How the pandemic has changed the way I plan trips
After a tough couple of years, it really is starting to look more positive for travel. By making such a statement I hope I haven’t jinxed my upcoming trips, but my inbox is now full of optimistic predictions which have replaced desperate pleas imploring me to “dream now, book later”. I’ve travelled as much as I can internationally since March 2020. At times, that was anxiety-inducing. Would governments hold their nerve and keep the borders open? Would I test positive and throw the whole trip off? Would it feel safe and sensible to travel at all? To keep travelling, I’ve had to change the way I plan trips. If you’re still a little unsure about whether to take the plunge again, here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
Embrace independent travel
COVID is the viral equivalent of a shapeshifter and has been a constant headache for my travel plans. Back when I was a teacher tied to school holidays, I would think nothing of booking a scheduled flight 11 months ahead of departure to lock in a decent price. Now, I think that would be foolish, partly because flight schedules are changing so frequently and partly because it only takes one vaccine-resistant variant to throw the whole world into disarray. You only have to look at government actions regarding Omicron to see this in action. But I’ve never been a big fan of package tours. They often unfairly penalise solos and regardless, I prefer to be the one in charge of my travel decision-making. So how does that affect me as an independent traveller? Short answer: not much. In fact, being able to decide whether it feels right to travel without having to convince anyone else is a bonus right now.
Ditch the idea of planning too far in advance
How far in advance is too far? I guess the answer to that one is, How long is a piece of string? In summer 2020, I had an Iceland trip all ready to go and then regulations changed. To avoid a five day quarantine, I ended up bringing the trip forward by a month and replanning everything in the space of a day and a half. At one point during that fraught weekend, I wondered if I should go at all. I did and it was one of the best holidays I have ever had. Empty roads, cheap accommodation and those incredible landscapes almost to myself in such gloriously sunny weather I wondered whether this could be Iceland at all. That was the first post-pandemic trip I made, and it felt like a weight had been lifted.
Accept that things might change
Since then, in addition to some remarkable trips within the UK, I’ve flown out to Madeira, Iceland again, Germany and Austria, Menorca, Sweden and the USA a week after it finally reopened its borders to leisure travellers. Right now, I have international bookings lined up for the USA in March and France in April. I’m looking at adding the Azores and Uzbekistan to that list for later in the year. On my bookshelf are guidebooks to Rwanda, Madagascar and Benin ready for some point in the future. But things change. Pre-pandemic, I thrived on visiting off the beaten track places in unusual destinations. I miss that, but if I’m honest, I’m still unsure about travelling to parts of the world where healthcare provision is patchy and where access can be a challenge. I don’t want to get stranded somewhere. Actually, I don’t want to get stranded anywhere.
Check the regulations with a reliable source
Even though I’m now sufficiently convinced that booking a month or two in advance isn’t a big risk to my finances, there are still a few considerations that are influencing my choice of destination. I’m happy to test in advance. I figure if the result is positive, that still leaves me time to cancel or preferably reschedule my bookings and I’m unlikely to be out of pocket. Testing on arrival, which to be fair I was OK with on that first trip to Iceland, now seems risky, given how much more spreadable variants such as Delta and Omicron proved to be. I’m fully vaccinated and boostered, but though that’s likely to prevent me becoming seriously ill, I can still catch it. I don’t want to test positive the minute I step off the plane and risk that massive disappointment. Similarly, nowadays, anywhere with a quarantine in place is a no for me, for example, as that might imply high case numbers. I use the FCDO’s travel advice pages in conjunction with other official government sites and tourist board socials to get as full a picture as I can of the current situation before settling on a destination.
Keep flights flexible
I’ve always planned trips to be flexible to some degree, but that’s even more the case now. I’ve tried to choose flights with airlines that permit date changes. Over the past couple of years that’s been BA, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic but policies change so double check the small print if you plan to fly with them. Ryanair didn’t offer the same flexibility when it came to planning my Stockholm trip last December but they were so much cheaper and more convenient than other airlines I figured I’d risk it and write off the cost of the flight if I had to. I didn’t, by the way, and the trip went off as planned. Another thing I’m trying to do at the moment is stick to direct flights, which reduces the chance of something changing at the layover destination and preventing inward or onward travel.
Make the most of free cancellation policies
I often use booking.com to source accommodation – just a personal preference rather than a travel writer perk – and they offer to book on a free cancellation basis which has been a real help. You do need to check the dates, however. Some properties offer free cancellation as late as 6pm on the day of arrival whereas others require you to lock in your reservation as much as a week or more in advance – which might be fine for a hotel you’re planning to use later in the trip but not the one you plan to stay in when you first arrive. Where possible, if I have to cancel, I do so as far in advance as I can; more often, I try to move the reservation to alternative dates. I mark crucial dates in my diary, usually a reminder 24 hours before the cancellation might need to be made and double check the situation once more before embarking on the trip.
Manage your risk
Travel insurance has never been more necessary, I’d argue, but read the policy document carefully to see exactly what you are covered for. It’s wise to have decent medical cover and provision for unforeseen expenses should you need to stay longer than planned. Take a close look at those exclusions for cancellations to see if COVID is one of them. You don’t really know if an insurance provider is any good until you need to make a claim, but it’s worth reading their reviews and ratings to see if they help you make a decision on which to use.
Everyone’s different and for some people, it’s still to early to consider travelling beyond their own border. I respect that, though it’s not for me. As visitor numbers haven’t yet fully recovered to 2019 levels, it’s still a great time to see the world, especially those places that typically have attracted large numbers of tourists. Wherever 2022 takes you, happy travels and follow your dreams.