How to travel safely during the COVID-19 pandemic

There are going to be many of us looking to the skies again as the spread of COVID-19 gradually slows and the curve flattens. Whether it be for business, pleasure, or simply because they miss the feeling of returning your seat to its upright position as the plane prepares for takeoff, people who have been sheltering-in-place for months will eventually want to travel again.

But with every country seemingly in a completely different stage of quasi-lockdown or partial reopening, there seems to be new information every minute about what you should and shouldn’t do, where you can and can’t go, and what to expect when you do (or don’t). These avalanches of travel information are anxiety-inducing, at best. Although everybody knows by now the basics of safety while travelling—wash your hands, don’t touch your face, carry hand sanitiser everywhere—there’s still no comprehensive playbook to traversing the new normal while abroad. 

That’s because there’s no one-size-fits-all travel experience, according to Lucy Jackson of Lightfoot Travel. A co-founder of the bespoke travel agency, which tailors trips to each individual guest, Jackson has been steeped in insider knowledge of international travel for over a decade. She also has firsthand experience of how several countries have chosen to respond to COVID-19, having travelled between Australia, the United Kingdom, and Bali throughout 2020. 

So we thought there would be few better experts than her to approach for advice, on behalf of any once and future globetrotters. Here are her best tips, which will be safely stored for you here until you next decide to pick up and pack your bags.

“Expect the unexpected, at this point”

Hope for the best; prepare for the worst. Jackson has been carefully monitoring the changing rules of quarantine online, and tries to keep her clients as informed as possible. But flights get cancelled or rescheduled every day, and even with best practices implemented, there’s no such thing as completely risk-free travel. “It’s risk versus reward,” she says. “[Travellers] have to be ready to change their itinerary as soon as it’s needed.”

Something that both tourists and business-trippers alike can do right now is to secure the best possible travel insurance for themselves and those travelling with them. No one wants to get sick, but it’s worse to fall ill in a foreign country and not have the most prudent resources to take care of it. “You want to be safe when you’re putting down money,” Jackson says. “Given how quickly things are changing, you have to be prepared financially for [whatever happens].”

The Lake District in Patagonia, with a view of Tronador Volcano

Do the research

Especially if you’re gearing up to travel abroad soon without the help of a travel agency, it’s of incredible importance that you do the work to understand the entry policies and travel restrictions of your intended destinations. Diving into the most up-to-date information on the travel market available on the web is crucial.

The advantage of an agency is that they’ll do much of the heavy lifting of research for you, even if you’re not a direct client; Jackson and her team have introduced an open-access traffic-light system to their website, which allows anyone to dive into the border closures and quarantine measures of any country in the world. The Arctic? Only Norwegian citizens are permitted to visit right now. Brazil? Travellers may enter the country, but must come equipped with medical insurance. And so on, all the way down the alphabet.

Understand that “safe travel” means something different for everyone

There are some universal truths to safe travel mid- and post-pandemic, of course, but there’s no such thing as a general guidebook that will cover every base for you and your loved ones, depending on your individual situations. One trend that Jackson has noticed in her clients, as a result, is that of increased awareness—people care more about the little details of travel now, and how they pertain to each member of their family’s needs.

“When they tell you to wear a mask on their flight, you do it.”

The golden rule, for now, seems to be to trust your gut, while weighing the risks versus reward of future travel for yourself and your family. Jackson doesn’t fear for her young children travelling with her, for example, but the situation would be different if she were globetrotting with someone with an underlying health condition. “It’s not right to say to someone, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” she says. “We’re going to be living with [the effects of coronavirus] for years, and everyone’s situation is different.”

Cultural sensitivity will be more important than ever

Even if there weren’t a global health crisis, preparing to travel would naturally include sensitivity to the cultures you’re planning to enter (again, it’s all about doing the research). As wonderful as it is to travel to a different country and recognise a common sense of community with the people there, tourists and business travellers have to be mindful that the pandemic will have impacted everyone differently. Jackson has seen for herself the economic impact of a travel slump in Bali, a country which relies heavily upon its tourists. Some countries may yet be wary or even hostile towards foreigners, while others may be eager to jumpstart their economies with the presence of visitors. It will be important to know which kind of country you’re visiting, and respond sensitively.

The dunes at Naukluft Park in Namibia

Trust your airline

Airlines have done their best to weather the storm with what resources they have (“How do you pivot an airline?” Jackson asks), and something integral to the future of travel that many of them have devoted their time towards over the last few months has been adaptation. Essentially, that means: airlines are the experts. When they tell you to wear a mask on their flight, you do it.

As much as any of us have implemented personal safety measures like social distancing or good hygiene, airlines have also been internalising how to deal with the ramifications of a contagious virus. When Jackson and her family flew from Australia to London this year, the cabin crew on her Qatar Airlines flight were dressed in hazmat suits. “It was quite confronting,” Jackson says, and helped to bring home the new reality of travel for her. But it was also unsustainable, with a few stewardesses looking faint throughout the flight. By the time Jackson climbed on another flight three months later, the crew were dressed in breathable, scaled-back protective gear. “It’s a process of learning on the job for all of us,” she says.

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