Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
You've heard it a hundred different ways: 2020 was a major bummer for passport-toting travelers all over the world. To put a number on it, international tourist arrivals were down an average of more than 70% worldwide last year, according to Euronews.
Surprisingly, I've been traveling quite a bit during COVID-19. It's not out of choice; rather, it's for my husband's job as an essential worker, which happens to be in an industry that puts him on airplanes often — this time in Europe.
Over the last five months, I've traveled to and from Ireland, the Canary Islands (twice), and Malta (twice), plus had various stopovers in Chicago, Dusseldorf, London, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. We've avoided getting sick, and I credit the choices and precautions we took along the way with the help of a dedicated COVID-19 team on staff. With all those flights, countries, and boots-on-the-ground moments, I have some insights to share and mistakes to avoid. Even though the pandemic, with all the variants and vaccines, will keep us guessing for months to come, it's never too early to look ahead when the subject in question is travel.
1. Adding Numerous Countries to Your Itinerary
When you start planning your trip abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it's best to stick to one or two countries until the virus is well under control. Though you might be tempted to accumulate new exotic locales and Instagram-worthy moments — especially after staying home for so long — you'll be able to relax on your adventure without worrying about additional transits, quarantines, testing requirements, and ever-changing guidelines. Here's your chance to take the time to really get to know a place and embrace the art of slow travel.
2. Choosing Your Destination Too Hastily
Now that you've narrowed your trip down to one or two destinations, have you done enough research? Before making any decisions for international travel, it's important to check with your government or state department website for the latest information on travel bans, coronavirus safety and security, and entry requirements.
We as travelers have also been awarded the time to think about making conscious decisions that generate positive impact. For instance, you can consider visiting countries that were hard hit by the pandemic, especially where tourism makes up 10% or more of the nation's GDP, like Spain, Croatia, and Fiji, to name a few.
While staying in Spain's Canary Islands, for instance, we chose to stay in a resort on the island that would have remained closed if it hadn't been for our group's arrival. With one decision, we kept dozens of locals on the clock during a tough economic period. Your choices have a bigger impact than usual during this unprecedented time.
3. Not Checking Cancellation or Change Policies Before Booking Flights
Most of us have heard the stories of travelers who lost thousands of dollars on a canceled trip in 2020 that wasn't covered by travel insurance. Beware when purchasing insurance policies during the pandemic, as many programs do not cover claims arising from COVID-19. Look for information directly on the company's website. One company that now offers a version of coronavirus-related travel insurance is Staysure, based in the United Kingdom.
What you absolutely can and should do is pick the right airline, as many carriers are offering exceptional change and cancellation policies during the pandemic. Policies do vary by airline and business, so it's always best to visit the website and look for the COVID-19 resource page for more information. If using a travel agent or booking a multiday tour, make sure you are aware of their policies as well.
On another note, the most terrifying flight I took in terms of COVID-19 safety wasn't the 10-hour journey from London to LAX, but rather a four-hour jam-packed trip from Tenerife to Dusseldorf. It was a tense flight for everyone on board and several arguments erupted. With that in mind, always inquire about seat-filling protocols, especially on budget airlines, before booking.
4. Not Factoring COVID-19 Precautions When Picking Accommodations
Now that your flights are booked, it's time to think about lodging. Similar to airlines, the same applies here: Check the business website's main page and confirm the cancellation policy before booking. Many hotels and hosts of self-catering apartments are offering flexible cancellation policies to lure in reservations.
When picking a room or apartment type, make sure to take the time to think about the pandemic and your precautionary level of comfort. This might also be the time to splurge, since you'll likely be spending more time in your abode. I've had a kitchenette in most of the places I've stayed during the pandemic and have loved the freedom to cook. (You can get pretty creative with a two-burner stove and a mini fridge.) I tend to enjoy a mix between cooking and room service, with the occasional restaurant when it's safe to do so (breezy outdoor terrace, socially distanced tables). Plus, this trifecta offers the chance to explore specialty food stores, while still giving business to the hotel's food and beverage program, as well as the local restaurant industry.
What about fresh air and swimming? I had a private plunge pool in one hotel and it was a relief to swim without worrying about maskless guests nearby. You can even look for a quiet beachfront setting. A soaking tub is also a nice addition to keep you relaxed during these stressful times. Check your hotel's room offerings and consider your options. If something is out of your price range, it doesn't hurt to ask the front desk if there are any discounts or upgrades. Hospitality businesses are enticing as many guests as they can with open arms.
5. Forgetting to Get a COVID-19 Test Before Flying
Now that you're preparing to travel, this might be the most important item to check off your list. You will not want to forget to schedule your test before a trip abroad no matter where you're traveling, since entry requirements can change in an instant and often do. Most countries that mandate a test require a negative certificate that has been issued within 72 hours of boarding. Schedule a test two mornings before your departure, so that you receive your certificate the same evening and can print it out in preparation for your flight.
So, what's in a test? Perhaps this is your first nasal swab. While traveling these past few months, I've had a nasal swab three times a week, and it takes only a few seconds. Some nurses dig deeper than others, causing strange sensations, but it's over in a flash. You can schedule a test in your local urgent care facility, community drive-in, or call your doctor to see if they arrange home visits (many do), where a nurse will come straight to your door. Once the test results are in later that day, you'll receive a certificate via email.
Don't forget to print out several copies of your negative certificate and put it somewhere safe before heading to the airport.
6. Waiting to Fill Out Your Paperwork in Person
No one likes filling out paperwork and you'll see a lot of it while flying during COVID — sometimes multiple forms for entry into one country. A smart way to handle this is to print and fill them out in advance. A good rule of thumb is to make three copies and fill out each set in pen. This may sound over-the-top, but there were a few instances in which we had to give the same original form to different people. Protocols for airports and countries vary, so be prepared for anything and everything, including potential visits to the immigration office for more questioning (and possibly missing your connecting flight).
One more note: Even if you've filled out the paperwork in advance, keep a pen handy. Some entry restrictions are changing so fast that a country can make a switch in their forms on a moment's notice. Upon arriving in Spain this past autumn, I had my completed paperwork on hand, but a form had changed just hours before and we had to start all over again. I waited 10 minutes for a pen. On the flip side, you might wind up with an agent who barely even looks at your documents. Each entry point will be unique and a bit nerve-racking until you're safely in the free zone and headed to baggage claim.
7. Not Bringing Enough PPE for the Airport and Entire Trip
In addition to paperwork, there are masks, gloves, sanitizer, and snacks for the airport to consider. Flying during the pandemic can add an extra layer of anxiety, but preparation will help.
Let's start with airports. The experience isn't as fun as it once was. Many bars and food outlets are not operating, and even if you have access to the lounge, they'll likely be closed, too. Each airport will be different, so make sure to have some food and drink on hand, just in case, and find a place to sit away from the crowds.
Now, let's talk about the flight. Make sure to pack enough masks, gloves, and sanitizer in your carry-on for the entire journey. The captain on my first long-haul flight during the pandemic said all passengers needed to change their mask every five hours. Luckily, they provided a kit with three masks, hand gel, and wipes, but you should bring your own, too. Wipe down your seating area and request a window seat. This way, you'll guarantee that no one is on one side of you. It's also best to avoid the bathroom on a busy flight as much as possible.
Lastly, pack as much PPE for your trip as you'll need. Sure, you'll likely be able to find masks in most places, but it's best to be safe. Gloves are harder to find on the road, and I do prefer to wear them on some occasions (elevators, grocery stores, and during cash transactions). Having several bottles of sanitizer is a must, too.
8. Not Creating Day Trips That Are COVID Conscious
Since this likely isn't the type of trip where you're going to be rushing around, trying to hit every major tourist attraction in a day, it's the perfect time to get creative with your plans. Wherever you choose to travel, you can make it up as you go with DIY day trips that are both fun and safe.
Once I skipped taking a taxi from my hotel and instead walked three miles to get to the open-air ferry that sailed me to Valletta, Malta. It was a solo journey that I'll never forget. I felt comfortable moving around outside with a mask on, and without the stress of a schedule, it allowed more time to see the sights and take photographs at my own pace.
For an additional layer of safety, you can also pack your lunch and find a bench somewhere. People-watching is a great COVID activity.
If you prefer tours, this is also a great time to book a private guide. Having one-on-one access to a local expert (check to make sure they take COVID precautions seriously) is a real treat. Many guides work with drivers who use a plexiglass screen between the front and back seat. During one private tour in Malta, the guide offered me a pair of headphones to use so I could hear everything she was saying while staying socially distanced from each other.
9. Forgetting to Support Local Businesses
Keep activities simple, but not too simple. While it's important to stay safe, you can still find ways to get out and support local businesses that have struggled during the pandemic. I don't always feel comfortable sitting in one place for long with others surrounding me, but stopping into a boutique or local cafe for coffee or dessert is right up my alley. Small businesses are more flexible than ever and want to see and please you. It should go without saying, but wear your mask in public, even if the locals around you are not.
10. Not Being a Responsible Tourist
One area of the travel industry that has lost a slot or two in terms of priority is the environment. Think of all the PPE, plastic wrappings, and extra take-away packaging going in the trash every day. While traveling, make sure to dispose of all your rubbish in the proper bins and check that your hotels, which will likely be lower staffed, are sticking to their marketed standards.
As for flights, with so many of them flying at low capacity, now is the best time to start offsetting your carbon emissions. Every time you fly, carbon emissions are generated. There are several nonprofits that offer carbon-neutral programs, like Sustainable Travel International. Your donation will help offset the carbon footprint of your travels by supporting projects that reduce CO2 emissions, while creating important benefits for communities and biodiversity around the world.
As vaccination programs are being rolled out, the pandemic can teach us how to become more thoughtful travelers long into the future.
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