Last updated: September 17, 2020
Real talk: I’ve procrastinated on writing this article for a long time. For months, I’ve been meaning to do a follow-up to my March article about traveling during the COVID-19 outbreak, but it was hard to know where to start. This whole pandemic season has been marked with so much uncertainty, misinformation, fear, and confusion that I had trouble figuring out what to even say.
There was also part of me that just didn’t want to say it. I’ll be honest: these last few months have been tough. While I am incredibly grateful that neither I nor any of my closest friends and family have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the fact remains that the pandemic has upended all of our lives in a big way. That’s especially true for people whose jobs, careers, and livelihoods were impacted by the pandemic.
As someone who works primarily in travel planning and blogging with side work in conferences and events, I watched my entire income shrivel up. I lost an entire year of freelance work. I saw my website traffic, affiliate income, and number of travel planning customers – previously on a promising upward trend – all plummet. While I knew that I had a responsibility to my readers to comment and keep them informed about the state of travel, most of the time I just didn’t want to. It was easier to revisit past trips and write fun, informative new articles that I hoped would help people once we all start traveling again. It was easier to pretend that things would return to normal sooner rather than later, and to believe that people wanted the distraction of reading about interesting places and dreaming about future trips.
It would be irresponsible of me, however, to continue to be silent. I also realized that by posting so much travel content without any commentary about whether or not such trips would be feasible or wise to take, I could actually be doing a huge disservice to the people who trust me for their travel advice and inspiration. So that brings us to today.
Today, I want to talk about the state of travel as we look toward the end of 2020 (can’t come soon enough!) and the beginning of 2021. I want to talk about whether or not it’s wise to travel, where to go if so, and share some tips on how to do it as safely as possible if you choose to leave home.
A small disclaimer before we start. Anything I’ve stated here should be followed in tandem with your governing body’s health guidelines and those of your destination, with those organizations’ mandates superseding my own suggestions. Also, while I do my best to keep my finger on the pulse of the travel industry, it’s an erratic heartbeat, to say the least. With so much changing all the time, although I will do my best to keep this post as updated as possible you should always double-check all travel details before booking or going on a trip.
Question 1: Is it Even Possible to Travel Now?
For a lot of people, the answer to this question is technically yes. The European Union started reopening its borders to a limited number of countries on July 1, with notable exclusions that included the United States, Brazil, and Russia. Many Asian nations and Caribbean islands have started welcoming visitors back or will by early September. Travel between US states and Canadian provinces is largely permitted, and the US Department of State recently lifted the Global Level 4 Health Advisory that strongly discouraged all international travel.
That said, while many borders have opened, travel is nowhere near back to normal. Many destinations have imposed some level of restrictions on visitors, including requiring proof of a negative COVID test or a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Most are still barring residents of high-risk countries or regions, including the United States. In fact, the list of places accepting U.S. travelers is fairly small. This is thanks to both our continued high number of confirmed cases and deaths as well as the varying levels of restrictions and compliance in attempting to control the virus’s spread.
So, in effect, much of the world is still completely closed off or heavily restricted, especially for Americans. While it’s possible for almost anyone to travel in some form or fashion, it’s definitely not easy to accomplish.
UPDATE: I recently discovered an interactive, real-time global reopening tracker that seems pretty legit. As with anything you’re seeing online, double-check what you find, but it could be very useful as you’re considering or planning travel.
Question 2: Should I Travel Now?
This is, perhaps, the better question to be asking about traveling in 2020. Not is it possible to travel, but is it a good idea? (Or, in Jurassic Park terms, make sure you’re not so preoccupied with whether or not you can that you don’t stop to think about whether you should.)
The answer to this question varies from person to person and vacation to vacation. There are a lot of reasons why it wouldn’t be wise to travel right now:
- If you (or anyone with whom you are in close, regular contact) are considered high-risk.
- Local mandates aimed at containing the virus vary widely, as does compliance with them.
- Some people are still concerned that borders could close again unexpectedly, which would result in a trip cut short, difficulty getting home, or even getting stranded abroad.
- Even if you’re able to visit your chosen destination, the tourist attractions and services available may be limited.
- For many people, the pleasure and benefits of traveling do not outweigh the risk of contracting COVID-19 or possibly spreading it to others.
For many of the reasons above, I’m personally not comfortable with traveling outside of my home country until the situation is much less volatile.
That said, I do think that you can travel responsibly in late 2020 and that it might be a really positive thing to do so. (More on where and how to travel during “these uncertain times” below.) First, after months of being cooped up at home, a change of scenery could do wonders. Also, even if you keep your activities and personal interactions to a minimum, your tourist dollars could make a real difference for hurting businesses in your destination.
But what about all those great travel deals I’m seeing online? Is it ok to book something now for travel in the future?
Look, I get it. I, too, have been absolutely drooling over the TravelZoo Top 20 emails lately. The deals are outrageous, and super tempting considering that most of them have very flexible refund and change policies. I would say that if the following criteria have been met, you can feel free to purchase a travel deal now for use at a later date:
- The dates on the deal are at least a few months out (ideally spring 2021 or later) if the destination is international or a long distance from home.
- You would want to take the trip even if the world isn’t completely returned to “normal” by that point. (Meaning you’re ok with possibly having some restrictions on what you can do or see.)
- You’ve read the terms and conditions carefully to make sure that the deal is, in fact, fully refundable or at least flexible enough that you feel comfortable if you can’t/don’t go.
- You’ve answered my 9 Questions to Ask Before Booking a Travel Deal to ensure that you’re not getting ripped off.
Question 3: Where Should I Travel if I Am Able?
If you do feel comfortable traveling, it’s important to choose your destination carefully. Make sure that you research all possible restrictions or complications you might face before making your decision. Something as simple as taking a road trip through New England, for example, might not end up being as easy as you thought once you realize that Vermont is still mandating a 14-day quarantine for visitors from many parts of the United States.
You’ll also want to make sure that the place that you want to visit isn’t a current hotspot and that you wouldn’t be putting any vulnerable populations (like the hard-hit Navajo Nation) in unnecessary danger.
My best advice for traveling in late 2020 is that you should stay as local as possible and try to spend a lot of your time outdoors. There’s much less risk in driving your own car on a road trip compared to taking a flight, train, bus, or cruise. Driving allows you to control when and where you stop en route and what kind of exposure you’ll have to others along the way.
Find a corner of your state, province, or region that you haven’t explored. Embrace the long weekend getaway to take small trips to fun new places nearby. While I can sometimes feel like all the destinations within two hours of my hometown are old hat, the truth is that there are plenty of places that I haven’t experienced yet or that would be fun to revisit.
Similarly, nature-based and other outdoor getaways allow you to more easily maintain social distance and limit your exposure to COVID-19. Take a hike, have a picnic, check out a new state or national park, or visit a nature preserve. If you’re not a big nature person, you can still do outdoor activities in urban environments. Visiting local parks, going on a street art or architecture tour, strolling a waterfront promenade, or taking a walking tour of historical sites are all great ways to experience a new place without spending much time indoors.
M and I have limited our travel this summer to a couple of short trips to my parents’ house at the Delaware beaches. While it’s definitely a tourist destination that draws crowds from all over, staying in a family home rather than a hotel allows us to greatly limit our exposure to others. The beaches we prefer are big enough to allow for good social distancing, and there are plenty of outdoor dining options if we don’t feel like cooking. Even with all these limitations, it still feels like a vacation and a small-but-wonderful way to shake up our routine.
Question 4: What Should I Do Before I Leave?
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most important things to do before you embark on any fall 2020 travel is to do your research. Make sure that you have as clear a picture as possible of local mandates and the current COVID environment in your destination before you make any final decisions.
To that end, I also suggest that you make as many refundable bookings as you can and wait to book anything non-refundable until you’re absolutely certain your trip is a go. Then, just before you leave, double-check all those mandates to make sure nothing new has popped up that will affect your trip.
This is also a time to consider buying travel insurance. I’ve discussed the benefits of travel insurance before, but the big benefit to buying it now is that you’ll be covered if you or someone in your party gets sick and/or has to quarantine. The quarantine factor adds a level of complexity (and most likely expense) that’s not usually present when you get sick while traveling.
One big call-out, though, is that you shouldn’t buy travel insurance with the expectation that you will get your money back if you decide to cancel your trip. (Most travel insurance plans don’t allow changing your mind as a covered eventuality.) Many plans also do not cover pandemics or just choosing not to travel, and those that do often have limitations on what they do and don’t protect, so read the terms and conditions carefully.
Question 5: How Can I Stay Safe While Traveling?
Happily, if you’ve done your homework and chosen destinations and modes of transportation that limit your risk, you’ve already set yourself up for success. Once you’re on your trip, how you keep yourself safe while traveling won’t look much different from how you do so at home. Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your mouth and face, maintain social distancing, and limit the amount of time you spend in indoor public spaces.
To further increase your chances of staying safe, don’t be afraid to take the cleanliness of your surroundings into your own hands. While many places are probably cleaner now than ever before thanks to new sanitation requirements and procedures, you never know how well something has been cleaned or who might have touched it last. Bring your own sanitizing wipes and go to town on hotel doorknobs and remotes, your plane tray table, restaurant tables, and any other shared surfaces.
Question 6: What Other Tips Do You Have for Fall 2020 Travel?
1.) Keep Your Focus Local
It’s no secret that the travel industry has been absolutely devastated by COVID-19 restrictions, so it’s important that we do everything we can to help small businesses and the people they employ recover as we start to travel again. One of the best parts of limiting the scope of your travel is that your tourist dollars will have an impact closer to your own community.
Throughout your planning and traveling process, do your best to patronize small, local businesses. Stay in guesthouses, boutique hotels, and bed and breakfasts. Book lodging, excursions, and tours directly rather than through a third-party service like Booking.com, TripAdvisor, or a big tour company. On your trip, eat in local places rather than chain restaurants.
A small note: I have seen some travel experts advising to stay in chain hotels and patronize major brands due to their transparency about cleaning protocols and other safety measures. I appreciate that point of view and understand if you feel more comfortable with those formalized precautions in place. That said, I personally feel strongly that now, more than ever, is the time to be focusing on small businesses.
2.) Be Generous
If you have the disposable income to travel, please consider being a little extra generous toward the people you meet along the way. Restaurant servers, boutique hotel owners and staff, tour guides, souvenir shop owners, and others have all been hit hard, and a couple of extra dollars could make a real difference. This is especially true in seasonal destinations such as Alaska or a lot of beach communities, where people make most of the money they will live off for the year during the short summer season.
Add a little extra to the tip line on your restaurant bill. Leave some money for the housekeeping staff even if you usually don’t. Toss a $5 bill into the glass donation case at a museum, or make a donation when you get home to an organization that preserves or supports a place you visited. If everyone gives just a little bit extra here and there, we can make a big impact.
3.) Obey Local Mandates and Respect Local Attitudes
I’ve mentioned it numerous times already, but it bears repeating that it is your responsibility to be aware of and follow any and all local mandates related to COVID-19 prevention. This includes wearing a mask as directed.
You should also pay attention to local attitudes and be respectful of them. Even if your destination doesn’t have an official mask mandate, make sure you’re sporting yours if the locals are overwhelmingly doing so.
4.) Respect the Places You’re Visiting
This isn’t just advice for pandemic times; we should always be respectful travelers. The difference now is that most of the world just received a huge reprieve from overtourism, pollution, and the negative effects of the travel industry. Places like Venice and Barcelona, which have struggled under an increasingly heavy tourist burden for years, finally got a chance to breathe. Understandably, vulnerable destinations like these may not be overly excited to start welcoming back hordes of tourists.
Now is the time to make extra certain to follow the old adage of taking only pictures and leaving only footprints. Do what you can to ensure that the places you’re visiting stay clean and free of any negative impact from your visit.
I hope that this article was helpful to you if you’re considering traveling in the fall, late 2020, or beyond. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can support you in any way or answer any questions!
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