When Should You Start Traveling Internationally Again

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic put a halt to most of our international travel plans in 2020.  For many of us, it is decades since we last experienced such a lengthy period of “grounding”, and for most of us, we’re increasingly keen to start traveling again, and in particular, to resume international travel.

So when can we next head to the airport with our only worry being if our suitcase is under or over the airline’s 50lb limit?  There are five issues to consider, plus several related issues to keep in mind.

1.  Personal Medical Safety

There’s no point in planning what should be an enjoyable and memorable experience if the most memorable experience is catching a case of the Covid virus, and being unwell in some foreign country, isolated from your travel companion and with an uncertain quality of care from people with an uncertain knowledge of your native language.

The unfamiliar and uncontrollable aspects of foreign travel unavoidably escalate your risk of being infected, although it is also sadly relevant that, as of mid-January 2021, the two leading countries in terms of daily new infection rates are the UK and US.  If you’re traveling from either of those countries to somewhere else, you’re shifting the odds and making them more in your favor due to a lower prevalence of the virus in the countries you visit than when you’re at home!  Of course, the offsetting risk factor is you’re more likely going to be mixing and mingling with more people when on vacation than when staying at home and only rarely venturing out to buy groceries.

However, we’d suggest you consider it prudent to get vaccinated and wait until the second shot has “kicked in” (one week after the second shot for the Pfizer vaccine, two weeks for the Moderna vaccine) to the point where you have max virus protection before traveling.

So, the first point is answered – wait until you’ve been vaccinated.  This leads into the second point.

2.  Airline Requirements

At present, there is no clear consistent set of airline-imposed travel requirements.  Some airlines require proof of a negative Covid test, typically within 72 hours of travel commencing.  Others require a self-declaration where you simply state you are safe to travel.  A few will do a temperature check to see if you have a fever.

Airlines are talking about – at some unclear future point – requiring proof of vaccination before allowing people to fly with them.  IATA (the International Air Transport Association) is developing a “Travel Pass” (actually, a smart phone app) that can store details of your various Covid tests/results and vaccinations and share them automatically with airlines, to make it easy for you and the airlines transporting you to know if you will be allowed to travel or not.

Airlines have not started requiring this Travel Pass yet, because so few people have been vaccinated.

There’s also a complicating factor – some reports are suggesting the vaccines don’t stop people from still becoming infected with the virus, and still being able to then pass the virus on to other people.  (The vaccines might stop people from becoming seriously unwell, but not stop them from getting mild infections.)  This is still being debated and researched, but it might mean that even if you’ve been vaccinated, you still need to be tested for an active virus infection prior to traveling.

So, under this point, things remain in flux.

Being tested prior to departure is something you can plan for, but what happens if you end up testing positive?  Will your travel plans be cancelable without incurring penalties?  Furthermore, if you need to also be tested prior to your return flight (as is increasingly the case), do you know how to arrange that in whatever country and city you’ll be flying out of?

Keep in mind also that things can change at any time, with little or no warning.  While the airlines might try to advise people with future bookings of any changes in their requirements, that’s far from a guaranteed certainty, so you should re-check their policies a month and two weeks and again one week prior to departure (and, depending on how things are evolving, perhaps again three days before departure, and so on), to ensure there’ll hopefully be no surprises.

3.  Requirements for Entry Into Foreign Countries

Okay, so you’ve deemed the risks of travel acceptable, and you’ve covered all the airline requirements.  Now for the next step on this tortuous journey – the requirements of each of the countries you’re planning to visit.  What do they require of arriving international visitors?

We will start off by assuming the country (or countries) you’re hoping to visit don’t have a blanket ban, either on all international arrivals, or on arrivals from the country you’re visiting (and/or originally) from.  But don’t make that assumption too, that’s the first thing to check.

There are two types of requirements to be aware of.  The first is for a negative Covid test prior to travel, typically within the three days immediately before travel.

The second is more complicated.  You may be required to be tested again upon arrival, or a day or two later, and you may also be required to quarantine upon arrival for a week, or ten days, or two weeks; maybe shorter if you have two clear Covid tests during the quarantine period, maybe not.

This quarantine experience may be on the “honor” system where you simply “self-quarantine” by going somewhere and staying there for the quarantine period.  But it may also be an official quarantine where the local authorities (police, maybe military) will enforce what is essentially a “comfortable period of imprisonment” where you are required to stay in a specific hotel, and to stay within your particular room, perhaps with no permitted departures from your room for up to two weeks, for any reason at all.

Clearly, it is very important to understand what the nature of any quarantine may be.  If you only have ten days for a vacation, and the country you’re wanting to visit mandates a two week quarantine, that isn’t going to work.  Even if you have plenty of spare time, the chances are you’ll have to pay for the time you stay in quarantine, so the total cost of your visit has just increased.

Plus, just like with airline policies, country policies are likely to change over time, too.  You should check for updates a month or so prior to traveling, and again a few days prior to traveling.  What would happen to your travel plans if a change in national policies makes it either impossible or undesirable for you to still travel, or if your Covid test shortly before departure comes back positive?

4.  Requirements for Entry Back into One’s Home Country

Last week the US announced it will require a negative Covid test for everyone wishing to travel to the US – both foreign visitors and also US citizens returning home.  Depending on your state and city, there may also be self-quarantine requirements for people traveling from “out of state” – a phrase that presumably means not just people from other US states, but also people from other countries, and which might (or might not – check) also mean returning residents.

It is notable that Joe Biden has said he will extend travel restrictions from other countries (although he objected to them when they were first introduced almost a year ago), so the change in administration is not likely to see an immediate lessening of restrictions on inbound passengers.

All the concerns one has about the implications of an unexpected positive Covid test prior to the start of one’s travels are magnified and more impactful if your test prior to returning home comes back positive.  Suddenly you find yourself stuck in a foreign country and having to comply with what may be lax but might also be extremely severe regulations in terms of what you must do after a positive test.

5.  Level of Closure/Controls in the Countries You Visit

The fifth and perhaps final point is to make sure you understand what type of actual vacation experience you’ll be able to enjoy once you get to your destination.

Will the country or (more subtly and sometimes harder to research in advance) the specific region you’re visiting be in some level of strict lockdown?  Will it be easy to do the sorts of things you normally do and enjoy?  Will you be able to eat and drink in restaurants and bars?  Will tourist attractions, museums, theaters, etc, be open normal hours, restricted hours, or closed completely?

Keep in mind that the answer to this question is totally unpredictable.  The future level of virus activity is anyone’s guess, but the paradox within that which might give you a problem is that the more lax a country is at present, the more likely it is the virus will grow more rapidly there, meaning that at some future point, that country is likely to then institute stricter restrictions on social activities.  On the other hand, and making it very much a no-win situation, some of the countries with lower virus rates at present have those lower rates due to present stricter controls and may choose to keep those stricter controls so as to keep their virus numbers low.

There’s no easy way to guess the future in terms of how countries may cycle in and out of more and less restrictive rules.

The Most Important Thing

Try not to make any arrangements that you can’t subsequently cancel with the least amount of penalty, ideally at any time right up until the day you’re due to arrive, and for any reason.  You want to be able to decide, based on the totality of all five points above, whether or not your earlier plans to travel remain sensible and appropriate, and you want to be free to second-guess yourself and cancel with a minimum of cost/penalty associated.

Even if you see hotels and other travel companies with cancelation penalties, it might be helpful to call them directly and explain to someone senior enough to say “yes” how you’d like to come and visit, and you’ll make all good-faith efforts to honor a booking, but neither you nor they can predict what might happen between now and then, so if they’d like to accept your booking, it would have to allow for cancellation up to, perhaps, 24 hours prior to arrival.  They might agree, and it doesn’t hurt to ask.

What About Travel Insurance

Almost exactly a year ago (21 Jan, 2020), the Covid-19 virus/disease became a “named condition”, meaning that everyone who bought travel insurance after that time was assumed to have known about, considered, and accepted the risks related to Covid-19, and so general insurance provisions for unexpected and unknown problems would not apply.

You can still buy travel insurance, but its coverage for virus related things varies widely from policy to policy.  The key provision to research is usually the “Cancel for any reason” provision which allows you to do exactly that – cancel your trip for any reason, usually up to perhaps a day or two prior to your departure date.

But if you need to invoke that protection, you’ll likely find the policy doesn’t fully reimburse you all the cancellation costs you’ll incur.  While we remember the “good old days” when cancel for any reason insurance did fully cover all your costs, these days it seems people have been invoking that provision much more than before, and so there is now a “co-insurance” amount.  In other words, maybe the insurance will cover half or three quarters of the penalties, and you’ll have to cover the balance yourself.  This is the insurance companies’ way of encouraging you not to cancel capriciously.

You also need to buy the cancel for any reason coverage within 7 – 21 days (the exact period varies depending on the policy you choose) of when you make an initial deposit or payment on your travel plans.  This is to prevent people from suddenly realizing they want to cancel, then buying the insurance knowing they’ll be claiming on it a day later.  You have to buy it up front.

So travel insurance is a partial rather than complete solution.

Two Comments About Covid Testing

Covid testing is not as 100% absolutely accurate as we’d all wish it to be.  You can sometimes experience a “false positive” (where the test says you have the virus but you really don’t) or a “false negative” (where the test says you don’t have the virus, but you actually do) result.  Ideally, every time you’re tested, you’d confirm either the positive or negative result with a second test, but that’s perhaps a bit of an overreach, and seldom offered as an option.

There are two different ways of testing to see if you have a Covid infection.  One is called a “PCR” (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test, sometimes referred to as a molecular or RNA test.  The other is called an “antigen” test (not to be confused with an “antibody” test, which is a totally different thing, but with a similar name).

Which is better?  Opinions wildly differ about that, and we’ll not express an opinion.  But there are a couple of points to keep in mind.  Some travel requirements (either by airlines or countries) may specify the type of test you must have, and in such cases, it is usually specified to be a PCR test.  If PCR testing is specified, make sure that is what you’ll be getting.

The other point is that PCR testing is slow – it can take a day or two, sometimes much longer, from when you’re tested to when you get the result back.  The antigen tests can take as little as 15 – 30 minutes to generate a result.

For the purposes of traveling, your greater concern of course is getting a false positive result – one which suggests you have an infection.  If you get a positive result, try as hard as you can to be tested a second time.  There’s a measurable chance you might get a negative result the second time.  Elon Musk was tested four times in a row, in quick succession on a single day, and had two positive results and two negative results.  So there’s a definite element of luck present.

Because of the possibility of getting a false-positive and wanting to be able to redo the test in the short remaining time prior to traveling, it is essential that you reliably know how long test results will take, and also be certain there will be enough time to get a second test if needed.

How Long Before Things Improve?

I’ve left the really hard question until the end.  It is becoming increasingly – abundantly – clear that things will only improve once the vaccines have been widely distributed and widely taken.  The virus is not going to naturally just fade away and disappear, and herd immunity, if indeed it truly could be a possibility (that is far from certain), requires more than 60%, probably more than 70%, possibly more than 80% of people to have been infected.

Currently, the US has only had 7.5% of its population infected, the UK has 5.1%, France has 4.5%, and Germany has 2.5%.  No country has more than 10% of its population infected so far (other than the two micro-countries of Andorra and Gibraltar, both at 11%), and at the present rates of infection, it will be many years or decades before herd immunity has any impact.

We need vaccination levels of over 50% in order to impact on infection rates, and we need vaccines to be freely available for anyone/everyone who feels at risk.  Getting to 50% of a country being vaccinated is likely to take six months – quite possibly more, and unlikely to be much less, and getting to a point where vaccines are readily available will probably take even more time.

Currently, with the sole exception of Israel (15% of its population vaccinated as of 19 January), no other country of note has vaccinated even 5% of its population in the almost exactly one month since vaccinations started.  The UK scores highest at 3.5% as of 18 January, and the US has 1.9% as of 15 January.  Most of Europe has less than 1% vaccinated.  Even allowing for a general acceleration of dosing, it will be a struggle to get levels up to 50% in under six months.

Remember also that a 50% vaccination level is still way below the numbers suggested as being needed for herd immunity.  But it might be at a point where psychologically the virus is no longer seen as an unstoppable implacable foe, and instead will be seen as something we’re slowly but steadily beating back.  It will also contribute to dropping rates of new cases, although that could be balanced out by fewer restrictions making it easier for unvaccinated people to still acquire and pass on infections.  But the general mood of the public will be becoming more positive and upbeat.

The public perceptions and attitudes will swing even more positively when the only unvaccinated people are people who don’t want to be vaccinated.

What does this mean in terms of timings?  Our guess is things will start to improve maybe in the late summer.  There’ll be enormous pressure to offer a “normal” full summer/high season for tourism this year, and maybe tourism operators will succeed in getting countries to liberalize things more than perhaps they should, sooner than perhaps they should.

Another interesting perspective is shown in the chart at the top – the projected timelines for vaccine distribution.  While the term “widely available” isn’t defined, we can assume that when the vaccine is at a point of being widely distributed, both virus activity levels and social restrictions will be reduced.  And also be careful not to seize the first date shown, but rather to appreciate the entirety of the date range.  For example, in the US and most of Europe, the prediction suggests sometime between September this year and March next year.

These numbers seem to be reasonably realistic, and we’d suggest keeping them in mind when deciding where to visit first, and which destinations to hold off until next year or subsequently.

If you don’t have too much money at risk, by all means start to plan for mid/late summer travel.  But perhaps it would be better to focus on the fall.

2 thoughts on “When Should You Start Traveling Internationally Again”

  1. David, thanks always for the wealth of information you share on this blog. Addressing your subject of plenty of vaccine to go around, The Dept. of Health in Hawaii is greatly concerned about receiving a sufficient supply for its requirements, The Feds promise sufficient shipments each week, but then they decrease the amount each week that they are able to send to us. Much concern about the necessity of cutting off availability to those who have signed up for a first shot, in order to have enough for second doses.

    1. Hi, Don; thanks for your “on the ground” feedback from Hawaii.

      I’m not sure which is worse – being sent too much and not knowing what to do with it all, or being sent insufficient and having problems honoring commitments. Neither is good, and neither is acceptable or excusable.

      Let’s hope things come right soon.

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