Can I Travel Safely During COVID-19? Experts Discuss What 'Getting Away' Looks Like Amidst A Pandemic
City restaurant guide. Multiple outfit options for going out. Airport lounge pass. Just a year ago, these items might've been on your packing list for any getaway. But these days, your essentials list would probably consist of things like hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and several face masks. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed all aspects of human life — including travel and the wanderlust culture that once flooded Instagram feeds with imagery of stunning beaches and charming European cafes. Now, instead of thinking about which far-off place we should travel, we're grappling with the question of how to travel safely during COVID-19 — if even at all.
Considering confirmed global coronavirus cases are more than 20 million to date and there's an estimated $505 billion that the travel industry is expecting in losses by the end of 2020, it would appear the general public sentiment surrounding getaways of any kind is skeptical at best — and adamantly opposed at the other end of the spectrum.
Health professionals naturally discourage travel altogether right now, especially unnecessary travel, because it inherently has a lot of risk involved. "Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19," Dr. Evelyn Darius, M.D., a family medicine physician for online healthcare provider PlushCare Inc., tells The Zoe Report. "Airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on frequently-touched surfaces. The safest way for people to protect themselves and prevent further spread of COVID-19 is staying home, according to the most recent update from the CDC."
With that said, though, if travel is still in your personal itinerary, Darius says that it "is possible to still travel safely with added precautions."
A June 2020 survey conducted by global market research firm Ipsos, titled the "Future of Travel," shows travel interest isn't exactly low right now in the U.S.: Of 1,000 Americans surveyed, 73% said they plan to go on a vacation this year. Respondents were also asked about their upcoming travel plans and preferences when it comes to accommodations, destinations, and the mode of transportation they plan to use on their next trip; 47% indicated they would be traveling domestically this summer for their main trip, while 5% said they intended to venture internationally.
Although a carefree trip is not a safe or even responsible choice at the moment — considering the virus transmission risks, not to mention the slew of travel bans, quarantine requirements, and ever-changing health advisories — there are some travel options that you can take more precautions around, if you're willing to do the legwork and, of course, be mindful of the risk involved.
"As a travel advisor, I have to explain to clients that just because places are available and open to U.S. travelers, doesn't necessarily mean you should be hopping on planes and going to all these countries," says Tiffany Layne, founder of luxury travel concierge LaVon Travel & Lifestyle, to TZR. "I personally don't think people should be flooding hotspots like Mexico just because they don't require COVID tests. Yes, we've missed out on a season of travel, but we have a responsibility as travelers to not be selfish."
How To Travel Safely During COVID-19: Local Travel
In Ipsos' Future of Travel survey, 72% of Americans said their preferred mode of transportation for future travel would be their own vehicles. "Everyone is talking about the road trip," John Clifford, a San Diego-based luxury travel advisor and founder of International Travel Management, tells TZR, referring to "anywhere between one to four hours away that allows you to travel in a controlled environment. If you live in Denver, you might go to Aspen; in San Diego, you might go to Joshua Tree; in New York City, you'd go to Woodstock. Anywhere that's open."
Liz DeBold Fusco, public policy and communications manager for Airbnb, seconds this notion, saying that summer 2020 belongs to rural retreats. "Now more than ever, travelers are shifting their focus to lesser-known spots for true isolation that provide an escape from civilization and the daily humdrum," DeBold Fusco tells TZR. "In fact, in the month of June alone, we saw Airbnb rural hosts in the U.S. earn over $200 million. From modern architectural marvels in Pioneertown [California] to a fully-restored, 1920s-era sheep wagon in Shirley Basin, Wyoming, off-the-grid stays have been a huge focus for travelers this summer."
On July 8, the vacation rental platform experienced more than 1 million nights' worth of future bookings, "half of which were for travel to destinations within 300 miles," says DeBold Fusco. "Over two-thirds were for travel to destinations within 500 miles, both distances typically manageable by car."
And while driving in your own vehicle to a nearby secluded spot or camping ground seems about as safe as one can get in these times, Darius says there are still no guarantees. "Local trips still confer risk of exposure during the pandemic given persistent and, in some cases, rising levels of infections," she says. "The safest form of travel with regards to COVID-19 would be one in which contact with others is minimal, and one which does not require coming in contact with too many frequently-touched surfaces such as a public restroom or rest stop."
It's also important to explore ahead of time how thoroughly your living quarters for the trip have been cleaned. Ask your lodger or rental company what extra precautions they're taking to ensure a space is properly sanitized.
Earlier this year in April, Airbnb launched its Enhanced Cleaning Protocol, which was developed in coordination with former Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy, M.D., and informed by guidance from the U.S. and European Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The comprehensive protocol includes guidance on how to clean every room in a home, what to sanitize, and what supplies to have on hand. "In addition to [Airbnb's] cleaning guidelines, hosts need to comply with guidance from governments or health authorities in their local jurisdictions," DeBold Fusco explains.
To err on the side of caution, it's also a good idea to come prepared: "My best advice is to travel with a small arsenal of cleaning supplies," says Dr. Georgine Nanos, M.D., a family physician for Kind Health Group, a concierge primary care group based in Encinitas, California, to TZR. "That way, you can clean every high-touch surface to your standards."
How To Travel Safely During COVID-19: Domestic Travel
Some people are also choosing to travel across state lines. Layne says there's a big push for domestic getaways right now, and that larger vacation properties — such as resort ranches in the Midwest with "wide-open spaces" — are seeing an increase in bookings.
"For those who want to visit the Northeast, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine have been very popular for travel," Layne tells TZR. "In the West, you're seeing a lot of national parks and Northern California destinations like Napa getting very popular. In the South, places like Blackberry Farm in Tennessee are getting busier because of their open layout."
That's not to say the appeal of a luxury resort hotel experience isn't still going strong. In its Future of Travel survey, Ipsos found 46% of Americans indicated they planned to stay at a hotel this summer. Furthermore, with many office workers being shifted to working remotely, it seems extended stays could also be on the rise. "Since the beginning of the pandemic, our average length of stay has doubled, and we are also seeing an increase in suite bookings as guests are desiring more space to comfortably spread out for both work and relaxation," Reed Kandalaft, general manager for the Four Seasons Hotel One Dalton Street, Boston, tells TZR. "We customize our guests’ stays based on individual requests to assist in creating a home away from home. These enhancements include adding Apple TVs to ensure they catch their favorite programs, specialty printer and scanner units for business travelers, and compact refrigerators for those who have specialty F&B [food and beverage] items they keep in-room."
The luxury hotel chain engaged in a consulting agreement with Johns Hopkins Medicine to implement its new safety protocols across all its properties around the world. It also has a strict cleaning policy, Layne says, which involves having a 24-hour window between room bookings. "When someone checks out, someone can't check into that same room for a full 24 hours after cleaning," Layne explains. "Ribbons or tape are often put on the door to indicate the room's been cleaned and no one's been in there until a guest arrives."
Darius recommends following the direction of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) when staying in any hotel. These recommendations include wearing face coverings in all indoor public spaces and social distancing in all common areas, choosing contactless options where available, including online reservations, check-ins, and payments, and requesting contactless room service delivery.
If you're crossing state lines by plane, that presents other hurdles to overcome when it comes to safety and risk. "The risk with domestic travel by air is that travelers may have to spend time in security lines and terminals, where it may be hard to practice social distancing," Darius says. "While most airplanes have air filtration systems in place to minimize the spread of germs, crowded flights may make it easier to come in contact with or spread COVID-19."
According to a July 2020 MarketWatch article, only three airlines —Delta, Hawaiian, and Jet Blue — have blocked middle seat selection on domestic flights to promote social distancing. Also, some of these policies have limited time frames. (For example, Delta's runs through Sept. 30, according to a company spokesperson.) Do your due diligence when booking your flight to see what extra safety precautions (if any) are actively in place.
And being on your guard throughout the boarding and in-flight process is also crucial. "Check in online to minimize face-to-face contact at the airport," says Darius. "Wash hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or at least use hand sanitizer, particularly after touching surfaces such as luggage trolley handles, self-service check-in, or security trays." Packing essential items like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, your personal toiletries, prescription and other medications, and snacks to minimize unnecessary shopping are also good rules of thumb, Darius adds.
While in the air, wear a mask or shield (or both) that covers the nose and mouth — and keep it on. "Avoid directly touching the face, nose, mouth, or eyes," says Darius. "Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. And refrain from traveling if you have, or recently had, any symptoms of COVID-19 or had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19."
How To Travel Safely During COVID-19: International Travel
Although the U.S. recently lifted the global travel advisory that's been in effect since March 2020 advising citizens to avoid all international travel, interest in international travel is low, according to the Ipsos survey. “Honestly, there’s just no demand,” Paul Tumpowsky, CEO of luxury travel company Skylark, tells TZR. In addition, “there’s nowhere to go, as most of the popular destinations people would want to visit aren’t safe."
With reported COVID cases still growing exponentially, U.S. citizens are not exactly being welcomed with open arms by much of the world right now, leaving options for international travel slim. America is one of the countries banned by the European Union, as of the most recently updated list released on July 30. (For context, 27 countries make up the EU, including Italy, France, Ireland, Spain, and Greece.) Other non-EU countries that have closed their borders to American travelers include New Zealand, Canada, and China.
There are a number of countries, including Aruba, Bermuda, Croatia, and Jamaica, that are open to American travelers, but there's red tape involved. For starters, many of these countries require travelers to get a COVID test within a day or two of leaving for the trip (and some will even administer another upon arrival). Also, some countries, like Ireland, require travelers from countries not on their Green List (government-approved regions and locations) to self-isolate for 14 days upon entry into the country.
The U.S. State Department recommends checking its color-coded travel advisory map or the CDC's Travel Recommendations by Destination, both of which are regularly updated, to see if your destination of choice is safe to travel into as well as the requirements to travel there. Because conditions can change at any time, the State Department encourages signing up for travel alerts that deliver updates on safety and security information as well as pertinent details for your specific trip.
When it comes to international lodging and accommodations, Jemica Archer, founder of TruBlue Travels, recommends booking stays at certified hotels and resorts. "I think understanding what the hotels are doing to help prevent the spread should be considered when reserving a stay," Archer tells TZR.
Take pools — a hotel mainstay — for example. "A lot of resorts are reserving pool beds and cabanas in advance because they're limited to allow for more spacing," says Layne. "Hotel-hosted activities are scheduled in smaller settings and are often more private now. Pools may be open, but you may not be able to go in them."
While all of the said precautions are to prevent the chances of spreading coronavirus, this begs the question: What if you contract COVID while at your destination? Well, for this reason, places like Dubai, Cambodia, and Turkey require travel medical insurance to cover all bases and to ensure they aren't burdened with the unpaid medical bills left behind by sick tourists.
If this seems like a lot of boxes to check for a relaxing vacation, that's because it is. With travel bans, policies, and advisories constantly changing, Layne says staying informed and educated has never been more vital. "The upcoming resurgence of travel will really be about trust," says Layne. "It's going to be about trusted information and about the information that's correct."