Planning for a trip right now can be overwhelming—even more so when you factor in international travel, with most countries having different rules, restrictions, and testing requirements to deal with Covid. If you’re thinking of taking a trip soon or already have a destination booked, here’s how to make sure you comply with local regulations and prepare as much as you can in advance.
Globally, international tourism arrivals declined 76 percent in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations. While some people are choosing to remain at home—putting off their dreams of island getaways and visiting relatives overseas—many others are starting to pack their bags, thanks in part to the Covid vaccines.
Even though people are planning trips again, the thought of traveling overseas right now can seem daunting. In April last year, I had to unexpectedly leave Seattle to do a new work visa. It was a nightmare to plan at pretty much every stage, as regulations were constantly shifting. It often felt like I was going down the internet rabbit hole, following link after link, until I finally found the information I was looking for, sometimes even resorting to desperately calling or emailing various embassies and consulates to get the latest info. Even worse? I had to do this for five countries—my home country of Australia plus Iceland, England, Germany, and the US—over the span of three months.
Luckily for you, I learned a lot in the process (and even put it to good use for my upcoming trip back home to Australia), and it’s become slightly easier to find the information you need. Here’s how to minimize your stress and make sure you’re prepared for every stage of your travel itinerary.
Step 1: Pick a Destination and Make Sure You Can Return Home
This is, by far, the most important step. Gone are the days where you could just throw a dart at a map or book a last-minute trip anywhere in the world. And while you probably have some bucket-list countries in mind, it may not be possible for you to travel there right now (cough, Australia, cough). To avoid a headache at the airport or upon arrival, here’s the best way I’ve found to choose your next holiday destination.
Every country has its own entry requirements, many even for returning citizens, permanent residents, and visa holders. Now is the time to check your country’s reentry requirements—and all the potential forms, testing, and quarantining that come with it—so you don’t get stuck overseas or with a hefty fine. Thankfully, the same government and airline websites often list these requirements.
To start, make a ranked list of the countries you have in mind for your trip. From there you have two options. First, you can check each destination’s government website—many have a page specifically for Covid information and travel requirements—to see what the entry requirements are. Second, you can check your country’s government website, as they often have the most relevant information for citizens looking to travel overseas. Here is the one for US citizens.
When I had to leave the US last year my first choice was to go home to Australia, but that was near-impossible at the time (even for citizens) due to extremely tight restrictions. My next choice was Canada, which was also closed, and then Mexico, which was open but had a fairly high number of Covid cases, which had me worried. I decided on Iceland because there was a relatively short direct flight, it had a US consulate that handled visa appointments, and the country had great testing and quarantine measures in place—PCR testing at the airport on arrival, with around a seven-hour turnaround time for results, and a mandatory five-day quarantine and retesting for those who aren’t vaccinated or who test positive.
If you’re having trouble finding the destination country’s relevant website or your local government’s information page, check the airline’s website. Not only do they have the most up-to-date information, for obvious reasons, they also are more customer-focused, so the information is often easier to find and parse. Delta, for example, has its Discover Map, which allows travelers anywhere in the world to input their origin and destination airports, nationality, residency, and vaccination status to get information relevant to them. This was handy while planning my upcoming trip and was infinitely easier than trying to navigate multiple government websites. The site also lists testing requirements, any quarantine information, mask mandates, and whether you need to fill out a passenger entry form before arrival.
Nearly every country requires a negative Covid test before you even arrive at your departure airport to board your plane—even for citizens and residents. The amount of time before departure and the type of test, however, varies. Some require an antigen test taken within 24 hours of departure, others require a PCR taken within 48 hours. Make sure you note exactly which test you need and the time frame, and book your test in advance if you can. If your destination also requires additional testing on arrival, make sure you mark down the closest PCR site to you or, if they accept antigen results, try to stock up and bring them with you. If the country has a dedicated app (for example, Fiji has one) or website for submitting your results, make sure you download or bookmark it in advance and sign up.
As of December 2021, all inbound travelers to the US must have proof of a negative Covid test (either PCR or antigen) within 24 hours of their departure flight—or documentation saying they have recovered from Covid in the past 90 days—sign an attestation, and provide their info for contact tracing. Non-citizens must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated. If you skip even one of these steps, you will likely be denied boarding.
The amount of time you'll be on a plane and the number of airports you’ll travel through is another thing to consider when booking. All airports and airlines have mask mandates in place, as do some destinations, and you should be wearing an approved mask type (usually either a KN95 or N95). These can sometimes be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time, so plan your trip accordingly. I’ve opted to break my upcoming trip home into three legs with multiple days in each destination so I’m not on a plane for longer than six hours at a time. If you’re not sure what mask to get or from where, we have an updated masks guide for you. Make sure to stock up before departure, as you want to switch them out fairly regularly (if not daily).
Step 2: Have a Contingency Plan and Know Your Rights
No one wants to go into a mandatory quarantine or miss a flight, but the reality is that you may have to. In the event that you get Covid, there are some steps you can take before your trip to minimize your stress.
First, make sure you have enough readily-accessible money to quarantine five to 14 days (depending on the requirement) either at your destination or—if you don’t live alone or somewhere you can quarantine safely at home upon arrival—at a hotel or Airbnb. Also, this should go without saying, but if you get to the airport and are denied boarding because you tested positive, don’t get angry at the security and airline staff for not letting you on the plane or being prepared to quarantine. Yes, this actually happens; on my cousin’s recent flight from Tanzania back to the US, during the airport exit testing a wife tested positive and the husband did not.
If you do have to cancel or reschedule a flight, thankfully most airlines will let you do this for free (or they’ll provide a travel voucher for the dollar amount). Just make sure you know what your airline’s policies are and how to reschedule or cancel. Travel insurance can help cover any incidental costs, so it’s worth considering—and if you have a credit card with good travel benefits, it might include travel insurance if you book your flight with it, so you don’t have to double-up.
Last year, when I was leaving England for Germany to attend my visa appointment (it was the only place I could get an appointment in a decent time frame due to also being a German citizen), I knew I would have to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival, despite having a negative test. This was because the UK was going through a surge, and Germany had taken it off its green list. While this was unexpected for my overall plans, I looked up an apartment hotel that had a kitchen and researched grocery deliveries so I wouldn’t have to order every meal. (It also happened that they weren’t doing room service due to Covid.) As the Scouts say, be prepared and you’ll be a lot less stressed if quarantine becomes your reality.
Step 3: If You Do Have to Quarantine, Stay Connected
That two-week quarantine in Germany was, frankly, one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do. Not only did my anxiety medication run out at the start of it due to being overseas longer than originally planned (another thing to keep in mind before you travel), but it felt isolating in more ways than I ever imagined, despite living by myself during the lockdowns in 2020.
There have been multiple studies over the past few years linking quarantine to negative psychological impacts, none of which surprises me after going through it myself. One study published in The Lancet says that “most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger,” due in part to frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, and financial loss.
To combat anxiety and depression, make sure you have activities to keep you busy, stay connected to family and friends while in lockdown, and plan your quarantine site accordingly.
I opted to read a ton of books, catch up on movies and shows that I’d missed, and ramp up my German lessons with my tutor (via a video call).
Isolating might be slightly easier for us to do now, given the past year, but factor in time differences and that’s where it gets harder. Let your friends and family know as soon as possible that you have to quarantine, and plan a call or check-in every day to keep yourself as connected as possible—even if it’s just watching a movie together over Zoom or talking about a book you’re reading. Any little bit of interaction helps.
Make sure you plan your hotel room or Airbnb with a quarantine in mind—a kitchen, big windows (maybe even one that opens) or a balcony (if you’re allowed) so you can get fresh air, and air conditioning if it’s a very hot destination. Not seeing sunlight or feeling a breeze for two weeks can affect you more than you know.
So, now you’ve got your destination, you know what you have to do to get there—and back—and in case of a mandatory quarantine. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the potential benefit of traveling right now, and that’s a lack of other tourists. While I was in Iceland last year, there was a significant difference in the amount of people around whenever I went to a tourist spot compared to when I went in 2019 for my 30th birthday. At some spots, I even had the entire place to myself. It was bliss. Just keep in mind that some activities and attractions may be closed or have limited entry due to restrictions, so if there’s something you really want to do, research it to make sure it’s open before you book your flight.
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