This summer it seemed like Americans were finally starting to travel again, both domestically and internationally, but the recent surge in the delta variant and continued COVID spikes have caused a return to travel restrictions and added fear and uncertainty about travel. Some countries are banning U.S. visitors, while others are introducing rules that seem to change almost daily, as do U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel advisories and the agency’s roster of “high risk” destinations.
On the plus side, global vaccination levels continue to increase, as do the safety measures taken by airlines, destinations, hotels and tour companies. But children under 12 still can’t get vaccinated, adding anxiety to family travel, and the enforcement of health protocols varies widely by location.
Given this uncertainty, is now the right time to travel or even plan a trip?
Here, travel industry and health experts weigh in on the current state of travel and whether now is the right time to plan a trip.
Weighing travel's risks vs. rewards
“Travel now is a matter of balancing risks with benefits,” says Paul Holtom, M.D., infectious diseases specialist and chief epidemiologist at the LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles. “I agree there is a mental health and wellness benefit to travel, but there are inherent risks as well, with seniors in a higher risk group. If you want to travel, you should do everything you can to reduce those risks.”
“The decision of whether or not to travel in 2021 is a personal choice that mostly depends on your health risk profile and willingness to deal with potential logistical challenges,” says Joost Schreve, chief executive officer of the Boulder, Colorado-based travel service company kimkim.
Joshua Bush, chief executive officer of Avenue Two Travel in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, agrees that travel now “comes down to risk tolerance and awareness, but it is possible to travel now and do so in an ethical and safe manner.”
But why travel now? “Most of our clients have recognized from the past two years that you only live once. With the right precautions, they value their freedom to travel, to explore and most of all to connect with the world,” says Jack Ezon, founder of Embark Beyond, a New York-based travel agency specializing in the luxury market. “And right now there are great values and most places aren’t overcrowded.”
So how to manage your risk of travel? The most obvious way to dramatically lower your risk: Get vaccinated for COVID-19. In a September White House briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky offered this advice: “First and foremost, if you’re unvaccinated, we would recommend not traveling. But people who are fully vaccinated and wearing masks can travel.” Travel advisers concur. “For one’s own safety and for the safety of those around you, vaccinating and wearing masks are just the right things to do,” Bush says.
But even the vaccinated face health risks when traveling now. “While it’s unlikely that a vaccinated person contracts COVID, it’s not impossible,” Holtom cautions. “These cases will more likely be mild or asymptomatic, but given testing requirements to return to the U.S., this still means you’ll have to quarantine for two weeks in a foreign country [if traveling abroad]. And if you should happen to suffer another type of serious illness or injury while traveling, you’ll have to use local health care facilities that may be substandard or overburdened from COVID patients.”
In terms of timing, Holtom says that “historically we’ve seen a virus surge in fall and winter with lower temperatures and increased indoor gatherings. But none of us have a crystal ball; we really don’t know what’s coming.”
Given the uncertainly of virus trends and travel restrictions, reducing the risk for travel now comes down to being as well-informed as possible about your destination and modes of travel, as well as your own health — both physical and mental. You won’t benefit from the soothing benefits of travel if you’re stressed the entire time. “While traveling, you’ll find yourself in airports and other places that can get crowded. If you’re uncomfortable with those kinds of situations in your hometown, traveling now might not be ideal for you,” Schreve advises. “But if you’re living a fairly normal life at the moment, we’ve found that most of our travelers have had no issues and in many cases enjoyed a relative lack of crowds since many places have fewer visitors.”
Traveling within the U.S.
Domestic U.S. travel, particularly travel by car, has enjoyed great popularity in the past year due to the lack of state border restrictions and confidence in local health care. “California is open for business and welcoming travelers back, while also encouraging locals to explore their own backyards,” says Caroline Beteta, chief executive officer of Visit California. But certain domestic regions experiencing COVID surges are actively discouraging travel. Hawaii governor David Ige recently discouraged residents from traveling between islands and asked that all other visitors forgo leisure travel to the islands through October. “Our hospitals are reaching capacity, and ICUs are filling up. Now is not a good time to travel to Hawaii.”
For domestic destinations, Holtom recommends doing your research on the status of specific regions. For example, within California at the end of September, “L.A. County is currently showing very low COVID numbers, but in the Central Valley [the Fresno-Stockton region] hospitals are filled to 120 percent capacity.” Similarly, Bush recommends that travelers “stay clear of places where vaccination rates are much lower, such as the southern U.S. states.” Domestic road trips to outdoor areas such as national parks have been popular, although with some parks becoming crowded, look instead to explore less-visited national parks, such as Dry Tortugas near Key West, Florida, and Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas.
Traveling to other countries
Like domestic destinations, international countries currently vary widely between being open and welcoming, or closed and at higher risk. The CDC currently lists at least 80 countries and territories as “Very High Risk — avoid travel” (including popular destinations such as the Bahamas, Thailand and the U.K.), with dozens more considered “High Risk” (including Brazil, Denmark and Mexico). Even if you want to go somewhere, you might not be let in: Australia and New Zealand have long been closed to leisure travel, while Belgium and Sweden recently banned all U.S. visitors. Many are allowing U.S. visitors with proof of vaccination, however.
On the flip side, Portugal recently announced that it “will remain open to travelers from the United States" even though the EU has removed the U.S. from its "safe list.” Carolina Trejos, Costa Rica Tourism’s director of marketing, just extended this welcome: “Costa Rica invites travelers to enjoy the numerous nature experiences throughout the country that make social distancing easy, with guidelines in place for our entire tourism industry to operate safely.” Travel adviser Joshua Bush also recommends Costa Rica as a “good choice” for COVID-concerned travelers.
So it's crucial to check out the country-specific travel advisories from the CDC, and the State Department, as well as the current rules and regulations of your destination country and any advisories from the U.S. embassy in that country.
You also can reduce the risk and stress of international travel with planning strategies. Schreve recommends taking direct flights to avoid the crowds and hassles of connections. Bush says many of his agency’s clients are opting for a higher class of cabin in the plane, airport lounge access — even chartering private flights. “We’ve recently connected small groups of like-minded travelers on private aircraft to help mitigate the cost, while offering that peace of mind to fly private in a smaller ‘travel bubble.’ ”
Consider vacations focused on “the great outdoors," Ezon suggests, "and exploring remote places from the comfort of one home base, versus frequently changing lodging.” For a splurge, he says a great COVID-friendly trip right now is Italy’s Amalfi Coast, staying at the new Borgo Sant Andrea Hotel, with outdoor experiences such as hiking the Path of the Gods, a boat ride to Capri, al fresco dining every night and a visit to Pompeii — one of the great outdoor museums in the world. He recommends Costa Rica, the Galapagos and South Africa as some other good outdoors-focused destinations.
“During the past year and a half, our active trips in Europe have been in high demand as travelers seek outdoor adventures, including walking tours offering fresh air, iconic routes, remote locations and a guarantee of vaccinated trip leaders and fellow travelers,” says Matt Berna, the California-based managing director for Intrepid Travel North America. Intrepid’s hikes through the Italian Dolomites and around Mont Blanc in France have been popular, as well as the lesser-known Rota Vicentina along the Portuguese coast.
Even in countries the CDC labels “high risk,” all-inclusive resorts can provide safe havens, Bush says: “Lots of resorts in the Caribbean and Los Cabos, for example, offer a feeling of security with on-site testing and by containing guests while still offering plenty to do so that the vacation experience isn’t hindered. Many Four Seasons and Ritz-Carltons around the world still have space, even for the holidays. Travel agencies partnering with the large luxury brands usually have inventory and access to great value-added amenities to defray costs.”
Holtom is still waiting to book his long-delayed 40th anniversary trip with his wife to Spain, because, for him, “right now things are just too uncertain to schedule anything. I want to wait for the COVID numbers to level off first.” However, he did feel safe taking his family on a close-to-home day trip this August. He, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and four grandkids took in all the fun at Disneyland in Anaheim, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles. He agreed to the trip due to his confidence in southern California’s current COVID-19 safety measures and Disney’s management of the outdoor park environment, with distancing protocols and plenty of available hand sanitizer.
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Given the early pandemic news stories of mass outbreaks on cruise ships, the industry took a hard hit over the past year and a half, with the CDC banning cruises from U.S. ports until this summer. But even with vaccines and new shipboard health protocols in place, is now the right time to return to cruising?
Not surprisingly, Bob Levinstein, chief executive officer of Iowa-based Cruise Compete, calls cruises a great travel choice now, going so far as to label cruising “the safest vacation out there.” Levinstein adds that “cruise ships have a huge advantage over other modes of travel in that they have total control over their environment and rules.” He cites cruise lines’ strict new vaccine and testing requirements and their newly installed shipboard air filtration devices. “And if you do get sick on board,” he says, “every ship has trained medical staff on call and COVID tests readily available. You’re not going to have that in any other type of travel.”
“Most of our cruise ship clients are comfortable knowing they’re in a pretested enclosed ‘bubble,’ ” Ezon says, adding that many cruises are already sold out for next year.
Again, Holtom is more skeptical. “It would be hard for me to ever get on a cruise ship, even without coronavirus, given other shipboard outbreaks like norovirus,” he says. “Cruise ships have an inherently higher risk of disease spread given their setup with large groups in confined indoor spaces.” But he admits he has a jaundiced view, given his specialty, and acknowledges that you can reduce the risks by taking the proper health precautions, such as masking, social distancing and spending time outdoors. But if you’re not vaccinated? “Don’t even consider taking a cruise,” he says.
Even Levinstein agrees on this account: “If you’re in a high-risk group where you’re worried about preexisting conditions, stay home for now. There’s no reason to take that risk.” But if you’re healthy, fully vaccinated, traveling without kids, “this is definitely the time to book a cruise. You can take advantage of great deals that might not be available in a few months’ time.” He highlights some cruise lines’ new ‘cancel anytime’ policies (just be sure to read the fine print) as a good reason to book a cruise now.
Like other modes of travel, cruise lines’ access to destinations is subject to change on short notice (the Bahamas recently instituted a temporary ban on cruise ship visits). Port stops and shore excursions may be restricted, and itineraries change even daily. So do your research and maintain flexibility when planning any cruise.
Considering the 'travel stacking' strategy
One newly popular way to manage travel uncertainty and improve flexibility: trip stacking. “It’s a strategy employed by those who don’t want to be disappointed if a trip cancels or they have narrow travel windows. By booking multiple trips for the same date, they’re guaranteed one of them,” Bush says. “The challenge is to know the terms and conditions of that trip inside and out and to not be stuck in a financial penalty when you cancel or change the timing on one of them.”
Ezon is seeing the same thing at Embark Beyond. “We have many clients trip stacking in order to ensure they can get somewhere over a certain time frame. As a travel agency, we try to negotiate very liberal cancellation penalties to avoid losing money,” he says.
At kimkim, Schreve says, “it hasn’t been as pronounced of a trend for us, but we have seen people cancel or postpone trips, and then immediately book a trip to another destination to fill the gap in their travel calendar.”
Given the continued uncertainty in travel, booking trips with any sort of lead time is going to require flexibility — and whether your strategy is trip stacking or simply having a tentative “plan B,” you should confirm a trip only with careful consideration of cancellation policies and an awareness of the latest health situation and COVID-19 restrictions at your planned destination.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, The San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.