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Travel is getting harder -- and pricier

Feb. 03, 2021
13 min read
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If you thought it was hard to travel in 2020 and hoped the new year would bring about simpler times, you're about to be disappointed.

The new administration's focus on bringing the pandemic under control, combined with newer highly contagious strains of COVID-19, are complicating reopening plans in countries around the world. In fact, in many places (like Israel), the new strains of coronavirus have prompted the shutdown of air travel entirely.

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The Biden administration has imposed additional restrictions on international travel with new testing and quarantine requirements. There's even active consideration for a testing requirement for flights within the United States.

All this is happening as there is growing talk of vaccine passports for travel and the government strains to rollout vaccinations to fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

So, what is all this doing to those of us trying to plan trips? For many, it's got us pushing the pause button until the dust again settles. While the biggest decision in 2020 may have been when and where it felt safe enough to travel, in 2021 there are new layers of complexity to unravel.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

But if you are still willing to jump through the hoops to travel, you can often find deals. You'll also likely find that you can burn those points and miles you've been hoarding for years. We've put together a guide to getting you through this tricky period before widespread vaccines hopefully make travel easy once again.

Quarantines on the increase

Enhanced Movement Quarantine signs at Marriott Kauai. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Travel quarantines aren't a new phenomenon in this pandemic-era, but while the duration of some quarantines has shortened from the initial 14-day push, the types of trips that are subject to quarantine are again on the rise.

President Biden now says anyone coming into the United States by air “will need to test before they get onto that plane before they depart and quarantine when they arrive in America.”

We don't yet know what the U.S. quarantine will entail, how long it will be for or how it will be enforced, but those details should be available soon.

Final details of the quarantine requirement for air travel are still being worked on and will be crafted based on recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Other countries have quarantines in place too. Canada has a strict quarantine order (Americans are not even allowed) where you have to stay in a government-approved hotel at your own expense.

And it's not just government-mandated quarantines to manage; there are also school and workplace-specific quarantines at play. For example, some schools require a mandatory five- to 10-day quarantine if students travel a certain distance from home, which adds a very real additional wrinkle to any potential getaways.

Testing

LAX COVID-19 testing center. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

After almost a year, testing is playing an increased role in many types of trips. In fact, as of January, many resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean now include on-site complimentary testing. While this rapid adjustment came about to respond to the U.S. rule for a negative test taken within three days of departure for re-entry to the country, it will likely help reduce the spread not only in the U.S. but also in the resorts' home countries.

While many tourism-dependent resorts were able to make this happen, it's less clear how a potential blanket testing requirement for even domestic air travel would be practically implemented with testing resources being so unevenly distributed across the country.

According to Reuters, the Biden administration is “actively looking” at tests for domestic flights.

While that isn't likely at the moment, the administration's new rule that all international arrivals by air must have a negative test result within three days prior to re-entry adds a layer to any foreign trip.

Related: Flying home on the first day of new mandatory test requirement

Mandatory health/travel insurance

The world is shifting into a new pandemic phase: one where we're learning to cope with the disease while making plans to have our populations vaccinated as soon as possible. There will be a time period -- even after some people have been vaccinated -- that we'll need to continue with all safety precautions, including mask-wearing, hand sanitizing and social distancing.

Because of this, it's no surprise that many destinations are requiring that travelers purchase mandatory health/travel insurance before entering. TPG's own Nick Ellis found this to be the case when he visited Baha Mar in the Bahamas.

The Bahamas requires all incoming travelers over the age of 10 to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within five days of departure. Once you've received your test results, you can apply for the Bahamas Travel Health Visa. This is when you'll be prompted to pay for the insurance that the country mandates for entry. Pricing depends on several factors, including the length of your stay, and ranges from $40 to $60. The policy covers up to $50,000 in COVID-19-related medical expenses incurred in the Bahamas plus up to $7,000 to use on quarantine-related expenses (up to $500/day) if it comes to that.

Related: Baha Mar in Bahamas and a resort bubble test

While countries like the Bahamas and Aruba facilitate the purchase of health/travel insurance directly, some places, such as Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica and French Polynesia, mandate that you purchase a package but give you the freedom to buy one that fits its criteria. You just need to submit proof of insurance upon arrival. In the case of your medical policy, it must cover treatment related to COVID-19.

Before traveling, check with your destination's visitors bureau to determine if health/travel insurance is an entry requirement and how much it will cost you.

Vaccinations exemptions

(Photo by Marko Geber/Getty Images)

There's hope that wide-spread vaccination will be the path forward for travel -- and society.

Right now, however, being vaccinated doesn't really change the game when it comes to travel, testing and quarantines. Just under 10% of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19 so far, and only 5.6 million Americans have received both doses.

Related: Half of Americans cite travel for vaccinations

That very well may change at some point, as we have seen glimpses of destinations and large-scale events appealing to vaccinated individuals, but it also indicates how far away the U.S. is achieving herd immunity or a rebound for travel.

Related: What vaccines may mean to travel

Countries heavily dependent on tourism, like the Seychelles, have already adopted a model that allows people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine to enter the country. Iceland will let its residents skip quarantine if they have proof that they've received a vaccine.

These exceptions may well become the norm, in the future but even if you have been vaccinated, you'll likely need to show a negative COVID-19 test at some point during your journey -- especially if you’re coming back to the U.S. The U.S. now requires all international arrivals -- even if you're just passing through -- to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country. Even if you've been vaccinated, or have antibodies, you'll have to test negative. So, at least for now, having a vaccine will not make your travel easier.

Related: Country-by-country guide to where you can go if you are vaccinated

Fast-changing rules and restrictions

Digital International Certificate of COVID-19 Vaccination. The certificate indicates that the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19. (Image by courtneyk/Getty Images)

With a combination of a new administration and new strains of COVID-19, the rules of travel are again changing at a feverish pace. This makes planning ahead -- difficult, at best.

It's hard to know with any degree of certainty what testing, quarantine and case rates will be beyond the next few weeks. Fortunately, many types of travel are still more flexible and more refundable than normal. But, planning a trip for a week or two from now carries with it more certainty than several months down the road.

There's also a good chance airfare isn't too expensive -- even last minute. It used to be that booking last minute meant that you were paying through the nose for flights. That's no longer the case since flight planning has gone out the window.

Just one example?

I recently paid just $211 for a round-trip flight from Miami to Los Angeles, booked just one day before travel. In the pre-COVID days, that flight would have been outrageous last minute.

What are the experts saying?

Still, the experts TPG talked with said you should really reconsider traveling right now.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, told TPG, "People are going to take last-minute trips where and when they can, especially if there are attractive airfare and hotel rates, but the question is, 'Is now the time for us to be traveling?'"

And if you want to find out where U.S. travelers can go right now, follow this link for our complete guide to which countries are allowing U.S. travelers.

Harteveldt said, "Anyone who wants to just get up and go won't be able to. It isn't the time. Nor do health conditions allow that. We're going to have to plan our trips more carefully, including allowing time to get tested before we go home. Traveling right now is certainly not a hassle-free experience, but there's a very legitimate reason why these obstacles exist right now. We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic."

He said the new rules from the CDC and the Biden Administration were the right moves at the moment: "We have at least three mutations of the virus raging around the country with at least two versions of one of those mutations. We have to be careful. We don't want a bad situation to become worse."

Harteveldt acknowledges that travel has gotten more complicated, "There's definitely a hassle factor. I have been told by sources that it has reduced some demand for international travel."

Interestingly, he also mentioned that one of the trends that is making it slightly easier to travel is that of the all-inclusive properties that have made arrangements for their guests to get COVID-19 tests at the resort. This was my experience in Hawaii recently when I tried out Kauai's new "resort bubble" program. I was able to have a rapid test at the hotel.

But this can be pricey. It cost $200 at Timbers Kauai, and it was $125 at the Marriott Kauai.

Related: I spent 3 days quarantining in Hawaii's new "resort bubble"

Harteveldt told TPG, "One hotel executive told me they want a COVID-19 test to be as easy for their hotel guests to get as a breakfast with on-site testing available in the morning. Guests have to pay for it but it's easy."

What are TPG readers saying?

When we asked the TPG Lounge Facebook group if people are canceling reservations in light of the new restrictions on travel and the new coronavirus variants, we got more than 250 responses. Dozens told us that they were canceling or postponing international trips because of the new restrictions.

Jenny said, "Planning on Italy in September, but, if restrictions for re-entry/testing remain in place, we will likely reconsider."

Donna said, "Still hoping for Hawaii in May, but coordinating testing, results and flights is becoming a headache. A false positive would be a real pain to deal with, too. Also, considering canceling our last small-ship expedition of the year...sailing through Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. That will just break my heart."

Jason told me, "We were forced to reschedule a trip to South Africa from 2020 to 2021, at this point planning on going in October but definitely not booking flights yet. South African Airways still has some of my money from last year."

Karen said, "We canceled a spring break trip to Cancun because of the new requirements."

David said, "Last May, my fianceé and I planned our honeymoon for Bali and Singapore this July -- 14 months out. The hassles with both the countries we hoped to visit and returning to the U.S. have caused us to arrange a domestic alternative, to which I expect we'll switch in the coming months."

Sheryl said, "I have flights to Sint Maarten next Monday that I'll be canceling if I can't find a good set of alternative plans. The intention was to go from there to Anguilla to stay at Zemi Beach House using up six Hilton free night certificates but they've closed until April now. To my husband and me, it doesn't feel worth the risk or the hassle to go forward with the trip and find alternate lodging."

Not everyone is canceling though.

Josh told TPG, "Not canceling, but moved our South Africa safari from April to October. This is after it was already moved from last September to April!"

Other readers are changing international flights to domestic trips instead.

Erica said, "Didn’t cancel but planning on U.S.-based travel instead of a trip to Dubai now."

Another reader told TPG, "We started booking our trip to Costa Rica several months ago, prior to COVID testing being a requirement for re-entry into the United States. As of now, I see that we have to get the testing before coming home ($160 each) and a travel health insurance plan (roughly $100 each). This is pretty significant with nine family members traveling together."

Bottom line

We know much more about COVID-19 and have more resources available to keep ourselves safe than we did in much of 2020. However, planning trips actually isn't easier now than it was six months ago. In fact, you could make a case that travel is actually harder now than before due to a rapid ramp-up of quarantines and tests without an across-the-board scale-up of resources to match.

Additional reporting by Summer Hull, Andrea M. Rotondo, and Victoria Walker.

Featured image by Kauai, Hawaii Jan. 2021. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
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  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Earn 100,000 points
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  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees