The weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday came with a flurry of unexpected work for Becky Bowman, owner at Classic Travel and Tours. For days, people jumped on deals, planning out their 2021 summers optimistically.
It was at least a week before things calmed down enough to take a breath.
“People have been wanting to travel. And it keeps picking up and picking up,” Bowman said.
With promises of widespread vaccination on the horizon mid-year, people are beginning to reclaim their missed vacations. Some are scrambling to use travel credits before the year ends. And all of us hope to get back to a sense of normalcy — traveling included.
The way we travel, however, has undergone significant changes. It’s yet another casualty of the year 2020, and there’s more to consider before, during and after traveling than there has ever been before.
If you’re planning a trip in 2021, and assuming you are COVID-free, tested and in good health, here’s what to consider when booking your trip.
Research the details before you go
Perhaps the most important part of planning any trip is to lay out a timeframe for travel. With COVID-19 precautions, that can be more complicated.
Before you begin to consider finances, consider those around you. Will you have to quarantine and miss family events? What about work? Make sure you’re aware of your employer’s coronavirus policies. Should you have to quarantine, make sure you have the necessary vacation time to do so.
For those who have already had the coronavirus, Bowman also recommends chatting with your doctor and traveling with a letter that says you previously tested positive for COVID, are not considered contagious and are able to travel — “I would want that reassurance just in case,” she said.
The next step then is to research where you want to go. Locations do matter.
If you’ve glanced at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travel Recommendations by Destination map, you’ll notice a large, enticing piece of land down under in “COVID-19 low” status — one of the few on a map covered in “very high” red. But if you try to book a flight to Australia, you likely won’t make it through.
Australia’s borders are closed to international visitors unless you are a citizen, resident, immediate family member or a traveler coming from New Zealand, which has special status with no requirement to quarantine on arrival. And keep in mind that even if you land in one of those three categories, excluding New Zealand, a mandatory quarantine may also include testing or lodging fees out of pocket.
The same goes for almost any international travel. Be prepared to take a two-week time off for quarantine if needed, in addition to regular travel plans, and factor in additional costs. A mandatory, government-assisted 14-day quarantine in South Korea, for example, can cost upwards of $2,000.
This is, of course, for travel plans made personally. Resort stays booked through a travel agent are often more selective. At Classic Travel and Tours, Mexico is a hot topic, as it’s “just a quick, three-hour flight,” Bowman said.
Recently, though, Bowman has seen a surge in travel to Europe. The demand for Europe has been so pent up, she said, that many have already booked well in advance for late summer and early fall.
And while traveling internationally is complicated, traveling nationally can be just as complex. Before you book your travel plans, make sure to check for any local, county or state restrictions. The COVID Data Tracker displays each state’s case count for the past seven days. And, if you book well in advance, keep an eye out for changes in yellow, orange and red zones.
Take personal precautions on your trip, from hotel to transportation
Getting to your destination is just the start. While you peruse tourist stops, visit galleries, dine at local eateries or relax on the beach, don’t forget the precautions remain the same as in your own community, or often even more strict.
If you’re passing through airports, the precautions — both yours and the airport’s — start there. And for the most part, the airports have done theirs. The Cancun airport, for example, “smells so clean” due to workers who are constantly disinfecting everything, Bowman said.
“I honestly feel so much safer there than here,” she said.
But while the airport does their part and it’s been nice to see clean airplanes (something that hasn’t always been a constant, Bowman said), you still have to protect yourself.
“I still tell people, even though everything is clean and safe, you still have to protect yourself. You still don’t touch anything,” she said.
The CDC recommends wearing a mask out in public, avoiding close contact with non-members of your travel party, washing your hands and using hand sanitizer, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth to protect yourself and others.
When you get to your destination, check hygiene protocols. Some resorts have opted for a digital menu in the form of QR code, which requires a smartphone. Food that’s served to you on the beach might be sealed, with servers wearing masks and gloves. Complimentary shampoo will be sealed, as will the glassware in your room. And don’t be surprised if a resort asks to sanitize your shoes upon arrival.
The hygiene protocols were actually a pleasant surprise for Bowman.
“I always did travel safe anyway, that’s what was funny. I tell my customers I don’t actually do much different than to begin with. I always took my own Clorox wipes to wipe down everything. The only thing different right now is the masks,” Bowman said. “And the flights? With how they’re cleaning, I mean they should have been doing that anyway. Even at the airport bathrooms, there’s people stationed there and they’re constantly cleaning. … You used to not see it like that, above and beyond on the cleanliness. I mean, it makes you want to go.”
Many resorts are also at 30-60 percent capacity now, Bowman said. And while that might seem like more space to roam, it’s technically not: Everything is socially distanced.
And if it’s not a place she, as a self-described meticulously clean person, would visit herself or with her family, she doesn’t recommend it for her clients.
Thankfully, the reports back have so far been positive. At one point, when she asked a client if they felt safe traveling, the client responded, “Oh yeah, better than in Missouri.”
Read the fine print
If you’ve never bothered to read the fine print on anything, you’re probably not alone. But if there’s one thing travelers should be doing now, it’s reading the fine print, Bowman said.
Through an agent, it’s not likely to be missed. That’s their job, after all. But, without a helping hand, you could miss reading it and it could cost you your whole trip.
“I make sure (my clients) are fully informed travelers. People used to not read their travel documents. Now, we send them waivers to make sure they’ve read their documents and there’s full disclosure,” Bowman said. “Then also insurance. Basically, we don’t book unless they have insurance, because we don’t want people to lose money.”
The tricky thing about COVID-19 policies and insurance is they vary from place to place, company to company. Take Jamaica, for example, a place Bowman is recently more familiar with. When she books someone for a trip to Jamaica, all of the CDC information is initially passed along, but the island country’s protocols change so often, it’s hard for her to continually keep up with it.
Yet, it’s also necessary. A couple weeks before a trip, Bowman will check back in with her clients. Did they read their documents and stay updated? Are they aware of any necessary travel authorizations? Do they have the correct insurance?
“People have several options, so I just make sure before people book that I clearly articulate all of that,” Bowman said. “And then throughout the booking process, I check in with people when I know their money could be at stake.”
Companies have also bent to the times. Many policies have adapted. Some companies have extended their risk-free cancellations. Really, Bowman said, people are doing what they can to keep their customers.
“There’s all kinds of ways these travel companies are working with us — they want to keep the customers. If that’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this is the companies that have been the best partners through all of this in protecting people’s money,” she said.
That, too, goes hand in hand with a boom in the travel insurance sector. Unsure of what the times ahead hold, customers are looking for more flexibility to cancel, even if it costs more, Bowman said. According to a study found on Insurance Business America and cited by Bowman, policies purchased spiked 524 percent since last year — policies that allow complete flexibility to cancel a trip “up until two days prior to receive at least 75 percent reimbursement.”
But the fine print isn’t all about the money, either. Jamaica’s policies, including requiring a specific COVID-19 test if an individual has tested positive for the coronavirus in the past, is a health protocol focused entirely on “coming COVID free and leaving COVID free,” Bowman said.
And once vaccinations pick up this spring, she believes most places will start requiring an antigen test, a COVID-19 test or a vaccination.
“I just want people to know they’re doing all of these precautions for their safety — for their employees and their guests,” she added.
As a travel agent, she mused over the thought of travelers attempting to visit a place such as Jamaica, only to be turned away without the correct travel authorizations.
“And then you lose all your money? Ugh,” Bowman sighed. “Travel is not the way that it was, and people need to be more informed.”
Unexpected silver linings
But surprisingly enough, Bowman said, the No. 1 question now isn’t about money or insurance. People just want to know where they can go. If they can go. A lot of travelers, she said, are actually willing to spend more.
“They’ve saved their money, lost their trips from 2020, and we’re seeing a trend where people aren’t just looking for the least expensive trip — they’re looking for more quality trips,” Bowman said. “And they’re going for longer. Where someone might have just gone for a four-night Mexico trip, now they want the six to seven nights.”
As the market begins to pick up once again, Bowman and her team are hoping so will business.
“It’s really hard owning a travel agency right now,” she said. “I bought it a year ago in July — talk about the worst possible thing you could ever get into.”
On the flipside, it could also help. With so many people burned from canceled trips and inadequate reimbursements, she thinks the need for travel agents could increase.
“People think, ‘It’s so easy. I can just book a trip and go.’ But no, you really can’t,” she chuckled. “You shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t.”
With so much still in limbo, even as a travel agent, Bowman will not be the first to encourage people to hop on a flight to get away.
“But people want to travel,” she said. “And so as long as I feel they’re fully informed, if they want to go, certainly we’ll work with you, but you should know you do have to read everything now.”
In addition to the usual travel staples, the COVID-19 era has required a few new items to add to that packing list before taking off to your next destination. From extra cleaning supplies to your own travel accessories that may have been provided in the past, here’s a few of what’s recommended, based on advice from health and travel experts:
You may also consider bringing some type of contactless form of payment. And remember to wash your hands frequently and stay at least six feet away from others when possible.
For more information on traveling during a pandemic, cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers.