Traveling to other countries
Any international travel right now requires careful planning, including checking the CDC’s COVID-19-related warnings for international destinations. The agency currently lists more than 100 countries and territories as “Very High Risk — avoid travel,” with dozens more considered “High Risk.” (You can check its color-coded map.) Travelers should also check recommendations from the State Department, which may have stronger warnings for certain countries, often due to factors other than COVID-19, plus any advisories from the U.S. embassy in the country you’re planning to visit. And, of course, you need to stay on top of your destination’s entry rules, which vary widely by country and can change quickly.
Then there are rules for coming back into the U.S.: All travelers — regardless of vaccination status or nationality — arriving from international locations need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of their flight to the U.S. (Until recently, fully vaccinated U.S. travelers could offer tests taken within three days of their flight home.) The CDC also continues to advise all U.S. travelers to get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the country and to watch for symptoms.
Plenty of Americans are heading overseas, despite the regulations and omicron, however. “We have seen a surge in new short-term international booking requests, up 83 percent this January,” says Ezon. For those planning to travel internationally, Ezon, who caters to a high-end clientele, has these recommendations: “First, make sure the place you are going to allows you to quarantine in a luxury hotel or resort and not a government facility [in case you test positive for COVID-19]. Second, make sure the locale has good medical facilities, in case you need more help, and, three, always be sure to take travel insurance that includes medical evacuation insurance.”
You also can reduce the risk and stress of international travel with strategic planning that lowers your risk of complications and, possibly, COVID-19 infection, Schreve says, such as booking direct flights to avoid the additional exposure to crowds and potential snafus that can come with connecting flights.
Matt Berna, the California-based managing director for Intrepid Travel North America, suggests an outdoorsy vacation as a good option for international travelers in the age of COVID-19. Intrepid’s hikes through the Italian Dolomites and around Mont Blanc in France have been popular, as well as the lesser-known Rota Vicentina along the Portuguese coast.
Even in countries the CDC labels “high risk,” all-inclusive resorts can provide safe havens, says Joshua Bush, chief executive officer of Avenue Two Travel in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. “Lots of resorts in the Caribbean and Los Cabos, for example, offer a feeling of security with on-site testing and by containing guests while still offering plenty to do so that the vacation experience isn’t hindered. Travel agencies partnering with the large luxury brands usually have inventory and access to great value-added amenities to defray costs.”
The cruise industry has been hit hard over over the past two years, with early pandemic-era stories of massive outbreaks on ships and long-term quarantines at sea. All of the big cruise lines have vaccine requirements and new shipboard health protocols in place, but the recent omicron surge has caused yet another series of cruise cancellations, COVID-19 outbreaks onboard, and ports refusing ships’ entry.
The CDC, meanwhile, is clear on its current recommendations for cruising: Don’t do it. Earlier this month it raised its warning level for cruising to Level 4 (Do Not Travel) “regardless of vaccination status.” The agency states, “It is especially important that travelers who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 avoid travel on cruise ships. The chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high because the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.”
It also says that even those passengers who are fully vaccinated should get a COVID-19 viral test one to three days before departure, and three to five days after their trip.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bob Levinstein, chief executive officer of Iowa-based Cruise Compete, still calls cruises a great travel choice now, going so far as to label cruising “the safest vacation out there.” Levinstein adds that “cruise ships have an advantage over other modes of travel in that they have total control over their environment and rules.” He cites cruise lines’ strict new vaccine and testing requirements and their newly installed shipboard air filtration devices. “And if you do get sick on board,” he says, “every ship has trained medical staff on call and COVID tests readily available. You’re not going to have that in any other type of travel.”
But, regardless of your risk tolerance, a cruise vacation is currently vulnerable to disruption, as passengers continue to test positive on ships, warns Gene Sloan, cruise writer for The Points Guy. Your cruise “might miss a port call or two, as some ports are turning ships away due to COVID worries or adding new COVID-related requirements that make it more difficult for ships to visit,” he notes. For example, multiple Caribbean ports recently instituted temporary bans or tight restrictions for cruise ship visits. Shore excursions may be limited, and itineraries may change mid-cruise. “There’s also the relatively small chance that [passengers] could get quarantined on a ship,” Sloan adds.
Planning far ahead? Both Levinstein and Sloan agree this could be a great time to book cruises with departures several months or even a year or two away, as long as you are able to keep your plans flexible. There are some great deals out there,” Levinstein says, “and cruise lines have introduced generous cancellation policies.”
Holtom does not consider cruising a safe option when it comes to infection avoidance, however — pandemic or no. “It would be hard for me to ever get on a cruise ship, even without coronavirus, given other shipboard outbreaks like norovirus,” he says. “Cruise ships have an inherently higher risk of disease spread given their setup with large groups in confined indoor spaces.”
Considering the ’travel stacking’ strategy
One increasingly popular way to manage travel uncertainty and improve flexibility: trip stacking. “It’s a strategy employed by those who don’t want to be disappointed if a trip cancels or they have narrow travel windows. By booking multiple trips for the same date, they’re guaranteed one of them,” Bush says. “The challenge is to know the terms and conditions of that trip inside and out and to not be stuck in a financial penalty when you cancel or change the timing on one of them.”
Ezon is seeing the same thing at Embark Beyond. “We have many clients trip stacking in order to ensure they can get somewhere over a certain time frame. As a travel agency, we try to negotiate very liberal cancellation penalties to avoid losing money,” he says.
What everyone seems to agree on: With the continued uncertainty in travel, booking trips with any sort of lead time is going to require evaluating your personal risk tolerance and staying flexible. And whether your strategy is trip stacking or simply having a tentative “plan B,” you should confirm a trip only with careful consideration of cancellation policies and an awareness of the latest health situation and COVID-19 restrictions at your planned destination.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, The San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on September 29, 2021. It’s been updated to reflect new information.