanced meet up in the lobby, with tasty appetizers on display for us to choose from. We were all introduced as Wendy set expectations for the upcoming tour. The theme for the week was to be “spontaneous”. As the first tour in the national parks in Utah during COVID, having a tour manager was key. I knew Wendy would guide us if daily life as we planned would change. Wendy had alternative dining and tour options planned in the event we would need to adjust our trip.


After a good night’s sleep, we headed out on our adventure. Our departure was at 9:00 a.m, which was welcomed, as I sometimes hear from clients who have had a 6:00 a.m rendezvous. My luggage was picked up from my room, and a $15.00 allowance was given to us to order breakfast items from the restaurant located in the lobby.

Prior to our stop for a leisurely lunch in the picturesque pedestrian, Bavarian feel ski town Vail, we visited the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater. Red Rock is a spectacular setting featuring an iconic entertainment venue where the Beatles played on August 26, 1964. Fun fact, they played in front of a crowd of 7,000 people, not even coming close to selling out the venue. Tickets to the show cost $6.60. COVID has deterred any concerts this summer, and the venue is now a place for outdoor exercise as yoga and climbing the theater stairs was the new norm. I got my steps in on this stop for an hour!

Our last stop before the Doubletree Grand Junction was in Rifle for a 15-minute stretch and to use the restrooms. We would take a rest-stop every 2 hours each day of the tour. The Doubletree by Hilton had placed stickers on the door of our rooms indicating Hilton Clean Stay. Upon entering the room I was greeted with a gift bag containing chocolates, water, and their famous cookies.


All of us enjoyed this evening together. I felt this was the turning point for the trip, where I knew we were going to be the bonded trailblazers I envisioned when William and his black sedan had picked me up. We made our way to Varaison Vineyards, where our host Alex, greeted us at his family-owned winery. We settled in an open-air pavilion, where tables were socially distanced, and given a scientific demonstration to wine tasting. Once we had experienced the flavors of the vineyard, we were treated to a fantastic dinner served by the family. This was an experience that none of us had ever had and it helped bond our group even stronger. Several wines were purchased prior to night’s end.


The next morning, we continued on our tour. All our temperatures were checked throughout daily, prior to boarding the bus, adding another layer of. Keep in mind the bus had the capability to hold 52 passengers, but we were only a group of 16 travelers.

Colorado National Monument is a less frequented spot and was a perfect introduction to the red rock country that we would be exploring moving forward. Being outside would allow us to drop the masks as we witnessed breathtaking views. Masked and onboard, the scenic drive along the edge of the Mesa was peppered with uniquely shaped pillars of stone caused by millions of years of erosion from wind and weather.

We followed the Colorado River heading into Cisco, Utah with our final stop for two nights at the Stunning Red Cliff Lodge in Moab, Utah. Our rooms were all facing the Colorado River with a patio to step out on to relax with a bottle of wine that was waiting for us upon entering. We were treated to a cowboy dinner in an open-air setting overlooking the Colorado River. Masks were required inside the common areas, social distancing stickers were on the floor, and sanitizer dispensers were placed throughout the property.


Another fun fact, this is where the famous scene was shot for Thelma and Louise. While the movie focused on the strength of its two main characters, I was inspired by two women on my tour. These two lifelong friends, both in their eighties, hiked the Arches with no assisted canes or walking sticks. All of us had formed a bond now, sharing conversations surrounding safety while traveling during these unprecedented times.

We had the night to ourselves, each of us tending to our own dinner plans. We would need to be rested for our 8:00 a.m. departure.


The next morning, we made our way to Capitol Reef National Park, a location created by tectonic uplift millions of years ago. It would be the spot for a picnic lunch and a treat, homemade pies from a historic orchard on the grounds. The Gifford Homestead sat just as it looked for centuries, as a rural Utah farm home from the early 1900s. By now our group was becoming a true travel bubble, with friendships starting and testimonials taking place. We all felt very safe and were enjoying each other’s company.

Heading through the valley, we climbed a 9600-foot pass as we approached the Grand Staircase Escalante, the nation’s newest monument. This was the most time we spent on the coach the entire tour, but the scenery was breathtaking and could not be appreciated if you were driving. Our day ended at the Best Western Plus, Ruby Inn just outside the entrance of Bryce Canyon.


This was truly a magical moment for all of us. The entrance is a mile-long tunnel through which we had to be escorted. What a welcomed surprise. Along the path, there are windowed openings that give you a glimpse of Zion. It only helps to build the excitement. Our fantastic Tour Manager Wendy played the soundtrack to Jurassic Park, and I half expected a Pterodactyl to swoop down at any time!

Another bonus of being on a guided vacation is that all your reservations, tours and appointments are set for you. Our group hiked a leisurely 1-mile lower Emerald Pools route, and after lunch, I hiked along the west coast. I am proud of myself for completing these hikes, as we did have to wear masks as the paths were narrow with more crowds.

We spent all day hiking in Zion, and it is truly the only way to experience the magic. Our tram driver Jan shared that her heart belongs to Zion, and reminded us to take a group picture.

Our evening ended with our last dinner as a group at the Switchback Grille reminiscing and reflecting on how fortunate we were to have experienced the national parks together.


We headed into the final leg of our tour with a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, a buffet in a private room that was equipped with sanitizer dispensers. Our first stop was Beaver Utah, home to Butch Cassidy. We stopped for lunch in Fairfield and continued into Salt Lake City with our last night at the Radisson Hotel, an excellent location across the street from Temple Square.

A city tour of downtown Salt Lake City brought us to the Capitol and a photo stop at Temple Square. We spent the day in the city, returning to the hotel to see that our bags had already been brought to our rooms. There was a nice display of desserts, and they were enjoyed with coffee, capping off a surreal week spent with travelers that will have a lasting memory.


The following morning, I was part of the group departing on Delta. Timing is everything! We just so happened to be there as the new spacious state of the art Delta terminal had opened only a week earlier. We were greeted with social distancing kiosks that allowed check-ins, and even dispensed bag tags direct from the kiosk. Once we landed, I headed down the escalator where my driver Margaret was waiting for me. My adventure had come to an end.


As I reflect on this trip through the eyes of a travel advisor, I keep asking myself ‘can we travel during COVID?’ This trip showed me that we can. Is there a risk? You bet! But the industry is responding. Member Choice Vacations hit it out of the ballpark by having protocols set in place. Form social distancing on the bus, the gallons of hand sanitizer, constant cleanings, mask use, and more, I felt as though everyone had my health in mind.

Traveling with a small group, a travel bubble, is one of the silver linings coming out of this. The coach holds 52 passengers and we were an intimate group of 16. Just think, in 2019 nearly 2.6 million people passed through the Arches. At times there were 15-20 tour buses making that trek. On my visit, we were the only bus. It’s just another reason to take in the national parks with AAA Member Choice Vacations.

I am glad to be going back out there, experiencing travel and bringing my findings back to AAA members. I’m not the only one. AAA Travel advisors all over the club are venturing out to see firsthand exactly what you can expect as you return to travel. As you start to make plans, contact an advisor for the inside scoop. Together, you and your advisor can build a vacation that is both safe and exciting. To speak with your advisor, call 1-800-222-7448 and tell them Kelly sent you!