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Ready to see the world again? Planning a trip is exciting and, these days, a little complicated. CR shares this guide to smarter, safer travel.
After two-plus years of stay-at-home orders and endless Zoom calls, Americans apparently can’t wait to get out of Dodge. More than 87 percent currently have travel plans, with nearly 30 percent planning to travel outside the U.S., according to a recent survey from market research firm Destination Analysts.
“Consumer confidence is high, and there is strong pent-up demand,” says Peter Vlitas, executive vice president of partner relations at the Internova Travel Group, a travel services company. Also spurring this wanderlust is the recent easing of COVID-19 restrictions: As of mid-June, it was becoming increasingly possible to travel internationally without having to worry about requirements such as predeparture testing. That appears to be blunting the negative impact from a rise in prices for air and road travel.
With more destinations opening up, for many the biggest travel decision has evolved from “Where can I go?” to “Where should I go first?” Here’s how to make that exciting decision—and how to plan the hassle-free, COVID-smart, completely amazing vacation you’ve been putting off for so long.
Find Your Dream Destination
Jazz and jambalaya in New Orleans. Whale watching in Maine. Grizzlies and glaciers in Alaska. If you don’t want the effort of international travel, you can slake your travel thirst right here in the U.S. And just outside the borders, you’ll find Aztec ruins, mountain lakes, and white-sand beaches in Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean.
And then there’s Europe—or beyond. Whether you’re dreaming of seeing the Vatican or river-cruising down the Nile, your options range far wider than they have for the past two years.
To find out which countries are open to U.S. travelers, check the State Department’s website. One caveat: Ever-changing COVID- 19 regulations mean this is probably not the time for destination-hopping. Save yourself some stress and put off the multicountry tour for another year.
Know Before You Go
Two U.S. government sites rank foreign countries by risk: The State Department issues travel advisories ranging from Exercise Normal Precautions to Do Not Travel, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues recommendations. Wherever you go, travel with proof of vaccination and COVID-19 test results (if necessary). Download any apps your destination country uses for uploading documents and contact tracing.
Get Expert Help
Even if you’ve been booking by yourself online, the complexity of pandemic travel can make a travel agent (aka travel adviser) invaluable, says Erika Richter, spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Advisors. For a price—that might start at under $100 and go up based on the specifics and complexity of the trip, according to Richter—your agent will do the planning and booking, and offer support during the entire trip.
These days, it’s smart to turn to “destination specialists,” agents who have deep knowledge of the location you’re heading to. They’ll know which hotels, restaurants, and tours previous clients loved (or hated) and set up bespoke experiences—a private tour of a French château, an after-hours museum visit, or an intimate dinner hosted by a local chef. Find a travel adviser using the locator provided by the ASTA. Travel expert Wendy Perrin offers a curated list of destination experts on her Wow List.
You can always book your own trip, but researching online can be a time suck. If it’s a simple point-to-point jaunt—say, a weekend in Vegas or a week at Disney—booking through a site like Expedia or directly with the airline or hotel should be perfectly fine. You could also use the budget-friendly services of BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, or Sam’s Club if you’re a member.
Consider a Tour
The beauty of a prearranged tour is that once you’ve chosen and paid for the trip, all you have to do is show up and enjoy it. The tour operators handle all the arrangements: transportation, hotels, meals, sights, and more.
Your options can include group tours, such as the Adventures Abroad eight-day tour of Portugal in a group of up to 18 (from $2,242 per person, plus airfare) and private tours with personalized itineraries, like Kensington Tours’ eight-day trip through Norway and the fjords (starting at $5,880 per person, plus airfare). The extra cost of the latter gets you an experience tailored to your interests, and (at Kensington, at least) your choice of travel dates—plus, you won’t be grouped with strangers.
Most tours require prepayment in full, with cancellation penalties, so do your research before paying up. A travel agent can help with booking the tour and by vouching for the operator’s reputation. It’s a good idea to book with a tour company that is a member of the United States Tour Operators Association, says Diana Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel in Larchmont, N.Y. And ask these questions.
• Is the departure date guaranteed? Advertised departure dates can change. Some companies promise to honor a tour even if only a few people sign up; others may switch dates or consolidate departures.
• How active is it? There’s a tour for every fitness level and interest. Even sporty trips have a lot of variety: Backroads offers both a challenging four-day bike trip through Aspen’s glacial valleys and an “easygoing” e-bike tour of Washington’s Whidbey, Orcas, and San Juan islands, for example. You can use the activity level filter if you’re browsing tours on an operator’s website.
• Can you go solo? Almost all tours and cruises add a single surcharge, typically 20 percent or more, above the per-person, double-occupancy price. Some small group tours—Road Scholar’s Rejuvenation Retreat for Women in Soquel, Calif., is one—are designed for solo travelers.
Most cruise lines require negative COVID-19 tests before boarding—and during the voyage. To see a color status dashboard that profiles ships by vaccination rates and reported cases, check the CDC’s cruise ship guidance.
Smaller ships, such as those used for the riverboat cruises offered through operators like Avalon Waterways and Viking, can be safer than those with 2,000-plus passengers, Hechler says. The trade-off for potentially reduced COVID-19 exposure is price: Large cruises can offer lower rates based on their economies of scale. A Viking eight-day Châteaux, Rivers & Wine float through France (from $2,499, plus airfare) may have at most 190 passengers—but you won’t find a swimming pool onboard; a six-day tour of the Eastern Caribbean from Miami aboard the 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit (from $905 for two, plus airfare), offers multiple eateries, pools, a spa, and even a mini-golf course.
Make the Trip Accessible
Just because you’re not able to climb the Alps doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love to marvel at their beauty in person, right? You can, with the know-how of a travel adviser or tour operator that caters to the needs of older adults or those with mobility issues or other special needs. The ASTA’s TravelSense.org can help here, too. To find an adviser, click the button at the top right, then choose “Senior/Mature Adult” or “Accessible/Special Needs” under the “Choose Your Journey Type” drop-down menu. Many tour operators offer accessible packages, including Adventures Abroad, Easy Access Travel, ElderTreks, Road Scholar, Senior Cycling, Travel For All, and Wheel the World.
Pick the Right Flights
Given the uncertainty of pandemic travel, it may be worth paying more for fully refundable tickets. (Airlines might not allow changes on basic economy tickets at all.) And know that baggage and seat selection fees (around $30 one way) can also drive up the price of “bargain” economy tickets.
Reduce travel-day stress by booking early departures (delays tend to cascade as the day wears on) and nonstop flights—or allowing plenty of time between connections. And download the airline’s app, so you can check in early for your flight, receive change alerts, and track checked bags.
Photo: Anya Berkut/Getty Images Photo: Anya Berkut/Getty Images
Prebook Airport Transfers
You can, of course, drive your car to your home airport and park for the duration of the trip—but if you factor in the driving time, the stress of sitting in traffic and the fact that most airport parking is miles away from the terminal, it might not be worth the money you save. In many areas you will find a range of shuttle vans or private cars to and from the airport. If you are landing in a foreign airport, you can often book a ride in advance and pay in U.S. dollars. At many major international airports, you can save money ($50 or more per person) by taking an airport bus to a downtown city depot, where you can catch a cab or other local transportation to your final stop.
Check In Faster
Long lines are back at airport security and customs checkpoints, but you can avoid the queue. Enroll in the Department of Homeland Security’s TSA PreCheck program, the express lane service for vetted travelers at U.S. airports, or the more comprehensive Global Entry, which gets you through immigration and customs in minutes. TSA PreCheck costs $85 for five years; Global Entry costs $100 and includes TSA PreCheck membership, also for five years. New members can apply by filling out a form and arranging an in-person interview; often at an international airport or, for TSA PreCheck, at Staples and IdentoGo locations around the country.
Clear, a private-sector benefit using biometric identifiers, such as facial scans, has opened lanes at 43 U.S. airports, where users cut to the head of the line at security checkpoints; membership costs $189 a year (or less if you’re a member of Delta or United’s frequent flyer program or have an American Express Platinum card).
Ease Airport Time
At some airports—Denver and Dallas Fort Worth, for example—getting from curb to gate involves a lengthy trek. Even with moving walkways you’ll be logging a lot of steps. You don’t have to have serious mobility issues to request in-airport assistance, such as a ride on a cart or in a wheelchair. Most airlines will let you arrange this free of charge during the booking process.
You can also arrange for a private airport concierge at certain airports. The services these companies provide vary, as do the prices. Global Airport Concierge, for example, offers 13 types of services at over 700 airports worldwide, including Meet and Assist for $75 and lounge facilitation for $35, as well as baggage handling and more.
Layover between flights? You could spend it vying for a cramped seat at your next gate and craning your neck at the departures board every few minutes—or if you’re flying on American Airlines or one of the company’s partner airlines, you could relax in style at an American Airlines Admirals Club. There, you’ll find made-to-order scrambled eggs at breakfast and a slider bar at lunch (as well as other food, wine, and drinks), free digital newspapers and magazines, shower suites, and a personal travel concierge to help you if your plans hit a snafu. Other airline lounges—for Air France, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, and others—offer similar perks, or better. And you won’t necessarily need a business-class ticket to gain entry.
Some airline clubs may let you purchase a day pass for around $60; ask your airline about the price. Or book a day pass, $40 to $45, at a Centurion Lounge (run by American Express at 40-plus locations worldwide). Another option is an annual membership in Priority Pass, a network of more than 1,300 clubs at airports around the world (from $99 per year, plus daily pass fees). Travel credit cards such as the American Express Platinum, Capital One Venture X, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and some airline credit cards also offer access to airport lounges.
Yes—if your journey will cost you more than you can afford to lose. But there’s no one-size-fits-all travel insurance policy. Options range from à la carte protection—flight protection or medical-only coverage, for example—to comprehensive plans that will cover a wide range of issues. Premiums range from 4 to 10 percent of the total trip tab, so that $5,000 trip could cost you as much as $500 to insure, says Stan Sandberg, co-founder and co-CEO of the comparison site TravelInsurance.com.
If you get COVID-19 before traveling, you should be covered if you have to postpone or cancel, and under some policies, a positive COVID-19 test (both test and diagnosis must be confirmed by a doctor) is accepted as proof of illness even if you’re symptom-free. If you test positive while traveling, trip interruption coverage will reimburse you for your unused prepaid costs, and trip delay coverage will cover additional expenses, including hotels and meals (with limits), if you must quarantine.
For other pandemic-related reasons, such as a country suddenly closing its borders, you’re not covered unless you buy a “cancel for any reason” policy. These typically cost 40 to 60 percent more than standard plans and may cover only up to 75 percent of your total expenses.
Aggregators like Insure My Trip, Squaremouth, and TravelInsurance.com can help you compare dozens of policies based on search parameters. Take advantage of the typical 10- to 14-day “free look” window for backing out of a contract to check the fine print. Look out for excluded reasons for canceling that deny coverage, such as preexisting medical conditions, or war or civil unrest at your destination.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
I write about airlines, hotels, and other topics related to travel and personal finance. My mission: to help you stretch your travel dollars and to get from point A to point B with a minimum of stress. Travel is my passion, so when I’m not writing about it, I’m probably at an airport or on an airplane somewhere. Follow me on Twitter (@Petersonb)
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