Long-Term Travel Planning in the Time of COVID

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Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

Traveling Internationally in the Near Future?

If you want to figure out where you can travel, vaccinated or not, this resource by Sky Scanner is incredible! You can choose the country you are traveling from and see which countries are more open or restricted to you.

Sky Scanner: COVID-19 Travel Requirements Map

Also, for you American citizens, here is a helpful summary of the COVID rules, country by country. If the country is not in the list, they are allowing travel at this time.

NY Times: I’m a U.S. Citizen. Where in the World Can I Go?

A Long Time Ago, In Another Era…

I sat at my parents’ kitchen table and dropped the bomb about our plans. This was a little over two years ago. We were planning to leave it all behind, uproot our three little boys, and travel internationally for an indefinite period of time.

Outwardly, my mom took it in stride. This is not because we are on the same wavelength about such things, far from it. Rather, I’ve dropped enough bombs over the years to give her plenty of opportunities to practice responding stoically.

“Is there anything that would cause you to rethink your plan?” she asked, trying to sound like she was was just making chitchat. In reality, she was looking for a ray of hope, some intervention she could pray to God for to induce us cancel this awful and dangerous separation from her kids and grandkids, and we both knew it.

“Not really. I suppose if there was some major global calamity — a world war, another great recession — we’d have to reassess.” In the autumn of 2019, the word “pandemic” was barely part of anyone’s vocabulary.

And that is why to this day my mom (jokingly, I think) blames me for COVID-19.

The Calamity

It was late January of 2020. We were vacationing in Spain for two weeks with another family that was traveling continuously for a year (just like we wanted to do!) when we heard the first rumblings on the news about a novel virus in China. By the time we left, both of our families caught one of the worst flu-like illnesses I’ve ever had (yep, one can only speculate).

A month later, our family friends had to cut their year of travel short to head home. Borders were closing. People were freaking. The virus was on the loose, wreaking its terrifying havoc.

We didn’t despair over our plans. The target date for our travel plan was still a year and a half off. This was likely to last a few months. Even if it lasted an entire year, it wouldn’t put a dent in our plans.

We didn’t want to leave right away anyway. We were waiting for our one-year-old at the time to get a little older. Sleep through the night. Get potty-trained. Be able to carry his own back pack. And maybe all the social distancing would free up more time to get our ducks in a row to make our plan a reality.

But here we are. The world is entering it’s third stinking year of COVID. And the light at the end of the tunnel keeps vanishing further into the distance.

Alley in Sintra, Portugul
Blissfully unaware in Sintra, a tourist spot in Lisbon, as the coronavirus quietly circumnavigated the world.
We packed into little tourist buses oblivious to the deadly little bugs all around us.

Life Goes On

We have taken seriously the imperative to avoid spreading the virus: both for the sake of the most vulnerable and to do our part in not overwhelming healthcare facilities. Our family members are all vaccinated (or about to be so in the case of the kids) and we are planning to get boosters in the weeks ahead.

But entering the third year of this, I have a growing awareness that life is slipping away under our noses. COVID-19 is here to stay, so we need to find a way to get back to living before it’s too late. These are not years we get to bank for later like unused vacation days, they are already spent.

Related to this, I’ve noticed a shift in how health experts are now talking about managing the virus. Rather than prioritizing elimination at the expense of all other concerns, the focus now is on finding ways to go back to living while managing the virus’s worst consequences. Instead of the abundance of caution we heard a lot about in the beginning, there is talk of imposing preventative measures based on number of hospitalizations rather than new cases.

And so, it is with mixed feelings — mostly excitement mixed with a dash of uncertainty — that we plan to move forward with our plan in June of 2022.

The Best-Laid Plans

We don’t have a fixed itinerary or even a definite end date. We plan to live in the moment and keep all of our next moves open-ended.

But in order to properly fantasize about our future life, we need some basic structure and a tentative timeline. It is also nice to be able to give our potential hosts a heads up and a date rounded to the nearest half year.

We know that we want to spend serious time in South America and Southeast Asia (though we could end up anywhere). Our original plan was to ship our car to Colombia, and then road trip around the continent, à la Motorcycle Diaries — but swap out the motorcycle for a Honda Pilot stuffed with a row of car seats. Next we would travel around Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal for instance) and wind up in China. The only fixed entry in our itinerary is to attend a destination family reunion in China with Liuan’s relatives in early 2023.

But then by the end of summer 2020, we had second thoughts. COVID cases surged and remained elevated in South America. Travel warnings seemed more dire than usual. Shipping costs skyrocketed. The logistics of transporting a personal vehicle via shipping container was always going to be a challenge, but now the complexities and cost seemed prohibitive.

Soooo… I guess we’ll do Asia first.

Over the last few weeks we started reaching out to friends and acquaintances in Singapore, Thailand and other parts. They were encouraging and happy to help connect us to potential volunteering opportunities. But… getting into many of the countries we wanted to travel to might be difficult or impossible at the moment.

Soooo… maybe South America first, but without the car?

Planning as the Situation Evolves

When we first hatched this plan back in mid-2019, we thought preparing to leave our life behind would be vastly more complicated than the actual traveling part. We took it for granted that an American passport was a free pass to go anywhere we wanted (with a few exceptions). All we had to do was throw a dart at the map, or whatever, and go for it. Oh, how innocent we were back then.

Now, the travel part is looking more knotty. In each country that has not banned foreigners from entering outright, there is a unique set of rules for COVID tests, proof of vaccination, quarantine periods, and other random requirements. Some places ban unnecessary travel, others ban unvaccinated travelers over a certain age, others want this form of documentation but not that, and so on.

Even a simple, high-level decision like, “which continent should we land on first” seems impossible to make with any certainty six months out. The trouble is, the situation is constantly evolving, even after two years into this. As a thought experiment, try to remember back six months what the COVID situation was then. Where were the most cases? What was the outlook?

The only prediction that seems solid is that things will be totally different in six months than they are now. It’s just that nobody knows in what way. And that’s a real bugger when trying to make decisions in advance. By the time you try to act on it, the information you based it on is already obsolete.

It’s like shooting at a target while standing on a little makeshift raft tossed by a choppy sea. Not only that, but the target is also on a raft. And the target is actually panicked squirrel. You get the point.

So why plan ahead at all? We can tell our friends in other parts of the world our rough estimate of when we might be swinging by. But everyone knows the game we’re playing. The make-believe plans and wishful itinerary dates. We can’t get too invested into any given notion of how our travels will play out.

But that, I suppose, is the mindset with which we had initially decided to approach our life on the road. Taking life as it comes. Not investing too much in a fixed idea of how the path should look.

And so we’ve made up our minds. We’ll go in June, we’ll try to plan ahead, and we’ll be ready to improvise as our raft tilts this way and that. That is, if there isn’t some even BIGGER global calamity… knock on wood.

Tips for Planning International Travel During COVID-19

  1. Be flexible. You will likely need to change your plans to accommodate the situation as it develops. In general, having an open mind and a flexible attitude is the best way to live in the moment and avoid undue disappointment.
  2. Do your homework. Check the state department website to get up to date information on travel restrictions and documentation requirements to enter. It might be more than you’re used to if you’ve traveled internationally in the past, and it is different from country to country. You might need acceptable proof of vaccination, a recent negative COVID test, and various other requirements.
  3. Gather on the ground intel. Ideally, if you can find someone you know (or a friend of a friend) in your destination, ask them if it’s a good time to come. Otherwise, try to find someone who has been in the place recently (such as a travel blog writer) and try to see what it’s like. Even if a country is legally open to travel, there may be other factors you want to consider. How is the political and economic situation? Is there unrest? Are people generally open to visitors? Are accommodations like restaurants, lodging and activities open and in good supply? What are your goals for the visit, will you be able to accomplish them? If not, does that change your mind?
  4. Keep an eye on the situation. Just because you got a good read on the situation six months, or even three months, before your trip, doesn’t mean it will stay that way. So apply tips 1 and 2 on a periodic basis. Do follow up research, and be flexible if anything significant develops that affects your plans.
  5. Don’t be discouraged. Try to make the best of life as it is now instead of waiting for it to go back to some ideal “normal”. Your life is now. If you want to travel, make it happen.

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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