You want to travel, but…
Just when you thought it was safe to travel again, a fourth wave of COVID hits. And there’s no guarantee there won’t be a fifth, or even a sixth as new variants emerge. Does that mean you just hold off on planning a trip until you’re sure you’ll be able to go? Not necessarily.
There are many things you can do now to start planning your next trip, even when you’re not completely sure when that trip will happen.
I’ve grouped the following tips and techniques for how to plan travel in uncertain times into three categories: basic considerations, mindset tips and tactical tips. Let’s explore each so that you’ll feel more confident in knowing how to plan travel in uncertain times. In addition, be sure to check out these other helpful guides on general travel planning tips, how to choose a destination, adventurous experiences to try on a trip, or even how to pack for any trip.
How to plan travel in uncertain times: The basics
REALIZE THERE ARE NO FIXED RULES HERE, ONLY SUGGESTIONS
However, some key suggestions include:
- Know your wants AND your needs and recognize they aren’t the same.
- Know your Traveler Type. Take the Traveler Type quiz to find out your preferred style of travel. Knowing that will aid you greatly in planning any trip.
- Stay flexible
- Be open to new experiences AND new approaches to travel
I’ll avoid the health, social, political and other aspects of this topic and address it only from a travel perspective: Getting vaccinated against COVID may be your only way to get on planes or visit certain places very soon. We may not like that, but that’s where things are heading.
Vaccination rates also affect you. Know the vaccination rates of the country you’re visiting, both to know your risk and to know the likelihood of local hospitals being overwhelmed if the latest wave gets worse.
DON’T PLAN A BIG TRIP FOR A YEAR
Until most people are vaccinated, there will be other variants and waves and planning a big overseas trip during these uncertain times may not be your wisest choice, at least in terms of planning a trip any time soon. Thus, waiting may be your best option.
But full disclosure: My wife and younger son (in his 20’s) decided in June to go to France this fall. In June, infection rates were falling both in the US and in France. But that’s changing. Thus, I’m having to rethink how I plan to travel in uncertain times and while all of the following tips are helping me as much as I hope they help you, I have to admit that we’re all a bit more anxious about this fall trip than we would be had we planned the trip for next spring.
Thus, if it’s a big trip that requires multiple reservations, you have to weigh the desire to go soon with the peace of mind that comes from not having to monitor COVID rates every day (or at least every week). But before you make a decision one way or the other, keep reading since many of the following tips on how to plan travel in uncertain times will help guide what you choose to do.
RECOGNIZE THAT THE PANDEMIC HAS AFFECTED EVERYONE DIFFERENTLY
Your attitude to travel will differ if you’ve been working like crazy (and need a break) vs. being bored at home during COVID (and thus need to escape). Your motivation and situation will affect how you plan for a trip. So, remember: What works for you may not work for others (and vice versa).
Also, what worked last month may not work next month. The secret is to stay flexible and do NOT make comparisons to other people’s decisions, trips or situations. You must decide what works for you and that will be different for each person, family or set of traveling companions.
How to plan travel in uncertain times: Mindset tips
DON’T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET
Many people are planning their top bucket list trip as the first one post-COVID. However, as noted above, there are still too many unknown variables, so why invest all that money for something that might not pan out?
Instead, get the travel itch scratched in smaller trips first. As I note in Hidden Travel, research shows that the anticipation phase is the happiest part of your trip. Some researchers thus suggest that to optimize your bliss, plan on several small trips in a year rather than one big one. This same advice works for planning travel in uncertain times. If you take smaller trips, you reduce that pent-up demand to simply go anywhere, you can usually travel in a safer matter, and you reduce the risk of spending a lot of time and money on a trip that may not happen at all, or at least as you hoped.
STRIVE FOR A GROWTH MINDSET, NOT A FIXED ONE
In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck proposes the notions of a fixed mindset (that essentially views the qualities of your life as locked in with no ability to change) and a growth mindset (that sees opportunities for learning and improving in all you are and do). Here’s a good summary of these concepts. Applying (very roughly) those concepts to travel planning, you can see two different options for how you approach your trip, fixed or growth:
- Fixed: Binary thinking of “Take the trip as I planned it” = good. “Don’t” = bad.
- Growth: It’s my TIME I’m optimizing. How can I use my time in the best manner irrespective of where I am?
It’s the difference between thinking in terms of ever-changing restrictions (a fixed mindset) vs. ever-changing possibilities (a growth mindset). If you see uncertain times as a minefield of risks, you’ll approach travel in a far different way than if you think of times of uncertainty as an opportunity to try new things and take advantage of possibilities (new locations, cheaper flights, different forms of travel) that arise.
THINK IN TERMS OF TIME RATHER THAN PLACE
This applies mostly to those of us who work regular jobs and use vacation time for our trips. If you’re planning a trip soon, you’ve probably asked for the time off. You can look at that vacation period as relating only to your proposed trip. But a better way is to see that period more broadly, as a block of time you have to do something fun and/or meaningful. It might include your trip, but if that big trip gets cancelled, don’t spiral into depression. Instead, think of the time you have blocked off from work to do something else such as:
- Doing local trips with a purpose or quest
- Trying new restaurants, stores, hotels, or experiences
- Visiting undiscovered places within a day’s drive
- Learning new things (particularly skills that will help you be a better traveler later):
- Learn a language
- Improve your photography or videography
- Learn to sketch
- Improve your cooking (and throw and country-themed party either before or during the time you were going to go)
- Do research on the place unrelated to your trip (history, biography, art, sport, food, etc.)
- Trying new forms of travel: camping, apartments, RVs, etc.
- Doing something you never make time for at home
- What would that be for you?
Spend some time on that last question. What have you always wanted to do that you never make time for? You’ve got the time if your trip falls through. So why not treat that block of vacation time as a long date with yourself to do what you never otherwise make time for?
TRIP TIME-OFF GOALS
Let’s keep going in this same direction. Try these questions from Hidden Travel, modified to take advantage of time off rather than a trip:
- What do I want to get out of this
triptime? What’s my purpose for it and on it?
- What delights me most? How might I find more of that
on this tripduring this time?
- What do I want to be or become as a result of this
triptime I now have?
- What work or personal goals can I pursue
on this tripduring this time?
- How can I optimize this
triptime for those with whom I’m travelingothers?
- How do I want this
triptime to change me? Do I want to be more adventurous? More open? More patient?
- Depending on how I want to change, what will I do
on this tripduring this time to achieve that goal? What can I do before this triptime to help achieve that goal?
PRACTICE ACTIVE WAITING
As noted above, anticipation can add more happiness to your life than other parts of your trip. So instead of thinking, “I’ll never be able to travel again,” shift that to “Wow, I have all this time to dream about my upcoming trip.”
Remember one of the first points about putting your trip off for a year? Well, the benefit of that is that it gives you a fixed date for your trip. “Someday” doesn’t get those anticipation juices flowing as much as a specific date. Even if you must move that date later, it’s good to get it on the calendar. Just be careful that you’re building anticipation and not expectations.
Anticipation looks forward to possibilities. Expectation looks forward to specific outcomes. And particularly in uncertain times, no one can predict exactly what will happen. So if you form expectations that are locked down, you’ll likely end up as disappointed as the dog in the old Far Side cartoon who yells out the car window to his canine buddy in the neighborhood, “Ha, ha, ha, Biff. Guess what? After we go to the drugstore and the post office, I’m going to the vet’s to get tutored!”
One way to avoid disappointment as you wait is to keep moving. Have other activities that occupy your time and your dreams. As travelers, we love looking forward to trips, but having other interests outside of travel helps keep you going even in uncertain times.
Another helpful mindset trick is to think of travel as a creative act. The problem is that many of us lump creativity into the category of ideation and making as in a work of art. That is a key form of creativity known as compositional creativity (as in composing a piece of music). But there’s another form even more useful to travelers: improvisational creativity. Just like an improv comedian or a jazz musician, this form of creativity is about responsiveness and adding to or improving on what comes your way. If you shift your mindset toward an improvisational one that sees each new bit of information as a possibility for a new form of travel, you’ll keep your mind occupied on positive opportunities rather than being disappointed that your more compositional plans didn’t work out.
How to plan travel in uncertain times: Tactical tips
THINK THROUGH YOUR WORST-CASE SCENARIOS
Another way to help you mentally with how to plan travel in uncertain times is to ask, “What’s the worst thing that could occur?” You don’t do this to freak yourself out. You do it to understand all the variables and to make accurate risk assessments. It’s another form of using your time in a proactive manner rather than just being reactive.
KNOW YOUR RISK FACTOR
Know your risk tolerance in general. If you’re a risk avoider, hold off on planning a big trip. If you’re a risk accepter, then planning a trip in the near future may be a possibility. But above all, know what works for you.
Also, if you’re at-risk health-wise, wait, especially, given how the Delta variant is affecting even vaccinated people. And in a risk-related way, choose your destination based on vaccination and outbreak rates. Most parts of the world are way behind the US in terms of vaccination rates so even if you feel the risk is low here, that may not be the case elsewhere. Risk is contextual.
TAKE A SMALL TRIP NOW TO TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF
We touched on this above, but let me restate it: Every day you’re losing ground for travel. The fourth wave of COVID will get worse before it gets better. So, if you’re really wanting to be traveling again, don’t wait. Plan a short trip this weekend. As the old African proverb states, “The best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago. The second best time is today.” Don’t wait for the big trip when a small one will do more for you than you can imagine if you haven’t taken one yet.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT YOU: THINK NOT ONLY OF HOW COVID AFFECTS YOU BUT HOW YOU’LL AFFECT OTHERS
Realize that just because you CAN travel to a certain destination doesn’t mean you should. Travel is never just about us. Travel is a two-way window: What does traveling at a high-alert time say to locals about you or your country? Be aware of the messages you send. But also be aware of the economic need in many places who have been shut down by COVID. It can get tricky to balance those two priorities (not traveling like an entitled American vs. infusing needed resources into a local economy), which is why researching the on-the-ground situation is so important.
MAKE MULTIPLE PLANS
Have a Plan B, C and D in addition to your main plan. With these fallback plans, you’ll alternate both the destination and the timing.
- Plan B: Move your trip back in time but write all the details down. There’s nothing worse than doing all this homework on your destination then putting it aside for six months and having to start from scratch later because you’ve forgotten it. Bookmark your sources and keep track of your plans so you can pick those up when you’re ready to travel later.
- Plan C: Dissect your trip to see what elements you can keep (e.g., same trip but avoiding big cities in favor of outdoors).
- Plan D: Do a staycation but have enough elements away from home (a few nights in a hotel, etc.) so it feels special. Also, plan personal goals and build in splurges or invest in something for a later trip (shop for clothes, luggage, camera, better cooking tools, etc.).
ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR RESERVATION IS CANCELABLE
- Consider vouchers for future trips (if incentivized) over refunds since those vouchers may get you further (e.g. a refund will get the cost of your ticket back, but a voucher might be for 25% more than what you paid for your ticket).
- Recognize that car rentals will likely remain expensive for some time but if you make sure they are cancellable, no worries. You can take advantage of the lower cost later.
Here are some screenshots of what to look for when making reservations and to always choose the filter of free cancelations (for lodging) or “no change fees” for airlines. Always click on these filter options so that you only select from refundable or changeable alternatives.
MAKE A BIGGER LIST
If you’re a planner, particularly as you plan travel in uncertain times, and you have two to three must-see sights each day on your trip, expand that to four or five since some may be closed now (either permanently or even temporarily). For example, for our planned trip to France, there are a number of small museums in Paris we want to visit. But we’ve added a few extras to our list just in case the primary ones are closed.
Just don’t plan on too many. You always want to leave room for on-the-ground discoveries.
GET COVID-RELATED UPDATES AND CROSS-VERIFY
Regarding updates on COVID rates and restrictions, keep up on the updates but always verify from multiple sources since the fine print (like quarantine times or getting tested even if you’ve been vaccinated) can mess you up with different sources saying different things.
- Example: https://www.cntraveler.com/story/state-travel-restrictions-during-covid-19 or https://www.cntraveler.com/story/how-countries-in-europe-are-reopening were out of date less than a week after they was posted
- Identify the best sources for your destination. The NY Timesmay have great overall reports, but a French outlet may be more accurate/timely for French updates. Honestly, it is hard to know which is why I review both.
- Use different sites for different purposes, e.g. https://scottscheapflights.com/coronavirus-and-travel for which airlines have no change fees.
BUILD A TRIP IN CHUNKS
Cluster destinations so that if one doesn’t work, you can still do the same (almost) trip with other places in the same area. For example: Due to mileage options, on our proposed trip to France, we must fly through London. If France falls through, we can still use that London “hub” to go to other places without changing all our main flights. We would use the Explore function of Kayak or Google Flights (explained below) and set London as our base airport to see the cheapest options from there at that time or go our preferred route using trains to reduce carbon emissions.
If you really want to know what’s happening on the ground in your destination, follow this tip (that I think is one of the most useful of all these ways to plan travel in uncertain times): Contact local professionals like innkeepers. For example, we’ve booked an apartment for our time in Paris (which is cancellable up to three days before we are to arrive). The host speaks English well and we are emailing back and forth so that I’m getting updates not just about France, but about life in the very neighborhood where we’re staying.
As I mention in Hidden Travel, locals in the hospitality field, particular small business owners, have a vested interest in your trip and when you find a helpful apartment host, B&B hostess, hostel manager, or others, treat them well. They can become one of the best sources of information not only about where you’re staying, but for other local activities and the current situation there.
You can also try something like Amazon Explore to see what the situation is like firsthand. Arrange for one of their local tours where you do it virtually and you can direct your guide to explore particular areas of the place you plan to visit. This gives you another on-the-ground resource and in this case, you can actually see if there are many people on the street or if restaurants are open, etc.
SIGN UP FOR PRICE ALERTS
This is a tip that works even you’re not trying to plan travel in uncertain times. Sign up for price alerts on sites such as Skyscanner or Scott’s Cheap Flights or use Google Flights’ or Kayak’s Explore features to see where the cheapest flights are from your home airport (or another airport). Now the fun comes when you combine this ability to find cheap flights with international health alerts so you know which destinations are open to visitors and you then concentrate your cheap flight searches on those. The reason for alerts is that the situation is changing rapidly and you can seek out the relatively safest destinations AND get the best deals this way.
DOUBLE CHECK YOUR TRAVEL INSURANCE
On your travel insurance, consider getting the smallest amount to cover only the non-cancelable parts (you have only booked cancelable reservations, right?) of your trip. For example, for our upcoming trip, to get the discount of $7/ticket if booked 90 days in advance versus about $30/ticket if booked a few weeks in advance for the Heathrow Express (that gets us from the Heathrow airport to downtown London in only 15 minutes versus over an hour on the tube/metro), we had to buy out tickets even though they aren’t cancelable. That’s one of many risk/reward decisions we’ll need to make for items we can’t cancel. Thus, so far, at about 90 days out from our proposed trip, we have an exposure of $42 for three round-trip Heathrow Express tickets. Is it worth getting travel insurance for such a small amount?
In my opinion, absolutely. Why? Because of the medical and evacuation insurance that comes as part of the policy and because many travel insurance policies cover COVID cancellations or delays. To give you an idea, I went here to review the options US News & World Report had evaluated. I then used their “compare plans and get a quote” feature. I limited the amount of coverage to $200 (in case we have other smaller costs like the train tickets). The results ranged from a low of $60 for a policy that includes COVID-19 coverage and $35,000 of medical coverage and $100,00 of evacuation coverage, to a high of $255 for a policy that also includes COVID-19 coverage plus $100,000 medical and $1,000,000 in evacuation.
Thus, it pays to compare and find what is right for you, but even with the lower cost policy, we’d still be able to cancel if COVID restrictions prevent us from traveling (and be sure to clarify if that means you must have COVID or if your destination’s closure due to COVID is the reason), plus we get some medical and evacuation coverage.
CREATE A GO/NO GO DATE
When I was in high school learning to drive, my driver’s ed instructor taught us a great rule. He said whenever you’re approaching an intersection, decide before you reach it as to what you will do if the light changes to yellow. If you didn’t decide ahead of time, you’d likely be indecisive and either slam on your breaks at the last moment or possibly slow down then speed up and run a red light.
The same principle applies here when you’re trying to plan travel in uncertain times: Mark a date on your calendar, usually a week or so before your planned trip departure, where you’ll decide if the trip is on or off. All of your reservations should be cancelable until at least this date. But psychologically, it gives you a fixed point for your go/no-go decision.
Having this clear decision point avoids vacillation and gives you mental breathing room so you can make your decision before it’s a rushed last-minute one.
Particularly with COVID, it’s very doubtful that the on-the-ground situation will improve in the week before your trip. So, check on conditions on your go/no-go date and make your decision then. You can wait (if you love to second guess) until the last moment to actually cancel your reservations, but you’ll feel better about that action if you’ve already made a firm decision about whether you should cancel them.
SET A GO/NO GO SET OF CRITERIA
Let’s say you set a go/no-go date. But when that day rolls around, how do you decide? Here are some factors based on current COVID conditions:
- Borders open or not: If the country is closed to visitors, there’s your decision.
- Borders open with restrictions: Are you willing to quarantine for two weeks? Are the conditions on the ground such that even if you do quarantine, nothing will be open once you’re there?
- Lodging available: You’ll likely be able to get a hotel room even if everything else is shut down, so if not, then no-go is likely your answer.
- Sites open or not: Can you visit the places you want to see?
- Restaurants/bars open or not: Will you be able to find food? Do you travel for food and drink and if most of the places are closed, will that so diminish your experience that it isn’t worth it?
- Outdoor activities available or not (e.g., in the US, national parks may be open but require reservations)
LET SOMEONE ELSE TAKE CARE OF IT
If you’re not sure how to plan travel in uncertain times (even after reading all this) or it just stresses you too much, don’t do the planning. Go with a travel agent or travel company who is on top of all the changes. Many tour companies, particularly those specializing in trips to less visited locations (e.g., an African game reserve), will have local connections and know which airports to fly into or which borders to avoid. It’s their job to keep you healthy and safe, so the best of them will go out of their way to ensure you are only traveling if it is safe to do so.
Just be aware that this only helps with logistics, not disappointment and other mindset issues noted above.
STAY CLOSE BUT MIX IT UP
I may be sounding like a broken record player, but seek out local trips. Practice at home with shorter trips not just for accessibility and safety, but to test your own response to traveling again if you haven’t been traveling for a while.
PURSUE THE LESS-VISITED PLACES
One way to lower your risk, both when you plan travel in uncertain times and on your actual trip is to seek out places where few others are visiting. You can do that by staying outdoors (see below) or by visiting less-visited locations. Read Hidden Travel to know how to find such places or go to this article on ways to discover less-visited places.
Learn to go to less popular places now and you’ll help address the issue of over-touristed places later.
TRY A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO TRAVEL
This applies to both planning and travel itself.
In short, mix it up. Try alternative methods in how you plan travel in uncertain times. For example, if you’re a major planner, choose a safe destination and just wing it, applying that improvisational creativity noted earlier.
If you normally like visiting many countries or areas on a trip, try slow travel (staying in one place as a hub) so that you don’t have to worry about quarantining in multiple locations.
If you normally travel slow, go fast if you have a window of opportunity to visit a certain place before it closes.
Use this time of uncertainty to try new approaches you can then apply to later trips.
FIND WHAT FORMS OF VACCINATION RECORDS AND TESTS ARE ACCEPTED IN YOUR DESTINATION
Being able to show your vaccination record is an essential part of traveling at this point and will likely become more critical soon. Some thoughts:
- Make copies (digital and print) of your vaccination record.
- Check and see if you can get your record on an app.
- Be sure to check on US (or your home) requirements for re-entry as well as the policies for the countries you’re visiting. You don’t want to have this great trip and then find out you can’t get home.
- Check out these articles from the Wall Street Journal, the Seattle Times, and the Economist but remember that each country will have their own requirements and that those are changing rapidly.
- Personally, I store vaccination record as a photo in Evernote where I can tag it (and I can find it easier than scrolling through hundreds of photos) plus, I have the pro version so the image is secure. But just having a photo as a backup may be one of your best options. Or email or text it to yourself so you might find it easier or if you lose your phone.
- Also know that each country or region may have a separate vaccine passport or health pass. These are changing almost daily.
OPT FOR THE OUTDOORS
Some reminders about the good ol’ outdoors:
- Nature stays open (but parks may be closed)
- People spread out
- Realize that the time of year will affect your ability to go outdoors (e.g., even during normal times, the Dolomites shuts down in early fall and weather will limit access to lodging and activities in many places)
- Understand why you want to travel
- Take multiple small trips while you can
- Keep all reservations flexible and cancellable
- Do risk assessments (on you, on the destination)
- Make realistic plans
- Plan E: Combine research where COVID is least active with Google Flights or Kayak Explore to find best deals
- Redirect your anticipation: Spend time on what you love and can do rather than worrying about what you can’t
- Read Hidden Travel: The Secret to Extraordinary Trips
- Get additional free hidden travel resources: www.ExploreYourWorlds.com/resources
That’s a lot of information here, but I know there are other ways to plan travel in uncertain times. If you have other tips, ideas or thoughts on the above, please leave a comment.