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Outside the Box: Ready to get out of town? 5 tips from experts who traveled successfully during the pandemic

Claire Schoen, who loves to travel, didn’t let the pandemic stop her.

“The minute I was vaccinated I booked a trip to Florida,” she says.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she admits to being wary, but traveled anyway, wearing two masks. Yet, once vaccinated and donning two masks, Schoen and husband, Gerry Werner, stepped up their trips.

“I’m vaccinated,” she says. “I’m very careful. What else are you going to do? You can’t stop.”

In June, the couple, both retired and in their 60s, met up with some friends outdoors at a Fairfield, Conn., restaurant, and asked themselves: “Where can we go that we feel safe and where we haven’t been before?”

They decided on Vienna, Salzburg, and northern Italy’s Lake Como for September. “I wore a mask all the time, ate outside all the time, except for the last night. We had to show our vaccine card at restaurants and to check into a hotel.”

The European Union Digital COVID Certificate was their ticket to traveling; it is valid for 27 member nations plus Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

The main stress for Schoen was the requirement to be tested for COVID-19 to return to the U.S.

“You have to be tested before you get on a plane to come back home,” she says. Sometimes, if the Wi-Fi in their hotel wasn’t strong enough, they used home COVID-19 testing kits that offered instant responses. For the Europe trip, they worked with a travel agent they knew from pre-pandemic trips, and bought travel insurance.

If you’re finally ready to travel for the first time since the pandemic began, check carefully when you are booking for cancellation policies, travel credits, and how travel insurance might protect your money. The fees vary from airline to airline, for example, so before you book, if you might want to cancel or postpone your trip, find out what it could cost you. It pays to read carefully before you book.

Protecting yourself and your travel investment are two parts of the experience. “People have different comfort levels,” says Lorraine Sileo, a senior analyst with Phocuswright, a travel industry research company. Yet, for those who have been traveling or are planning a trip now, “they’re just living life,” she says. “They’re very careful. It’s just that passion” for travel.

The key to traveling during the pandemic depends on how you perceive the risk versus the actual risk and your overall comfort level with risk, your reason for traveling, and how important travel is to you. Another factor seems to be the intangible: How much time do you have left in your life to travel?

From the financial standpoint, ask yourself: How would I get my money back if I decided I didn’t want to travel? Or, would I be able to postpone my trip to a future time without any financial loss? You might not be able to receive a refund but often you can receive a travel credit for a trip you have postponed.

In planning a first trip, consider your personal safety as well as the requirements and regulations for domestic and international travel.

From a health standpoint and rules for entry to various countries, check the policies for where you would like to travel, and determine whether they have quarantine or testing requirements before you book so you know what to expect for any destination. The U.S. State Department has information by country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) with some minor changes; the Temporary Extension & Modification of the CSO is effective Nov. 1.

Cruise ships are typically sailing at 50% of capacity or less. During the pandemic, travelers have been able to book a cruise, then cancel or postpone for a future cruise credit. “That is not going away any time soon,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, a cruise-review website. “They will be able to get at least a credit.”

Most airlines have waived cancellation and change fees but the policies vary from airline to airline. For example, Delta Air Lines
DAL,
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has waived change fees except for Basic Economy fares. Some airlines issue travel vouchers that may have expiration dates.

One way to protect your investment is to buy a refundable ticket. Phocuswright’s Sileo anticipates possibly doing this for a trip to Europe after the first of the year. “I would book a nonstop flight and would not country hop,” she says. “We can buy refundable tickets. It just costs more.”

Here is advice from travel experts and those who have traveled successfully during the pandemic:

Purchase travel insurance. “We always recommend that people get travel insurance,” says CruiseCritic’s McDaniel. “Make sure that it covers pandemic or COVID-19 in case you want to cancel or your trip is cut short.” You may want more protection if you choose to cancel a trip for a reason that is not specifically covered by the insurance you are considering. In that case, you can purchase what is called a Cancel for Any Reason upgrade to the insurance you have selected. When considering insurance, ask if the policy you have chosen will cover any situation related to the pandemic.
Work with a travel adviser. Regulations related to the pandemic vary from country to country and tend to be in flux. An experienced travel adviser within the industry can help you understand the requirements for travel to and from destinations and to “navigate the process,” says Terry Dale, president and CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, a trade association that promotes integrity within the tour operator industry.

Consider using a tour company. Tour companies, for example, have been “very accommodating and flexible over the last 18 months,” Dale says. “We are committed to doing what’s right for the consumer. The vast majority of our tour operators are requiring customers to be fully vaccinated,” he says. “It’s a safe bubble for you to travel within.”

Start small in terms of distance and dollars. If you haven’t traveled except in your own vehicle during the pandemic one way to jump start your trips is to start is to take a trip closer to home. Consider riding the new entrant in the Washington-New York market, The Jet, a luxury coach that travels point-to-point between these two cities. It runs between Washington, D.C.’s Metro Center on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 555 13th St., NW, at the southeast corner of 13th and F and Hudson Yards between 10th and 11th Avenues at 33rd and 34th Streets in Manhattan. Capacity is 14 travelers. One-way fare starts at $99. You can cancel your trip within 24 hours of departure for a full refund to your credit card or obtain a credit for a future trip. Within four hours of departure, you can obtain a credit for a future trip. 

Look for values on air and packaged travel. Experts suggest checking airline websites for deals or booking a package with air and accommodations, which even before the pandemic could save you up to 40%. Packaged travel can be small group travel for a couple or family or friends who choose to travel together. “It’s a good time from a value perspective to travel,” says USTOA’s Dale.

Harriet Edleson is author of the book, “12 Ways to Retire on Less: Planning an Affordable Future” (Rowman & Littlefield, May 2021). A former staff writer/editor/producer for AARP, she writes for The Washington Post Real Estate Section.

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