Travel in the time of COVID: Six Tips for Safe Travel
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
As the long winter stretches ahead of us, it’s hard to imagine being stuck inside our houses again with no reprieve in sight. We’ve heard it may be later in 2021 before our world is back to normal, so the question we’re all asking ourselves is: should we travel and how can we travel safely? Traveling safely during COVID means you follow all the expert guidance for managing risk just as you would do at home - masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds. Ironically, I write this as I'm home recovering from my own bout with COVID. Even the "mild" cases are pretty darn awful. So I understand on a very personal level the precariousness of our situation. But yet, we soldier on with backup plans and hopes for the best. With that in mind, here’s my top six tips for traveling safely and how you might apply those to an actual vacation.
#1 Choose your destination wisely and avoid crowds
Not all destinations are equal when it comes to traveling safely during COVID. Check out your planned destination's COVID case counts, travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. Don't visit during high season when you won't be able to avoid crowds. If possible, talk to locals for real feedback before you go. While on vacation, get out early in the morning for your activities to avoid any crowds. This is true at any time, but it's especially true during a pandemic.
This summer, we traveled to Sanibel Island, Florida for a vacation we had been looking forward to since we cancelled Spring Break. While Florida's numbers as a whole were spiking at that time, Sanibel's numbers looked quite different than the rest of the state. The island had less than five cases because of its seclusion - you pay a toll to cross the bridge - and because the island had tight COVID controls. We stayed at a friend's condo in a small complex whose residents are mostly snowbirds. June is the off-season, and the complex is very quiet then. We had the pool and beach to ourselves most days!
For our trip to Sedona, Arizona this fall, we kept ourselves on Indiana time and got up early everyday to beat the crowds. We were back to our room after lunch for afternoons by the pool and in bed after dinner. Don't be jealous of how crazy we party. ;)
#2 Travel with your immediate family and limit exposure to others
While I love traveling with my extended family and friends, for the near future, we plan to stick with the four of us - take our household and move it elsewhere. The safest lodging is to rent a house with all your amenities in place - pool or hot tub with access to beach or mountains. That's our plan for Spring Break 2021 - a cabin in the Smoky Mountains with whitewater rafting and lots of hiking to entertain us. If a house isn't possible, then a condo in a small complex or a room in a smaller hotel that's open air can mitigate risk. We chose Sedona for our most recent trip, because we had been there before and knew the Amara Resort where we had stayed would be on the safer side. The hotel is smaller with all rooms opening onto a big open-air courtyard, so you don't even have to go inside the lobby. We have avoided big resorts because that means bigger crowds and more exposure to others.
Spring Break 2021 in the Smoky Mountains!
#3 Keep all activities outside
Choose a destination and a time of year where your fun can be had outdoors, including dining, tours and activities. National Parks are at the top of our list in a regular year, but especially now with COVID. Outdoor adventure feeds my soul and it's safer, too! Check out our trip to Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks here! This year, we had planned to visit Yosemite, Kings and Sequoia Canyon National Parks and felt safe given our activities would all be outside. But then there were wildfires, and we learned again how important flexible plans and backup options are! We'll save Yosemite for 2022! The trip is all planned, so it will be a turnkey vacation!
Because of the wildfires, we rerouted to Sedona where we could be outside the entire trip - kayaking, hiking, hot air ballooning, creekstomping, and ziplining. We dined at outdoor restaurants or ate our dinner by the pool. It seemed like the only time we went indoors was to sleep! Read about our fun in Sedona here!
#4 Mask, social distance, and sanitize before settling in
Just like you would at home, masking, social distancing and sanitizing is crucial to traveling safely. As soon as we park our car at the airport, our masks go on and don't come off until after we've sanitized the rental car at our destination. And before we sit down in our airplane seat or get comfy in our hotel room, all surface areas are sanitized. The kids have their own pack of wipes, and they're responsible for wiping down their area. They're so accustomed to masks that it's no problem for them to wear one for hours on end. It's pretty amazing the adjustments we've all made in this new world!
#5 Don't be afraid to fly
I’ve heard from many people that they don’t want to fly until COVID is behind us. While I can understand that driving your own car to your destination feels safer during COVID, I dread long road trips and hate wasting precious vacation days on long drives. I’m comfortable flying based on data that shows your risk of contracting COVID is lower during air travel than it is from an office building, classroom, or train because of air filtration. The airflow in current jet airliners is much faster than normal indoor buildings. Half of it is fresh air from outside, the other half is recycled through HEPA filters of the same type used in operating rooms. Any remaining risk is from contact with other passengers who might be infectious. Seat backs provide a partial physical barrier, and most people remain relatively still, with little face-to-face contact. There is little airflow forward and backward between rows, making it less likely to spread respiratory particles between rows.
However, airplanes have been surprisingly crowded. We had hoped the airlines would continue to limit capacity like they did in the beginning of the pandemic, but they’re hurting so bad financially it’s just not possible. On our flight to and from Phoenix in October, the plane was completely full. I don’t love being that close to that many people for three hours, but we do our best to stay safe and that includes:
Sitting together: My kids and I share a row by ourselves so we aren’t near anyone. My poor husband the pilot jumpseats, so he has to sit wherever there’s an open seat, which is often in the cockpit. But it’s free and he masks up and sanitizes.
Wearing our mask covering our nose and mouth at all times. It's actually a nice time to be quiet and introspective since you can't hear conversation with everyone masked up and with the airplane background noise. Thankfully, my kids are at an age where they can entertain themselves, so I have the distinct pleasure of "me time" on airplanes again.
Disinfecting our seat area before we sit down. This includes tray tables, buttons/switches, seatbelt buckles, seatback pocket. All of it gets wiped down.
Using the TSA pre-check security checkpoint, which is almost always empty. If you haven’t signed up for this, it’s well worth the $85 and lasts for five years! Your kids can travel with you in the pre-check line. None of you have to take off shoes or jackets or worry about electronics. Get more TSA pre-check information here.
Keeping to ourselves in the airport.
Washing hands frequently, using wipes when needed, and not touching anything if possible.
#6 Plan ahead and plan for the worst
Everyone is hoping for a better 2021 and almost certain that 2022 should be back to normal, so people are planning travel now to make up for what we missed this year. If you don't plan ahead, you may be doing another staycation or you may have to settle for a less than optimal vacation. I'm planning Hawaii for October 2021, and several of my top choices appeared to be sold out! Luckily, as a Travel Consultant, I have access to Travel Wholesalers, and once I checked with them, all my options opened up!
However, planning ahead won't do you any good if you're not prepared for the worst. While we don't like to think about the worse case scenario, it's important in times like these. Your comprehensive travel plan should:
Prioritize flexible reservations - know the cancellation policy for everything you book. If it's not flexible, consider other options. For our Yosemite trip, we could cancel up to seven days before the trip, so we were able to wait and see how the wildfires looked before rerouting to Sedona.
Invest in "Cancel for any reason" travel insurance - a travel consultant can provide the best options for you to ensure you're covered no matter what.
Know your medical coverage - not all health insurance plans provide coverage outside the country unless you make special arrangements. Make sure your plan treats COVID just like any other illness. Bring insurance and physician contact numbers with you.
Have a Plan B you can execute easily if there's issues at your Plan A destination. We got lucky that I could book Sedona at the last minute, but I've learned my lesson that I should have a Plan B for all vacations.
Have a Quarantine Plan - Think about your options if one of you gets sick while you're there. Could you rent a car to drive home? What if you were required to lockdown at your destination? This is probably the most difficult for people to digest. If you're not prepared to stay longer than you planned either from a financial standpoint or work/school standpoint, then you need to decide if travel is viable for you right now.
Leverage a travel consultant! A travel professional (like me!) can help you navigate the uncertainty, advise you on your best options for a Plan A and a Plan B, and be your "fixer" if problems arise before or during your trip.
I’m happiest when I’m planning a vacation, looking forward to a vacation, or actually on a vacation. It’s the mental health aspect that keeps me traveling, despite the pandemic. Not everyone will agree with me, but it’s integral to my happiness, so I continue to plan and hope for the best! What about you? Have you been traveling during the pandemic? Do you plan to travel in the immediate future? Comment below with your thoughts and questions!
Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never looked back. In addition to travel and adventure, Heather is passionate about kindness, community, whole food, and sweating every day.
Heather has an MBA from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.
If you're ready to plan your next vacation, Heather is ready to help!