Five tips for travelling internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic

As you might imagine, I felt deeply conflicted about whether or not to travel for Christmas last year. Global travel had come to a halt, with many countries shutting their borders, airlines cancelling flights left and right, and hotels temporarily closing. There was the additional thought of the two-week mandatory quarantine required upon my return to Singapore, not to mention the $2500+ price tag associated with the quarantine stay and mandatory COVID tests.

Yet, against this unsettling backdrop was the thought of spending Christmas in Singapore, 9,500 miles away from home and family. Though I know many others around the world have been forced into this situation because of the pandemic, it was a thought I could hardly bear, especially after having gone one full year without seeing family. At the end of November, Zé and I decided it was time to make a decision. Would we travel for Christmas? And if so, would we go to New Jersey or Lisbon? After days of deliberation, we decided we would travel to New Jersey, saving our trip to Lisbon for later in the year once we get rolling on wedding planning.

After booking my flight (Singapore – Tokyo – Newark, NJ with United Airlines), I set about researching testing and quarantine requirements for the US (surprise: there were none), as well as the rules for entering back into Singapore (surprise: there were lots). Before leaving Singapore, I took care of a few things for myself, as I’d be leaving one week earlier than Zé and working remotely from New Jersey:

  • I decided to self-isolate for a few days upon arriving in New Jersey, so I booked a hotel for myself near home (you can find a tour of my accommodation here)
  • I filled out some mandatory paperwork from work and Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, including my leave and return dates and which countries I’d be visiting and transiting through
  • I booked a flu shot at a nearby clinic, to give myself an extra boost of immunity against sickness in the US

Next up? Actually taking the flight. There were quite a few steps here, which I’ll recount below in the form of my top takeaways from the experience. My main observation: traveling internationally during the pandemic was a true palaver (there’s simply no way around it), but the experience can be made far smoother with the proper preparation and expectations. I hope this list helps.

1. Where possible, plan a COVID-conscious trip

In the age of COVID-19 travel, layovers are the devil. When you start planning your trip, I’d strongly recommend booking a direct flight to your destination. Though you might be tempted to go for the cost-saving option on Skyscanner which has you routing through two or three airports, now is the time to choose safety over money. You’ll be better able to relax throughout your journey knowing you won’t have to worry about additional transits, tests, and ever-changing guidelines. Unfortunately, this option was not available to me as Singapore Airlines’ direct flights around Christmastime were sold out months before I booked. I wished I had been able to book a direct flight, as the transit in Tokyo was a bit cumbersome (requiring an in-airport escort through most of the layover) and worrying, given we were exposing ourselves to another airport, empty as it was. It goes without saying you should try and limit the number of countries/states/cities once you reach your destination, too.

2. If a direct flight isn’t possible, stay across the testing and quarantine rules of your destination and layover locations

Check the COVID-19 testing requirements for your final destination and transit hubs. Then keep checking. One of the biggest anxieties for travelers during the pandemic are the ever-changing rules, and the subsequent denial of boarding or access that comes along with outdated tests or paperwork. Our flight back to Singapore was originally scheduled to transit through San Francisco, but was cancelled without our knowledge (which we learned after arriving at Newark Airport). We were limited in our connecting options back to Singapore, because of testing rules in various countries.

3. Purchase and pack enough health and safety materials for the flight

Make sure to bring enough gloves, face masks, face shields, and sanitizer that you’ll need. On each of my flights, the captain told us all passengers would be required to change their masks every five hours. While masks were not provided, the airline luckily provided us with some sanitizing wipes, but I’d recommend bringing your own as well in case the airline does not. I wiped down my seat, screen and arm rests ahead of sitting down. I tried to avoid using the bathroom, but did use gloves when I did so I wouldn’t have to touch the doorknob or anything inside the bathroom, and disposed of the gloves afterwards. I also requested a window seat to avoid being near anyone, though as you can see from the photo below, the flight was almost entirely empty. I didn’t have anyone beside me, nor in the rows in front of or behind me.

Something else I’d recommend bringing are snacks. Food and beverage service was limited on my short-haul flight from Singapore to Tokyo and, if you’re anything like me and get hungry about every two hours, you’ll want a few nibbles in your bag. This is also important because most airport food and beverage establishments are closed, so you won’t be able to count on eating in airports during your layover if you’ve got one.

4. Organize, download and print all your travel documents

Have your passport and visa ready to go? Unfortunately, that’s no longer going to cut it in COVID-19 times. There are lots of documents you’ll need handy at various stages of your journey, including negative COVID-19 test certificates, completed symptom questionnaires and, in our case, the required re-entry approval from the Singapore government. I’ve heard of people being asked for required documents at hotels and even national parks, so make sure to have these documents on hand. I printed each of the required forms and kept them in a manila folder throughout my trip, as Wi-Fi wasn’t always available (or strong) during my journey. I’d recommend printing the forms, or having screen shots of the necessary paperwork ready to go.

5. Hold onto your reserves of patience, empathy and humor during your travel experience

There are many benefits to practicing empathy. This is especially true during a global pandemic, when travel and hospitality workers, along with fellow travelers, are trying to figure out this new normal. It’s important to practice empathy during this time, not only for others but for yourself as well. In thinking about how stressful it was for me to stay on top of all the changing rules and regulations, it struck me that my anxieties pale in comparison to what gate agents must be experiencing. Imagine being required to stay on top of the new and ever-changing entry policies of dozens of destinations as you’re checking in hundreds of travelers each day?

Build in extra time for new procedures throughout your travel journey. Stay aware and observant. Thank staff members of airlines, hotels, etc. when you see them. And keep a sense of humor: after all, this is a unique time we’re experiencing together in all corners of the world; one that will (hopefully) make for some interesting stories one day soon!

Wishing you safety, health and luck in your travel,

Sam