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You were planning major travel in 2020, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Long dreamed about vacations turned into even longer periods inside your home. It was a tough year, and we feel your pain. 2021 is here, and the urge to travel is as strong as ever. However, COVID-19 is still a factor.
During the pandemic, the key to traveling safe is traveling smart. Plan ahead, be efficient, and pay attention to small details.
This guide is designed to help you travel safely during the COVID-19 pandemic at all stages of travel. From planning your trip to packing, to safety protocols en route, to arriving at your destination, we’ll walk you through every step of the journey.
Safe travel begins with thorough planning.
We’ve broken planning into four stages: booking your tickets, travel requirements, accommodations, and pandemic protocols in your chosen destination.
We will focus primarily on flights here. While a metal tube might seem like the perfect place for the virus to spread, air quality on a plane is actually quite high—the air volume in the cabin is completely refreshed every two minutes—and air-handling systems on commercial aircraft make it unlikely that you’ll breathe in droplets from anyone more than a few rows away. If everyone wears face coverings, saliva droplets are trapped before they ever reach the air.
The risk with air travel is not the plane itself but the process around travel. The airport in particular.
Your first concern in travel planning is knowing where Americans can and should currently travel.
In the pre-pandemic era, Americans could go almost anywhere. Things have changed since COVID.
When possible, pick a warm-weather destination where you can safely enjoy the outdoors. Avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces is crucial.
At the time of publication, Americans can visit the following countries:
However, these countries still have restrictions attached to foreign travel, and travel conditions may change to reflect the evolving COVID-19 situation.
Your best bet is to cross-check individual countries with travel advisories issued by the Department of State. Travel advisories are not restrictions but rather recommendations for safe travel. The State Department uses four levels of risk: Level One (Exercise Normal Precautions), Level Two (Exercise Increased Caution), Level Three (Reconsider Travel), and Level Four (Do Not Travel).
The State Department lists each country individually, as well as their current level and the date the travel advisory was last updated. Keep an eye on your country of choice as you get close to your desired travel date, including news, government updates, and flights in and out of the country—if flights are scarce, you may have trouble getting home if the country goes into lockdown.
Make sure you note any travel requirements (like a negative COVID-19 test) at your destination. More on this below.
What does booking tickets have to do with traveling safely during COVID-19? More than you think.
You can’t just book a last minute getaway to the place you’ve been hankering to visit.
Instead, you have to book a ticket based on where you can travel safely. Unfortunately, safety isn’t static during COVID-19. The best way to know for sure is to check infection numbers in the area and keep an eye on any restrictions, especially as you approach your travel date. You should also pay attention to practical considerations. If you don’t speak the local language and you get sick—or if healthcare in your destination isn’t very good—you may be in trouble.
If you already booked a ticket for an advance trip in 2021, you still need to keep an eye on travel and your booking. Remember, conditions can change over time.
If you have to cancel a future trip, whether or not you get a refund depends on the policies of the airline, hotel, or travel business. Companies often offer incentives to re-book rather than cancel altogether. You might get a discount for future lodging if you roll your booking to a new date.
If your airline cancels the flight, you can typically get a refund, though it depends on the airline’s policies. Don’t cancel the flight on your own—wait for the airline to cancel first. That way, the ball is in your court, and it’s easier to demand a refund.
However, even if the airline, hotel, and/or travel company are operating at the time of your trip, travel still isn’t guaranteed. You have to check travel requirements in your travel location and in your return destination.
As of January 12, 2021, all passengers flying into the United States, including U.S. citizens, are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering the country. Healthcare providers can offer documentation of a negative COVID-19 test. Tests must be conducted no more than three days before your travel date. The State Department has additional requirements for travelers returning from certain countries.
Masks are required on all forms of public transportation into, within, or out of the United States and in U.S. transportation hubs such as stations and airports.
If you’re traveling out of the country, this is still critical information if you plan on flying back to the U.S. If COVID-19 tests are not widely available in your desired travel destination, you may not be able to board a plane. Similarly, if tests are not available close to home, you may not be able to embark on your trip in the first place.
In addition, your chosen travel destination may have its own travel restrictions due to COVID-19. The best way to check this is by checking advisories from the local government and the U.S. State Department (if you’re traveling internationally).
However, if you’re traveling within the U.S. across state lines, keep in mind that travel restrictions may also apply.
In New York, as an example, any traveler coming into the state after travel of more than 24 hours, the traveler must:
If your state does not have readily available COVID-19 tests, or if you’re traveling to a part of New York with a significant rate of infection, getting both of the required tests may be extremely difficult.
When choosing lodging, your first order of business is the same as booking your ticket: check the cancellation policy. Make sure it’s traveler-friendly, and read the fine print on refund policies.
Once you find cancellation policies you’re comfortable with, think about your level of precautionary comfort. Since it’s safer to spend more time at home than in public, consider an Airbnb rather than a hotel, especially if you prefer to cook at home rather than dine in public.
When you venture out into the wild (or at least, the local streets beyond your humble abode), take a look at what’s nearby. The more public transit required to reach a destination, the higher risk that destination becomes. Also, if you want to eat out, think about the local climate—a warm, breezy outdoor terrace with socially distanced tables on the beach is more comfortable and safer than dining indoors.
At this point, your destination might feel like the Emerald City at the end of the winding yellow brick road. Unfortunately, you’re not finished once you reach the emerald gates.
Every county, and cities within each county have different protocols. Research protocols at your destination in advance. The State Department offers a detailed list of country-specific information related to COVID-19, and the CDC also offers travel recommendations by destination.
We recommend examining protocol resources from multiple sources. The State Department can offer local guidelines, but the CDC also offers risk assessment ratings for COVID-19 cases, as well as a list of destinations travelers should avoid.
Getting into and out of airports quickly is critical during the pandemic.
This makes high-quality luggage an even more important investment than usual. When buying a bag, make sure that it’s:
Our travel backpacks meet all those demands and more, with positive reviews from the Wirecutter, Carryology, Savvy Backpacker, Snarky Nomad, and Pause the Moment.
As for packing, there are a few items you might not normally carry that you should add to your packing list:
It also pays to pack strategically. You don’t know frustration until you open your backpack to discover your hand sanitizer leaked all over everything. Make sure your hand sanitizer is packed in a sealed toiletry bag, even when you’re not flying.
Ideally, you should try to fit everything you need in one bag and avoid checking bags if you can help it. This reduces the amount of time you have to spend in the airport and minimizes your touch points as you pass through.
This is another area where a travel backpack is a winner—it packs like a carry-on and easily fits into your airplane’s overhead compartment. That way, you can carry everything you need and not have to worry about fighting with extra bags.
We’ll focus primarily on airplane travel here, but you should still take travel precautions in any other mode of transportation.
For those traveling by plane, you’ll notice some changes as soon as you arrive at the airport. The TSA has installed plastic barriers throughout security checkpoints to reduce physical contact and has made adjustments to allow for social distancing. TSA agents are required to wear masks and gloves, though they may also opt for face shields and eye protection.
Travelers should wear masks throughout security, though you may be asked to briefly remove them for identification purposes. Instead of handing over your boarding pass, you’ll hold it over the scanner and then hold it up for identification.
Travelers are asked to store food items in plastic bags and place these items in bins for screening. Separating food items from your carry-on reduces the chance that TSA will have to open your bag for inspection.
Travelers are asked to place all personal items—keys, phone, wallet, and so on—in their carry-on bag instead of a bin to reduce handling during screening.
You should wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds immediately before and after passing through security. Travelers are also allowed one 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer in their carry-on (this will need to be placed in a bin for screening).
Once you arrive at your destination airport, take the time to disinfect your hands after disembarking the plane. If you can, wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before and after going through security.
Ideally, you should have a travel plan from the airport to your lodging before you land. A rental car is the safest option, but public transportation will be more affordable.
If you opt for public transportation, wear a mask during your trip and wash your hands afterwards. Maintain social distancing whenever possible, and if you see a train car or bus is too full for social distancing, try a different one.
Wash or disinfect your hands whenever you return to your room after an outing.
You should also assess your initial travel plan upon arrival.
Are the locals being careful of COVID-19? Are there restaurant or bar restrictions in place? How easy is it to get around while maintaining social distance? If you planned to visit attractions, are they still open to the public? Are they operating on a modified visiting schedule to allow for social distancing and cleaning?
Be flexible to maintain safety after your arrival. Regardless of your vaccination status and comfort level, be respectful of local norms and rules.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel isn’t as easy as it used to be. But it’s still possible with proper planning and care. We hope this guide gives you the peace of mind that you need to enjoy travel, even if it looks different than it did in the past.
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