With a relatively more normal summer on the horizon, I know many people are anxious to begin traveling again. (I’m one of them.) We’ve taken three trips with a fourth one on the horizon, and I’ve had countless opportunities to connect with people in tourism over the last year. Due to conflicting (and downright bad) information, I wanted to put together a few travel tips for your consideration as we restart travel in the upcoming months.
Everyone has different reasons to travel, and I think it’s something that you really need to be cognizant of and think about before you book a trip, especially right now. We travel for history, culture, food, and to celebrate holidays and special occasions. If you’re hoping that everything will be the same as it was pre-2020, you will be disappointed. Travel has changed, but I think it’s changed in some amazing ways that allow you to dig in and connect with people in more meaningful ways. Don’t shy away from that.
Please recognize that you need to be patient, be respectful, and be flexible. Remember – everyone is wading through the new normal together. The people who wrote the regulations aren’t the ones carrying them out. As frustrating as you may find things, there’s no reason to take it out on those trying to help you get where you are going.
We have approached the current travel situation with a completely open mind. What does that mean? It means that we had no expectations of where we wanted to go. We went with who was open and who was safely welcoming travelers. Fortunately for us, one of our favorite places (Italy) was one of the first places to open for the summer. If it had been Germany or France, we would have headed there.
When we couldn’t figure out if capacity was reduced on the trains or if we needed antigen tests to use the trains, we rented a car for the entire duration of our stay. This allowed us to get off the beaten path and spend time in smaller town (which we love), but it also made public transportation more available for the local population that may rely on it more.
A couple days before our three week trip to Italy, American called and told me that British Airways had cancelled all flights to and from Italy. While the agent and I were both looking for replacement flights, I found the flight that worked better for us and asked for help to rebook. They agreed, and we ended up with a direct flight from Rome to Dallas, though it left a day later than we originally planned. From there, I re-adjusted our itinerary.
If you’re going to travel right now, you need to be flexible. If you’re trying to knock out a bucket list of places or things to see, this is not the time to do that. You’ll need a fair amount of advance planning to take advantage of museums and popular sights. It’s completely worth it if you’re willing to put in a little extra work though.
Print All Travel Documents Out
Recently, I saw a travel blogger complaining that she wasn’t able to enter a country that isn’t open to US tourists. The US Embassy clearly states that it is not open to tourism from US citizens. Period. Just because you can enter a neighboring country doesn’t mean that the land borders are open to you. Just because a neighboring country’s citizens can cross the border doesn’t mean they are open to everyone. What bothered me the most about this situation was the blogger’s lack of personal responsibility. She blamed everyone besides herself – the person who is responsible for knowing the rules of the places she is entering as a guest.
I know we’re all used to being digital travelers with everything stored in our phones. This is not the time to do that. You’ll want to print the most updated regulations from the state or the US Embassy for the country you’re visiting. Highlight the things you need to have available for the airlines, customs, hotels, and possibly even tour operators. Make sure you have all of those things. Don’t expect to be able to wing it.
On one of our trips, the airline thought we were missing one form when we checked in for our flight. It was a simple passenger locator form, and I knew that we would receive it on our connecting flight. The first airline insisted that we have it before we boarded. And unfortunately, they could not print the form for us. I ran over to the airport Hyatt and paid to print it out. We were lucky that we had enough time to do that and that DFW had an airport hotel in our terminal. It’s better to be overprepared than denied boarding. We are choosing to arrive 3+ hours before international flights to give ourselves time to get through the paperwork and security. In all cases, we’ve had plenty of time to get through any hiccoughs and enjoy the airport lounges.
I keep everything organized in a 5-tab folder sorted by travel documents, airline reservations, hotel reservations, tour reservations, and miscellaneous items. It fits into a velcro pouch and I can easily slip it and out of my carry-on bag. It makes everything from check-in to passport control so much easier. I’ve used it for 12 years, it’s that good of a system.
Stay Up to Date with Travel Changes
Check your destination regulations daily. Things are changing frequently. Don’t expect everyone you encounter to be completely up to date. It’s your responsibility to be up to date. If you have everything printed out (along with the reputable source), it’s easier to get people up to speed. While most of our travel has been pretty smooth, we have hit some snags with people who did not have updated information. In each of those cases, a heavy dose of patience, along with all the required documents, was required to facilitate our travel. (Tom was shocked by how arcane and archaic the airline computer system is on the back end.)
Airline tools can be really helpful with this, though they aren’t always up to date. You’ll want to make sure that you’re using multiple, credible sources so that you have everything you need. Whether that’s a digital passenger locator form (dPLF) for Italy or an Health and Safety (HES) code for Turkey, each country is taking the steps they need to in order to keep their citizens safe. Having all of this ready to go will facilitate a smooth trip and ensure that you don’t spend your valuable vacation time filling out mandatory forms.
Example: Right before we left for Italy, the testing requirement changed. You didn’t just need a PCR test. You could have a PCR-RT. When we presented our test at check-in for the COVID-free flight at JFK, they weren’t sure if they would be able to accept it. We showed them the testing information from the Italian Embassy, as well as the US Embassy, and one of their co-workers reminded them of the rule change, which had happened in the last 36 hours.
Book Tours & Local Tour Guides
The tourism sector has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Many tour guides are contractors, which may or may not make them eligible for some of the protection programs that were implemented in the last year. We really enjoy tours when we travel and it’s become an even bigger part of our plan to restart travel. It allows us to engage and support the local economy and support the rebuilding of such.
Our experiences have been made so much more meaningful by learning more about the places we visit. We’ve now traveled to some places enough time to experience parts of them on our own, with an audioguide, and with an actual tour guide. In every single case, our tour guide has provided a more memorable experience because we’ve been able to have deeper conversations. Whether it is history or art, religious or culinary, tours are essential to getting past the surface of a place. I like to think of travel as a way to peel back the layers of an onion. The more people we meet, the more conversations we have, the better we understand our world – from historical events to present day challenges.
Some of my most memorable moments with tour guides were in 2016. We visited Budapest in April and December of that year. In April, we were talking about the US elections, the perspective from abroad, and of course, our own hubris in what we expected to happen. When we went back in December, we had the same guide (who did remember us) and we had a longer conversation about what had transpired the previous month in the election. I am waiting for the day that we can go back and talk to him about where we are now.
On our Italy trip in June 2021, we had a lot of conversations about vaccine equity, rollout, and of course, the realities of what has transpired across the world for the last 16 months. These conversations have been enlightening in so many ways. The stories that we consume from whatever news source we engage with are never the whole story. I think it’s important to recognize that. It is too easy for our news sources to compare the US to any other country and say that others came up short. What I’ve never heard from the news, however, is the reason why or how things are being handled (or mishandled). There are also a lot of countries whose experiences are being ignored. That’s a perspective that a local can share.
Why are those conversations important? Because we’re all humans and what we do as a collective affects others. If we say that we travel to better understand our world, we must engage with the humans of this world. It’s more than just pretty photos.
Book Hotels Directly
Most of the time, booking directly with hotels will give you the best available rate. When you use a travel aggregator, they may charge the property 10% or more. That’s a lot of money to give up, but especially when you’re not fully booked. Always check the hotel website and consider booking direct. In many cases, we found that booking directly provided us a few more benefits, too.
We focused primarily on small boutique hotels for our last two trips. While it’s no secret that I love the luxury of places like the Park Hyatt in Paris and the St. Regis in Florence, we’ve had some lovely stays at places like Hotel Stari Grad in Dubrovnik, Suites 051 in Bologna, and Palazzo Gozzi in Parma. (Don’t worry, I’ll be writing about all of those stays in due course, starting with this guide to Emilia Romagna and this Cortona travel guide.)
These small boutique hotels have an eager and friendly staff that is always happy to share local recommendations, explain more about the history of a place, and ensure that you have a memorable stay. They have made many adjustments to be compliant with new health and safety regulations, and in many cases, I feel like they did a better job than the larger chain hotels. We’re already planning on booking some of them on our family Thanksgiving trip to Italy because of the incredible service that we received.
While Tom and I love checking out local grocery stores, we made a focus on supporting local markets and small shops on our recent trips. The result? We enjoyed much better food during our trip. It also helped us do a better job of eating within the region because we were hyper-focused on local products. We made so many more delicious discoveries than usual on this trip, which allowed us to bring more tasty souvenirs home.
Example: We headed to Salumeria Garibaldi to try the different types of meats and cheeses specific to Parma. While there, we realized that we loved Culatello, which isn’t something we can find at the grocery store. We bought several vacuum-sealed packages of it to enjoy for the rest of our trip, which provided an easy dinner when we didn’t want to go out. We also bought several ages of parmesan cheese to bring back to the United States to do tastings with our family and friends. We did the same in Modena with balsamic vinegar.
The same can be said about purchasing clothing, art, or other souvenirs. While I’ve been known to try and find a headband that Kate Middleton wore at Zara in Italy, I think that souvenirs from a place are so much more meaningful. Seek out those independent shops that can sell the best version of something, rather than something is mass produced. While you might not always know, the experience of finding that perfect thing can be equally as memorable, rather than shopping in a place that looks exactly like its counterpart back at home. Our memories of carpet shopping in Istanbul still bring so much joy, even if I think the carpet we fell in love with is from China. We didn’t buy it though sometimes I still think we should have. It WAS really beautiful.
Follow Local Regulations to Restart Travel Safely
This feels like a no-brainer, but it’s not. Everywhere you go will likely have their own local regulations and restrictions. Some cities still have mask mandates. Some places require reservations for everything from restaurants to museums. Others will ask you to provide contact information for contact tracing. Whatever you’re asked to do, do it respectfully. Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you are still a guest in other places.
Some places we visited had a local curfew in place. While this didn’t always apply to tourists, we abided by it anyway. One, who wants to be out with a bunch of tourists and no locals? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of travel? Two, it just felt like the right thing to do. It also helped us to slow down and enjoy parts of our trip that we may have overlooked. One of our hotels offered igloo dining pods on the waterfront. We enjoyed cocktails and dinner out there every night, since hotel restaurants to guests past the curfew. It ended up being a magical way to spend the evening.
If you are traveling abroad, it is important to realize that the vaccine situation in other countries is very different than what we had access to in the United States. Some countries are just starting to catch up with everyone being eligible for their first shot. I’ve found that hotels and tour guides are generally pretty transparent on what the expectation is or what they are comfortable with when hosting guests. I know some guides that are getting testing between every tour group because they are not fully vaccinated yet. Some tours require all guests to show proof of vaccination. Respect these choices.
The quickest way to destroy goodwill and close down travel is to ignore the restrictions that are in place. While we may not agree with all of them, I think we can all agree that the effects of all of this on individuals has been devastating and further lockdown will be incredibly difficult for individuals and small businesses to sustain. It’s truly a privilege to have been unaffected financially by all the events of the last 16 months. Don’t ruin it for everyone by being a jerk. I cannot underscore how important it is be respectful of local guidelines and regulations – both at home and abroad.