If “Hotel California” were a year, 2020 was it – like the song says, you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. At least that’s how it feels, especially for travelers like you who would rather be anywhere but home. Nowadays, with vaccines in distribution and good news slowly but surely cycling in, you’re all ready to leave COVID-19, your couch, and the homebound specter of 2020 behind.
Of course, just because it’s now 2021 and the world is sick of the coronavirus, it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.
You don’t have to stay home, but it does mean you have to travel responsibly. To help travelers see more of their destination and less of the business end of a Q-tip, here’s a look at destinations that are safe for Americans and accepting visitors.
Rules to Travel Responsibly
Before you hop on a flight, you need to be prepared.
While the world is no longer on standstill as it was in March 2020, COVID-19 remains an active public health threat. Traveling is a little more complicated than it used to be. You need to think about your safety, and that means extensive preparations in advance of your trip.
Research Travel Restrictions
Chances are, you’ve already asked yourself some key questions: Is it safe to travel? Do I need proof of a negative COVID-19 test result? Do I need a COVID test upon arrival? Can I even get a COVID test? Where am I allowed to go?
The reality is that traveling during COVID-19 means you can’t choose any destination that you’d like. You have to ensure that it’s both safe and that your chosen destination is accepting travelers.
The best way to do that is by checking travel restrictions in advance. Cross-check four resources:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The U.S. State Department
- Government ordinances in your chosen destination
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
The CDC offers a regularly-updated map of recommendations by travel destination, grouped into five levels:
- Level Four (very high COVID risk; avoid travel)
- Level Three (high COVID risk; avoid all nonessential travel)
- Level Two (moderate COVID risk; avoid nonessential travel)
- Level One (low COVID risk; practice recommended health precautions)
- Level Unknown (risk unknown due to lack of reporting data; avoid all nonessential travel)
That said, the CDC and State Department only issue non-binding advisories, not bans. Local and national governments in your chosen destination can ban or restrict travelers, so you must check those updates to know the rules.
We recommend DHS not so much for leaving the country, but for coming home. DHS is the department that issues travel restrictions for all travelers entering the United States. American citizens and permanent residents can generally enter the country without issue, but non-citizens and non-residents may face additional difficulties.
Check all four resources early and often. Guidelines can change quickly in response to the evolving public health situation, even on the day of your flight. So be prepared to be agile.
Choose a Safe Trip
At this point, you’re familiar with the typical coronavirus rules: wear a mask, practice social distancing, and avoid close contact with anyone outside your household. However, taking all of these precautions does not leave you free to travel anywhere you like. It’s still a bad idea to travel for a party.
You can, however, opt for lower-risk outdoor vacation options, such as:
- Skiing or snowboarding
- Road trips
Fewer people and more outdoor space equals less COVID risk.
Unfortunately, as long as the pandemic persists, any visitors present a risk. The only way to mitigate risk is to make sure they’re COVID-free before departure. Therefore, most countries still require you to present a negative test result before entering.
This typically means getting proof of negative test results within 72 hours of your fight. Some demand an even narrower window of 48 hours. Certain destinations (Puerto Rico, for instance) waive the negative test requirement if tourists agree to quarantine for 14 days after arrival, or you can present proof of a negative test to end quarantine early. (Note: Check for current advisories before your trip. Guidance changes often.)
Plan (and Pack) for the Unexpected
If you’re a one-bag traveler or minimalist packer, adding to your load sounds like a nightmare.
That said, you should pack and plan for the unexpected.
You should always have multiple reusable masks on your person—you don’t want to be maskless if yours goes missing. You should also carry plenty of hand sanitizer in case you don’t have access to soap and water.
Tip Well and Be Polite
This last rule isn’t a safety precaution so much as an act of common decency. The coronavirus endangers everyone, and hospitality and travel professionals have to put themselves and their loved ones at risk of exposure to give you a memorable travel experience.
So, don’t be a jerk.
For example, if a waiter is taking care of your table while you’re eating and unmasked, don’t talk directly to the server. It’s awkward, but during COVID it’s the decent thing to do.
And when you leave, tip well.
Travel Destinations During COVID-19
With those rules in mind, you’re ready to choose your destination. We’ve broken destinations into three categories: the safest locations, locations most welcoming to travelers, and the safest U.S. destinations (at the time of writing). You can venture to higher-risk countries, but be prepared to take additional precautions for your safety.
All destinations were selected based on restrictions and current CDC guidelines as of the time of writing. Again, please check travel restrictions regularly, even before you get in the car to drive to the airport.
Two of the safest travel locations are next-door neighbors but far from the U.S.: New Zealand and Australia. Both maintained low COVID numbers from the beginning, and both are currently ranked as low-risk by the CDC and the State Department.
For a more tropical destination, turn to the British Virgin Islands. This is an area where CDC and State Department guidelines diverge—the CDC rates it as Level One (low-risk) while the State Department rates it as Level Three (reconsider travel).
For those interested in Asia, check out Taiwan. Taiwan was one of the safer East Asian countries before the pandemic, and it kept infection rates relatively low. The CDC considers it a low-risk travel destination while advising the usual precautions; the State Department, however, has it listed under “reconsider travel.” You can also try Vietnam—the CDC rates it as low-risk, while the State Department rates it at Level Two.
Safest U.S. Destinations
If you’re not willing to risk foreign travel but don’t want to stay home, there are plenty of options within the United States.
We would first recommend checking interstate travel restrictions for your home state, destination, and any states you pass through (if you opt out of air travel). This list and this article can help with that. You can also go straight to the source by checking data trends reported by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many states with declining case numbers. Actually, there are only two bright spots: Hawaii and Puerto Rico, both of which have a rigorous testing process and are slowly scaling back restrictions but have nonetheless kept case numbers low throughout the pandemic.
You can travel during the coronavirus pandemic, but you should be careful. Check advisories and travel restrictions even on the day of your flight. Get tested before and after travel. Opt for safer trips, like camping or skiing. And when you travel, be kind to your hospitality staff.