Unless you did a road trip across the USA or visited the Pueblos Mágicos south of the border, there weren’t a lot of vacation options for most of 2020. Now, with hopes of worldwide vaccinations and international traveling slowly reopening, people are coming out of their root cellars, looking towards the sky, and wondering “what next?”
I just returned to Houston from a two-week trip to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Dubai. I had to get five Covid-19 tests and kick up my mask-game, but the process of getting around wasn’t nearly as difficult as what I'd been dreading. I made a few discoveries and found that there’s a lot of disinformation regarding travel. Although the following only represents what I found while visiting a few spots in Central Asia, it gives you an idea of what's going on with international travel.
If you need to get away from home, now is a good time to do it. Crowds are still non-existent, fares are cheap to some destinations, and you don’t have to take chances with your health if you just follow the rules.
Countries That Will Let You Visit
Almost every list I’ve read about where Americans can go has been either out of date or just wrong. In 2020 many websites claimed you couldn’t enter Mexico by land border. I crossed at least three different borders, which didn’t even require a passport to enter into Mexico. Many lists that I’ve seen of countries that allow Americans to visit are only partially true.
The best source for information is the official embassy page of the country you’d like to visit. You should be able to find out about quarantining, testing, past travel restrictions, and visas. All the countries I visited on this trip were listed as countries Americans are not allowed to travel to. That simply wasn’t true.
As of January 26, 2021, the US began requiring a negative test for US citizens to reenter the country. In fact, most countries are requiring a Covid-19 test to enter (or you have to take one upon arrival). Usually the test can’t be older than 72 hours, although some nations might give you up to 96. The irony is that most test results can take up to 72 hours. To keep from stressing yourself out, it’s best to find a lab with a quicker turnaround. You’ll have to book your travel, and then get tested a day or two before your flight. There’s still a little leniency with penalties for last-minute flight changes if you suddenly test positive, but the best course of action is to NOT get Covid-19 before you fly. The swab tests have been shown to have a 30-percent possibility of error, which is high, but better than nothing.
On this trip, I was required to take tests at the international airport in both Uzbekistan and Dubai. Both were pretty quick and painless. Dubai was the smoothest process. As soon as I disembarked, a duo of medical professionals brought me to their kiosk. While one entered my passport details and made quick chit-chat (unusual for Dubai), the other stuck a swab up my nose. They put a sticker on my passport, I was out in a minute, and my results were available within 24 hours. This was a free test, but I was required to print it out for my flight the next day. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, I paid $15 for a test when I landed and never heard anything about it again. Was it to generate a little revenue or were they going to flag my passport if the tests came back positive? Alas, we’ll never know.
As far as getting tests in countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan, that might seem difficult, right? I just asked someone at my hotel to help me and they were able to make it easier than I ever could've imagined. One hotel owner in Uzbekistan actually drove me to the clinic, interpreted for me, and had the clinic rush my test so that I could get it in two hours!
Red List Countries
There’s an ever changing list of countries that aren’t doing so well beating the coronavirus and (congratulations!) you live in one. Friends have often asked me how I keep from getting the virus when I travel. It’s probably because I try to stay away from home. I spent nearly nine months on the road in 2020 and never contracted the virus—until I went to a friend’s party back in Houston. You’re unlikely to get Covid-19 hiking in the mountains or driving your car down the coast. You’re more likely to contract it when you give your best friend a hug at the punch bowl.
Some countries have a list of nations whose residents aren’t allowed to enter their borders. These are often classified as red-list countries. Sometimes, even if you’ve only recently visited a place on a country's red list and aren't even from there, you’re still not allowed entry. Concealing the truth can result in 10 years in prison in the UK, according to a recent article.
There’s a big fear that airline passengers are all sharing the same stale air and that sitting on a plane flight is akin to riding on a giant Petri dish. First, you should know that planes have one of the best filtration systems (even before this started) and that the cabin air is continually replaced about every seven minutes. There are higher standards of sanitation than ever before, and if you’re on an international flight, most everyone has tested negative within the last 72 hours.
Using the same rules in other countries as you do at home will give you the same results, so you’re not at any greater risk of getting Covid. In other words, avoid crowds, wear a mask when you’re around others, and practice good hygiene—these measures work wherever you are. In fact, you can probably keep away from crowds far easier when you’re traveling since you’re less likely to know anyone. Don’t ride crowded trains or buses and travel off-peak if possible.
Some countries have a very conservative opening strategy, and it’s difficult to predict when they’ll reopen for tourism. Others are allowing visitors, but require a mandated quarantine of up to 14 days in a hotel. South Pacific nations have been in discussions with Australia about a travel “bubble” that will allow people only from that part of the world to visit.
We should see lots of things changing in travel within the next few months because of the availability of the vaccine and the ability to generate quick Covid tests. We can probably expect to have a stamp or card—similar to a passport immunization card—for those who have gotten fully vaccinated. Currently, there is no worldwide recognized Covid test database at the moment, and tests are only as good as the paper they’re printed on.