With COVID-19 vaccines now readily available, you might have ambitions to venture far from home. Government officials, after all, say traveling is a low-risk activity for the inoculated.
But the sheer amount of preparation needed to travel during the pandemic might persuade you to stay put. Airlines, hotels and cruise lines are considering the use of so-called vaccine passports, which are essentially digital bar codes proving that you have been vaccinated against COVID-19, before allowing you to patronize their businesses. The onus is on you to check their requirements.
Then, in addition to the usual rigmarole — putting together an itinerary, ordering a foreign SIM card and downloading maps — you’ll have to do even more research on your destination, like looking up potential quarantine restrictions and reading about infection rates. And if you book a trip far in advance, be prepared to do all that research again right before you depart, because the situation is prone to change.
“One thing you’ll have to navigate will be a fluctuating environment in terms of tests or vaccination requirements, even borders that may open and then shut again very quickly,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel analysis firm in San Francisco. “We’re going to have to be prepared for a very dynamic, very fluid international travel environment for the remainder of this year.”
Yet some of us will travel this year, whether it’s for work or for emergency reasons. So here’s a special pandemic edition of how to use tech to prepare for your trip.
Do your online research
Before you book a plane ticket and hotel, research the requirements of your destination. The most reliable places to find that information are the travel and tourism websites for your destination.
Here are some examples that illustrate how difficult this will be to navigate.
Traveling domestically, for the most part, doesn’t require tests or proof of vaccines, but Hawaii is an exception. The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s website states that a 10-day quarantine is in place, even for vaccinated travelers. But you can bypass the quarantine if you test negative for COVID before departure; the test result has to come from one of Hawaii’s trusted test providers, which can be found on a list published online.
Broadly speaking, Americans aren’t welcome in many countries yet, and vice versa. And in the rare event that you can fly to another country, the logistics will be more complicated.
If you’re traveling from the United States to Turkey, a negative COVID-19 test is required for entry, according to the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Turkey. And to return to the United States, all travelers, including U.S. citizens and those who are vaccinated, will have to again test negative within three days before departure.
Once you’ve figured out the logistics to get in and get out, you will have more homework to do. Don’t expect your favorite airport restaurants or lounges to be operating normally. Before leaving home, check your airport website to see what’s open near your terminal; if your options are lacking, pack a meal. Likewise, when you arrive at your destination, make sure to check the websites for the restaurants and tourist sites that you hope to visit for their hours. The travel industry is far from returning to normal.
Keep up on vaccine passports
To make traveling smoother, airlines may require travelers to present a vaccine passport, digital documentation proving that they have been vaccinated. Airlines have been testing mobile health apps, including CommonPass, ICC AOKpass, VeriFLY and the International Air Transport Association’s travel pass app, to ensure that travelers can present their health data in a secure, verifiable way.
Most of the apps will, in theory, work like this: If you get vaccinated at a medical facility, the app connects with the database of that facility to retrieve your information. The app then loads a QR code, which is a digital bar code, verifying that the vaccine was administered. You could then show that bar code at the airport check-in counter, the boarding gate or immigration control.
Too much is still up in the air with vaccine passports for widespread use, Harteveldt said. Airlines, government agencies and cruise lines are still testing the apps to determine which products are the most reliable and easy to use. Things could get chaotic if different parties require people to download different passport apps, and many experiments may fail. Vaccine passports have also set off a fierce political debate over the legality of requiring digital credentials for a vaccine that is ostensibly voluntary. (The Biden administration has said it would not push for mandatory vaccination credentials or a federal vaccine database.)
So the best we can do with vaccine passports right now is nothing. Don’t upload your data to any of the apps just yet — but when it comes time to travel, check your airline’s website for updates on vaccine passports and follow the instructions.
Prepare your phone
The rest of your travel tech prep will largely be the same as it was in pre-COVID times. Pack a spare battery pack, charging cables and a safety pin to eject your SIM card. Then do the following:
— Unlock your phone. Your phone must be unlocked to work with foreign SIM cards. Many newer smartphones come unlocked by default, but you should call your carrier to confirm that your device will work with other wireless carriers.
— Buy a foreign SIM card. If you’re traveling abroad, you can avoid paying expensive international roaming fees to your carrier by temporarily using a foreign phone plan. When you arrive at your destination, you can usually buy a SIM card at the airport or a cellphone store and insert that into your phone; you can also order a SIM card online and have it delivered to your home before you travel. (Some newer smartphones work with an eSIM, which is essentially a digital SIM card to add a separate phone plan. I’ve had mixed experiences, including eSIMs that failed to activate when I reached my destination, so I prefer physical SIMs.)
— Download maps ahead of time. You never know whether cell service will be reliable at your destination, so it’s best to download offline maps before you visit an unfamiliar place. With offline maps, you store the data about an area on your device. This way, if you are wandering around somewhere with poor cell reception, your maps app will still be able show you directions to your destination. This may come in handy if you wander into an area with spotty reception.
Here’s an example for downloading offline maps for Maui. Open Google Maps on your iPhone or Android phone. Search for a place, say, Haleakala National Park. At the bottom, tap Haleakala National Park. Then tap the “more” button (the icon with three dots) and select “download offline map.” Zoom in or out to select the map area that you want to save, and tap “download.”
There’s also a simpler path to skip most of the above. While you wait for the world to reopen traveling, go on a road trip. Just don’t forget to pack a mask.