By No Vacation Required, on December 1, 2020

How to travel during COVID-19

Take it from us. There’s a way to travel during the current coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a way not to travel.

The decision to remain cautious has not been difficult for us. However, as it has for everyone, it has come at a cost. As business consultants, our work over recent years, especially, has involved traveling globally to connect with clients. While most of our work can be done virtually, we’ve enjoyed the onsite portions of projects because it also gave us a good excuse to tag on a “for fun” portion of travel. Some of our best trips in the last few years—Norway, Greece, Patagonia—have been excursions we’ve tacked on to client projects.

Thankfully, we have established relationships with many clients so have been able to transition to 95 percent virtual work. But sometimes, there’s no replacement for what needs to be done face-to-face. Despite that, after a lot of thought, we declined to get on a plane for the first six months of the pandemic.

Mandatory masks

In late September, we “tested the waters” and accepted some client meetings in Chicago. That experience enabled us to see just how different the travel landscape is from just seven months ago. Here, we’ll share what we learned and what we did to ensure we were comfortable.

Do your research.

It has always been a good idea to do some research before you travel. Being familiar with general protocols has been key to making sure you get to your destination on time and happy. Now, doing research is key to making sure you get to your destination healthy…or get to your destination at all.

Let’s start here… Before you go anywhere, it’s important to check out the most current COVID-19 information. Before our trip to Chicago, we visited the CDC’s COVID-19 information website to make sure we had a handle on current recommendations for how to best protect ourselves and others.

When it comes to traveling, it’s most important to have a clear picture of where you are based and where you are going. Here’s how we tackled that:

  1. We started at the County and City levels. We visited both the King County website—the county we live in and were departing from—and the websites for both the City of Chicago and Cook County—the county that Chicago is in—to make sure we were aware of local guidelines and/or health alerts. We were surprised to learn about quarantine guidelines for travelers coming from certain states. While we were not impacted by these quarantine guidelines, this was really serious information that could have had a major impact on our travel.
  2. We visited the websites for the airports we were traveling through. We learned about new TSA/Security protocols and airport level policies like mandatory masks in the airport and social distancing measures at security screening checkpoints.
  3. When we were ready to book our trip, we read through the helpful travel alert at the top of Expedia’s destination pages and the wealth of travel resources across the website.
  4. We reviewed the guidelines outlined on our airline’s website. We made sure we were clear on the requirements for wearing a mask on the plane. We wrapped our heads around what to expect on our flight (spoiler alert: whatever you’ve come to expect from flying, expect something different).
Alaska Airlines (currently blocking middle seats)

While much of what we learned in our pre-travel research was common sense information we were already aware of, we did learn some genuinely new, important, and helpful information. And the stuff we were already aware of, well, it was really good to resubmit that information to our brains as well.

Make smart decisions.

All our research was not just about being prepared for our trip; we were also making sure we had made the right decision to travel at all. In fact, we had planned to fly earlier in the year for a project and cancelled the trip when we learned – through traveler reports – that the airline we booked on was not honoring their “open middle seat” promise. That promise was key to our earlier decision to fly, so we pulled the plug on the whole trip. Sometimes you need to do that (and flexible travel cancellation and change policies help make that tough decision easier).

Feeling more confident this time around—thanks to our exhaustive research—we wanted to make sure that we were making smart decisions about where to stay. Once you’ve decided to travel, picking the right hotel has never been more important. Here’s what we were paying close attention to:

  1. Because we wanted to limit our time in taxis / ride shares or on public transportation, we made sure that we were staying close to the things we most wanted to experience. And we consolidated what we wanted to experience—no racing around the entire city on this trip!
  2. It was important to us that our hotel had clear COVID-19 cleanliness protocols in place. We went with a Hilton property because the brand has a very clear “Hilton CleanStay” policy that we felt was especially thorough. Little touches, like a sticker on the door of rooms that have been cleaned and disinfected, are nice indicators that the hotel is taking cleanliness seriously. Plus, we were impressed that they clearly communicated guidelines for using open hotel facilities—many hotels are unable or choosing to limit access to shared spaces—like the fitness center.
  3. What is a protocol if a hotel isn’t following through? We used real traveler reviews on Expedia to ensure that the hotel we selected was walking the talk. We were pleased to learn that we had made a smart decision, but we also read reviews of other properties that weren’t following through on their promise.
  4. We love a nice hotel room, but sometimes we plan to spend so little time in the room that we will forgo some of the perks or book a smaller room. Not this time. Knowing that we would want a nice retreat from being out and about—traveling just takes more energy now—we booked an upgraded room. Plus, we anticipated that we would be spending more time in the room than usual. And we did.
LondonHouse Hotel in Chicago, Illinois

As we said, booking the right hotel has always been an important part of the travel planning process. But the complications and complexities of traveling during the pandemic have made that decision more important than ever.

Be prepared.

If all of the above has not made it perfectly clear, we’ll drive it home. It has never been more important—like, ever—to be a travel planner. If you have been a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler before, well, that just won’t fly right now. If, like us, you were a travel planner before, it’s time to take that to an entirely new level.

Even if you were a strong planner, some things that you may have left to “figure out when you arrived” need to be considered ahead of time.

  1. We always take public transportation from O’Hare to the city. However, in a pandemic, we weren’t certain what the protocols for using the “L” are. We weren’t even certain that we could use the “L”. And once we realized we still could, we wanted to make sure we knew what the safety protocol were (number of people to train, mask mandates, etc.) Making sure you have a good plan to travel from the airport to your hotel carefully is smart.
  2. Dining out—something you have to do when you are traveling—is complicated during the pandemic. We had a plan for the places we wanted to eat—we weren’t going to leave Chicago without some serious deep dish pizza and donuts moments—but we wanted to know what to expect. Could we eat in? Would we need to order ahead?
  3. Everything is taking more time than it used to. So we planned buffer time for everything. We always have to wait in line to get our Garrett Mix. This time, we doubled the amount of time we expected that to take. We did the same for almost every experience we had on our list.
  4. We think it’s important to know what the mask mandates are wherever we travel—close to home or across the country. But even in places were masks are not broadly mandated, hotels, restaurants, stores, museums, etc. may have individual mask mandates. To be safe, we came prepared with many. You should too.

Historically, we would not be considered “chill” travelers. We’re calm, fairly laid-back guys, but when we are visiting a new place (or an old favorite, like Chicago) we want to see some stuff! That “tackle the city” vibe doesn’t work now. We recommend that you, as we did, take a very chill attitude. Expect to wait and expect to be surprised by complications. Let it all go and just be grateful you get to have this experience at all.

We’re glad we chose to go to Chicago and were happy to have a trip like this under our belt. It felt like the right time (for us) to test things out, and We kind of needed it for our mental health. But we’ll remain cautious until there is a vaccine. It is nice to know, though, that it’s possible – with plenty of research, lots of preparation, and the right attitude—you can travel comfortably during this time.

And staying healthy is the most important thing. Whenever you decide to get back out there, just be sure to keep your wellbeing—and that of others—top of mind.

Note: Since this was written, many states have re-tightened restrictions surrounding COVID-19 (including dissuading non-essential travel). Please research and follow all guidance relevant to your period of travel.

What trip are you currently researching?