What It’s Like Traveling Internationally During COVID-19

December 17, 2020

I’m going to be honest, I had no idea what to expect when traveling internationally during COVID-19. Would flights be empty? Would people wear masks? What about social distancing? With so many questions running through my head, I turned to friends that recently returned from trips and to Google. But alas, nothing could prepare me for my own travel experience. It’s like asking someone to tell you what love feels like: it’s different for everyone!

I recently had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica, you can read about that in the blog post here. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly and a number of factors came into play. Ultimately I decided: traveling internationally during a pandemic was within my comfort zone and something I knew I could do safely. Below I discuss recommendations for traveling safely and a bit of what you can expect traveling internationally during a pandemic.

Every country’s entry requirements are different

Because I visited Costa Rica, my experience will likely be different than yours (again read that blog post here). That said, researching is the easiest way for you to become knowledgeable on COVID-19 procedures in the country you plan to visit. A quick Google search of “destination name + COVID-19” will provide you with plenty of resources.

Another great resource is The Department of State Travel. Through this link you can also find the travel advisories for the destination you wish to visit.

Just before I visited Costa Rica they changed the requirements to enter. Passengers entering from the United States no longer needed a negative COVID test to enter. The requirements were: travel insurance that would COVID care and stay and once I had the policy number, I filled out the country’s “Health Pass.” All of which needed to be completed before boarding.

Other resources

The Center for Disease Control

The CDC’s Guidelines for Prevention

The World Health Organization

Remember, every country’s policies are different and it is important to be fully aware and educated on the country you will be visiting. Organize all of the necessary documents in a way that makes them easy to access when going through customs and security so you can breeze through. For this trip, I took screenshots of all of the necessary documents and add them to their own album in my photos.

Research the destination you want to visit

This kind of goes hand in hand with the previous point, but RESEARCH! Because every country’s requirements are different to enter, every experience will be different! Aside from researching through Google and using the resources outlined above, I searched the location tag on Instagram and DM’ed people that recently posted photos from the resort I would be staying at. Talking to an actual person who shared a similar experience I would be having was comforting.

Some questions to consider asking:

  • How was the country overall in terms of masks, social distancing, and cleanliness?
  • Did you feel that social distancing was encouraged?
  • What was the day trip like? (if applicable- was not for me because I stayed on property the entire time)
  • Did you feel safe?
  • What was the country’s/resorts strong pain point? What was their strong suit? Where could they improve?

I found that the people I was messaging with were very forthcoming with the information and happy to share their experience!

Some travelers still don’t know what it means to social distance, avoid them

Blows my mind but they’re out there! I’m talking about the people that disregard the dots on the floor designating them where to stand. About the people that stand immediately when the seatbelt sign turns off even though the flight attendant said “we will be deplaning by rows so please remain seated until your row is called.” About the people that simply have no understanding of personal space!

If you find yourself in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable- leave the situation. If you’re in flight and the person next to you isn’t listening to the policies, ask the flight attendant to move.

I was so impressed with the way Costa Rica handled social distancing. There were sinks in the bathrooms blocked off, seats in the terminal blocked off to ensure a 6 foot distance from other passengers, airport employees guiding passengers through customs ensuring social distancing from other passengers in line- the good ol’ U S of A could REALLY take notes. Not once in an American airport have I seen any of this- I’ve been in 6 since the start of the pandemic.

Airlines require passengers to wear their masks unless eating or drinking and only some airlines have blocked the middle seat

This doesn’t need much explanation but, during my United flight to and from Costa Rica, the flight attendants made several announcements reminding passengers to leave their masks on unless they were eating or drinking. As the TSA announcements in airports say: if you see something, say something.

On my flight down to Costa Rica, it felt like business as usual. United Airlines has not capped capacity or blocked off the middle seats on any of their flights. In fact, my flight to Costa Rica was completely full. Some airlines have chosen to cap capacity. For example, Delta has blocked the middle seats through March 20, 2021 and Southwest blocked their middle seats for a few months as well (that ended December 1, 2020).

All in all, I felt very comfortable during my United flight experience, even on the completely packed flight when traveling internationally during COVID-19. The combination of masks, flight attendants attentiveness, and understanding the cleaning and filtration protocols (below) gave me peace of mind. That’s not to say a blocked off middle seat wouldn’t have made it better! (because it would have).

Advance cleaning and filtration protocols

Airplanes are deep cleaned between each flight and several airlines have announced their advanced cleaning procedures. Here are a few:

American Airlines: Clean Commitment

Delta: Delta CareStandard

United: CleanPlus

Southwest: The Southwest Promise

In addition to that, the Department of Defense recently finished a study conducted on a United Airlines aircraft. The study found that the risk of breathing in a COVID-19 pathogen on a full-flight is 0.003%- contingent that every passenger was wearing a mask. You can read more here.

Another study conducted by the International Air Transport Association found that of 1.2 billion people that flew between January of 2019 through July 2020, only 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were caught in-flight. More on the IATA study can be found here and another article here.

HEPA seems to be the buzzword as of late. Prior to COVID-19 there was a certain level of air quality an aircraft must maintain regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. This stands true through COVID-19. HEPA filters are High Efficiency Particulate Air Filters, hence the abbreviation, HEPA. The CDC states that HEPA filters capture 99.9% of particles INCLUDING bacteria, fungi and ‘virus clumps’ and filters cabin air 20-30 times per hour. Nearly every commercial airline in the U.S. uses some sort of HEPA filter in order to maintain good air quality in the cabin- and has long before COVID-19. We’re just hearing about their importance now because, well… we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

Global Entry + TSA PreCheck are still seamless

One of the biggest pain points of travel: the touch points encountered during a travel day. I’ve had Global Entry and TSA PreCheck since I started traveling but now I am especially grateful for it. The use of both really helps mitigates interaction with other people and minimizes the surfaces you touch when in the airport.

I used Global Entry when entering back into the country from Costa Rica in December 2020. The line was nonexistent, the machine did not scan my fingerprints and it was a very quick process. For reference, there were six people in the Global Entry line compared to the 70+ that were in the normal customs line (not social distancing might I add). You can learn more about Global Entry here.

TSA PreCheck gives passengers a known traveler number that can be applied to their ticket. This number allows you to expedite the security process when in the U.S. With TSA PreCheck I don’t need to take off my shoes, take out my laptop and I can leave my liquids in their pouch! And, instead of going through the scanner, TSA PreCheck passengers go through a metal detector. So, time spent in the security line is minimal. You can learn more about TSA PreCheck here.

Another option I’ve heard about is Clear. It is a touchless identification system that scans your eyes and replaces the need for an I.D. I’ve never used Clear but you can learn more about Clear here.

Going through security using TSA PreCheck and re-entering the country with Global Entry were a breeze. However, I would have liked to of seen more hand sanitizer stations and alcohol wipes available.

Pack your own water bottle, snacks, extra masks and hand sanitizer

On that note, to minimize touch points, bring your own water bottle, snacks and hand sanitizer. You’ll no longer need to go into a store once you’re passed security; instead refill your water bottle at a touchless refill station and enjoy your own snacks at a socially distanced seat away from passengers. Don’t forget to sanitize and wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. Also packing extra masks is essential! That way you always have a fresh one. For example, once I arrived at the hotel, I washed my “airplane mask” (which is just the mask I reserve for my travel days) and let it air dry. While I was in country, I had three others I could use and when I left I wore my clean “airplane mask.”

Some countries don’t require a negative COVID-19 test for entry

Some countries require a negative COVID-19 test prior to entry, some don’t. A month before visiting Costa Rica the country lifted its entry requirement of showing proof of a negative test. As uncomfortable as they are: they are necessary to travel, in my opinion. That’s because, even if you are not displaying any symptoms of the virus, you can still be a carrier. With that in mind, I opted to get tested before and after my trip simply out of respect and safety. It gave me confidence and peace of mind during my travel day and while I was in country. It’s all about what is within our power when stopping the spread.

There is travel insurance that will cover the cost IF you get COVID-19 in country

A requirement to enter Costa Rica was proof of insurance. Insurance that would cover the cost of any care needed if I contracted COVID-19 while in country; I quickly learned all insurances are not created equally. Chances are, if the country you want to visit requires insurance, they have a national insurance provider that covers all the bases. Costa Rica was very forthcoming with the policy requirements so to avoid jumping through hoops I opted for one of the two national insurance options. It was a big exhale to have this coverage in a foreign country and to know I would be safe and cared for, no matter what.

Have a contingency plan

2020 has been unpredictable (as unpredictable as the 2014 Presidential election ;)) and if I’ve learned one thing it’s to have a backup plan and be willing to pivot! Things change on a daily basis so be willing to change your plans/destination, postpone your trip or cancel it altogether. Especially when traveling internationally during COVID-19. Most airlines and hotels are very flexible with their change policies now so become well versed in those so there aren’t any surprises down the road. Luckily, my trip to Costa Rica went off without a hitch.

Traveling internationally during COVID-19

There are so many countries around the world whose economies rely heavily on the tourism industry, Costa Rica being one of them. The detriment cause globally is unfathomable yet so, so real and obvious. And the longer this continues the greater detriment the countries we’ve come to love are up against. You can read more about the global effect that COVID-19 has had on the tourism industry here.

The pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon- as much as we hope to wake up one day to see it just vanished overnight, we know that won’t happen. During my international trip to Costa Rica I used the CDC’s suggestions and protocols and followed the tips outlined in this Women & the Wilderness podcast episode, the entire time. Know that traveling safely is possible, with the practices outlined in the links above, and we must be respectful of the local people and of the countries we choose to visit.