We were determined to celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary in Switzerland, a trip that had been postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. To accomplish our goal required the help of an experienced travel agent, flexible air and hotel reservations and the courage to put money on the line months before Switzerland re-opened to Americans. Fortunately, the stars aligned in mid-summer and our trip was a success. Now that we’re back home, we’d like to share what we’ve learned about planning a trip abroad during a pandemic.
A few tips:
- Collaborate with a travel agent who specializes in your destination and has experienced contacts on the ground. We chose Kensington Tours, a company that specializes in custom trips for independent travelers in over 100 countries. This company’s flexible booking policy allowed us to book months ahead, knowing we could cancel or postpone up to 30 days prior to travel and receive a future travel credit.
- Keep abreast of current travel regulations and recommendations. Besides your destination’s official government website, check out information published by the Center for Disease Control, the State Department, and your chosen airline. Third party sites like Skyscanner also track requirements for various countries. But don’t rely on any one source, since rules can change overnight, as this article in the New York Times reminds us.
- Book with an airline that allows you to change your travel dates with no penalties. Today, most airlines have eliminated change fees for all but the cheapest fares. The ability to change dates takes the anxiety out of putting down your money.
- Keep logistics simple. If possible, fly non-stop from a U.S. gateway to your destination. This avoids the hassle of being subject to several countries’ coronavirus testing requirements. (The United Kingdom, for example, requires all arrivals—even travelers in transit—to complete a negative coronavirus test no more than three days before they fly.)
- Get the best travel insurance. Some countries require you to purchase insurance against COVID-19. Fortunately, many insurers now cover expenses related to the virus. When evaluating a policy, consider:
- Where to buy a policy. Brokerage sites like insuremytrip.com let you do a side-by-side comparison of different insurers’ policies. You can also buy a policy on these sites. We, however, recommend buying one directly from the insurer of your choice. A company’s own agents will be most knowledgeable about their products, we’ve found. Also, speaking with the company will give insight into the level of customer service. Finally, should you make a claim, it may be easier to deal directly with the insurer, not a third party.
- Portability. If possible, buy a policy that can be applied to another trip if you change your dates.
- Deadlines. To cover pre-existing conditions, you must purchase a policy within a certain number of days (usually 10 to 21) after making your first deposit on a trip. Payment deadlines also apply to “Cancel For Any Reason” insurance. Expect to pay a higher premium (about 40% more) to recover 50-70% of your costs.
- The possibility of being quarantined. To reenter the United States you must present a negative COVID-19 test taken not more than one day prior to your return flight. Should you test positive and need to quarantine in a foreign country, you’ll have the added expense of quarantining in a hotel for 7 days or more. Every insurance company—and every policy—has its own terms and conditions. Trip cancellation and interruption benefits usually cover medical expenses and quarantines; however, some policies might consider a quarantine that’s not mandated by a doctor at your destination a “trip delay” (a much smaller maximum benefit). NOTE: Some companies say they’ll cover extra days, but require you to be under a doctor’s care. So know what steps to take (e.g. ask the insurer if you should engage a doctor) should you be only mildly sick or asymptomatic. Yes, it’s confusing! To sort it all out, quiz the sales agent mercilessly, get that person’s name and ask them to confirm their answers by email. And certainly do read the policy’s fine print. (To learn more, read this article in forbes.com. ) Remember, you have 10-14 days after purchase to review the policy and get your money back if you change your mind.
- The possibility of a country suddenly denying your entry. This scenario is usually not covered by insurance. Ideally, your travel suppliers would refund or rebook your trip to a later date. At that point, you could apply the old policy to your new trip. Non-refundable expenses would only be covered by CFAR insurance.
- Gather your travel documents early. Many airlines have easy-to-use apps that prompt you to upload necessary documents for your trip: proof- of-vaccination certificates, passports, contract tracing forms and country-specific entry forms, for example. (On both legs of our Switzerland trip, after uploading documents to United’s mobile app, we promptly received a digital boarding pass, so we could walked directly to the departure gate. So easy!)
- Schedule a COVID-19 test
As noted above, to reenter the United States, you must test negative for COVID-19 no more than one day before your departure home. There are several ways to get tested: (1) Schedule a test at a local clinic or pharmacy (at your destination the day before departure)—your travel agent or hotel can help you find one; (2) Take the test at the airport before you check in for your flight; or (3) Do a self test.
This last option, offered by the telehealth company eMed, has been endorsed by several airlines (United, American and Delta, among others). The test, BinaxNOW, is manufactured by Abbot Labs. It requires you to connect via mobile phone or computer to a supervisor who’ll walk you through the process of taking a nasal sample. Fifteen to 20 minutes later the results appear on a dedicated app on your phone and also in your email inbox.
Our advice: If you’re comfortable with technology take the eMed test; otherwise book an appointment at a local clinic or pharmacy. For peace of mind, we suggest you not take the test at the airport, where you might encounter last minute delays. (In Switzerland, we booked appointments at a pharmacy near our hotel. )
Despite the extra preparations and paperwork, our trip was the perfect cure for cabin fever. Switzerland–with its glacier-capped peaks, incredibly fresh air and meadows of wildflowers—lifted our spirits and gave our travel muscles some much-needed exercise.
Yes, it’s possible to make a travel dream come true, even during a pandemic. It’s just a matter of timing, preparation, courage—and a bit of good luck.