Traveling isn’t dead during the current coronavirus pandemic – but it looks a lot different than it used to. I just flew from the US to the UK this week. And while it certainly isn’t as seamless and stress-free as I’m accustomed to, it was possible – and probably safe. So let’s talk about what it was like, where Americans can travel right now, what we can probably expect going forward, and why I did it.
(Please note – this is not meant as an encouragement to travel. Only you know what is a good choice for you. I encourage you to talk to medical professionals, as I did, about the risks and how to stay safe. But I wanted to tell you what it was like, in case you’re curious or considering it yourself.)
Where Can Americans Travel Right Now?
With many, many international travel restrictions in place for Americans right now, the list of places you can go with only a US passport is vanishingly small.
So narrowing down my list of destinations was pretty easy. Europe is slowly cracking the door open a tiny bit, but generally is closed to all Americans. England and Ireland allow us in as long as we agree to a 14-day quarantine, which is enforced with varying success. You can be hit with a thousand-pound fine in the UK for being caught breaking quarantine, or even arrested in Ireland.
Where We Can Go
You can also travel to Croatia, as long as you have proof of your tourist accommodations in hand and a negative COVID test result no more than 72 hours before you travel. (Good luck getting that in the testing-overwhelmed US.) And you may still need to quarantine once you arrive.
Getting there with a connection through a Schengen Zone country is no picnic – there are plenty of reports of US citizens being turned away at the airport if their flights transit through Germany, France, or Austria. But there’s hope – Helene in Between did it a few weeks ago with no issues.
And you can go to the Ukraine! A friend of mine is there now – just show proof of insurance, which you can purchase cheaply. Or Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia too.
That’s it – that’s the list. Whew.
Change is Constant
It’s not easy. But being within the EU does make it easier to move on once your quarantine is complete. A few Schengen Zone countries, like Italy and Spain, are now allowing you in if you arrive from the UK or Ireland. And France and Portugal have just updated their guidelines to allow Americans to enter with proof of a negative COVID test.
Outside of Europe, not much is open. Mexico is welcoming tourists from everywhere. Cambodia will let you in with a $3,000 deposit on arrival.
These guidelines change by the day – sometimes by the hour. I’ve been obsessively checking the IATA travel map for the most updated guidance, and then reading experiences from people in the travel-heavy Facebook groups I’m a part of. Plus checking the US embassy site in that country, as it often offers more clarity.
But travel during pandemic times is very difficult for Americans right now. And with few signs of a reprieve in our cases, I don’t anticipate it getting significantly easier anytime soon.
What Traveling Internationally Is Like Right Now
Now let’s get onto the good stuff – what the journey was actually like!
I bought my ticket on Aer Lingus from New York > Dublin > London Heathrow a week before I left. Airlines are still canceling flights regularly so I didn’t want to be stuck with a useless ticket by buying too far in advance. (Plus I’m impulsive!)
It was pricier than I’m used to, as I usually find the cheapest Norwegian Air flight and they’re not currently flying. A non-stop flight would have been about $1,400 one way – ouch. And flying out of New York instead of Boston saved about $200 too.
All told, I paid $543 for my one-way coach ticket, leaving on a Monday. There are very few international flight options these days.
An Uncomfortable Time
The travel experience itself was very long, a bit uncomfortable, and pretty safe. I took a train from Boston to New York, which was cheap. But as Amtrak is still running very few trains, I got to JFK airport about 5 hours early. Only a few shops and food options are open in the airport, and my terminal had no lounges. So I just scrolled through Twitter and downloaded episodes of Gossip Girl to watch en-route.
Mask Up, Everybody
Masks were required everywhere – on the train and the subway, in the airport, and on the plane too. People were very compliant, but there was plenty of masks worn only over the mouth or pulled down to talk. That’s the opposite of what you should do!!
I had an N95 mask though, which blocks pretty much all floating viral particles, so I felt safe with that.
Both flights were fairly empty and quite uneventful – and with so little other air traffic, they both arrived quite early. We were fed hurriedly and poorly on the plane, but the flight attendants were nice.
Getting Across Borders
The only discomfort I experienced was at immigration in Dublin. I assumed I’d be going through that at Heathrow, but I forgot that Ireland and the UK have a common border area. I got off the plane after absolutely no sleep, tired and bewildered, and was immediately pelted with questions about… money. (Do they know there’s a pandemic?!)
I had to show proof of my savings, my income, and my pre-paid accommodation in the UK. At one point I honestly thought I might not get through – Irish immigration is notoriously tough.
Out of the US and into quarantine
But I made it! Once off the plane in London, I strolled off easily without a second glance or a single question from anyone. My Passenger Locator Form wasn’t checked (I filled it out online before my flight, as required), no one would have stopped me from taking the Tube, and I almost regretted booking a car instead.
I arrived at my lovely pre-booked Airbnb to settle in for my required 14 day quarantine. And here I have been for almost a week. I get my groceries and necessities delivered, sit in the sunshine in my little back garden, and pet the numerous cats who come and go.
It’s not exciting, but most of life is not exciting right now. And at least I’m over the pond where infections are somewhat under control.
Why Did I Travel During a Pandemic?
I am sure plenty of readers (and friends, and family!) are wondering why I’ve chosen to travel now. In the midst of a global pandemic! To a foreign country! And I weighed the issues for months before I made this choice.
While the US is my home country, I don’t have an actual home there anymore. I’m a fully committed digital nomad. I do have kind family and friends who took me in for months, and actual health insurance (thanks, Massachusetts!). But I don’t have a settled home of my own. And I don’t want one in the US, to be honest. That phase of my life has passed.
Getting Stuck with No Settled Home
As the months rolled by, I started to think about what would happen if I were stuck in the US for the better part of a year. And with our ever-increasing case numbers, and the dismal Boston winters, I started feeling like if I didn’t get out now I wouldn’t get out at all.
I had been waiting for things to improve and countries to open to Americans, to no avail. So I did my research, thought carefully about the pros and cons, and made a decision.
I didn’t just jump into travel – I’ve basically resigned myself to possibly getting stuck wherever I am for an extended period of time. I’ve been pondering what my criteria is for this, and I’ve settled on places where I know people, that have handled the pandemic fairly well, and that have pretty good healthcare systems.
The UK seemed like one of the best places to travel during the pandemic for me – no language barrier, a country I’ve spent plenty of time exploring, clear instructions on quarantine rules, and plenty of access to the US and other countries too. I have plenty of friends here, I have family right over the sea in Ireland, and the infection rate here is (currently) 1/20th of the US.
Making a Mostly Informed Choice – and a Leap
So I took my chances with the information I have right now – it’s all I can do! I have tentative plans for the rest of my year – winter somewhere warm like Croatia or Portugal, meeting up with other digital nomad friends who are in the same boat as I am, and eating all the incredible British strawberries I can while they’re in season and I’m in quarantine.
I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s latest book, The Mirror and the Light, and reflecting on how these are not the only uncertain, unsettled times full of plague and political turmoil we have experienced as humans. And longing for when I can be out in the world eating a proper English breakfast, and even more for the day when I can reunite with my one true love again – Greece.
Your Pandemic International Travel Checklist
Thinking of traveling overseas right now too? I won’t offer encouragement or any guarantees – things change very fast, circumstances are different for everyone, and I am not a doctor or a lawyer.
But if you are considering heading out across the seas right now, here are the essentials that served me well on my travels:
- A really good mask – you will need to wear it everywhere when you’re in transit. It’s hard to find N95s but a good surgical mask that fits you well so you’re not constantly adjusting it is great – as long as you wear it properly.
- A face shield isn’t a bad idea if you have one.
- Plenty of hand sanitizer and wipes for your plane seat.
- Printed copies of… everything. Your accommodation information, your passport, your Passenger Locator Form, your COVID test results if applicable, and also the current entry requirements for the country you’re entering or just transiting through. Airline agents might not be up to date on the latest because of how rapidly things are changing. Have a contact number for where you’re staying in case you need to check on something, and prepare yourself to truly self-isolate for 14 days as required.
- A plan for what you’ll do in a coronavirus emergency. Do you have friends who can check on you if you get sick? Do you know how good the health system is where you’re visiting and how you can get care as a non-native? Getting travel insurance for Americans is tough right now, as the State Department has warned against non-essential travel. Can you cover costs yourself?
- A deep embrace of uncertainty. International travel restrictions change constantly. Restrictions where you are change just as fast. Be prepared to just accept it – this is the world we currently live in, and it won’t be like this forever.
We were spoiled in the past by the insane privileges of an American passport and the ease and low cost of travel. Now maybe we’ll have more empathy for people who have much less access to travel the world because of where they happen to be born – not a bad thing.