If you’re planning to travel this year, make sure you’re prepared for all possible scenarios

Stephanie Zito

by Stephanie Zito


Traveling during a pandemic is difficult, but not impossible. For those who still need to get from point A to point B, or want a change of scenery, here’s how to do it in the safest way.

As more and more of us start to return to travel, health and safety are top of mind. How do we travel responsibly in this new normal? Is it smart to consider traveling for the upcoming holidays? How do you know where you are even allowed to go to these days?

Whether you’re travel planning for the holidays, packing for a trip or already on the road, here are a few tips to level-up your travel and pandemic preparedness.

Tips for travel planning

Holiday travel

Health and government officials are asking people to avoid nonessential travel during the holidays, but for many that’s not an option. If you find yourself traveling during the holidays, there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe:

  • Don’t travel if you are ill or if you’ve been around someone who has had COVID in the past two weeks
  • Don’t purchase flights with layovers – the CDC has determined they present a higher risk than nonstop flights
  • Keep gatherings small and practice social distancing
  • Wear a mask and keep it on at all times
  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time or use hand sanitizer
  • Avoid touching your face
  • If you’re driving, try to limit stops along the way for gas, food or bathroom breaks

Know the entry and exit requirements of your destination

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., check the current COVID-19 requirements for the country you’re visiting.

Ask the following questions: Will the country allow passport holders from your country to enter? Will you need to show a COVID negative test before boarding or on arrival? Is there a mandatory quarantine? Don’t assume that you can get into a country just because an airline will sell you a ticket there.

Sadly, there’s not a magical website that’s updated daily with this information, so you’ll have to do some digging around. For international travel as an American, try the U.S. embassy website.

Do your destination research

Learn everything you can about how COVID-19 is being managed in your desired destination, so you know what to expect. When I was planning my trip to Cabo, I’d frequently visit the Cabo tourism board website to look for updates on safety measures.

I had also emailed the hotel concierge in advance to check on which amenities at the resort were open and closed, and if the restaurant, spa services or pool needed advance reservations.

Don’t assume that you can get into a country just because an airline will sell you a ticket there.

Choose an airline that aligns with your comfort level

Airlines in the U.S. are continually pivoting their schedules, restrictions and safety measures as they attempt to stay in business, serve customers and keep you safe. Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian and Southwest are currently keeping middle seats open and flying with lower passenger loads but most will be ending that soon (Alaska ends it Jan. 6, Hawaiian Dec. 16 and Southwest Dec. 1). American, JetBlue and United flights are already booking at full capacity.

If you find yourself anxious about returning to travel or having that extra space is important to you, use those American Express points you’ve been saving to book Delta. Remember that being comfortable with traveling these days is likely more important than making sure you’ve got the best bargain fare.

Build a backup plan into your booking

When planning a trip in 2020, make sure you’re booking a trip that you can modify or cancel at a moment’s notice for any reason – including if you just change your mind.

Ensure plane tickets, hotel and car reservations, and activity bookings are refundable (or at least changeable). And be sure to have an emergency budget (or emergency points) in case you have to pivot your plans mid-travel. It requires a bit more planning, but your future self will likely be grateful.

Tips for pandemic packing

I’ve always been a fan of packing as light as possible when I travel. Packing for travel in a pandemic, however, will likely require you to revise your suitcase strategy. I call this my “Boy Scout packing strategy” because in these unprecedented times you definitely want to be prepared for anything.

Carry-on luggage

Long gone are the days of using the easy-to-access side pockets of my carry-on backpack to stash spare phone chargers and adapters. I now use one of these pockets to carry my own easy-to-access sanitation kit including wipes, a small hand sanitizer and some spare masks.

While you will likely wear only one mask at a time, I can tell you from my daylong flight to Mexico experience that you will be grateful to have a change of mask option.

I’ve repurposed the other pocket of my carry-on to hold my refillable water bottle and lots of snacks. Most airlines are not currently serving food onboard except for long-haul flights and very limited meal service in first class.

With many airport lounges and in-terminal restaurants still closed, the lines in the airport at the few open stores to purchase food and water are long. I was able to fill my water bottle at a touchless refill station in three of the four airports I transited through on my last travel. (Don’t refill your water at a traditional water fountain from which people drink.)

Travel clothes

If I’m not going directly home or to my hotel on arrival, I’ve also begun packing a change of outfit in my carry-on so I can get out of my germy and sweaty clothes on arrival.

If you’re packing for an international flight … you’ll want to fly prepared for an unexpected quarantine.

Quarantine prep

If you’re packing for an international flight, particularly if you’re flying to a country with testing requirements, you’ll want to fly prepared for an unexpected quarantine.

Ask yourself, “What would I wish I had packed if someone on my flight tested positive for COVID-19 and I wound up quarantined for 14 days in a government-mandated hotel?” Or, “What if a country I was visiting instituted a mandatory shutdown while I was still there?”

These questions would have seemed crazy in 2019 but we’re packing for 2020 now. My “emergency” prep kit has extra snacks (protein bars and almonds), good espresso packets, some mini bourbons (packed in my toiletry kit) and a very well-stocked kindle.

Tips for staying safe once you go

Mask up

Travel, by nature, puts you in the proximity of lots of people outside of your normal bubble. Following the mask mandates in airports and at your destination is an easy way to protect yourself – and a very simple action that you can take to protect others. It’s also an easy way to not get banned from flying on an airline forever.

Respect the destination rules

Returning to travel safely requires us as visitors to be on our best guest behavior. Keep in mind that even as destinations around the world open for visitors, they are also managing their own response to the virus. If we want more places to be open to us, we have to do our part to keep them safe while we’re there.

Above all, the most important thing we can remember about traveling during a pandemic is that to be safe anywhere, we must continue to be attentive everywhere.

Travel isn’t an escape from COVID-19, it’s just a change of scenery – and a very, very welcome one that I’m excited to be able to experience again.

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Stephanie Zito is a professional traveler, humanitarian and credit card points collector sharing savvy travel tips she has learned firsthand from more than 20 years of circling the globe as a backpacker, expat and premium traveler in more than 125 countries and all seven continents.