The impact of COVID 19 is devastating and not one country has been spared from it’s effects. The toll of being cooped up inside away from friends and family has exacerbated a number of mental health issues and left people depleted and exhausted. It is only understandable then that there is a pent up demand for travel and more importantly, demand for the rejuvenating healing of a true vacation.
But travel has become confusing, frightening, and worrisome. Each decision leads to another larger decision tree, which makes the process more overwhelming than ever.
As a travel agent, I’ve weathered the storm and devoured every piece of information coming out from the experts. I trust the experts, I trust the science but I also want people to travel, I want to travel, and I want to help the industry recover, especially for the countries that rely on tourism to keep them afloat.
The biggest question on everyone’s mind is “Can I ethically and responsibly travel during the COVID 19 pandemic?”
Let’s start with the facts.
The Not So Great Facts
- Yes, things are really THAT bad. It’s undeniable. COVID 19 is deadly and attacks the whole body. It is deadlier than the flu and it affects every person in every age group in an unpredictable way.
- The US response is ineffective. The only reason we are not allowed to travel right now is because the US never wholly and effectively contained the virus (with the exception of a handful of states).
- No one is immune to this disease and you must take every precaution to not get it and to not spread it to others. It is extremely serious.
- COVID 19 is something we are going to have to live with. For years. We will have to adapt our behavior through a number of procedures, precautions, and a combination of social isolation and vaccinations. It is not going to magically disappear, even with a vaccine.
The Good News
- There are several promising vaccines that are in advanced trials. The world is pumping money into their development so it’s a faster process. While the timeline is uncertain, we could easily see a vaccine finalized in the first half of 2021 and full distribution by fall 2021.
- There are several promising drug therapies that are shortening hospital stays and improving recovery for many patients.
- The containment of COVID 19 is actually very simple - wear a mask, wash your hands, stay physically distanced from people outside of your household.
- Other countries have proved that it is easy to maintain flare ups through the widespread use of masks, the banning of large gatherings, and effective, thoughtful contract tracing and isolation of positive cases.
- People are more creative than ever. There are new ways to safely enjoy leisure time. It feels like childhood again where you are creating your own fun and enjoying the simple things in life.
- The travel industry adapted quickly and hotels and airlines have stepped up to enhance their safety measures.
- The WHO believes that it is not logical to keep the borders closed forever and eventually, things will have to open up with procedures and precautions in place.
- We’ve never been more hygienic!
- There are ways to responsibly travel, which I will explain in detail later on.
I’m not a scientist or a public health expert but I have been watching things closely and have a few predictions.
Countries will open to US travelers either in December 2020 or summer 2021, regardless of a vaccine.
The summer and the “Festive” holiday season of December are the busiest times for tourism. The reservations during this time make nearly all of the annual income. It’s only logical then that hotels will push for the borders to be open by December so they can keep their earnings or they will face possible bankruptcy.
However, it is likely the border openings will come with many stipulations. It is likely that you will need a negative COVID test before arrival (and this is the most ethical thing to do as well). Mandatory quarantines will also be a likely part of the re-opening strategies.
If they opt to re-open in summer 2021, it will be through the combined use of drug therapies, vaccinations, hygienic public health measures, and controlled strategies for minor flare ups and outbreaks.
Travel will not be the same until possibly 2023.
What does travel look like when you can’t pop into those hole in the wall restaurants or “cheers” with friendly locals at the bar? Our priorities have shifted.
The new priority of travel is to stay safe while finding leisure activities that follow health guidelines. It means more outdoors time, it means finding activities that get you moving, it means private one on one guides. Think outdoor movie theaters under the stars of Tuscany or gourmet takeout picnics in the parks of Paris.
US domestic travel will continue to boom.
During the summer of 2020, luxury domestic hotels in the US sold out across the country. Even with capped capacity of 30%- 50% occupancy and astronomical rates, they couldn’t keep up with the demand! Glamping and RV travel saw a 300% increase in searches!
Despite the rush, many travelers were not able to make last minute switches to domestic itineraries. Or if they did want to travel through the US this summer, the high rates and the lack of availability prevented them from their trip. For others, they rightly felt that the pandemic is worse than when we started and it’s not the right time to travel.
It’s also possible that international borders will largely remain closed through 2020 and early 2021, which means that if you didn’t get a chance to travel domestically this summer, now is the time to plan that road trip for summer 2021.
For those that are in the high health risk category, it may be easier to travel closer to home rather than go through all the moving pieces of traveling abroad.
Isolated hotels will be the safest and most interesting ways to travel.
Think private islands, private safaris, and treks through mountains. This is the time to return to nature and find solace there. Socially distance among sea creatures from your remote bungalow in the Maldives. Sandboard on the dunes of the Sahara and drink Moroccan tea under the stars.
There are so many unique and fascinating ways to explore the natural world without large groups of people or crowded cities. Choose destinations that allow you to immerse yourself without bustling city itineraries.
So now that we have a better picture of how countries will adapt to COVID 19, how travel will resume, and the types of travel to prioritize, let’s walk through the step by step process to safely and responsibly plan your travels.
Step 1: Check your Passport
If you are planning to travel in 2021, you need to make sure that your passport is not close to it’s expiration date. Due to the shut downs and backlog, the State Department is months behind on processing passports. Remember that most countries require at least 6 months on your passport before it expires so you need to plan accordingly and add extra buffer time to getting your passport back before you travel.
Step 2: Evaluate your Risks
You need to walk through every possible scenario before you commit to traveling. Before you commit to putting money towards your trip, you need to be emotionally prepared for any outcome.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
- If I contract COVID 19 while traveling, am I comfortable staying in quarantine in a foreign country or on arrival back into the US? Am I comfortable with going to the hospital in a foreign country? Do I have the financial resources to pay for possible flight changes?
- If I contract COVID 19 while traveling, do I have the financial resources to pay for an extra 14 days of quarantine, assuming I cannot make it back to my own home? Do I have the financial resources and healthcare resources to pay for any medical treatment or hospital stays? Do I know how to get food and supplies in a foreign country while in quarantine?
- Do I have the resources to quarantine at home if that is a requirement for my family or my employer after I travel?
- What is my level of comfort when it comes to “normal” travel activities such as indoor restaurants, shopping, museums, or public transportation? What is my level of comfort if not everyone is wearing masks / masks are required?
- If I cannot get my COVID test results back in time or if I test positive prior to my trip, am I comfortable with potentially not being refunded for flight changes or lost nights at the hotel?
- If I decide to pre-pay for my trip but at the time of travel, I cannot physically enter the country, am I comfortable with receiving a travel credit to use within a year instead of a refund?
Step 3: Choose your Destination and Airline Carefully
When choosing your destination, there are a few things to consider. Are cases spiking in the area? Do they have effective public health measures in place? Is their population particularly vulnerable? Are they likely to remove tourists if cases spike?
If the positivity rate is low, the transmission rate is low, and there are effective sanitizing and mandatory mask policies in place, you can more confidently move forward with choosing the destination and assuming any possible risks.
Personally, I would recommend a destination that has the virus under control, requires a negative COVID test, has effective mask wearing and public health requirements, and provides plenty of space to enjoy natural beauty and remote areas.
If you’re less risk averse, you may find it’s the best time to enjoy a city destination without the massive crowds. In a city, you should expect to wear a mask at all times around people and organize advanced reservations for all activities and restaurants. You may also experience reduced hours at stores and longer wait times. All manageable but good to know before you go.
When selecting an airline, make sure you choose one with mandatory mask policies, no exceptions. If you are going on a long haul flight with some meal time, I would opt for extra equipment such as a plastic face shield and sanitizer. You will also want to look for airlines offering flexible cancellation and change policies.
Whether you should select an airline leaving seats open is up for debate. Some say it does effectively curb the spread and some say it doesn’t matter. It depends on how effectively and frequently people are wearing their masks (not taking them on and off too much for eating or drinking), the filtration system on the plane, and the length of time of the flight. Air travel does have some of the best air filtration systems out there and the new air should circulate every 3 minutes, which is extremely helpful with stopping the spread of droplets.
Some of the best airlines managing the new routines are JetBlue, Southwest, Delta, Qatar Airways, and Emirates. Keep an eye on the news to see which other airlines continue to perform well.
Step 4: Confirm your Reservations
When you’re planning your future travels, it is best to choose the most flexible policies. Most hotels are allowing for cancellations at least 24 hours before arrival and little to no security deposit.
When choosing a hotel, ask about their capacity and the policies for public spaces. While everyone loves a good hotel bar, it may be closed for a while. Unfortunately, because of increased travel demand, the rates are still high despite many services not being available. You need to think through how a socially distanced hotel experience looks and feels like before you commit to the booking.
For example, it is much easier to socially distance at large, private resorts where you can set up private dinners or grab a drink from the outdoor bar than it is in a small, indoor city hotel. Choose a hotel that best meets your priorities.
Do not reserve tours or activities until at least a few weeks before your trip. These are the hardest to get refunded and the least likely to sell out so you can take your time. I recommend outdoor activities, activities you can do on your own, hiring a private guide that wears a mask, and no group activities.
Step 5: Choose your Quarantine Crew
It is possible to safely and responsibly travel with your friends and family but it takes much advanced planning and cooperation. If you decide to travel with the family outside of your household or another family, everyone must be in agreement about what this looks like and strictly adhere to that decision. In the most ideal circumstances, you will either quarantine 14 days prior to travel or all receive a negative COVID test before your trip together. If that cannot be done, it is best to agree on the same level of exposure - for example, all agreeing that you will only go for essential grocery store and pharmacy runs, wearing a mask, and both will be traveling from areas that have the same mask policies and the same rate of virus infection rate.
Even then, there may be some risk for infection. Continue to take preventative measures on your trip by having separate rooms and bathrooms, socially distancing, and not sharing food.
If you live with roommates or other family members who are not traveling with you, you also need to discuss your plan when you return. Some places will require you to quarantine when you get home.
I currently live in New York State and I am under quarantine at the time of writing this post. Every state will have different policies but most likely that if you are coming from a hot spot in the US or abroad, you will be required to fill out a health history form and also provide your contact details. If they require a quarantine, a contact tracer will call you every day to ask you for your temperature and symptoms. If you do start having symptoms, a nurse will contact you with next steps.
Unless you plan on getting another COVID test when you return from abroad for peace of mind and a negative result, you need to assume that you could be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.
You should separate as much as possible from the other people in your household, which means wearing a mask around them, not sharing a bathroom, not sharing a room, and not sharing any food or utensils for at least 10-14 days.
Step 6: Prep for your Trip
Before you leave, you need to reconfirm all of the requirements for the destination of your trip. Some may require proof of health insurance, a negative PCR COVID test, or a number of other forms. Some may have stricter requirements for your state, some may test again on arrival, some may do random testing, some may require a result within 7 days or 2 days, some require one type of the test. You need to know all of this before you go.
In addition to purchasing your supplies for travel (masks, shields, etc.), you will also need to finalize your plans for your COVID test. It will truly depend on the case numbers in your county at the time of testing. If the case numbers are surging, you need to make sure you can get your test results in time. There are private companies that offer quicker turnaround times but they will cost a few hundred dollars extra. They may be the best option to avoid the stress of waiting for your results. Your travel agent is not responsible for finding these tests for you and you will have to consult your healthcare providers in your local area to ask for suggestions.
Once you take your COVID test, do NOT and I repeat DO NOT leave the house while you are waiting for your results and before your trip. Act like you are in quarantine. This way, you are not exposing yourself to possible new infections before your trip. It is morally imperative that Americans do not flood other countries with new COVID cases, which can lead to more shut downs and less travel - the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish!
Putting yourself in quarantine before your trip will also ensure that if they test on arrival as they are currently doing in some countries, you will have more peace of mind knowing that you haven’t had any possible COVID exposures.
Step 7: Enjoy your trip!
Go! Put all your safe social distancing, paranoid hand washing into practice and fully enjoy this experience! If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past few months, it is that you have to live in the moment and enjoy what you can, when you can. Now is the time to achieve your bucket list trip before a new crisis pops up.
With your thoughtful and cautious approach to travel, you can continue to enjoy new destinations while socially distanced from other people.
You’re living through a once in a century pandemic, you deserve a damn vacation!