@DimaBerlin / Twenty20

Tips for holiday travel during the pandemic

If you're planning to travel for the holidays, prepare in advance and pack extra patience


Holiday travel is on the books again for many this year. If you’re planning to get out of town, or even out of the country, you’ll want to be organized, safe and extra patient.

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We’ve come a long way since last year’s holiday travel season. Every day, more of us have returned to – or are planning our return to – travel. While health and safety are still top of mind, so is pandemic fatigue. How can you be a smart traveler this holiday season, stay healthy and keep your cool? You’ll need to know what to be expect, prepare in advance and pack your patience.

Whether you’re travel planning for the holidays, packing for a trip, or already on the road, here are a few tips to level-up your travel at this stage of “Can the pandemic please be over already?” preparedness.

Tips for travel planning

Holiday travel recommendations

First the good news: Nobody is really telling you to stay home this year. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) travel recommendation at the time of writing is simply to delay travel until you are fully vaccinated. This is a big shift from last year’s pre-holiday instructions to avoid any non-essential travel and gathering.

Plus, with the recent approval of boosters for seniors’ and children’s vaccines, intergenerational gatherings are once again a go and millions of kids will be fully vaccinated in time for Christmas break getaways.

However, just because there’s a green light from the CDC to pack your bags and vaccine cards, that doesn’t mean travel is back to normal. You’ll need to do your homework.

Where can you go?

When it comes to domestic travel, you can pretty much go anywhere you want these days, but remember every destination is still very different. In some destinations you won’t find a mask in sight, while in other places you might still find outdoor dining or be required to flash your vaccine card to sit at a bar (or to get into Hawaii).

Do your research to know how COVID-19 is being managed in your desired destination. If you have expectations for things to be open or health concerns you’re managing, you’ll definitely want to know what to expect so you aren’t met by any big surprises. Things can be very different state to state.

Internationally, most places are (mostly) open to vaccinated travelers, but definitely not everywhere. If you’re considering international travel, you’ll need to double the amount of time you normally spend travel planning. I recommend checking the .gov website of the country you want to visit for the official word and a checklist of all the hoops you’ll have to jump through beyond purchasing a ticket.

Book early

When it comes to ticket purchasing, flight schedules aren’t fully back to normal operations yet either, so there might not be as many options or routes to get to Florida or Germany as you’re used to. Don’t put off booking. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is predicting holiday travel numbers to reach 80-90% of pre-pandemic passengers, so there will be competition.

Beyond flights, hotels are still all over the place when it comes to what amenities they are offering. In the U.S. most hotel lounges aren’t open, housekeeping is mostly on-request only, breakfast may or may not still be grab-and-go and, in some places, the spa and indoor pool will still be closed. If any amenity of a hotel is really important to you, you should call in advance to make sure it will be available. Outside the States, everything is very different country to country.

Know the entry and exit requirements of your destination

If you’re planning travel outside the U.S., you’ll need to check – and recheck – the current COVID-19 requirements for the country you’re visiting. Every country in the world not only has different rules for entry, exit and transit, but there are also rules for vaccine mandates and vaccine passes or passports you’ll need to visit sites in the country once you’ve arrived.

This week I’m on a pre-holiday trip to the U.K. and France – my first European adventure since COVID grounded me in the U.S. – and even though I’ve been to both of these destinations before, everything about the travel process feels brand new. Pre-travel, I needed to fill out multiple online forms for each country I’m visiting and transiting. I have new apps and QR codes to manage the process, and I’ve needed to show my vaccine card to get into hotels, restaurants and museums.

When planning international travel, ask these questions:

  • Does the country have any restrictions on passport holders from your country to enter?
  • Will you need to show a COVID-negative test before boarding, on arrival, or take a test once you’re in the country?
  • Are the requirements different for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers?
  • What documents will you need to complete in advance and show at the airport in order to board your flight?

Nearly two years into the pandemic, there is still no magical website updated daily with this information, so you’ll have to do some digging around. Google is a great way to find explanatory resources, but check the dates of the content you’re reading to verify it’s the most recent. I’ve personally been using the VeriFly app to review entry and transit checklists, cross-checking everything I read with the .gov COVID/travel sites of the countries I’m considering.

Also, even after you’ve planned, be sure to keep watch on things. Rules about transiting between countries (or travel within countries) still change frequently. You may even have to pivot once you’re on the trip.

Build a backup plan and COVID testing into your budget

Travel in 2021 is a lot more predictable than 2020, but you’ll still want to book your trip in a way you can modify or cancel at a moment’s notice for any reason – including if you just change your mind.

Ensure plane tickets, hotel and car reservations, and activity bookings are refundable (or at least changeable). And be sure to have an emergency budget (or emergency points) in case you have to adapt your plans mid-travel. While this requires a bit more planning at the start, your future self will likely be grateful.

You’ll also want to make sure you’ve budgeted for the COVID tests that will likely be required in many places – even with proof of vaccine. For travel to the UK, for example, you don’t need a negative COVID test to board your flight to get there any longer if you’re fully vaccinated, but you still must order a COVID test online to be delivered to your UK hotel on the second day of your trip. And if you aren’t fully vaxxed, you’ll still need to do tests on days 2 and 8. On my two-week, two-country European trip, I’ll have paid for at least four COVID tests, just to meet transit requirements (as a vaccinated traveler). 

A self-testing kit could come in handy if you come upon an unexpected testing requirement.

Tips for pandemic travel prep

While much of travel feels almost normal, it’s important to know travel still has not returned to the well-oiled machine it was pre-pandemic. You’ll definitely want to make sure you pack extra patience and a few extra supplies if you’re traveling during the holidays.

Carry a change of clothes

In the U.S., we’re still seeing a lot of cancelled flights due to lack of flight crew and airline staff, and other reasons no one can really explain. If you’re checking your luggage, toss a change of clothes and a toothbrush in your carry-on for insurance. I’ve personally been stranded overnight in an airport three times already in 2021, and I’m only traveling a fraction of what I was pre-pandemic.

Prepare for long lines

For both domestic and international travel, be prepared for lines, lines, lines. The deadline for U.S. federal workers to be vaccinated is Nov. 22, and there is lots of speculation that there may be a shortage of TSA workers at some airports, just in time for the Thanksgiving rush.

For international travel, there aren’t as many people flying, but there are a lot more lines to stand in than before. If you aren’t feeling very patient, you might want to hold off on international travel for the time being. Papers have to be checked and rechecked before boarding and again upon landing.

When my flight arrived in Paris, for example, officials deboarded the plane three rows at a time to accommodate a very slow vaccine card check. Thankfully I’d used my stash of American Airlines points to book a first class British Airways ticket, so I was sitting in row 1. I don’t know that I’d packed enough patience had I been seated in row 36.

Watch out for emails from the airline you’re traveling with to know their specific process for clearing your papers for travel. Some airlines are using apps like VeriFly which can speed things up at the airport

Tips for staying safe once you go

Mask up

Airports and airplanes are still following indoor mask mandates no matter where you’re coming from or going to, so remember to mask up. I personally don’t really enjoy being masked for a 40 hour international transit, but it’s a very simple action that you can take to protect yourself and others. It’s also an easy way to not get banned from flying on an airline forever.

Respect the destination rules

Returning to travel safely requires us as visitors to be on our best guest behavior. The whole world is tired of COVID and they are also still managing their own pandemic response. Follow their rules – and if you don’t know what they are, err on the side of kindness and safety. If we want travel to get easier again, we all have to do our part.

Travel isn’t an escape from the pandemic, it’s just a change of scenery – and a very welcome one I’m excited to be able to experience again.

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