Once vaccinated, I had two non-negotiables for travel in the time of COVID—minimize exposure by venturing to locales with low infection rates, plenty of DIY outdoor activities, self-catering accommodations, and easy access to testing and medical care. In short, replicate my successful home precautions. And the second: A contingency plan if I (or my travel companion) tested positive while on the trip.
My maiden venture, a March 2021 road trip exploring New Mexico’s archaeological sites, was so successful that seven months later I went further afield to central Mexico because their COVID practices and precautions exceed even Washington’s. Everyone masked up whether inside or out, businesses and attractions checked temperatures upon entry, and tourism was nearly non-existent.
A year later after booking a UK trip featuring rural days of hiking while staying in self-catering cottages, I was unexpectedly faced with the worldwide rush to normal. The UK suddenly rescinded its indoor mask requirement. Tour buses began unloading day-trippers into villages on my itinerary and accommodations—nearly empty when I’d reserved—were now fully booked. When I returned to the U.S. in May, air travel had become a mayhem of flight cancellations, lost luggage, and crowds. Along with hundreds of other passengers I was herded down overcrowded hallways to clear Chicago O’Hare’s understaffed passport control. Five days later, I tested positive for COVID.
Meanwhile, my social media has been filled with updates from retired Puget Sound area friends. Their long-delayed trips finally realized. Curious, I asked how they made their own risk-benefit travel calculation and found they had a lot in common when it came to personal responsibility, risk tolerance, and flexibility.
“We have a limited number of years when we’ll be healthy enough to travel independently and COVID erased two years of that from our lives,” Rod Regan and Margaret Knight explained. “We believe in science, so the vaccines and boosters gave us some confidence that we’d be safe traveling in Spain and Portugal.”
Still, they didn’t roam carte blanche this past spring. “Even though the mask requirement had been lifted or was not being enforced, we masked up indoors and ate outside whenever possible.”
Despite their precautions, Knight tested positive in Portugal. “We had to change our plans and didn’t go everywhere we intended, which was disappointing,” she wrote. “My main concern was that I’d get COVID again or have ongoing symptoms triggering positive tests so I couldn’t fly home.”
Mary Lindquist and Peter Bogdanoff didn’t change their destination because their COVID-delayed plans felt safe. “We hiked the Minster Way in England and patted ourselves on the back that for that week we would be safely outside and largely alone,” they explained.
But the pandemic factored into their daily logistics. “We minimized the risks by renting a car for two weeks in Ireland and accepted that when we took plane and train rides, used the London Tube, or shopped at grocery stores, it would be risky even wearing masks. We avoided crowded restaurants, museums, and other indoor sights, except in Dingle when we simply had to crowd into pubs to see the Irish national fast dancer champion and listen to some traditional music.”
For Lynn and Irving Baugh, there was comfort in having a tour company handle some of the COVID logistics and safety. They’d planned tours to five countries, all postponed until 2022. “The companies sent regular updates regarding COVID requirements and protocols before our trips,” they wrote. “We were required to mask up on tour buses. We tried to keep social distances when outside and used hand wipes and sanitizer frequently. Four members on one of our tours tested positive, so then we tested daily with home test kits”.
The couple also did their own research and were prepared to pivot. “We monitored the cases, country vaccination rates, State Department bulletins, and available medical care in case we were forced to quarantine. Our health care providers encouraged us to have adequate travel insurance because we have underlying health conditions. This fall we’ve planned a cruise to South America and are concerned about cruise ship outbreaks cases. We’ll postpone the trip if we feel unsafe.”
By December 2021, Peg Garrison felt she could safely cruise again with ship protocols and her own precautions in place. “I had a lot of credit from COVID-cancelled cruises, so I chose one down the Mexican Riviera from San Diego because it required a shorter roundtrip flight from Seattle,” she said after her return. “All cruise passengers had to present a negative test prior to boarding and wear appropriate masks while moving inside the ship. Even in the dining room everyone wore a mask and then took them off when seated. I splurged for a balcony so if there was a breakout and we were relegated to our staterooms, I could get outside. I also didn’t disembark at one port that felt too crowded.”
My intrepid friends all have upcoming 2022 travel plans (as do I) and offer this additional advice:
Given the way airplanes and public transportation jam people together, be fully vaccinated and boosted.
Research and make educated decisions about where and how to travel, then do your own risk-benefit analysis.
Slow down and stay put if you feel sick.
Be flexible. Tourist-related businesses are still recovering.
But do travel. You don’t have as much time left as you think!
It’s good guidance even in non-turbulent times.
Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant, and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India, and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus, and Dutch the Magazine.