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Thursday, June 13, 2024

How to Travel Solo During the Pandemic

Sometimes, when describing my solo travel adventures, I fear I sound a bit like Gilderoy Lockhart. Harry Potter fans will remember this odious character from the second book; he remains one of the most loathed characters in the series for his pompousness and for telling tall tales of brushes with death around the world.

Lockhart, like me, delights in sharing his travel stories—the difference between us is that mine are true. I’ve always wanted a passport full of stamps more than a house filled with stuff. This means I’ve traveled to over 25 countries yet have never owned a kitchen whisk. I’m proud to say that 90 percent of those international trips were done solo. I’m passionate about solo travel and how empowering it can feel, particularly for women. And while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to upend the travel industry, solo travel is still possible, even during a pandemic. But whether you’re traveling alone or with others, be prepared to do some extra legwork before your departure.

Shannon Tobin and Richard Newman are an international couple from the US and New Zealand who met in Australia and live in Scotland. Tobin says, “Traveling during Covid-19 takes preparation. We are no longer living in the days of simple travel, where you book a flight, pack your bags, and go.”

The pair emphasizes the importance of keeping abreast of the latest rules and guidance. “Many countries require pre- and/or post-flight Covid tests, Passenger Locator forms, proof of vaccination, specific types of masks, etc.,” says Newman. “For instance,” adds Tobin, “tomorrow we are leaving for Lake Como, Italy and need to take a lateral flow test within 24 hours of departure and will need to take a PCR test within two days of returning to the UK.”

Covid-19’s Impact on Travel

As Tobin and Newman illustrate, the pandemic has negatively impacted almost every industry, including travel. In January of this year, over 2,600 US flights were canceled due to the pandemic. But countless vaccinated travelers are still buying flights and planning adventures.

The effect of the pandemic on global travel has been devastating. According to the World Tourism Organization, international tourism declined sharply around the globe, with tourist arrivals falling by 73 percent in 2020. This threatened many jobs in the tourism industry and deeply impacted those whose livelihood depends on tourism, particularly in countries that rely on tourism as a primary source of income, like the Maldives and Aruba.

Due to increased regulations, many people have had to rethink their travel plans. “Pre-pandemic, we didn’t think twice about visiting a handful of countries in one trip,” says Tobin. “Now, in the era of Covid-19, visiting many countries meant we had to be up-to-date on the Covid-19 entry restrictions for many different countries. It’s by no means impossible; we did it and had an excellent time. But be prepared and check the latest guidance often,” says Newman.

So, You Want to Travel Solo?

For women embarking on a solo journey during the pandemic, safety tends to be top of mind, as it is even during non-pandemic times. My predeparture mental checklist goes something like this: Passport? Check. Pepper spray? Check. iPhone’s “Share My Location” turned on for family to see where I am? Check.

Travel is a calculated risk, and it’s one you can—circumstances permitting—take during the pandemic, no matter what kind of traveler you are. Technology and preplanning help with risk mitigation for travel, particularly during the pandemic. And for women traveling alone, safety gadgets like handheld alarms, portable door locks, car safety hammers, and more can help enhance your safety. As another precaution, consider enrolling your trip with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that lets US citizens traveling abroad register their trip with the nearest US Embassy or Consulate.

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I encourage everyone to give solo travel a try; I’ve had some thrilling adventures globe-trotting on my own. I’ve backpacked through Vietnam during Vietnamese New Year (an unintended and happy coincidence of timing); I climbed the Great Wall of China alone on a January day so cold I couldn’t feel my legs. I trekked through the Australian Outback in 100-degree-Fahrenheit heat; I swam in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns. I sipped instant coffee at a hostel in Warsaw and made friends with some Germans. (You will notice this, especially as a solo globe-trotter: German travelers are everywhere.) During the pandemic, I traveled solo to Scotland, where I hiked in the Highlands and then visited Alexander McQueen’s grave—among other things—on the epic-views-serving Isle of Skye.

The challenge and excitement of solo travel is—to quote travel guru Rick Steves—one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Here are some need-to-knows for when you’re chasing the solo-travel-high during the pandemic.

Do Your Research and Make a Plan

Some travel companies have a one-stop-shop resource for travel during the pandemic, including hubs for checking your destinations’ advisories. Also, you must know the answer to this question before you even buy your flight: Are you able to enter the country with your current vaccination status? Some countries do not allow unvaccinated travelers to enter.

Know the rules and regulations for your exit country and your entry country. Most countries have specific rules for both. Say, for instance, you’re planning to fly from the US to Spain. You’ll want to consult both the US and the Spanish governments’ rules for border entry online. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a useful travel tool on its website, where you can select the country you’re going to to see country-specific travel information and health-related details, like Covid-19 vaccination requirements. There’s also the CDC’s International Travel page. It’s a good idea to cross-reference this information with the official recommendations from the country to which you’re traveling. And if you’re entering or returning to the US, review the US Department of State’s “Requirements for Air Travelers to the US.

Travel during a pandemic requires even more preplanning for the solo traveler who will be the CEO of their trip and oversee its execution. No matter where you’re going right now, if you plan to travel internationally, you will likely need to provide a negative Covid test, show proof of vaccination, and wear a mask. Most countries have a specific type of test they want you to take; know which kind of test you need in order to board the aircraft to your destination country. And speaking of boarding—check out the best airlines to fly during Covid-19, ranked based on their flexibility, health and safety measures, and operational reliability.

Know the Required Mask Type

Know the destination country’s policy for masks before you enter­—and the type of mask you need to wear. If you don’t, you may end up like someone I know who was almost stuck in Chile because they had a cloth mask instead of a blue surgical mask.

Keep in mind, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires all travelers in the US to wear masks.

Spend Time Outside

Michelle Aquino, a Philippines native raised in Queens, NY, has traveled to 38 US states and 35 countries. Aquino and her partner were on a year-long adventure around the world when the pandemic hit, and they had to make some quick decisions. “We had been in the Philippines, then went to Vietnam in March 2020,” she says. “We landed in Hanoi, and people were in hazmat suits. Vietnam really took it seriously,” she says.

When the couple returned to the US, they continued to travel domestically, taking all precautions. Aquino’s tips for travel during the pandemic include taking advantage of outdoor spaces. For their travels around Asia, that meant going to waterfalls and outdoor markets. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they recently went, they loved shopping at the outdoor farmer’s market. “We did go to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum,” she says. They went early in the morning so they could avoid larger crowds later in the day. “Get up early, and try to be mindful of your timing,” Aquino says.

Finding Accommodations During Covid-19

Most hotels and hostels have pandemic cleaning protocols in place. Look for accommodations that implement Covid safety practices. Hostels are great for solo travelers who aren’t splitting the cost of their stay with a friend or partner. Whether you’re traveling solo or with others, hostels are also a great way to make an otherwise prohibitively expensive endeavor—international travel—less so.

They’re an ideal place to connect with other travelers, too. During Covid, many tourist attractions are less crowded, and hostels are often less booked. This means you can likely have more space than you might otherwise. If you're a woman traveling alone, connecting with other women traveling solo is a great way to boost safety. You can find a companion to do things with and someone to tell your whereabouts to if you’re venturing off alone. While studying abroad in Italy, Aquino relied on her friendships with other female solo travelers to enhance her safety by having a companion for activities.

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Most hostels offer gender-specific rooms as a booking option. Some women, like me, feel more comfortable sleeping in a room exclusively for women. Female-only rooms in hostels are usually more expensive than mixed-gender rooms. It’s another unfair and irritating pink tax. But I also view it as an investment in safety, like paying 50 bucks to take a taxi back to your hostel instead of taking a bus ride alone and risking a long walk in the dark. Bottom line is you'll want to budget for expenses like these.

Stay Safe and Have Fun

In many ways, the pandemic is the ideal time for solo travel. And it’s possible to have a successful trip during the pandemic, providing you do your research in advance.

Tobin advises solo travelers, “Keep in mind that many countries have requirements even if you’re just transiting through, and often the requirements are different depending on if you’re entering the country by land, air, or sea.” She adds, “With social distancing in place in many countries and fewer people around, I have felt extremely safe when traveling during the pandemic.”

Chasing the travel high—even during the pandemic—is an excellent way to pursue one of life’s greatest thrills: the beauty of the unexpected in a faraway place.


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