The newest order from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), effective Jan. 26, 2021 requires travelers coming to the United States to take a COVID 19 test 3 days before departing and show a negative result to an airline before boarding, or show a documentation of the recent recovery from COVID. This latest guidance puts an additional little wrinkle in an already complicated travel during COVID 19 era.
Whether you choose to travel during COVID 19 or not, is a personal choice. I found that doing your research and taking CDC-recommended precautions makes it reasonably safe and still possible.
Since COVID 19 broke out, I ventured out for short trips to the Carribean islands of St. Croix, Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, and Mexico.
So what is it like to travel during COVID 19?
Do Your Research
First, do your research. Starting with a nearby destinations like the Carribean or Mexico, allows you to test waters with shorter trips, spending less time on the airplanes and figuring out whether you feel comfortable with the way things are.
Carribean islands and Mexico heavily depend on tourism and were the first to open up (in Mexico’s case, it never really closed down) to tourists. Each island has their own rules and they do change depending on a situation locally and globally. Checking tourism board websites or even calling directly the hotels is the best way to learn what regulations each place follows.
One thing that’s constant is that rules are changing and they are changing fast, so you have to be flexible with your schedule, itinerary, and even destination choices. For example, we had a trip planned to Barbados for the first week of September, but in mid-August Barbados announced that they were no longer allowing US tourists. To be more exact, they were requiring a 14 day quarantine upon arrival, which for people going on a week-long vacation is the same as a no go. So, we quickly looked for other islands that were still accepting Americans and decided on Turks and Caicos.
COVID 19 has been truly transformational for many industries, but airlines, airports and air travel have been forced to transform faster than anyone. From no change fee policies, upping their game in cleanliness, to implementing the touchless technologies throughout the airports, air travel has been the most progressive in quickly adapting to the new environment.
Airlines have also improved their communications with the travelers. I’ve received multiple emails and texts at various times prior to my trip informing me of airline regulations, what I can do, what I can’t and offering to change or cancel my flight if those rules were not up to my liking.
Airports require wearing a mask at all times. On a day of travel, I put on a mask at home before I get into an Uber and take it off only after I arrive at my final destination.
If you have a hard time keeping your mask on and think of randomly taking it off mid-flight (unless for eating or drinking), the flight attendant will inform you that you must put it back on or risk of being put on a no-fly list for that airline.
If you’re a member of Clear travel program, your identity confirmation no longer requires you placing fingers on a touchscreen for fingerprint scanning. It’s now done via scanning your face. The same is for Global Entry program upon returning back to the US. All check in processes have swiftly moved to the touchless future.
You keep your hands on your passport and belongings, have hand wipes and sanitizer handy, and wash your hands as often as you can, and you’ll be alright.
Airports, however, do get crowded. Maintaining a social distance at an airport during busy travel times like Christmas season, is mission impossible. When we traveled in the summer and in the fall, airports were largely empty, but it definitely wasn’t the case on a Sunday after the New Years at the Cancun airport.
Once you board an airplane, you get a little bag with water, snacks and a hand sanitizer. Drink and meal service has been eliminated. So, if you tend to get hungry and/or thirsty – bring your own snacks and buy beverages at the airport before boarding. No alcoholic beverages are allowed. I’m not sure if that’s forever, but then again, I tend to sleep through that service anyway, so nothing missed here.
Airlines stock prices jumped after they announced new air filtration system that captures 99.97% of airborne bacteria and refreshes cabin air every 2 to 4 min. Supposedly, that makes aircraft cabins safer than grocery stores or malls. I’ll argue that at those other places we’re usually not packed in as sardines, but then again, I’m the one packing myself in.
The question of an open middle seat depends on an airline. Some did that in the summer. Some are still doing or pledge to do it. But largely, that effort is overruled by the businesses needing to stuff an aircraft with as many people as possible.
To add salt to injury, there are fewer direct flights as there are fewer people flying.
It’s understandable that flying remains the riskiest part of the travel due to the impossibility of avoiding social closeness in closed environments.
Hotels, Resorts and Airbnbs
The most important tip is to check with the hotel or the resort if the booking is refundable. Most will be. Airbnb allows hosts to set their own refund rules so make sure to check those too.
As expected, hotels and resorts are half empty. Resorts in Mexico, the busiest travel destination close to the US, are required to limit their occupancy to 50%.
All staff wear masks at all times. Guests, on the other hand, are given a bit more leeway. So as long as you stay away from other people, you’ll be fine.
Expect to have your temperature checked at all times: entering and checking into the resort/hotel upon arrival, and entering their restaurants, pool and beach areas. Of course, this again, varies depending on each property, so make sure to call ahead and read the most recent reviews on Tripadvisor (link to my reviews).
Restaurants have been hit hard. A lot of them have closed forever or temporarily. Many operate on an improvised schedule.
Just like with the hotels and resorts, restaurant experience will depend on each establishment.
On the Carribean islands, especially in Turks and Caicos, and Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic, temperature was checked upon entering every restaurant. In Turks and Caicos, they would also take down your name and where you’re staying for tracking.
Mexico was a bit more relaxed. Even though they were taking the temperature down in some places, it didn’t look like anyone was really paying attention to what that termometer was showing.
St. Croix, which we visited in July, was just navigating and adopting on the fly, so temperature was not checked when going to the restaurants, but social distancing was enforced.
Given the tropical climate, a lot of restaurants are outside or at least half outside, thus social distancing is easy and the air flow makes it more acceptable. Tables are spaced out as much as possible, but again, largely depends on each business.
Wait staff, of course, always wear masks. Mask wearing is required from patrons when entering and moving around the restaurant.
“Life is a beach” as a saying goes. But even beaches have been affected by regulations in trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.
If you’re staying at the resort, they ask you to wear a mask for as long as you are walking around public areas. It doesn’t mean you need to wear a mask from your lounge chair to the ocean or a pool, but you should wear a mask going to the bathroom or to the beach/pool bar; two highly-visited places in every beach resort.
It is harder to enforce these rules in the larger resorts. The smaller the place, the more control the management will exercise. They try to politely remind everyone as often as they can, but people are not always or often in compliance, so you have to protect yourself.
As with anything else, as long as you stay away from others, you’ll keep yourself and others safe.
Sightseeing and activity tours have been largely paused. It moved towards more personal, individualized options. If it’s two of you or more traveling together, you will be able to book a sightseeing tour. Otherwise groups are super small or canceled. The safest activities are those around water – snorkeling, scuba diving and boating.
Traveling and really seeing the places, exploring is on pause.
Life when traveling during COVID 19 looks very much like life at home. Wearing a mask, staying away from people and maintaining personal hygiene.
If you want to get away and sit on the beach, that is possible and can be relatively low risk.
Air travel is the most crowded and uncomfortably risky activity, but the new CDC regulation of needing to show a negative COVID test before checking in, should make it even more safer. If other countries implement the same regulation, it should drastically reduce the number of infected people traveling and open up more places to go to.
I can’t wait to see what it will look like mid-summer of 2021. Will we ever be back to Europe? I miss you my old continent. In the meantime, islands will do.
Have you traveled during COVID 19 and what was your experience?