I traveled overseas as the delta variant of COVID-19 surged. Here’s what I wish I knew before my trip


As many other Americans can relate, when I got my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine back in March, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I have a slew of pre-existing conditions that put me at a higher risk of complications from COVID, so I had gone to extreme lengths throughout the pandemic to stay safe. But now, I could finally visit a grocery store without worrying anytime a person was coughing one aisle over. I could hop on the subway to visit friends on the other side of the city who I had seldom seen over the past year.

And I could travel. Before the pandemic, my husband and I were planning a trip to Spain so that I could complete the necessary paperwork to apply for dual citizenship.

The pandemic had put that trip on hold indefinitely. But with the Pfizer
PFE,
+2.81%

and Moderna
MRNA,
-1.28%

vaccines flowing through our respective veins — and concerns about a potential deadline for my citizenship paperwork in sight — we chose to take the leap and voyage over to Barcelona last month.

And while it ended up being one of the best trips either of us had taken in our lifetimes, it was not without its more stressful, nerve-wracking moments. It’s safe to say neither of us fully anticipated how challenging an international trip amid the latest wave of the pandemic could be.

So for anyone planning their overseas, COVID-revenge getaway, here are five things you need to consider before packing your bags, based on my experience:

Have a plan for what you’ll do if you get sick

The pandemic is fast-moving and ever-changing. When my husband and I booked our flights to Barcelona, the number of new COVID cases was dropping. That remained the case until a few weeks before we departed.

Nightclubs began reopening in Spain in late June, and shortly thereafter the country saw an explosion in COVID cases. At that point, few people under the age of 30 had received the vaccine. So that, combined with the increased transmission of the delta variant of the virus, led to a massive rise in cases in a short span of time.


The travel-insurance policy would have paid for new flights home and covered the costs of a hotel room, up to a certain limit.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we came extremely close to canceling our trip entirely. While we felt protected by the vaccine, we also knew that the protection it afforded wasn’t entirely foolproof — as was evidenced by the recent outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., there’s a chance you can contract COVID still even if vaccinated. And studies suggest that the vaccines offer somewhat less protection against contracting the delta variant of the virus, though the risk of a severe case or death remains extremely low.

We ultimately did go on the trip, but we went with an ironclad plan for what we’d do if we got sick. Because, remember, you must test negative for COVID within three days of your flight back to the U.S.

Travel insurance is crucial here: We purchased a plan that included protection in the event we were forced to quarantine in Spain and couldn’t return home. The policy would have paid for new flights home and covered the costs of a hotel room, up to a certain limit.

There were other matters to consider. I work remotely, so I brought my laptop with me in case I couldn’t return home as originally planned. But my husband works as an independent contractor in the wedding industry, and he had to ensure he had colleagues who could cover for him if he got sick.

Getting tested for COVID before you leave

Speaking of COVID tests, research your testing options before leaving. And this isn’t just a formality — before we could check our bags at the airport, the desk agent closely analyzed our test results. She checked that the birth date listed matched what was on our passport, the day the test was taken and what the result was. So you must make sure your test meets the requirements of whichever airline you’re flying with.

Depending on where you travel to, getting tested may not be so difficult. A friend recently went on vacation at an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republican. In the age of COVID, an all-inclusive experience includes COVID tests.


The U.S. requires all travelers arriving from abroad to be tested for COVID-19 before flying, even if they’re vaccinated.

But if you’re traveling on your own, you may need to navigate a foreign health-care system to get a test. In Spain, foreigners must get their tests done through private providers — and it doesn’t come cheap. I was used to my health insurance covering the cost of COVID tests I received in the States, so the 100 euro price tag for my PCR test was a bit eye-popping.

Because Spain was seeing a surge in COVID infections when I went, I learned the lines for tests could be long. Finding a provider who I could book in advance took a fair amount of research. Pro-tip: The U.S. Embassy in Spain maintained a list of COVID testing locations throughout the country, and I would imagine other embassies have similar resources.

If you want to skip the hassle of lining up a test in the country, you could bring a test with you. Some airlines, including Delta
DAL,
+0.03%

and United
UAL,
-0.04%
,
have partnered with at-home testing services like eMed, which allow you to purchase a testing kit in advance that meets the requirements for travel back to the U.S.

You take the test from wherever you are while doing a video call with a medical professional who can certify the result and provide the necessary paperwork for the flight home over email. You can have the kits mailed to you before you leave or pick them up from a participating pharmacy.

Beware of changing rules and regulations

Just days before we left for Barcelona, the region of Catalonia instituted a number of changes to its COVID-related measures to curb the rising case count at the time. Nightclubs were closed, a nighttime curfew was enacted and social gatherings of more than 10 people were disallowed.

This didn’t affect my husband and me too much, since our plan was to hit more museums than clubs. But it was a reminder of how ever-changing the COVID situation is.

Again, this is why it’s important to have travel insurance, given that further policy changes could have made our trip much less enjoyable — or even impossible. Some European countries reimposed travel restrictions in light of rising cases.

If you book your travel insurance plan early enough, you could pay extra to be able to cancel the trip for any reason. That way, if the country you’re visiting changes the rules so much that the trip appears to be more of a chore than a relaxing retreat, you can get refunded for any money owed.

Pay attention, too, to airline and hotel policies for rebooking travel — many travel companies continue to waive change fees given the pandemic.

Get ready to wear your face mask — a lot

I already wear masks regularly in my day-to-day life, but I still wasn’t prepared for just how much I would be wearing them while abroad. For starters, federal aviation rules still require that passengers wear masks for the duration of the flight, except when actively eating and drinking. On my flights to and from Spain, flight attendants did remind passengers frequently to put masks back on.

And while across much of the U.S. mask mandates are no longer in force, that’s not the case across much of the globe. In parts of Spain, for instance, mask wearing was even required outdoors as recently as last week due to the rising number of COVID cases across the country. And even where it wasn’t required outdoors, it certainly was in any indoor locations.


In parts of Spain, mask wearing was even required outdoors as recently as last week due to the rising number of COVID cases.

From museums to grocery stores, we frequently saw employees and security guards reminding visitors or customers to wear their mask properly.

If you’re not used to wearing a mask that often, I’d suggest doing a practice run with the ones you plan to pack on your trip to make sure they’re comfortable. With some of the masks I brought, I quickly found they were painful to wear for extended periods of time and even caused blisters at one point.

I padded my ears with cotton, which helped, but would have been much better off if I packed some ear-savers — devices that can reduce the pressure masks exert on the ears while ensuring a proper fit across the face.

Don’t expect a pre-COVID experience

Traveling internationally right now can be a bit of a mixed bag, as my husband and I witnessed in Spain. The country’s tourism sector was extremely hard hit by COVID-19, and places that rely on a steady stream of travelers like Barcelona bore the brunt of that.

This meant we encountered our fair share of shops and restaurants that were either out of business or facing closure. It was a tad depressing at times — and the evening curfews was a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

At the same time, we enjoyed fewer crowds when we visited than is typical for this time of year. At one attraction, we paid for a guided tour. Usually, these tours are for groups as large as 25 people, but my husband and I were the only two who showed. So we essentially got a private tour for a discounted price. Our tour guide was phenomenal, and repeated many times how excited she was to be working again after the country’s prolonged shutdown.

So if you do travel overseas right now, savor these moments as much as you can. Because I’m sure once the pandemic does come to a close, people are going to be ready to jet across the world and make up for lost time.



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