This blog was written by Amizade’s Executive Director Brandon Blache-Cohen. As an experienced traveler, Brandon shares tips and personal experiences when traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We travel for all sorts of reasons — for adventure, to meet new people, to be inspired by the sights, smells, tastes, and ideas of something different, to see friends and family, and for everything in between. Traveling usually makes us better humans. Of course, traveling can also be stressful and bring out the worst in us. To an extent, we expect some missed connections, flat tires, awkward interactions, and overbooked hotels from time to time. Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has added a new dimension to the challenges surrounding crossing borders. Testing, vaccination cards, locator forms, moving regulations, peaks and declines in health and safety, as well as the ethics of travel, have made it that even the most seasoned of travelers break down.
Having had the incredible honor to visit over 85 countries prior to March 2020, I was comfortable and confident in most travel situations. Yet, in the few international travel experiences I have had since the pandemic began, the rules have changed. I have had more than a few moments of nearly “losing it”, and I’ve realized that no matter how seasoned we are, we should all consider ourselves novices again. Here are my tips for not crying when traveling during the pandemic.
TIP ONE: PACK YOUR MORAL COMPASS AND YOUR VACCINATION CARD FIRST
The golden travel rule that I like to live by is to make your most important decisions based on what your country hosts are expecting. Do they want you in their community in the first place? If the answer is no to this question, please don’t go. If there is even a serious local debate going on about the harm of tourism during COVID, take a pause for a bit before booking those flights. Get vaccinated, carry your card with you, but don’t be cavalier and think that you know better, or that you can’t possibly spread the virus, or that your potential economic contribution outweighs their interest. Think more deeply about traveling internationally than ever before. Does it really make sense right now? If the answer is yes to this question, then you’ll spare yourself the worst of all the potential travel-related cries: the “I’ve made a horrible, irreversible, unethical mistake” cry.
TIP TWO: PREPARE FOR RADICAL FLEXIBILITY
Guess what? That itinerary that you’ve been dreaming up for the last year is going to change… a lot. If you’re lucky, most of the stuff you want to do will be safe, possible, and open. If you’re not, you’ll end up with local closures, high expenses, or worse. The best thing to do is to prepare yourself for the likelihood that things will not go exactly as planned (and cost a lot more). This has always been an important rule for travel, but COVID has made it laughably far more important. If you’re expecting that your trip will go as planned, you’ll be let down as soon as you get to the airport, and that might even be where your crying starts.
TIP THREE: MAKE A PLAN FOR THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO
Let’s pull the band-aid right off. You need to make a plan in the event that you test positive for COVID-19 and get stuck abroad. This is not a thought exercise, but a real experience that has happened to thousands of people. If you test positive, you cannot board your plane back home. Where will you go? How will you pay for quarantine? How will you safely separate yourself from other travelers? What are the local rules around this scenario? What about local hospitals? What about your family, friends, and colleagues back home? Do you have to be somewhere important the morning after you return back? There’s a lot to think about here, but if this happens to you, or a travel partner, you will almost certainly cry a lot (for many reasons). Make a plan and get trip, travel, health, and quarantine insurance.
TIP FOUR: CHECK, DOUBLE CHECK, AND TRIPLE CHECK REGULATIONS
Regulations are changing rapidly everywhere. They are very difficult to keep track of, and many websites responsible for updating them are unreliable. I suggest checking at time of booking, one month before, one week before, and the day before departure. To an extent, to be a traveler right now is to be a futurist; we have to not only see what the rules are now, but guess what they might be weeks or months down the road. This is a tough position to be in, because you’re competing with new variants, new government leadership, new understanding of how COVID-19 works, and evolving culture around managing the pandemic. If you don’t know the most up-to-date rules and regulations for entering and traveling in a different country, you will be guaranteed to make some serious mistakes, and possibly not be admitted in the first place. I witnessed this cry several times in the last year. It has a lot of embarrassment rooted in it. You do not want to have this cry.
TIP FIVE: STICK WITH CHANGEABLE/REFUNDABLE TICKETS
I admit it. I booked a very cheap non-refundable flight after getting vaccinated. I thought I was in the clear and I was wrong. That was a terrible decision. I got lucky, because the flight was canceled, and I was able to request my money back, but it easily could have ended with me losing everything on a ticket that I may have not even been able to use. I didn’t cry, but I was pretty upset. The pandemic is not over and things are still changing constantly. Book as much as you can that is refundable or at least changeable. Unless you have a lot of money to lose, not booking flexible options is a one-way ticket to Crytown (or Tearville or whatever corny village you want to name it). Of course, flexible tickets cost more, so my suggestion is that if you can’t afford at least a changeable option, you may want to pass on international travel for a little while.
TIP SIX: FIGURE OUT TESTING IN ADVANCE
Make sure you know the most up-to-date testing requirements before departure for both your home country and the one you are traveling to. Even further, make sure you know how to get tested and can ensure that results come back on time. This is trickier than it sounds, even in resource-rich countries. My entire family cried in Newark Airport this summer when a testing lab lost two of our results and the airline would not at first let us board. It was, by far, the most dramatic airport experience I have ever had, and we were not alone. After seven hours of debate, five hundred dollars, some frantic arguing, and a full sprint, we barely made it. We had a back-up plan, and even it nearly failed. Trust me, you need to figure out testing and have a back-up plan just to be safe. I suggest for re-entering the United States to use Abbott BinaxNOW™ COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test with eMed Telehealth Service. (Unless the regulations change again! Remember tip four.) No other at-home antigen test will work and you will be forced to find a local lab that can guarantee results in time, probably losing precious time out of the end of your trip.
TIP SEVEN: UNDERSTAND LOCAL COVID ETIQUETTE
Every community is dealing with the evolving science and management of the COVID-19 pandemic differently. Some places are pretending like it never happened at all, while others remain in complete lockdown. Research and understand as best you can what the culture of the community you’ll be visiting is like. Do they use masks indoors, outdoors, or neither? Do adults and children have different expectations? Are vaccination cards expected to enter buildings? Are in-person meetings happening or do they remain virtual? Understanding the local culture around the pandemic does not equate to endangering yourself. If no one wears masks in grocery stores, but you do, you should still wear that mask. Do understand though, that being unprepared for a vastly different approach to the pandemic could put you in uncomfortable (and even dangerous) positions.
TIP EIGHT: READ THE NEWS
Reading the news of a place that you are traveling to is always a good idea. It can give you an up-to-date perspective of what people are concerned about locally. In COVID times, it can also save your life. Sometimes international reporting on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths can be deceiving or incomplete, but often serious outbreaks can be seen in local news sources. Are hospitals overflowing there? Are there shortages of PPE or other vital resources? Stay abreast to what is going on in real time before you depart as best you can. Otherwise you could be entering a scary and cry-worthy situation.
TIP NINE: RELAX, YOU’RE NOT IN CHARGE FOR ONCE
The virus is still in control for now, but maybe there’s a small silver lining we can find in that. The pandemic has forced us to find adventure in places we’d never expect — our backyards, that cold beach we used to avoid, and even just plain old conversations with the folks who make life happen around us. So if that museum is closed on your trip, sit on a bench outside of it, read a book, and let the day take you where it takes you. International travel during COVID-19 will not be how you plan it, but it can be just (if not more) as powerful and beneficial for you and the world around you. Relax.
TIP TEN: YOU MIGHT CRY ANYWAY, SO PACK TISSUES
Seriously, travel is a lot harder than it used to be. Even finding food in an airport can be a frustrating experience. Everything from securing a car rental to buying toilet paper can cause stress. Be clear, however, that just because your packing list now includes tissues, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful life-changing, joyful experience. In fact, so far, some of the most powerful travel moments of my life have come during the pandemic; they just take a lot more preparation and far different expectations.