How do you know when it’s safe to travel again? (Part 1)

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 25 of the November 2021 issue.

The title of this article is likely on the minds of the majority of ITN readers. Before launching into this topic, however, I must note that this column is being written in late September 2021, and COVID conditions related to travel, specifically, can change significantly in a short period of time. With that said, here goes.

The first thing I must point out is that some international tour operators and other travel companies began running limited departures during the summer of 2021 despite the continuing presence of COVID. Also, some people have begun traveling independently.

Second, for most destinations, proof of vaccination is required to travel internationally.

In August 2021, my fully vaccinated daughter-in-law Stephanie, my granddaughter Lily, age 18, and my grandson Cody, age 16, scored cheap air tickets to Europe and did a rather last-minute, independent, 2-week trip utilizing public transportation. I spoke candidly with Lily about their experience.

They visited, in order, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, Paris, Strasbourg, Kehl (Germany), Bern and Zürich and were able to get to most of the attractions on their pre-trip list. Lily said that despite the fast pace and challenging COVID limitations, they all enjoyed the trip. They utilized small, moderately priced hotels and found COVID precautions adequate at all the properties.

Lily reported that they were always masked within indoor venues and when out in public around other people. To limit exposure, they ate in restaurants only twice, focusing instead on street food and on good-quality and relatively inexpensive deli takeaway food. At all of their stops, visitor numbers were noticeably lower this August than in the same time period pre-COVID.

Additionally, Lily reported that the safest conditions they experienced aboard any forms of transportation were those on their international flights on Delta Air Lines. She felt that both Delta and all the airports they used did a good job regarding COVID safety precautions.

The most worrying pandemic-safety aspect of their trip was that it was impossible for them to maintain social distancing when traveling in subways and on some other local trains. She also noted that on trains between major destinations, the railways did not do a good enough job of cleaning, so she always felt the need to stay as touch-free as possible. Use of hand sanitizer by her and her travel companions was a constant throughout the trip.

When I asked Lily what advice she had for anyone undertaking an independent European journey during COVID, she responded, “Exercise extra caution continuously, and expect the unexpected.”

I also asked, if she had known pre-trip what she knows now, would they have decided to delay their adventure to less COVID-challenging times? She said that in the week prior to departure, they would have liked to delay the trip, but they would have lost too many trip deposits if they canceled, so they decided to go.

She said that the biggest single stress point of the trip was at the end, awaiting the results of their COVID tests in Zürich before their flight back to the US. It would have been extremely difficult to have to be quarantined in Switzerland for 14 days before being able to return. Thankfully, they all tested negative in Zürich as well as upon returning to California.

What do we know?

In the world of travel and especially international travel, we are in new territory. It’s a time in which past experiences are no longer a reliable indicator of the future. Here is what we do know.

Information from the CDC and many other sources around the globe indicates that various forms of the COVID virus could be with us indefinitely. Therefore, we all should prepare for a range of continuing unknowns.

This is important to comprehend because most international travelers have been waiting out the pandemic, assuming it will be toning way down or ending, creating much safer travel conditions.

Such careful, conventional, waiting-for-the-green-light thinking has served most of us well during our travel lifetimes. However, more creative, calculated risk taking may be required in order to actually get back out on the road.

From this point forward, levels of safety and risk for various types of travel and destinations may largely be in the eye of the beholder. Travelers will need to be more hands-on in evaluating travel safety conditions than ever before.

Although most travel companies try to be conscientious regarding traveler safety in operating their programs, they can clearly differ in terms of what are deemed to be acceptable safety conditions. I’ll address this topic next month. I also will suggest some specific strategies for evaluating whether it is safe to undertake international travel, both generally and to specific destinations.

You may reach Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350,